Putting the pod in podcast
"I love coffee, I love tea. I love the Java Jive and it loves me."
As the song "Java Jive" faded in and out, plant pathologists Darin Eastburn and Cleo D'Arcy sat in front of a microphone and explained to listeners how people can spread plant diseases around the world.
It was Week 3 of the University of Illinois course "Plants, Pathogens and People," and students would learn, among other things, Sri Lanka was a major coffee producer until a disease called coffee rust wiped out the island's crop.
(Hence the coffee-themed music interspersed with study tips in the week's installment of the "PPPodcast.")
Long gone are the days of mimeograph sheets and transparencies.
The latest technology to enter the university classroom: podcasts.
Well, perhaps not literally in the classroom.
Students can download the Plants, Pathogens and People podcast (dubbed PPPodcast) to their iPod when they want and listen to it when they want, whether they're walking to class, exercising at the gym or at home in front of the computer.
"Students are using iPods or other MP3 players on a regular basis. If they're not on their cell phones, they have their MP3 players going," said Eastburn, a UI associate professor in the Department of Crop Sciences. "We're taking advantage of a technological phenomenon."
Eastburn teaches the course in the spring. D'Arcy, also a professor in Crop Sciences, teaches it this fall. Some months ago, the two wondered how they could reach students outside the lecture room.
Because the course fulfills a general education requirement, it attracts a wide variety of students, D'Arcy said. The 75 students each semester might come from the College of Fine and Applied Arts or the College of Business. They might be majoring in biology or they might have only had one biology class in high school.
Throughout the years the two professors have taught the course, they realized students learn in different ways. They've tried over a dozen teaching techniques and introduced several different tools in the classroom to reach the students. Yes, they've used the straight lecture, but also video, games and group work, they said.
"One of the things we stress when we're trying to design our class is students have different learning styes," D'Arcy said. Some learn better visually. Some learn better orally. Some learn better through hands-on activity. "We like to present things in a multifaceted way."
This fall, they thought they'd give podcasting a try.
Instead of simply recording lectures and making them available to students to download, D'Arcy and Eastburn have chosen to assemble weekly podcasts, each about five to seven minutes long. In each, they summarize the week's lesson, address common points of confusion and pose critical questions.
"To me the real power of podcasting is the type of casting Darin and Cleo are doing. I consider it value added, something that goes beyond the lecture," said Doug Mills, a UI senior computer- assisted instructional specialist with Campus Information Technologies and Educational Technologies (CITES).
A more common practice among higher education classrooms is making lectures available in podcasts, Mills said.
But D'Arcy and Eastburn don't think those recordings are the most effective use of podcasting.
"My perspective is we don't want to give them an excuse not to come (to class)," D'Arcy said. "A big part of teaching to me is interacting with students, getting feedback and knowing when they're confused and then going back over that part."
Each podcast is divided into three parts. During the first few minutes D'Arcy and Eastburn discuss the major concept or issue for the week. Next they talk about major points of confusion. (They've been teaching the class for years and tend to know where students will get confused.) And finally they ask a couple questions to help students while they study outside the classroom.
Eastburn and D'Arcy share the responsibility of writing the scripts and recording the podcasts. They get together every other week to record two podcasts. They add music clips to bookend the presentations and in between the segments.
Producing each podcast takes about an hour, and getting it ready for and putting it on the server takes about five to 10 minutes once you know what you're doing, Eastburn said.
Podcasters will have to edit audio and maybe mix in music, but they don't have to be computer science wizards to conduct one, Mills said.
At a recent workshop for faculty and staff, Eastburn and D'Arcy showed their peers how they do it. CITES will hold another on-campus workshop on podcasts Thursday.
When complete, the podcast is available to students on the UI's Compass Web site and through the UI's podcast server.
Listening to the weekly podcast is purely optional for students.
Eastburn and D'Arcy learned, from a survey conducted earlier this semester, about 30 students listen every week, about 30 listen some weeks and 15 students don't use them at all.
To get a better sense of how well the podcasting fared this semester, the professors plan to ask students to share their opinions about the podcasts during finals week.
For next year, they plan to upgrade their audio equipment and continue the PPPodcasts. D'Arcy and Eastburn are also considering producing a walking tour for the class. Students could walk around campus, look at diseased plants and learn about the pathology behind the diseases. In addition Eastburn is considering using podcasts in another course. Those would consist of 10- to 15-minute phone interviews he conducts with different experts.