podcast, e-learning, podcast lectures

New Study Gives Proponents of Virtual Classrooms a Boost

February 20, 2009 05:28 PM
by Christopher Coats
Advocates of new education technology received ammunition this week with the release of a new study touting the benefits of podcast lectures over those given in the classroom.

Replay Value

The study, conducted by a team at the State University of New York in Fredonia, found that students who received classroom content through podcasts scored better than those who had attended a lecture in person.

Citing the ability to listen to the lectures when and how they pleased, the study reflected a growing consensus that teaching methods need to evolve to suit the expectations and needs of a generation of students raised on technology.

“I do think it’s a tool. I think that these kids are programmed differently than kids 20 years ago,” said Dani McKinney, a psychologist at SUNY Fredonia who led the study.

The study’s findings suggested that students were able to pause and repeat sections of the lecture they found difficult or confusing, allowing them to take better notes.

Released on myriad formats, podcast lectures saw a surge in activity courtesy of Apple’s iTunes University, which launched in 2007 and has since spread to the United Kingdom, placing lessons online from universities across the globe.

Context: Digitizing the campus

The move toward providing class content in different formats is a part of a broader, national trend to digitize college campuses, which has required expansive and often expensive physical renovations.

“Digital content has become an integral part of students’ work—It requires more than a simple pen or typewriter,” reported EdTech Magazine. “Universities are exploring new ways to provide both the physical space and the technical support for it.”

Further, this digital evolution has required a shift in how professors and students interact, leading to occasionally controversial experiments with video streaming and podcast lectures.

The State University study is the first widely cited analysis of podcast lecture effectiveness, and if its findings survive further scrutiny, it could mean a dramatic shift in how college content is presented from now on.

Response: Worries remain

Some educators have previously warned against dependence on podcasts, as some classes may not translate to the audio-only format.

“Academics should consider what they wish to achieve—and that may require going back to first principles,” wrote Dr. David Hearnshaw of the University of Westminster in a 2006 edition of the Guardian. “Often the lecturer wishes to impart facts, concepts, methods and approaches to foster knowledge and critical judgment and this frequently requires more than words.”

However, Hearnshaw’s comments predate the development of video podcast technology.

Another common complaint about the increased use of podcast lectures stems from the worry that it will result in a drastic drop in class attendance.

A series of studies in 2007 and early 2008 found this assumption to have little or no support, while some suggested that even if it were to impact attendance, that would not necessarily be a bad thing.

“It seems strange to me almost every article or comment on lecture podcasting assumes that a decreasing attendance is obviously a negative outcome,” said Jean-Claude Bradley of Drexel CoAS E-Learning. “If students are doing just as well and not attending class then that tells me that my multimedia channel is effective.”

The education technology blog Open Education found the study especially beneficial for those in search of low-cost education and a strong argument for single educators for large groups of students.

“There is no need to recreate the lecture with tens of thousands of less qualified/exceptional teachers if there is at least one exceptional version available online,” the blog concluded after the study was released.

Far from advocating podcasts completely replacing actual class time, some educators view the new format as a positive addition to the overall course.

New Scientist found that Darren Griffin, a geneticist and education researcher at the University of Kent in Canterbury, U.K., saw the podcasts as a way to free up class time for further discussion and questions, rather than simply talking at his students.

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