Experiment examines whether podcasting technology improves delivery of third-year signal processing course
BY ANDREW VOWLES
That student you see tuned in to her iPod may be listening not to her favourite hip-hop artist but to her engineering professor giving this week's lecture in a third-year course in signal processing.
Referring to his experimental use of podcasting to share his digitally recorded lectures — raw and uncut — with almost 100 students on the course website, Prof. Bob Dony quips: “You can tell they're listening if their eyes are glazed over.”
He hopes to find out whether giving tech-savvy students a chance to hear his lectures again at their own convenience will help reinforce his conventional chalk-talk lectures this semester.
“I'm digitally recording the voice part of my lecture and sticking it on the web. It's a perfect application because we talk about audio processing and communication systems in that course.”
Students can log on to the course website to hear the lecture on their PC at home, on their laptop in the library or on their iPod, MP3 player or other devices they normally use to listen to music and other audio files. The recordings are available to students with hearing impairments using ordinary assistive devices.
Dony says he'd been seeking ways to incorporate new technology and improve his delivery of the course. This particular technology has been used at other universities, including several American schools that even provide iPods to some students enrolled in courses that use podcasting.
Might students see it as a way to skip lectures and catch up later? Dony shakes his head, explaining that the recordings are no substitute for in-class work involving lots of math and equations on the blackboard. His thrice-weekly lectures in the Landscape Architecture Building also give him a chance to answer individual questions and gain students' feedback on concepts and his teaching.
At the same time, he figures his recorded lectures will help students underline ideas discussed in class — not to mention offering them different ways to learn the material. He plans to survey students about the experiment at the end of the semester.
Dony says he created a buzz when he showed up for the first lecture wearing what one student called a “Starship Enterprise” gizmo. The earpiece — actually a digital microphone/speaker designed for hands-free use with a cellphone — records his voice digitally on to his pocket PC (a hand-held Hewlett-Packard iPAQ). Back at his office, it takes only a few minutes to load the file on to the course website.
Within five minutes, students registered in the course can download the file to hear the lecture again. (They can also obtain the file through an RSS webfeed, a feature that works like an e-mail alert to inform them when new content has been placed on the course website.)
Allowing that he's a more visual than auditory learner, engineering systems and computing student Tom Watts says he's used the course podcast only once to catch up on a missed lecture. Not that he misses many of Dony's classes: Watts says the professor's blackboard work is a vital part of the course.
He says podcasting may be more useful for instructors who bring a “PowerPoint” approach to the classroom. “They shoot through things fairly quickly, so when you go home and listen, you can follow along more easily.”
Katie McQuoid, a fourth-year biological engineering student, says she finds the podcast useful when she's working on an assignment several days after a lecture on a particularly complicated topic or when she's missed something in her class notes.
“I had never heard of podcasting before this course, although I definitely think it would be handy for most classes.”
Aldo Caputo, manager of learning technology and courseware innovation in Teaching Support Services, says his office has helped instructors use audio or music online within WebCT, but not for podcasting. Referring to Dony's course, he says: “I think this is part of a trend to examine how different technologies can allow professors to break out of the traditional course delivery model and provide an enhanced learning experience for students.”
For Dony, podcasting is the closest he'll come to providing course notes on his website.
“For this type of course, students do learn best when they're deriving equations with me. Having notes on the web is not as useful.”
In the lab, he studies image and audio processing for various applications, from improving hearing aids to cleaning up recordings of, say, horse heartbeats used in teaching veterinary students to diagnose diseases.
He views podcasting as a kind of e-learning strategy to reach students accustomed to using a variety of technologies inside the classroom and out.
“It's an audience that's technologically aware,” he says.
Dony smiles as he contrasts today's learning tools with the clunky Radio Shack TRS80 displayed in his Thornbrough Building office — the very machine he used in the early 1980s to learn programming in his own university student days.
“They have their iPods. They're the digital generation.”
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University of Guelph