Degree In Sight

White iPod earphones

Psychology professor David B. Miller, PhD, of the University of Connecticut in Storrs had a recent triumph: His podcast on animal behavior hit the iTunes Top 100, the podcasting equivalent of radio's American Top 40.

Miller's not alone in his enthusiasm. Podcasts--digital media files listeners download from the Internet and play back on a portable media player or computer--are the latest educational technology craze among students and professors. The technology hasbecome so prevalent on campus and off that the "New Oxford American Dictionary" proclaimed "podcasting" 2005's word of the year.

For Miller and other proponents, podcasting offers a way to jazz up material and enhance course offerings. But some professors worry that podcasting isn't an effective teaching tool.

"Our students place a high priority on convenience," says David B. Daniel, PhD, an assistant psychology professor at the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley. "But sometimes student preference is negatively correlated with student learning."


THE PROS...

Miller's first foray into podcasting came when he realized that recording a lecture would give students a way to catch up if they missed class or wanted a review. But once he got the hang of it, he realized that podcasting lectures wasn't the best use of the technology. Instead, he uses podcasts to supplement his lectures.

Miller now produces three kinds of podcasts. He invites students into his office for informal discussions about that day's lecture, records and edits the talks and then makes the podcasts available for free on iTunes and his faculty Web site. He uses a software package called ProfCast to create what he calls "precasts," or narrated PowerPoint slides that preview the material in the next class. And he occasionally produces what he calls "postcasts," to demystify especially difficult material. Once Miller's done recording each episode, it usually takes him just half an hour or less to edit it and post it on the Web.

Miller's students tell him the podcasts help them master the material and fill in gaps in their class notes. And while podcasting adds a bit to Miller's workload, it keeps him engaged in the material and gives him a chance to interact with students in small groups.

Other professors create podcasts for broader audiences. Christopher D. Green, PhD, a psychology professor at Toronto's York University, created a 30-episode series called "This Week in the History of Psychology" that's available to anyone. The free series features interviews with psychology historians, who talk about topics such as Sigmund Freud's first visit to the United States and Stanley Milgram's obedience studies.

"I wanted to get in touch with the post-MTV generation of students, for whom black ink on white paper isn't the most exciting medium," says Green. "I was looking for a way to enliven things."

Some professors encourage students to listen to the podcasts at home. Green plans to play relevant episodes during his classes next fall. Doing so, he says, will introduce new perspectives into discussions.

"There's no way I could invite all 30 of these historians to actually appear in my class," he says. "This allows me to bring them in."


...AND THE CONS

But do students learn as much from podcasting as they do from other pedagogical methods? David Daniel thinks not.

In a recent experiment, most students participating in the study told Daniel they would prefer to listen to a podcast version of a Scientific American article rather than read it. He asked half the students to read the article and the other half to listen to a professionally produced podcast version. When he tested the two groups on the content, the podcast group scored significantly worse. Once they saw their scores, most students shifted their allegiance to reading.

"The students had a hard time not multitasking while listening to the podcast," explains Miller. "That made it more difficult to devote 100 percent of their attention to what they were hearing."

But Daniel's findings haven't put him off podcasting altogether. While podcasts may not be a good learning tool, he says, they might be an excellent way to get students excited about learning. Podcasts should be used to stimulate enthusiasm and curiosity about a subject, he says, not to teach it.


Rebecca A. Clay is a writer in Washington, D.C.

"I wanted to get in touch with the post-MTV generation of students, for whom black ink on white paper isn't the most exciting medium."

Christopher D. Green
York University

Read an extended version of this article with links to podcasting resources at gradPSYCH online.