Divergent Disciplines Delve Into Podcasting Technology

Penn State is known for cutting edge technology. Students, faculty and staff all expect it. So it was no surprise when several faculty members submitted proposals to be first at the starting gate, taking on a major technological innovation that would directly affect how they delivered information to their students.

Education Technology Services at Penn State decided to partner with Information Technology Services departments in several campuses around the state last spring. The goal was to pilot Podcasting as a teaching tool. Marilee Mulvey, director of IT Services at Penn State Worthington Scranton floated the idea to faculty. "We received six great responses but were only able to fund three," she said.

Three faculty members have teamed up with Mary Lynn Brannon, the campus instructional designer, and Ryan Moskalczak, Penn State Worthington Scranton's information technology support specialist. Everyone, faculty members, instructional designer and IT support specialist are extremely engaged and generating lots of excitement.

Podcasting is more than simple audio on the internet. The technology, available for years, involves delivering information over specific channels to specific users. The technology uses what is know as Really Simple Syndication (RSS) channels. RSS contains a reference to an original audio file, in the case of Penn State faculty, a recorded lecture. These lectures are available to students, 24/7, who have previously subscribed.

 "RSS can deliver audio, video, and PDF files just to name a few," explained Ms. Mulvey.

Mary Lynn Brannon is currently working with members of the Penn State Worthington Scranton faculty in the academic disciplines of Biology, German and Physics. "It is exciting to work with faculty in such divergent academic areas," she said. "Each comes to Podcasting with their unique academic challenges and their own style and teaching experiences."

Most college aged students have either used Podcasting or know of Podcasting in connection with music and video downloading on the internet. MP3 files routinely make up the bulk of space on many young people's hard drives, and for some an actual CD library has become obsolete because of this technology.

As the work moves forward at Penn State Worthington Scranton, all seem to agree that Podcasting lectures for the traditional college-aged student are a great use of this technology.

The name "Podcast" evolved from the near ubiquitous ipod, developed by Apple Computer. However, podcasts can be accessed and stored on ipods, MP3 players, personal computers and any number of available storage devices. Users don't need an ipod or MP3 player to access the lectures.

Right now the bulk of the work falls to the three Penn State professors to tailor course material to the new format.

Dr. Marlene P. Soulsby, associate professor of German and Comparative Literature, has been teaching at Penn State for 37 years. "I am always looking for authentic language material to use," she said. "And I use all available formats including print, video, and audio. Now all of these are available on the internet. Podcasts offer even more possibilities for immersion in a foreign language: everything from slowly spoken news-broadcasts, to discussions of film and literature, to comedy shows."

Soulsby has a different slant on language learning than most teachers. She does not see learning the language as an end to itself.

"Language is a door that offers access," she said. "It is a means to do things rather than a goal in itself. Learning a language opens up possibilities to new experiences. Because of this view, I look for learning opportunities that are contemporary and real. That keeps the experience relevant for the student. Podcasting is simply a near perfect format for language acquisition, and I'm expecting great things from this technology."

Dr.  Renée Bishop is an assistant professor of Biology. She is using podcasts to simulate the intellectual exchange that occurs at scientific meetings.  She has already received positive student feedback on a podcast that summarized laboratory experiments.  "Students told me that the podcast really clarified the experiment. They came away with a better understanding of the material," she said.

Dr. Bishop knows that some of her courses are challenging and sees podcasting as a way to extend access for students. "Students today have increasing demands on their time," she observed. "Podcasts help me and my students by allowing us more time for classroom interaction and exchange, while increasing their access to the information they need."

"Because of the nature of the courses I teach," said Dr. Bishop, "I look for ways to help students assimilate this information. I think Podcasting is a technology they can relate to, and which fits their increasingly busy lifestyles. It is available 24/7 in a format they know. I am personally very excited about this."

Dr. Yvonne Glanville is new to Penn State. An assistant professor of Physics, Dr. Glanville has already completed three podcasted lectures. "My focus is to get my students past the numerical hurdles of a Physics problem so they can arrive at a real grasp of the concepts involved."

Dr. Glanville likes the access that students have to her lectures, and the opportunity for them to continually review. She also appreciates the ability to illustrate, through podcasts, actual solutions to physics problems. "Once they see a problem solved, that makes it easier," she observed. "With my podcasts, I can clearly articulate that I want them to move past the numerical challenges to the core idea illustrated by a specific problem. I can summarize key points and stress those areas where I want them to focus. Right now, I make use of the same numerical equation across several problems. This allows students to quickly master that equation then focus on the concepts and key points involved."

Education is a two-way street and all three professors recognize the potential of student's, both individually or in teams, developing projects and delivering those projects through podcasts. "Podcasts can become a new term-paper or class presentation model," said Ms. Brannon. "All three professors recognize the potential here and are developing plans to use it within their classes this semester."

As Podcasting evolves into the academic fabric of Penn State Worthington Scranton, the future may well involve coursework on honing one's Podcasting skills. For professors and students alike, immersion in the technology is new and involves becoming familiar and comfortable with recording user friendly audio files. Further development will probably add video to the audio presentations and even allow presenters to incorporate data files and PowerPoint slides into a production.

Ms. Mulvey is optimistic about the future of the technology. "Penn State, because of its strong research traditions, has maintained a technological leadership position. We understand that the community expects that of us," she said. "Even with that in mind, it is always heartening to see faculty step up to the inherent challenges that a new technology presents, embrace it, then use it to make Penn State an even better place for our students."