Podcasting & Vodcasting: Educational Solutions Looking for a Problem

I’m at a technology and learning conference at Purdue University in West Lafayette, IN today and tomorrow. It’s part of my day-job life as an educational media producer, but it’s also a good opportunity to get a glimpse at what educators are trying to do with technology, and there’s many lessons to be learned for any media maker.

There are several sessions scheduled about podcasting and so-called vodcasting, better known as video blogging. The thing I keep encountering in the higher education world is that podcasting popularized distributing audio by the web, but for all the interest and excitement, it really seems like nobody’s really talking about the big question: why podcast?

I just sat through a vendor demo from Apple on creating a podcast or “enhanced” podcast using their iLife ’06 tools. It was fine, I guess, but short on truly instructive details. As an aside, I’ve been to a bunch of Apple demos on media-related stuff, and the engineers they send to do them typically don’t have much audio or video production skill. All they have is basic iLife skills, which really doesn’t help to sell me on their stuff, even if it works. (It took the presenter more then fifteen minutes to get her PowerBook to use the mic while we sat there and watched — even though their display table was just 20 feet away where you’d think they could have gotten that prepared in advance).

The big question I keep asking of everyone who’s hot on podcasting and video blogging for education is: what is podcasting doing that we could’t do 18 months ago with streaming audio or posting audio files (mp3 or ogg) on a webpage? I have yet to get a satisfactory answer.

Apple, in particular, is making these technologies cool and trendy for educators. So if you want to be a star in the higher ed technology world you’d better be podcasting or video blogging. But it makes about as much sense as any other trend.

And, yet, I do have a podcast, because I find RSS to be a great way to distribute my radio show. And I could see how having students subscribe to a podcast feed to get supplemental audio would be great, but only if you can guarantee that students have a PC and/or MP3 player. But at a big public university this isn’t guaranteed or required (and in many cases can’t be required, due to all sorts of state rules and laws). Without a personal PC or MP3 player, podcast feeds aren’t any more useful than posting MP3s to a static page.

Am I biting the hand that feeds me? No, I would love to encourage more faculty to create audio and video to enhance their courses. For example, I would love to see more scientists make cool demos so that students could watch experiments multiple times, or in slow motion, outside of lab or class. And if podcasting or vodcasting trendiness gets them in my door, great.

But the thing that the podcasting trend is selling educators is: just plug in a crappy $10 microphone and prattle on for a half-hour and drop some pictures into Garage Band and your students will watch it on their video Ipods. Yeah right, because they pay so much attention in class when the professor is prattling on in monotone to PowerPoint slides, they’re definitely going to want a podcast of that.

We need some recommendations and best practices here, but Apple, in particular, ain’t selling that.

To be fair, I talked to a biologist here at Purdue a little earlier today who is producing short-form enhanced podcasts that she posts to her website as supplemental material for students who want or need it. She’s giving a presentation later today about using script-writing techniques for making your podcasts and videos more interesting and useful. That’s more of what I’m getting at, and I hope that people actually attend.

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