- The Washington Times - Monday, March 5, 2007

Producing podcasts is not a typical assignment in college writing class, but it’s what Heather Schell requires from her students at George Washington University.

Miss Schell, assistant professor in the school’s University Writing Program, asked her freshman writing class last year to produce a weekly “radio show,” a series of podcasts they wrote, recorded, edited and posted on the Web.

“I really enjoyed it,” said one of the students, Kirsten Gilbert, who began the class as a “technophobe” and ended as a podcast pro.”I learned a lot about podcasting. It taught you how to write pieces to be heard, not to be read.”

Miss Schell is among an increasing number of college professors to use podcasts — audio files that can downloaded to IPods and computers — as they discover the advantages of technologically savvy teaching, said Suzan Harkness, assistant professor of political science at the University of the District of Columbia.

Mrs. Harkness recently completed the first national study of podcast use in college education. During the 18 months of her survey, the number of universities she tracked that used podcasts increased from five to 278.

The study also found that most educational podcasts are recorded lectures, while 15 percent are produced by students for a course. Almost two-thirds of respondents said their use had no effect on class attendance.

Mrs. Harkness said the number of professors using podcasts will most likely continue to grow, “especially when they realize that it does not impact attendance,” she said. “It’s not expensive. It’s something you can do with a laptop, a desktop and a microphone.”

Area professors say they use audio files for supplemental material, grading papers or as study guides, or require students to produce their own podcasts as class projects.

For grading papers, professors record their comments, then the grade so students will listen to the comments instead of just flipping past them to find the grade.

But requiring students to create their own podcasts is also a popular use of the audio files.

“The creativity that gets unleashed by the podcasts is just phenomenal,” said Nanette Levinson, associate professor of international relations at American University. “It really enhances [students’] creativity and their ability to communicate effectively.”

Mrs. Levinson, who was inspired to begin using podcasts by her 16-year-old nephew, has been using them in the classroom for two years, though this was the first year she began requiring them from students.

One podcast created by her students for an assignment begins with tense music, fading into Arabic voices telling stories of hardship while a voice-over translates. Then students describe a fictional soccer camp they propose to create in Palestine, bringing Israeli and Palestinian children together.

In addition to requiring such work from her students, which often include music clips and special audio effects, Mrs. Levinson creates her own audio files for students.

“The most important thing to remember about podcasting in the classroom is that it needs to be value-added,” said Mrs. Levinson who never records her lectures. She has created podcasts on such subjects as how to create a podcast and how to prepare for an exam, and is in the process of creating more, one to help graduate students write better research papers and another on how to gain the most from an internship.

Kai-Henrik Barth, a visiting assistant professor and director of studies for the security studies program at Georgetown University, said he is still experimenting with the best way to use podcasts. Mr. Barth records his lectures and posts them as podcasts. He acknowledges most students don’t want to listen to the same lecture twice, though it is helpful for those who miss class or want to study for a test. Mr. Barth said it has no effect on his class attendance, a finding supported by Mrs. Harkness’ study.

Mr. Barth said he originally intended to create podcasts containing extra information not taught in class, but he found them more work-intensive than expected.

“I thought naively that I would do a couple of video clips and put them up for the students, to have more free time for class discussion, instead of spending the whole time lecturing,” he said. “It turned out that this would require enormous discipline, which I lack.”

The time spent preparing a supplemental podcast, he said, might be better spent by preparing for lectures, though he still wants to experiment with podcasts.

“I teach a class on nuclear weapons programs, and it would be helpful I think to have a five-minute spiel on nuclear enrichment,” he said.

Most professors agree that student-produced podcasts release creativity and focus in students, while faculty-produced podcasts offer a flexible, innovative and efficient way to reach students.

Miss Schell, who paid a former student to teach her how to create a podcast, said she was delighted with the results of the podcast “radio show” her class produced. Most students picked up the technical skills needed to create podcasts fairly quickly, and the required software is free.

“That audio technology — I don’t know what makes it so magic,” Miss Schell said. “I don’t know if it’s partly that it breaks us away just enough from the usual way we write in college that all of a sudden it sparks our imagination.”

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