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Podcast craze hits classrooms

Some say digital lectures can let students catch up

Hoping to appeal to tech-savvy students with a shrinking attention span, more Boston-area colleges are pushing professors to go digital and record their lectures as downloadable files that student can listen to wherever, whenever.

Supporters of the idea say that podcasts help students study better, allowing baffled freshmen to fast-forward to the part of an introductory lecture they didn't understand and hit repeat. The University of Massachusetts at Lowell, for example, will try with 10 high-tech classrooms this fall.

But others question whether podcasting lectures will actually contribute to learning. Students, some professors say, might be tempted to skip class and the discussion that can flow after a lecture.

``If the purpose of what you are doing is to give them some information quickly, then podcasts are great," said Donna Qualters, director of The Center for Effective University Teaching at Northeastern University, an education resource program. ``My fear is that podcasts are going to replace the lecture. And then, of course, kids are not going to go to class, and they will miss the benefits of that."

Podcasts are digital files that can be accessed through the Internet and downloaded onto a computer or MP3 player. Professors can record lectures as they speak during class or prepare supplementary information and upload to a server, such as their class website, for free. Students can then access the file and play it as often as they like.

Some professors at Tufts University, Boston College, Worcester State College, Framingham State College, and MIT, as well as other colleges around the state, began independently creating podcasts of their courses three years ago. Colleges began considering installing schoolwide podcasting initiatives during the last six months, educators say.

At Emerson College, in March, the technology department began teaching professors about podcasting. But most Emerson professors seem hesitant to create podcasts, which can mean setting aside a half-hour for editing and uploading after class, said Kimberly Hall, Emerson's director of instructional technology.

At UMass-Lowell, administrators will outfit 10 classrooms with a microphone that will automatically record lectures and upload it as a podcast this fall. Anystream, a media solution company based in Sterling, Va., that created the program, is footing the cost in exchange for UMass-Lowell joining two other universities piloting the program. If the podcasts receive positive feedback , the school hopes to install the devices in every classroom. After this school year, Anystream would charge UMass-Lowell $10,000 annually to use its service.

John Warner, who will teach in one of the renovated classrooms this fall, has been creating podcasts of his introductory chemistry course for the past three years with a digital recorder. He said the class grade-point average during that period rose from almost failing to above passing.

``They can go at their own pace," said Warner, who added that class attendance did not drop. ``It is like watching a television show on TiVo, but with a class."

But some professors worry that many educators are turning to podcasts simply because it is hip.

``This is a technology academia has fallen in love with, without any idea of how it works," said Stephen Laster, a professor of problem-solving and software design at Babson College.

Laster, who also trains other professors on creating podcasts, said podcasting is only helpful if the files contain information that would not be available in class, such as a law professor recording background information on a historic decision before a discussion of the case in class.

``Not everything that is taught in the world translates into a monologue you can record for review," he said.

Samantha Baime, 18, a sophomore at Emerson College, said a podcast of a lecture could be helpful if she were out sick. But, as a theater major, she thinks it would largely be irrelevant.

``You can't do theater on a podcast," she said. ``That is something you discuss."

Cristina Silva can be reached at

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