Enhancing Student Learning with Podcasting and Screencasting
David B. Miller, Ph.D.
Professor, Department of Psychology
University of Connecticut
Portable devices for media consumption became prominent in the 1950s and 1960s with the growing popularity of the transistor radio (Schiffer, 1991). Since then, there has been a cultural shift fostered by the invention of newer technologies such as the Sony Walkman in the 1980s, and in the current century, the Apple iPod and similar personal listening devices. A vast ecosystem of accessories that facilitate portability has co-evolved with these technologies (Darlin, 2006). While these devices were originally intended for listening to musical recordings, other media such as books, newspapers, magazines, movies, and podcasts have since gained popularity in the portable media market.
Podcasts are digital recordings that can be downloaded from the Internet or from another source, such as Apple’s iTunes Store, from which they are also available for subscription, usually at no cost. Once downloaded, they can be accessed directly on a computer or transferred to a portable digital media player, such as an iPod, iPhone, or any other mobile device capable of playing audio files. (Despite the name, “podcast,” one does not need an Apple “iPod” to use these digital recordings.)
When podcasts were first introduced around 2004, they were audio recordings. While this has remained the primary format, others have evolved. An “enhanced” podcast contains not only audio, but also a visual component, typically a series of static (i.e., no animations) Microsoft PowerPoint or Apple Keynote screens. Enhanced podcasts also contain a navigation menu. When accessed on a computer via iTunes, a new menu item appears called, “Chapters.” Clicking on this unfurls a list of “chapters,” along with a small visual icon, of each screen composing the podcast. Users can navigate to whichever chapter they want to hear, or can simply allow the podcast to play sequentially. Enhanced podcasts can be created in a variety of ways, but the most popular software packages are Apple GarageBand, which comes bundled with every Macintosh computer as part of the iLife software suite, and a shareware software package from Humble Daisy called ProfCast (http://www.profcast.com). For non-iTunes users, enhanced podcasts can be saved as .mov files playable on the Internet.
Finally, actual video podcasts have become more prevalent. They are best used only when a video component is essential, because video can greatly increase the file size depending on how it is encoded, its dimensions, and other factors. For example, if the university cancels class because of bad weather, I upload a video podcast of that day’s lecture to keep my class on schedule. In this case, video is essential. Some podcasts, such as speeches by notable individuals, are available either as audio-only or as video. The visual aspect is appealing in such cases, but the audio alone can suffice.
iCube: Issues In Intro
I began my first podcast series in the Fall of 2005, in connection with my 315-student General Psychology course. The main component of iCube: Issues In Intro is a weekly discussion of course material that I conduct with a small group of up to 20 students. The discussions, which typically last 40-50 minutes, are primarily student-driven (Sener, 2007). They ask questions and I respond. Nothing is scripted. These casual discussions take place in a seminar room near my office in which I set up eight microphones connected to an audio mixer, which, in turn, is connected to my laptop computer for capturing the audio.
Students who participate receive no extra credit for doing so. Some students return every week, and others stop by only a few times in the semester. Because I have to identify a time when both I and a seminar room are available, there are usually many students who would like to participate but cannot due to schedule conflicts. I encourage students to send in questions via email if they are unable to attend, and we address those items in the podcast.
The participants are highly motivated and willing to invest the extra time. Interestingly, the majority are not psychology majors, but many of them become very engaged in the course content via our podcast discussions and end up either switching majors, incorporating psychology as a double major, or pursuing a minor in psychology. As an added benefit, I’ve become the academic advisor of former podcast participants. In large classes, students and professors often have difficulty getting acquainted with one another, but podcasting greatly facilitates the kind of scholarly interactions that might otherwise not occur in large classroom settings. Having podcast participants as my advisees enables me to better serve them, and, of course, there are additional benefits to the students in terms of having at least one professor who can write somewhat detailed letters of recommendation in the years that follow.
Perhaps most importantly, these weekly discussions provide a means of personalizing the course, making it seem psychologically “smaller.” The large class sessions are lectures with minimal opportunity for discussion; but, students who participate in the podcast recordings have an opportunity to interact with me (and me with them) in a relatively informal context. Students who routinely listen to the podcasts also report of sense of having a more personal connection with me and with the student participants. While I prefer lecturing with computerized multimedia in my courses, podcasting provides an important means to incorporate active learning for those students seeking such an opportunity (McLoughlin & Lee, 2007).
In addition to the weekly discussion, there are two other components of iCube: Precasts and Postcasts. Precasts are short, enhanced podcasts (5-15 minutes long) that I record twice weekly (because I lecture twice each week). They’re intended to provide students with important points that I’ll cover in the next lecture. I also play the Precasts before class begins for students who arrive early, which gives them yet another way of accessing the material and also provides a mechanism for “setting up” the lecture that immediately follows.
The third component of iCube is the Postcasts, which I create sporadically. Postcasts are content modules that I record to clarify difficult concepts, or items that I feel I didn’t cover clearly in class. In recent years, I have uploaded video screencasts (see below) of full lectures to keep the class on track when school is cancelled.
iCube is accessible via iTunes for free subscription. As is the case with participating in the recording sessions, listening to the podcasts is entirely optional. I make it available as one of several course enhancements to aid in student learning.
Every semester, I add items to the University course evaluations to ascertain how many students are listening to iCube and whether they believe that these podcasts help them learn the material. Data gathered over the course of eight semesters starting in Fall 2005, indicate that approximately 40% of the class listen more than occasionally to the podcasts. Of that 40%, 76% of the students report that the podcasts enhance their learning. Most of the remaining 24% report that the podcasts were only marginally helpful. The reason that most of the non-listeners give for not accessing the podcasts is that they don’t feel they have enough time do so.
Animal Behavior Podcasts
In the Fall of 2006 (one year after launching iCube), I began a second podcast series for my upper-division Animal Behavior course. This course, which used to have a capacity of 50 students, now has a capacity of 150, and is also taught as a lecture. Among the 150 students, there are typically about 10 who are in the University Honors Program. Honors students at UConn may, with an instructor’s permission, convert a non-Honors course to obtain Honors credit. (Students in the upper-division Honors Scholars Program need 12 Honors credits to graduate with Honors, along with other requirements.)
My Animal Behavior Podcasts series provides an opportunity to earn Honors credit in this course. It’s based on the iCube discussion model, but Honors students who participate are expected to attend regularly. In these 40-50-minute sessions, we discuss animal behavior course content. Like iCube, these discussions are informal and are distributed on iTunes. In recent years, there have been about 14 Honors students each semester earning Honors credit by participating in these podcasts.
Interactive Discussion vs. Coursecasts
In higher education, podcasting gained popularity as a means of recording and distributing entire lectures (what I refer to as “coursecasts”). Lecture recording has been around at least since the invention of affordable, portable cassette tape recorders. Today’s coursecasts are much easier to distribute because of their digital format. At some universities, coursecasts can be created by any professor at the flick of a switch when they enter classrooms outfitted with recording equipment. But one wonders about the extent to which such ease of recording has been preceded by forethought regarding course enhancement.
Some professors fear students might skip class if coursecasts are readily available (Young, 2008). To minimize attendance problems, some professors who do coursecasting have developed counter-strategies, such as giving regular in-class assessments, recording only a portion of each lecture, waiting a week or longer before uploading the recordings, or even eliminating coursecasting altogether if attendance drops significantly.
My own experience at UConn with both General Psychology and Animal Behavior podcasts is that students not only view these podcasts as genuine enhancements over and above the classroom experience, but also that the podcasts help the students understand the material and become further engaged with course content. Nevertheless, coursecasting appears to dominate higher education podcasts (certainly those available via iTunes U).
Coursecasting can also be helpful on religious holidays when observant students will not be in class, and when weather conditions are not threatening enough to deter some (but not all) commuting students, yet not bad enough to result in cancelled classes. The result is that students who have legitimate reasons for being absent from a particular lecture will still have the opportunity to access the course content.
A major issue for coursecasting is the inclusion of copyrighted material in these distributed lectures. Materials that may have been used legally in a classroom through the “fair use” provision of the Copyright Law of the United States should not be distributed in downloadable podcasts. Instructors who record and then distribute lectures are legally required to edit out such materials prior to distribution. Unfortunately, some of the automated recording systems installed in lecture halls make this difficult because the files are immediately uploaded to a server. In situations where coursecasts are editable, instructors need to acquire expertise in editing as well as a willingness to devote the time for such post-production following each lecture. Thus, routine coursecasts not only have questionable value as an educational enhancement but also potentially have legal consequences.
Coursecasts might provide an enhancement if approached differently. For example, instead of recording in-class lectures, the actual course content could be delivered by recordings of the professor for students to access online on a regular basis. Class time could then be used for discussion, clarification, demonstrations, examples and applications that weren’t included in the recorded podcasts, and student presentations. Perhaps a better way to conceptualize the application of such media for classroom use is to use the term “coursecast” in reference to a recording of a live classroom lecture, and “screencast” as a recording intended to substitute for a live lecture, thereby providing a basis for what has come to be known as a “hybrid” or “flipped” course.
In a sense, a screencast can be viewed as an evolutionary advance relative to podcasts and coursecasts. Screencasts are dynamic in the sense that they are produced by recording all activity on one’s computer screen with added narration, edited with sometimes powerful post-production tools, and then exported as videos to be uploaded to the Internet for viewing. Software programs such as ScreenFlow (http://telestream.net) and Camtasia Studio (http://techsmith.com) offer powerful, but user-friendly interfaces for producing screencasts.
Screencasts can range from simple tutorials (e.g., instructions to be followed in a laboratory course), elaborations of points made in class, or even entire lectures and entire courses, as would be the case with a hybrid or flipped course.
In 2009, I used ScreenFlow to convert my large Animal Behavior lecture course to a hybrid course in which most of the content was delivered online via streaming video. Students were able to access the videos anytime on a password-protected server, and we met once weekly for discussion, questions, and additional course content not covered in the screencasts. The post-production editing tools enabled me to focus students’ attention on particular screen elements, which is not easily done in a live lecture. Additionally, students were able to pause the videos, replay parts if they so desired, and take thorough, high-quality notes.
The time that it took (well over 400 hours) to produce the screencasts paid off in terms of student engagement in course material and learning. Almost half of the class of 140 students earned course grades of “A,” and not a single student failed the course the first time it was offered in Fall 2009. It’s been offered in this format every Fall since then with similar results.
What is clear is that technology (podcasts, coursecasts, screencasts, and other innovations), when used properly, can serve as pedagogical enhancements. However, technology should not be used just for the sake of using it, or simply because it happens to be available. Pedagogy must always precede technology.
Darlin, D. (2006, February 3). The iPod ecosystem. The New York Times, C1.
McLoughlin, C., & Lee, M. J. W. (2007). Listen and learn: A systematic review of the evidence that podcasting supports learning in higher education. In: C. Montgomerie & J. Seale (Eds.), Proceedings of ED-MEDIA 2007 World Conference on Educational Multimedia, Hypermedia & Telecommunications (pp. 1669-1677). Vancouver, Canada, June 25-29, 2007.
Schiffer, M. B. (1991). The Portable Radio in American Life. Tuscon: The University of Arizona Press.
Sener, J. (2007). In search of student-generated content in online education. Retrieved February 15, 2013, from http://www.e-mentor.edu.pl/artykul/index/numer/21/id/467
Young, J. R. (2008). The lectures are recorded, so why go to class? The Chronicle of Higher Education, 54, A1.
David Miller is a Professor of Psychology, Associate Department Head, and Coordinator of Undergraduate Studies at the University of Connecticut at Storrs. He received his Ph.D. at the University of Miami in 1973, and his research has focused on animal behavior, both in the field and in the laboratory. He was a Postdoctoral Fellow at the North Carolina Division of Mental Health, where he did field research on parent-offspring auditory interactions of several avian species. In 1977, he became an Alexander von Humboldt Fellow at the University of Bielefeld (Germany) in the Department of Ethology and a participant in a nine-month interdisciplinary conference on “Behavioral Development in Animals and Man” at the Center for Interdisciplinary Research. He returned to the North Carolina Division of Mental Health in 1978 as a Research Associate, where he began a long series of studies on alarm call responsivity of mallard ducklings, which continued when he joined the faculty at the University of Connecticut in 1980. Beginning around 1990, his long-standing interest in the effective use of multimedia in the classroom expanded and has continued to evolve. He has received several awards for teaching excellence at the University of Connecticut and, in 1989, was the recipient of The National Psi Chi/Florence L. Denmark Faculty Advisor Award “for outstanding contributions to Psi Chi and psychology.” He received the high honor of University of Connecticut Teaching Fellow (1997–1998), and, in 1999, his work in multimedia instructional design and classroom implementation was recognized with the Chancellor’s Information Technology Award. In 2005, he received the University of Connecticut Alumni Association Faculty Excellence Award in Teaching at the Undergraduate Level, as well as the 2005–2006 University of Connecticut Undergraduate Student Government Educator of the Year Award. In 2007, he received the University of Connecticut Outstanding Student Advisement and Advocacy Award, and his efforts in podcasting were recognized by the national publication, Campus Technology
, which awarded him the 2007 Outstanding Innovator Award in Podcasting. In 2011, he received the Frank Costin Memorial Award from the National Institute on the Teaching of Psychology for promoting quality teaching methods, as illustrated in a poster on screencasting, and, in 2012, the Animal Behavior Society Distinguished Teaching Award. He has served on several editorial boards and was Editor-in-Chief of the scholarly journal, Bird Behavior
for 15 years. In recent years, Dr. Miller has devoted considerable time in creating computerized, multimedia versions of his animal behavior and introductory psychology courses. Multimedia production of university-level educational material is one of his foremost activities. His most recent multimedia project involved a major transformation of his Animal Behavior course into 90 screencast movies, an effort that was also featured in Campus Technology