Tuesday, July 11, 2006

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Is it a good idea to podcast lectures?

That's the question being debated in this Christina Silva story in the Boston Globe:

Hoping to appeal to tech-savvy students with a shrinking attention span, more Boston-area colleges are pushing professors to go digital and record their lectures as downloadable files that student can listen to wherever, whenever....

Supporters of the idea say that podcasts help students study better, allowing baffled freshmen to fast-forward to the part of an introductory lecture they didn't understand and hit repeat. The University of Massachusetts at Lowell, for example, will try with 10 high-tech classrooms this fall.

But others question whether podcasting lectures will actually contribute to learning. Students, some professors say, might be tempted to skip class and the discussion that can flow after a lecture.

"If the purpose of what you are doing is to give them some information quickly, then podcasts are great," said Donna Qualters, director of The Center for Effective University Teaching at Northeastern University, an education resource program. ``My fear is that podcasts are going to replace the lecture. And then, of course, kids are not going to go to class, and they will miss the benefits of that."

My take: some students would use podcasts as a substitute for attending lectures, others will use it as intended. The ones who use it as a substitute probably know it's not as good as attending the lecture itself, but are willing to pay the price in terms of lower grades.

I'm curious what other professors and students think.

posted by Dan on 07.11.06 at 08:17 AM


What a great idea for social science and humanities classes. I would argue that this would work for most upper level classes and some of the larger lecture classes. Lectures that incorporate multimedia elements will not completely translate to an audio file. Some schools have already moved beyond audio files to video. For example, at the University of Colorado Center for Advanced Engineering and Technology Education makes video tapes of classes available to students who would like to view them at the library. Students that are willing to watch videos of classes are probably not the type of student that skips class for fun. I guess the true objective of higher education is to encourage the acquisition of knowledge. Do you think that like rock stars some nationally known professors would probably find graduate students sharing boot legged copies of lectures?

posted by: Nels Lindahl on 07.11.06 at 08:17 AM [permalink]

Students that are willing to watch videos of classes are probably not the type of student that skips class for fun.

This is exactly right, as is the opposite statement. Students that skip class are not the type that will diligently watch videos as a replacement.

Having skipped a number of lectures myself, and with access to videotape, I rarely viewed them.

posted by: Jim on 07.11.06 at 08:17 AM [permalink]

If you are afraid of students not attending lectures, have grading partially based on participation, and run the classes as discussions. That way, the students missing a class will still get the learning, but not the benefit of participation.

As for lectures, why have them at all?

posted by: Espen on 07.11.06 at 08:17 AM [permalink]

This is a splendid idea. And might I suggest that the classes where the prof is sharp and inspires discussion will have a lower skip rate than classes where the prof just drones at you? The latter is likely, under such a regime, to have a near-total skip rate.

posted by: Mycroft on 07.11.06 at 08:17 AM [permalink]

In general, it's an awful idea - just another way for universities to coddle students. If they can't be bothered to just *show up* to class, let 'em suffer. Besides, that's just one more thing the professor has to do, right? And I'm sure all those codgers who can't figure out the difference between "Reply" and "Reply to all" won't have any problem making this work.

As an aside, though, it would (especially if the lectures were videotaped) provide an easy way for senior faculty and administrative folks to peek into classrooms and see how effective the profs are.

posted by: Michael Simpson on 07.11.06 at 08:17 AM [permalink]

The students who would skip lectures are also the type of students that won't start thinking about an exam until the night before. And, if you want to cram, listening to hours of lectures online is just about the least time efficient thing you could do.

The negative aspect of podcasting lectures, though, might be the destruction of incentives that would keep students that do go to class awake or taking diligent notes. If you lose this, then you may risk losing the critical question from a student that highlights something the professor just assumed all the students know.

I don't see how empowering students to be lazy in the classroom is a good thing. If the lecture didn't make sense, or a student has an issue they should just go to office hours.

posted by: Alec on 07.11.06 at 08:17 AM [permalink]

My intro lectures have been recorded and placed on the course web page for the last four years (as digitized video, not podcasts). It has both effects mentioned. Some students use it as intended; others take it as an excuse to skip class. It depresses attendance significantly, but is a useful aid to students to have difficulty keeping up with lecture. That's a significant problem at my university -- an anglo institution in Montreal where a significant proportion of the students are not native English speakers.

I wasn't given much choice about this initially, and resented having my lectures taped. But I found, unexpectedly, that it's also very useful for me to be able to review my lectures, see what I can improve, return to things I don't think I explained clearly, etc. It's made me a better lecturer.

There are, however, intellectual property issues to be considered. Could U-Mass Lowell fire a prof and keep using her podcasts?

posted by: Michael Lipson on 07.11.06 at 08:17 AM [permalink]

It seems to me like this is not very different from the "note-taking pools" at med school--students pay a hundred dollars or so per class, and one student is hired with the money to transcribe and note each lecture--everyone in the pool then has access to those careful, expanded notes.

posted by: SamChevre on 07.11.06 at 08:17 AM [permalink]

I taught a huge intro to IR class last fall, where the classes were automatically taped and then posted to the course webpage. This was my first time with this technology (and with a class of this size--600 students). It seemed to be the case that students used the technology as designed--to catch what they missed in class (I tend to speak quickly) or to catch a class they missed due to illness, travel, whatever.
I cannot say whether it hurt attendance or not since I had not taught that course at this institution before, but the room was largely full from beginning to end of the semester.
I also post the lecture outlines (bare bones powerpoint outlines, not full text of the lectures) online before the class, which also raises the moral hazard problem of students just getting the info from that rather than going to class. I am willing to take these risks--that some students will blow off lectures--because the vast majority of the students seem to benefit from having audio and visual materials to supplement lectures.

posted by: Steve Saideman on 07.11.06 at 08:17 AM [permalink]

``My fear is that podcasts are going to replace the lecture. And then, of course, kids are not going to go to class, and they will miss the benefits of that."

No contradiction there! If podcasts replace lectures, it's because there was no benefit to live attendance. It's a professor's nightmare - having to actually add value in a classroom rather than simply regurgitating the same 20 year old lecture to a captive audience. Good professors create a classroom atmosphere where real learning takes place. They have nothing to fear from podcasts.

posted by: adr on 07.11.06 at 08:17 AM [permalink]

I almost never went to lecture in undergrad or grad school. What's the point when the prof takes multiple lectures (and often multiple weeks) to cover a chapter which can be read in 15-30 minutes? What a waste of time! I might watch video lectures that could be played at 4x speed, but, unfortunately, audio podcasts aren't much good for a lot of classes (Math, EE, CS etc.)

posted by: Dan on 07.11.06 at 08:17 AM [permalink]

regarding coddling,

higher education at private institutions is not a privilege. It is a service paid for by the students. Perks such as podcasted lectures and nice dorm rooms should be standard, given the tuition of a good private college.

Many professors lecture poorly and attendance has no impact upon the final grade due to the course design. Some exams are easy to pass by attending lectures and largely ignoring the reading, some exams only test reading, and some test both. It's simply a matter of finding out which you'll face.

Further, I've had many classes where attendance was not required but most (90%) students came to every single class.

I don't add 40k per year to my debt just for the 'privilege' of listening to a dumb/bad/boring lecture. It should be up to the students whether or not to attend, determined by their desire for good grades, which is relative to the difficulty of the course. What is the point of going versus sleeping in and getting a pod cast, if in the end I receive the same educational value? The poor professor doesn't arbitrarily deserve the pleasure of my haggard morning company.

posted by: john on 07.11.06 at 08:17 AM [permalink]

Last semester I attended a three hour lecture course which did record class via Podcasting. The one thing more tedious than going to that boring class was sitting at my desk at home and listening to the three hour recording. Based on my experience and that of my peers, I would say that the Podcast was used overwhelmingly by students who simply were unable to attend class and wanted to catch up on missed content. As a side note, the professor did not begin Podcasting until midway through the semester. Based on casual observations I would conclude that the attendance rate remained the same.

posted by: Josh on 07.11.06 at 08:17 AM [permalink]

In Australia, all my compulsory law subjects are digitally taped and students you can listen to them online from home.

Depending on the subject, I still attend the lectures in person and prefer that to listening to the tapes online. However, for some subjects there is a distinct advantage to not attending the lecture. One of my lecturers uses a powerpoint presentation which includes a substantial amount of text, but does not put the presentation on the web until AFTER the lecture. Listening to the lectures a few days later and starting your notes with the text of the powerpoint presentation saves substantial time in typing and makes the lecture easy to listen - yes you can add the text later, but I like to review my notes at the end of each day and reading through a number of "insert here" doesn't help.

Another advantage is being able to pause the lecture, go back and read the textbook or listen again, and come back to listen to the lecture again.

If you are sick or have something urgent to attend to, you also have the advantage of listening to the lecture.

The trend is that for the first couple of lectures most students attend, but if the lecturer doesn't hold the student's attention then numbers will very quickly drop off.

posted by: Jay on 07.11.06 at 08:17 AM [permalink]

I've been listening to audio college lectures for years (recently on my iPod) from The Teaching Company. They are absolutely fantastic. I can listen at the gym, during my commute, etc. I can rewind when a confusing or important point is raised. I can't wait to make my own for my students and thereby free up class time for exercises, discussion, and clarification. Try some for yourself at www.teach12.com (no, I don't work for them...I just love their stuff!).

posted by: jprime271 on 07.11.06 at 08:17 AM [permalink]

Why would we assume that the podcast is inferior to the live lecture?

The podcast can be paused, rewound, and fast-forwarded. The student can pause for a break when fatigued and no longer able to focus, or to stop and look up related info in the text and on the web. A podcast is no replacement for a small group discussion, but for a large lecture -- why on earth not?

I suspect the profs are less worried that the podcast will be an inferior substitute for a live lecture than that it will prove to be superior...

posted by: Slocum on 07.11.06 at 08:17 AM [permalink]

From the way ppl talk, lectures apparently have some connection to learning. I never found this - it seemed like the profs were just reading the textbook to us. It was engineering, but still - it was decent school (Northwestern), small classes, etc. I went to pretty much every class; but, what I learned, I got from reading and doing problems. The lectures were just a waste.

posted by: George on 07.11.06 at 08:17 AM [permalink]

I podcasted my lectures for a large Intro to IR class this past semester. A few observations:

(1) I did it primarily because students often comment that I lecture at a fast pace. I do, and I find that it keeps the lecture active and the students engaged. Rather than either slowing down my lecture or answering numerous e-mails asking for clarifications, I offered the podcasts as a study aid, and I believe that's how they were primarily used.

(2) I was concerned about the potential impact on attendance, but I think my attendance was roughly the same this semester as when I've taught the class in the past without the podcasts. And numerous students mentioned to me that they really appreciated having the podcasts available when they were studying for exams. (I should also note that I had a few students miss classes for medical reasons this semester, and they were especially grateful that they could listen to the podcasts.)

(3) In response to Slocum's post above, my concern is not whether a podcast is inferior or superior to me live. Rather, the issue is where am I most likely to get their undivided attention on the material in the lecture. It's hard enough to get that attention in a lecture hall these days with the dangerous combination of ubiquitous laptops and a campus blanketed by a wireless network. I think it's near impossible for students to give their undivided attention to a podcast when they are likely to be listening to the podcast in an active dorm with plentiful distractions.

(5) In the end, if students want to skip the live lecture and just listen to the podcast, then I suppose that's their prerogative. Either way, they're paying the same $40,000, but you only get out of education what you're willing to put into education.

posted by: IR Prof on 07.11.06 at 08:17 AM [permalink]

I believe this a wonderful idea! On several occasions I have missed certain points my professors were making while I was trying to record their previous points. This would benefit students immensely and relieve some of the stress of balancing the sometimes hectic life a student.

I donít think skipping class will be that much of an issue if the class is significantly difficult. However, if it does become an issue for the lower level classes then the university or even the individual professors can create an attendance policy. I know several of my professors have done that and the amount of students that skipped those classes were noticeably less than the classes taught by those professors who did not have that kind of policy. Anyway this is a great idea I hope it is adopted by universities across the nation.

posted by: Mike Heise on 07.11.06 at 08:17 AM [permalink]

Podcasting will further enable lecture-skippers with excuses, but I doubt it will help anyone actually learn. Who actually wants to sit and listen to an hour long lecture on their iPod?
For that matter, who really wants to sit in an hour-long lecture?

As much as I hate to admit it, the vast majority of professors either contribute little to the learning experience with their superfluous thoughts or (relatedly) are terrible public speakers. Many will find this statement contentious, but before rejecting it out of hand, ask yourself: Really, how necessary are lectures to getting good grades in most college classes?

I attended a great school and loved my time there, but rarely went to lecture; I still came out with the same grades as all my friends who sat through lecture dutifully. I was simply fortunate enough to realize that with the minimal interaction between most students and professors in college, grading resides mostly in the hands of the TAs. Lecture attendance and a passing mark do not correlate. For that reason alone, grades in college are about as objective as a mother's love.

What we really need is mandatory speaking workshops for all faculty (tenured or otherwise). We should also require more face time between professors and students - it's harder to skip class when the professor actually notices you're not there. How's that for "educational innovation?"

posted by: C Wilson on 07.11.06 at 08:17 AM [permalink]

It seems to me to be a good idea. One possibility is that podcasts are an adequate substitute for lecture -- in which case there are no real grounds for complaint if people don't show up.

The other possibility is that they aren't an adequate substitute. In that case, students who go to class are rewarded and lazy students are not. And the people who have a good reason for missing a class -- who are far more likely to listen to the podcast than the merely lazy -- have a chance to catch up. So what's the problem?

I'm not seeing the "moral hazard" that Steve mentions. Students should go to class -- but only if they get something out of it. Otherwise, what's the point? (Is the point of a lecture to create a hoop for students to jump through, or to provide value added?)

posted by: David Nieporent on 07.11.06 at 08:17 AM [permalink]

Just one quick note to all those questioning the value of attending lecture. In my limited attempt to study this issue in my own classes (in a scientific rather than anecdotal way), those students who attend lecture receive significantly better grades than those who don't. Given that this is a large lecture class where TAs do most of the grading, I don't think this is the result of any favoritism shown toward those who attend lecture. Rather, I think students do actually learn something from the lecture.

posted by: IR Prof on 07.11.06 at 08:17 AM [permalink]

IR Prof,

How do you know that attending lectures doesn't simply correlate with other traits that tend to lead to good grades, like doing the reading?

posted by: Hal Grossman on 07.11.06 at 08:17 AM [permalink]

Because I do more than just regurgitate the reading in my lectures (and my students are mostly thankful for that). If the expectation is that students are doing the reading, then lecture should clarify and enhance the reading, not repeat it. I believe that you can do ok in my class if you *either* come to class *or* do the reading. But to do well, I think you have to do both.

posted by: IR Prof on 07.11.06 at 08:17 AM [permalink]

I'm thinking of podcasts as one more form of pre-test review, also as a weekly business current events cast. Has possibilities.

posted by: save_the_rustbelt on 07.11.06 at 08:17 AM [permalink]

In a class like the one IR prof describes, good attendance brings greater reward for less effort than skipping because the professor synthesizes the ideas from the readings for you in the lecture. Copious notetaking combined with a post-lecture reflective review of the readings would seem the best way to avoid enormous individual effort in a large class. Bonus if overachieving classmates further buoy free riders.

The best classes are the ones where the professor only gives minimal lecture on the reading and then opens the floor to discussion. One of my favorite professor's actually never lectures on the readings until the class after the one they were assigned to - he begins each class (a 90 minute period) with a 5-10 minute summary of what he feels received inadequate attention in the discussion.

Further, he stimulates good discussion by actually listening to students, and following up with nuanced questions that require an opinion or evaluation, not just regurgitation. He also allows students to directly address the points of others, permitting micro-debates in the class. Unlike most professors, he isn't afraid to allow rebuttals if a particularly apt criticism is made. This remains informal, so others frequently chime in. The attention from one's peers prevents people from offering uninformed rhetoric or brown-nosed regurgitation. Being able to intelligently respond to controversial remarks seems enough incentive for most students to do the reading for a class that has three papers, no exams, and no other assignments.

Even those who don't do the reading or couldn't one day for a particular reason benefit from observing intelligent people grapple over these ideas. Often students don't realize how much they've learned until the lecture is over.

You know you teach a good class when the period ends and students don't immediately leap out of their chairs.

posted by: john on 07.11.06 at 08:17 AM [permalink]

My medical school has videos of lectures and podcasts available on-line. I used them constantly. The feature that needs to be emphasized is the ability to change playing speed.
I generally watch lectures at 1.5-2.0x, which saves a tremendous amount of time. At these speeds I actually pay attention and remember more, since there is less dead time. Once you start watching lectures in this fashion you will realize just how much dead space is in normal lecturing. Thus, with the speeded-up videos, I no longer doodle or perform crosswords during lecture. If I don't understand one of the topics, I can slow down the speed or repeat the section, something you can't do in lecure.
I tell all med students that visit about the online videos, because I think they greatly improve the education experience. And before you express horror about a med student not attending classes, I still go to all small groups and clinical experiences, I read all the assigned texts, and my grade point would vouch for the positive influence of the podcasts.
Talking to my dad and other doctors who graduated in the 60s and 70s, I can say that many of them skipped classes and just bought notes from those who did attend.
Lastly, the learning company is amazing. I just want to give a shout out.

posted by: Kyle on 07.11.06 at 08:17 AM [permalink]

I teach introductory physics classes -- lots of math and equations on the board. I've podcasted lectures for two semesters now and (being a scientist) took lots of surveys and notes.

First: the audio was not self-contained. It is intended as a "second pass" on the material, so slower note-takers can fill-in missed comments and review, but they need to show up to see the equations and graphs and demos or the audio won't make sense.

Second: class announcements and discussions of upcoming assignments are edited out -- another reason to come to class.

Some results:
* I noticed no significant change in attendance.
* About 40% of the students never downloaded a single lecture. About 10% downloaded them all.
* Only 28% responded they primarily downloaded lectures to help with a missed class. Most downloaded a few lectures to help them with difficult topics.
* Anecdotally, it got many students into the habit of reviewing their notes soon after lecture instead of just before the test.
* Most (94%) said they listened at their computer with their notes in front of them - only one student reported using a portable player while multitasking.
* Again anecdotally, many students felt they participated more, since they were less concentrated on transcribing every detail. At least one participated much less, as she hated the way her voice sounds when recorded.

In all, it is useful, and enough students used it to make it worth doing. And frankly, if all the information in your lecture can be contained in audio, they you aren't taking full advantage of your lecture time.

posted by: Jim McDonald on 07.11.06 at 08:17 AM [permalink]

I think there is a need for a balance.The use of podcasted lectures are useful but let have some grade value based on class attendance and participation.

posted by: Charlie Brown on 07.11.06 at 08:17 AM [permalink]

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