Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Where have all the podcasts gone?

Anyone can make an educational podcast. All you really need is a digital recording device or iPod microphone, costing less than $50, to create an audio file that can be played back on your computer, iPod, or other type of portable mp3 player. At lectures I've seen people making their own podcasts for personal use, and recently the Extension School has begun producing Computer Science-related podcasts for students and others interested in hearing the lectures. The reaction has been enthusiastic, according to the Crimson.

But having a few dozen computer science lectures in podcast form is just the tip of the iceberg. This could be so much bigger. It's not just because the audio files are so easy to make, and share, if placed on the Internet. It's the huge installed base of people who can use the files. Think about it. How many students have portable digital music players in their backpacks, or software to play them back on their computers? 90%? 95%?

Yet Harvard -- and most other universities -- are only making piecemeal attempts to exploit the technology. I've looked at Apple's and Yahoo's podcast directories for college-level lectures and other course content, and there's not much there -- a few departments at a few colleges are playing with podcasts on a small scale. The best history podcasting resource I have found thus far is from University of California Berkeley. It's History 5: European Civilization from the Renaissance to the Present, taught by Thomas Laqueur (RSS link here, course description here). There is a complete collection of lectures, starting from the beginning of this semester. He often refers to slides of artwork that he's showing his class, but it's still a great audio resource that I listen to in my car or when I am at home. You can sample other topics from the current list of the Berkeley course podcasts.

Apple seems to "get" the potential of this medium, and is aggressively pushing "iTunes U", a program that offers schools tools to organize and host educational podcasts. It appeals to universities which want to use podcasts as vehicles to help students and propagate knowledge to a wider audience. And of course, it appeals to Apple, because it lets them sell more iPods and other products.

A handful of high-profile universities have joined the program, but so far there's not much to see. Stanford's iTunes portal has 40 or 50 of lectures across many disciplines, but no complete courses. I was unable to find any audio files from Duke or Brown, both of which are participating in the program. It's possible that they are setting up their podcasts so only their own students can access the files, but if that's the case, I have to ask, why not open up this content to students elsewhere, or to the general public? It's not like giving away course credit, or taking extra staff time to administer the program to non-students. It can and should be seen as sharing knowledge -- much like MIT's OpenCourseware initiative, Harvard's public lectures, and even the concept of a public library.

To learn more about making podcasts, see my earlier post on educational podcasting. Another Extension School student has also posted about educational podcasting on his/her blog.

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