June 02, 2006

Podcasting at Bradford

From the front page of the THES on 26th May:–

A Bradford University lecturer claims to be the first UK academic to abolish lectures completely in favour of podcasts. First year students taking Bill Ashraf's biochemistry course next year won't have to go to a lecture theatre. Instead they'll watch or listen to virtual lectures on their MP3 players, phones or computers in their own time.

It's intriguing if true. Most academics who've been experimenting with podcasting thus far have been using as a supplement to, rather than replacement for, traditional lectures. They've either recorded the lecture itself, or recorded an alternative reading of the lecture material, but either way the lecture still takes place. If there were no lectures, would students really be motivated to listen to a series of (presumably) hour–long audio sessions? Experience generally suggests that it's awfully difficult to make an hour–long audio recording which holds the listener's attention effectively (though of course the same could be said of hour–long lectures). Will it matter that there won't be slides or a blackboard or an OHP? Will students miss the social elements (and to some extent the peer pressure) of convening for lectures?

And why does Dr Ashraf want to do this?

Dr Ashraf said the move would free time for more small–group teaching, and would better suit the needs of distance learners, part–time students and those balancing study with work. He said "Some lecture classes have 250 students, so I question the effectiveness of a didactic lecture for an hour".

No problem with any of that, although I'm not absolutely clear that the didactic value of a podcast intended to replace a lecture would necessarily be any better than the lecture itself – though I suppose it need only be no worse. Next week I think I might try and contact Dr Ashraf and find out more about what form his podcasts will take and how he might be planning to measure their effectiveness during the year.

- 21 comments by 2 or more people Not publicly viewable

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  1. Dan T

    It is unclear to me in what manner "the move (will) free time for more small–group teaching". Presumably, Dr Ashraf means by this that it will free his time, not that of his students. Otherwise, he would be implicitly suggesting that the latter are not going to watch or listen to their "virtual lectures", since these, if I have understood correctly, are meant to last as long as the real lectures which they replace. His statements are, at best, dubious.

    Moreover, what will happen to students that do not own the devices necessary for gaining access to these virtual lectures? Even if they are leant the equipment, they are never–the–less put at a serious and unfair disadvantage, are they not?

    As for the interrogations you summon concerning the opinion of students on the change, I think they lead to a wider concern: why are students virtually never consulted in such cases? They are, after all, the ones that will inevitably benefit from or suffer because of the change. This brings us to information technology. Why has the systematic and compulsory use of computers become the norm? Who is behind these decisions? Why is there no resort against them?

    I may be wrong, but it is my opinion that whenever new technologies are introduced in universities, the decision to do so is rarely a democratic one.

    02 Jun 2006, 18:54

  2. Daniel, I assumed that he would replace the slot allocated to him and his students for a lecture with small–group teaching, perhaps by splitting the group into four smaller groups who could meet once a month/fornight or something. Not sure.

    How will they monitor 'attendance' of podcasts? Number of downloads?

    Surely even in large lectures, the lecturers recognise the students who always turn up (to a certain extent) it makes you wonder what they are planning on doing when convening the board for awarding degree classifications, how will they know students!?

    02 Jun 2006, 19:58

  3. John Dale

    Why has the systematic and compulsory use of computers become the norm?

    I'm interested to know what you have in mind when you say "compulsory". In what ways does the university compel people to use computers? I know lots of people who depend on their computer to do their work or their studying, but I haven't heard that described as compulsion before.

    02 Jun 2006, 22:56

  4. John Dale

    it makes you wonder what they are planning on doing when convening the board for awarding degree classifications, how will they know students!?

    Are you asserting that examination boards currently know students in any meaningful sense other than as a set of figures?

    02 Jun 2006, 22:57

  5. Well, mine do! Although classics is a small department so everyone does know (almost) everyone else. I'm quite willing to accept that this is not the norm within Warwick though. Although it certainly seems a shame.

    It could be argued that warwick's email integration means you must rely on computers, in oder to check emails.

    03 Jun 2006, 00:29

  6. Dan T

    In response to comment 3,

    I will speak only for myself. It is a fact that essays are to be submitted either electronically or in printed version (in my departments, at any rate: philosophy, politics and economics). Neither of these, to my knowledge, can be achieved without the use of a computer. For first years like me, it is not compulsory per se, although it is vehemently encouraged. However, I was assured by one of my tutors that for second and third years, electronic submission of essays is compulsory.

    This is not to say that the compulsory use of computers is restricted to essay writing. Perhaps compulsory is the wrong word: there are many ways of making people do things without forcing them. When you live in England, speaking English is not, to my knowledge, compulsory yet the disadvantages of not speaking it are such that it becomes a quasi–compulsion. Take the case of communication between students and academics or non–academic members of staff: much of it takes place through the intermediary of e–mails. Had I not checked my e–mail reception box regularly, I would have missed out on much information. Although I am not stricto senso compelled to do so, I am put at a serious disadvantage if I don't. This might be called passive compulsion.

    I also recall that at the beggining of the year, I had to register for my course modules on–line (what they call on–line registration). Not doing so would have meant a fine. This was compulsory.

    These are the things I meant when I spoke of compulsion.

    03 Jun 2006, 09:01

  7. naz

    ref: comment 2
    In order to make lecturers aware of my presence in large lecture theatres, I used to ask questions of them. This guarantees their recollection, which by the way is directly proportional to the "stickiness" of the question. Although I would never go so far as to propose that everyone should ask difficult questions of their lecturers! The same can be applied to podcasts; after all, it's quite obvious a student hasn't been attending/listening when they ask the wrong questions just as much as when they give the wrong answers.

    03 Jun 2006, 12:45

  8. I don't see how recording podcasts instead of lecturing is going to save the lecturer's time if the podcasts are going to be as long as the lectures – an hour of the lecturer's time is needed in both cases. I guess the advantage to the lecturer is that he can record his next "lecture" whenever he wants, instead of having to turn up to a specific place at a specific time. In my opinion, I would find it seriously hard to have to learn a module by listening to a podcast – especially concepts that rely on visual aids such as (in my case) extracts of code or graphs etc

    03 Jun 2006, 20:58

  9. Thomas, also I assume many lecturers end up giving the same lecture every year, so it would save time in the long run…

    03 Jun 2006, 21:33

  10. Also, you raise a very interesting point, while soem people are auditory learners others are far more visual, podcasted lectures will not be beneficial to them at all.

    03 Jun 2006, 21:34

  11. I can't see that it's that much different from lecturers distributing printed notes or making their Powerpoint presentations available for downloading; in most cases these are probably intended as a complement to going to the lectures, but are often regarded as a substitute.

    03 Jun 2006, 21:55

  12. John Dale

    To be fair, the article I've quoted from said nothing about what form the podcasts might take – whether they'd be one hour long and basically identical to the lecture, or (say) ten minute snippets created specifically for the medium. I speculated that you'd need to provide about the same amount of content in time terms in order to cover the ground, but I don't actually know what Dr Ashraf's plans are, though I intend to try and find out.

    03 Jun 2006, 22:13

  13. John Dale

    Daniel, in comment #6 the three examples you cite are essay writing, email and module registration. I can see that there is an element of compulsion in each of these cases, but I'm curious about how you would prefer things to be. In your original comment, you said Why has the systematic and compulsory use of computers become the norm? Who is behind these decisions? Why is there no resort against them? from which I infer that you don't approve of the way in which word processing, email and module registration have become de facto compulsory.

    But given the choice, what would you suggest instead? Before staff–student communication by email became the norm, most messages were conveyed by putting slips of paper in students' pigeon–holes, which was time–consuming and inefficient for staff and inconvenient for students. During vacations, there was essentially no communication except in emergencies. Would reverting to that model, or imposing the administrative overhead of asking staff to put messages in pigeon–holes as well as emailing them really be desirable in your view?

    Similarly with essay writing: the only alternatives to word processing I can see are typing or writing in longhand. Given the choice, are either of those actually what you would prefer? Do you think there are many students for whom that's true?

    It seems to me that there's nothing particularly distinctive about universities here; it's rare to find any organisations that don't use email and word processing, so is the university really doing anything other than moving with the times? When you leave Warwick and start employment, will it be equally irksome to you that your workplace will probably expect you to use email and word processors?

    03 Jun 2006, 22:25

  14. Dan T

    In terms of communication, e–mailing presents many advantages. I grant you that, for they are undeniable. Yet, I believe that you are focusing too heavily on these advantages with little or no regard for the drawbacks. Here is but one: I was asked to complete a group task in economics earlier in the year. We (the group) took the collective decision of using a weblog to post our notes and thus make them easily accessible to the other members of the group. I was not in favour of it, but I accepted the verdict. Practical it was, there's no denying that. However, it also triggered unpleasant consequences: for example, I would have relished the chance to discuss the issues involved in our work more deeply with the other members, which I consider to be very intelligent people. Yet, as a result of everything being posted unceremoniously on the weblog, very little actual discussion took place, we hardly ever met up, and the work was not accomplished as a group at all. Is this the evil computer's fault? In the absolute, no it isn't, it was our fault. Yet our reaction was a consequence, albeit not a necessary one, of there being such means as weblogs at our disposal. I haven't got any statistics at my disposal, but I am pretty sure that our group isn't the only one to have acted in that way, which I describe as erroneous.

    So on the case of e–mails, I agree with you in so far as the 'electronic' communication takes place only when more direct forms of communication are either impossible or downright unpractical.

    You make the deduction that I am hostile to computers and information technology. You are partially correct. I despise the compulsory writing of essays on computers and indeed would prefer hand–writing. I have written many articles on what I perceive to be the dangerous consequences of substituting the former for the latter. It is not my purpose to repeat the arguments I have developped in them here. All I will say is that, as a pragmatist, I demand the right to submit essays or other froms of written work by hand. Given the tyrannic fashion in which the rules are imposed from up above in this realm, I know very well that my plea has little chance of being heard. Yet, if you examine both positions closely, mine and that of the university administration, you will surely conclude that it is mine which is fairest, for I would give students the choice: either hand–writing or type–writing: I do not claim to know that one is better than the other, instead I leave each person to make his or her own decision. At the opposite, the university, in the cases which I have described, i.e. my departments though I doubt not that there are many more in the same situation, forces one type of writing upon students without giving them the choice.

    With all due respect, I think that your mistake is to consider the problem in an "all or nothing" way. Why, if we introduce computers, should that force us to use them in every toil? Why not use them in certain areas and not in others? Why not, indeed, use them for purposes of communication without necessarily making their use compulsory in other deeds?

    04 Jun 2006, 09:55

  15. Dan T

    ( continued…)

    I would agree that the university is "moving with the times". This, precisely, is what I am blaming it for. Moving with the times is quite possibly the most idiotic doctrine I have ever heard of. We should only accept innovations if we believe they will bring improvements. Merely accepting them as inevitable is ludicrous. This brings us to the final point: you seem to point to the fact that if universities refuse to use computers, students will be ill–equiped to begin their endeavour in the work market. As I have allready said, I am not in favour of the total withdrawal of computers. But more to the point, I disagree fundamentally with the assumption that students are nothing more than future employees. What information do you have to claim that I will "start employment" as soon as I leave? And what kind of employment is it that you have assigned me? I believe in hope, not regressive and misplaced realism.

    04 Jun 2006, 09:55

  16. John Dale

    Thanks for your replies, Daniel. It's clearly something you feel strongly about.

    04 Jun 2006, 12:18

  17. I have used Macromedia Captivate to provide narrated versions of powerpoint presentations, audio/animated/video multimedia tutorials, and MP3 short (<4 min) broadcasts all with great results. The classroom still plays a key part because socialisation is a critical element of the student and lecturers' experiences; group interaction is very important in all of my courses (and the example of the collaborative blog underlined some good issues I thought). But, all too often don't you find that you walk away from a lecture and sometimes even seminars and tutorials, not 100% sure what the lecturer's intent was? – especially if it relates to course assessments. So, I find that I can summarize the main learnings from lectures and respond to students' emails and questions with audio posts far more effectively (nuances of expression are very difficult to do in text alone).

    Thus, for me, the 'podcast' or audio file is a supplement (as commented earlier); can also be a great way to provide clarification, further enhancement or provide updated commentary. I am now looking to use video podcasts and interviews with practitioners (I teach business, or more specifically, supply chain management) so that a richer library of media is available for learning that broadens the opportunities for those of us who are more visual and auditory learners.

    In terms of whether this is IT for IT sake – I think it's no more pushing the technology onto students than the move from chalk to OHP to powerpoint. Good teaching makes most effective use of the tools available to improve learning. It may indeed move us to a more personalized education rather than production line education. Be many things, but don't be closed in your preparedness to innovate.

    Of course, learning is what students do outside of the classroom too…us lecturers merely manage and direct the learning process to a limited extent!!!

    04 Jun 2006, 17:50

  18. Sounds like a good idea to me. I'm sure the vast majority of students have skipped the odd 9 o' clock lecture. It would be handy to be able to catch up on it at your own convenience. There are also a few other advantages that spring to mind…

    If the students can download and store the lectures they don't have to frantically try and copy down examples given in the lectures (my notes were full of half–answers where I didn't have time to copy everything down). Also, if the lectures are pre–prepared, perhaps there could even be a bit more content i.e. the lecturer could take their time a bit more and possibly explain things a little clearer rather than rattling through the steps of an equation to finish the lecture on time.

    The obvious downside is the lack of interactivity between students and lecturers, although on the computer science course, there's not a great deal of that anyway – and if the allocated lecture slots were replaced with smaller group sessions, that seems like it would work really well

    05 Jun 2006, 02:55

  19. Juliette White

    One of the biggest constraints is probably that of timetabling – if a lecturer wants more contact hours with their students, there won't be any easy way of getting them at most universities. I suspect that this is partly what he means by freeing up time. There also syllabus constraints – you usually can't get through the syllabus thrust upon you in the contact time allocated if you don't teach at least slightly didactically. (Obviously these aren't necessarily constraints that you want to be there, but if you're trying to work within the system rather than change it, they are restrictions you have to deal with).

    09 Jun 2006, 09:30

  20. Bill Ashraf

    Thank you for your comments.

    I will visit again after the weekend and respond to your thoughts.

    Bill Ashraf
    University of Bradford

    09 Jun 2006, 13:04

  21. Anne Nortcliffe

    In relation to blog comment:
    "Experience generally suggests that it's awfully difficult to make an hour–long audio recording which holds the listener's attention effectively (though of course the same could be said of hour–long lectures)."

    In my experience and educational research indicates this true, students only access small segment of the audio or video recording of the lecture. [1][2][3] So one has to question why are we providing one audio file of the entire lecture, which is difficult to search for a single segment? At Sheffield Hallam I have been experimenting with providing audio lecture notes with the support from our learning technology support expert Andrew Middleton. Our definition of audio lecture notes is that the posting of audio clips from a lecture either recorded live or in isolation. These audio notes have been provide post lecture for one module and recycled used pre–lecture for another module. We were able to report last week at International Conference Education Developers at Sheffield that the initial results of providing audio lecture notes is proving to be interesting and has considerable merit, but there are number of issues still outstanding.[4] We were able to report our initial finding are proving to be interesting, in particularly the results of posting pre–lecture audio lecture notes, one it has not affected attendance (was still excellent) and lecture dynamics changed, to quote from two students who were avid pre–listeners;
    "Part from looking like a bit of a know it all in the lectures; it has been just like reading a book"
    “Initially it was to effectively listen before the lecture so you got idea what was to come within the lecture, also where things had not been entirely clear when going back through the notes later it has been a good tool to recap and to go through what had been said in the lecture again”

    However post–lecture listening should not be dismissed, to quote from one student feedback;
    "It was a different way to go over what had been covered in the lecture. Often just one phrase would remind you of something that had gone on in the lecture and that's all it took."
    From further discussions with the student he went on to clarify the statement "Often just one phrase would remind you of something that had gone on in the lecture and that's all it took", that it was not only a phrase, but a student voice, or door slamming, etc that would jolt a memory of something he had thought of in the lecture, was important to this module and failed to make note of that thought. Therefore this student found the audio recordings enabled him to revisit the contents of the lecture, but also revisit his own thought processes that had occurred during the lecture. Therefore the post audio lecture notes can provide another dimension for learning, which may be lost by cancelling the lectures.

    Therefore should we dismiss the lecture, or rather use audio lecture notes as an additional resource?

    1.Williams, J and Fardon, M “On demand internet transmitted lecture recordings: attempting to enhance and support the lecture experience”, Research Proceedings of ALT–C 2005: exploring the frontiers of e–learning – borders, outposts and migration, Manchester, UK, pp 153–161 2005
    2.Russell, P and Mattick, K, “Does streaming of a lecture result in empty seats”, ALT–C 2005: exploring the frontiers of e–learning – borders, outposts and migration, Manchester, UK, 2005
    3.Law, E, “Promoting understanding using a virtual learning environment”, International Conference on Engineering Education, Gliwice, Poland, volume 1, pp 806–811, 2005
    4.Fidler, A, Middleton, A., & Nortcliffe, A, “Providing added value to Lecture Materials to an ipod generation”, International Conference of Education Developers 2006, Sheffield, UK, 2006

    19 Jun 2006, 22:57

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