WASHINGTON (AP) – When Suzan Harkness, a political science professor at the University of the District of Columbia, noticed she was repeatedly asking her young pupils to take off their iPod headphones in class, it seemed almost obvious.
Why shouldn’t they be listening to her lectures, instead of music?
“I thought I’d become as hip as they are and use the barrier that had come between us,” Harkness said. “It’s just another way to reach them.”
Harkness is one of a growing number of tech-savvy professors across the country who are making their own podcasts – a combination of the words iPod and broadcast – by recording mini-lessons or even full lectures and interviews. They then post them on the Internet for students to download and listen to on their MP3 players.
It’s the same idea radio and television broadcasters have been trying in recent months by reformatting news, sports and talk shows for the iPod generation.
Once a student finds his professor’s podcast – usually posted on a university Website – the file can be downloaded automatically each time he plugs in his portable player. Harkness said all she needed to get started was a microphone and a computer program to edit the sound on her laptop computer.
So far, her students approve of the first podcast, which runs just more than six minutes, complete with intro music.
“Sometimes reading can be difficult, but if you actually hear it, you kind of retain it more,” said Tamara Burrowes, who will complete her bachelor’s degree at UDC in December. “You might listen to it over and over again as you’re riding on the subway.”
The idea makes sense for students, whether they speak limited English or simply learn better by hearing, said American University international politics Prof. Patrick Jackson, who records his lectures with a lapel mic plugged into his own iPod.
“You’re dealing with a generation of students who grew up multitasking with several IM (instant messenger) windows open, browsing online and listening to their iPods,” Jackson said. “If you want to engage with them, then you need to engage with the sort of practices they use.”
There doesn’t seem to be much fear that students will skip class for some extra sleep, knowing they can download the lecture later.
“I’ve always thought that coming to class was sort of something optional anyway,” Jackson said.
Class time is better used for interaction, debate and one-on-one mentoring, he said.
Jackson assigns his students to use their iPods as recording devices to conduct interviews for his research methods class. They play back the results over classroom speakers.
The university has arranged for Jackson to train other professors on ways to use the new technology at a conference next month.
As appealing as it sounds, Georgetown University School of Medicine Prof. Rochelle Tractenberg said she ran into problems recording biostatistics lectures last year. Her graduate students told her that they liked having the lectures available, but they weren’t listening to the three-hour recordings very often, if at all.
The experiment with Apple iPods began in earnest last fall when Duke University spent $500,000 to hand out the 20 gigabyte devices for free to all 1,600 freshmen. Duke reported mixed results, with professors using them in dozens of courses but having trouble with recording quality and sharing files.
Harkness said she never intended to make the $300 iPod a requirement for her class.
“I’m not promoting that they go out and get one if they can’t afford it,” she said.
The files can be downloaded for listening on any computer as well. But Harkness said most of her students already bring their iPods to class.
College students are about three times more likely than anyone else to own an MP3 player, according to a February study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project. More than 21 million iPods have been sold, according to Apple, as well as thousands of accessories made to go with them, including microphones and car adapters.
The growing market has sparked Internet ventures, poised to start selling lecture downloads for $5 apiece. Apple has also added a podcast section to its latest version of iTunes, where a growing number of colleges have submitted podcasts from speeches on campus.
For Jackson, this all means academia will have to adapt to the new tech culture – whether by challenging students to express their ideas through blogs or offering more interactive audio and video features for their lessons.