Podcasting Made Even Easier

Linda L. Briggs

The upside of all the heat and smoke around podcasting is that vendors are responding with interesting products that make it even easier to create a podcast.

Yes, podcasting is pretty simple already. That’s part of its allure. In its simplest form, you record something onto a computer (a lecture, for instance) using a microphone attached to a classroom computer, and then “publish” it to the Web. The Internet abounds with free software for making such recordings, including Apple’s popular iTunes software.

But making an “enhanced” podcast – that is, integrating elements beyond voice into the recording – can be a bit complex. That’s too bad, because that’s what many instructors want to do in order to podcast a lecture that includes intermittent slides, video, or links to a Web site.

That’s where a software product called ProfCast, from Humble Daisy, Inc. comes in. ProfCast is a low-cost solution (with the academic discount, the product is just $28; further volume discounts are available) that makes it simple to add items like Microsoft PowerPoint or Apple Keynote slides to a podcast.

At Fordham University in New York City, Dr. Joachim Rennstich has been using ProfCast since its introduction last fall – and has worked closely with the company in ironing out some of its features.

The tool is relatively simple. Rennstich, an assistant professor who teaches political science and international relations, runs ProfCast on his Apple Powerbook in class. Before beginning, he drags into ProfCast any slides or other elements to be included in the lecture. Using a simple $50 wireless microphone, he then records the lecture to the computer. As ProfCast records, it marks each point at which a slide, video element, or Web site is displayed. When the recording is complete, he uses ProfCast to publish the recording to a Web site or elsewhere.

When a student plays the podcast later, device permitting, the slides or other elements appear at the appropriate places. Whether or not the accompanying materials can be viewed depends on what sort of device is used. Because only Apple supports this sort of “enhanced” podcast, ProfCast is Apple-centric. Students must be running iTunes (downloadable from Apple’s Web site for free). And although any MP3 player can be used to listen to the lecture, only a high-end iPod, or a computer running iTunes, can view the supporting materials. Newer iPods that display video can show the visual elements. A simpler iPod, such as a Nano or an earlier model, can’t.

Rennstich says he saw the appeal of podcasting last summer and began to record and distribute lectures to his students, using his own Web site in order to limit access to his students only.

“I was enthusiastic about the technology immediately,” he says. “I thought podcasts were just great; and an added bonus for the students.” But before ProfCast, Rennstich spent hours on each lecture, listening to the recording and inserting slides from Keynote, Apple’s presentation software, at the proper spots.

He originally used a product called Podcast Maker, from Potion Factory, “a godsend back then,” to upload podcasts. But the editing and enhancing steps were a pain. “It took hours, literally hours. I had to listen to my lecture, find the spot where the next slide changed, and manually mark it. That just took too long.”

An enhanced podcast can integrate not only slides, but also other audio sources. Rennstich sometimes includes a BBC Web cast in his lectures, for example. ProfCast records the link to the Web site at the appropriate spot in the lecture. “There’s lots of no-brainer software that records [audio].” Rennstich says. “But nothing else records what you do in PowerPoint or Keynote as well.”

Rennstich can be innovative when it comes to technology. Last year, when a snowstorm in New York City closed down the university, students who couldn’t make it to class panicked because they were missing Rennstich’s final class, in which he planned to review the final exam. Knowing that, he prepared a 50-minute video the night before, using his Nokia cell phone to record it, “giving the talk I would have given the next day.” He pushed the video out to student e-mail inboxes, and “I did not get a single e-mail [with questions about the final] after I sent the video.”

Linda L. Briggs is a freelance writer based in San Diego, Calif.

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