Students Take to Podcasts

As a few schools begin to experiment with podcasting, American University Washington College of Law's experience portends a trend. In August, the school began podcasting select lectures, as well as speaking engagements such as an appearance by Supreme Court Justices Antonin Scalia and Stephen Breyer, and a speech by former president Jimmy Carter.

The results? Wild success. Podcasts, which WCL is the first law school in the country to offer, have gone from 400 listeners in September, to 3,300 in October, to 15,500 in early November. And those numbers don't include class lectures, only public podcasts.

"People are coming to the podcasts in droves," according to Korin Munsterman, director of the office of technology at WCL. "Our podcast Web page is the fifth top entry page to our Web site. It's really climbed."

Podcasting generally refers to making audio content available as an MP3 file. That means it can easily be listened to on Apple's popular iPod devices, or any MP3 player, including virtually any current computer with a speaker. On the production side, podcasts are extremely easy to create and don't produce huge files, which saves server space.

To date, the school has posted over 30 public podcasts. In addition, six faculty members are using iPods to capture class lectures and deliver them via Blackboard, the school's course management system.

Recording new podcasts is simple. Professors simply need an MP3 recording device tucked in a shirt pocket, and a microphone clipped to a lapel. Once the lecture is over, the professor either uploads the file, or hands over the recording device to the IT department for uploading. And because an iPod produces a relatively small, encoded MP3 file rather than a huge audio file, storage space on servers in minimal. To record multiple speakers at an event, things get more complex, but in those cases Munsterman simply requests recording equipment along with any other AV needs. The school then compresses the audio file into an MP3 for podcasting.

In terms of listening equipment, Munsterman says an informal survey of WCL's students at the beginning of the semester indicated that about 75 percent already have an iPod. In any case, the files can be listened to on any MP3-capable device, not just iPods, including a PC or laptop.

Students love the new system, says Munsterman, who was a nighttime law student herself who worked during the day, and thus appreciates the ability to listen to events that can't be attended in person.

Ten or so professors currently are capturing their class content, which is available to WCL's paying students only. Public speaking presentations such as the visit by the Supreme Court justices are available to the public as well as students.

Concerns that students might use the podcasts to skip class don't seem to be playing out. Instead, Munsterman says, students are listening to a surprising number of podcasts over and over. As evidence of the popularity of the service, Munsterman says that students accessed the podcasts of one class over 2,200 times. "I've asked why they're listening so often," she says. Some students say they want to hear particular segments over, some didn't take adequate notes at the time, and some are simply auditory learners who learn more by listening than reading. In addition, Munsterman says, the podcasts can help those with writing disabilities, or for whom English is a second language.

Because podcasts make use of RSS technology, students can subscribe to them through Apple's iTunes Web site, just as they can music. Students who visit iTunes can type in "Washington College" and see a listing of all podcast content the school has produced so far. If they subscribe to the RSS service, students can automatically receive new content whenever the school adds it to iTunes. Other Web sites offer the same subscription service, although iTunes is the best known.

The podcasting has had some unintended consequences. Munsterman said that a focus group participant last week said that her boyfriend overheard her listening to a podcast, and became so interested that he's decided to go to law school.

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