The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Patrick Jackson in the headlines

October 28, 2005

In my post on Stanford’s iTunes store, I mentioned that Patrick has always been on the cutting edge of integrating technology into the classroom. Well, Patrick’s just been featured prominently in a Chronicle for Higher Education story on the costs and benefits of podcasting (subscription only). Here are some key excerpts:

Lectures on the Go
As more colleges use ‘coursecasting,’ professors are split on its place in teaching

Take your typical college student — bright, curious, but probably a bit sleep-deprived and short on attention span. Stick that student in a lecture hall with a professor droning on for 50 minutes about macroeconomics or teleology. Then give the student a laptop with wireless access to the Internet, which lets him or her furtively chat with friends via instant-messenger software.

What you have is a situation in which a professor’s teachings do not completely sink in, says Patrick Thaddeus Jackson, an assistant professor of international relations at American University. That scenario is all too familiar to Mr. Jackson, who aptly describes his speaking style as “blitzkrieg speed” and his students as voracious consumers of technology. But the professor says he no longer worries, as he once did, that pieces of his lectures will slip through the cracks. And for that, he credits a technology known as podcasting.

Podcasting allows anyone with a microphone and an Internet connection to create audio files that others can download automatically to their iPods or similar digital-audio players. Listeners can download the files one at a time, or they can subscribe to a podcast and have a series of recordings transferred to their players whenever they hook the devices up to their computers. Podcasts allow students to go over passages while, for example, working out at the gym or jogging to lunch.

More and more professors, including Mr. Jackson, are turning to the technology to record their lectures and send them to their students, in what many are calling “coursecasting.” The portability of coursecasting, its proponents say, makes the technology ideal for students who fall behind in class or those for whom English is a second language. And some advocates say that coursecasting can be more than just a review tool, that it can also enliven classroom interaction and help lecturers critique themselves.

But many professors remain wary of the technology. Critics suggest that it will lead to empty classrooms or serve as a crutch for late-sleeping students, and some worry about coursecasting’s intellectual-property implications. Still, the ubiquity of iPods on campuses suggests that the idea has a future. “One of the things you do by podcasting is participate in student culture,” Mr. Jackson says, arguing that college students are more likely to show up for class if they think a professor is speaking their language. “Students already have this stuff. Why not let them use the things?”

Skipping the Library

Mr. Jackson laid out his broader vision of coursecasting last month at a daylong seminar run by American that drew more than 50 professors. The technology, he suggested, could help them turn the entire campus into a classroom. Are your students having trouble following your lectures? Podcast your classes, he said, and students can review them at their leisure. Are your class sessions heavy with information and light on discussion? Make students listen to a podcast before class, and they will show up ready to converse. He is hardly the only coursecasting proponent. Duke University — which last year handed out iPods to every incoming freshman — played host to its own conference on coursecasting a week before American’s….

Students might not take the time to listen to course recordings if they have to sit at a computer (or, worse yet, a library carrel) to do so, he says. But give them the option of reviewing while they are doing laundry or waiting for a bus, and they might just take you up on it. “Everybody knows that when you say something in class, the first time, not everybody is paying attention,” Mr. Jackson says. “But if you make your lecture available as a podcast, students can relisten to troublesome passages, and it’s easy for them to slow things down.”

That makes the technology especially useful for students whose native language is not English, some professors say. And it gives students without backgrounds in certain topics a chance to catch up with more experienced peers, according to Linda Herkenhoff, an adjunct assistant professor in the graduate business program at St. Mary’s College, in California….

But if students are relying on the podcast for information, some professors ask, will they even bother showing up for class in the first place? Skeptics argue that for all of the theoretical justifications for the technology, coursecasting may end up serving chiefly as an excuse for students predisposed to skip lectures. “When I talked about this with my colleagues, the first thing they all said was ‘well, no one’s going to go to class,'” says G. Marc Loudon, a professor of medicinal chemistry at Purdue who has posted lectures for students as both audio and video files. Mr. Loudon offers a fairly unsympathetic rejoinder to those concerns: “If a podcast can capture everything you do in class, you deserve to have nobody coming.” ….

Death of the ‘Sage’

The threat of empty lecture halls is not the only reason to be wary of coursecasting, some professors say. Richard Smith, a lecturer in instructional technology at the University of Houston-Clear Lake, hosts a weekly podcast on scholarship and education. But he is not convinced that the technology can revitalize pedagogy — because, he says, there is little evidence that recorded lectures will hold students’ interest. “Podcasts are basically just radio shows, and like radio shows, they have to be entertaining to get people to keep coming back,” Mr. Smith says. “I don’t think most professors, no matter how good they are in the classroom, can avoid being boring as hell when they’re recorded.”

And some professors could not care less about whether they have star quality outside the lecture hall, according to Mr. Loudon, of Purdue. “There’s a group of faculty who feel like the class itself should be the kernel of what students should know,” he says, “and they want their lectures to begin and end in that environment.”

But that, according to Mr. Jackson, is a shortsighted view. Students reared on iPods and the Internet do not come to class expecting to sit through an hourlong lecture, he says. Instead, they want to gather information on their own terms and spend their class time in discussion, not rapt attention. “The ‘sage on the stage’ is dying, if not dead already,” Mr. Jackson says. “Faculty members are no longer privileged sources of knowledge, so our job should be to get people to think critically and independently about things.”

Coursecasting, he says, can help that process along. In Mr. Jackson’s own courses, he has put lectures online as podcasts and asked students to listen to them before they come to class, a technique he refers to as “distance learning with a twist.” “Think about how much classroom time you would save if you didn’t have to lecture anymore,” Mr. Jackson says. “You free up all this interactive personal space between you and your students. It changes the classroom experience.”

The “decentered classroom,” as Mr. Jackson calls it, can be unsettling for students who are not eager to let the lecture-hall experience bleed into their free time. But, say a handful of professors, it saves valuable classroom time. Richard Edwards, an assistant professor of communication at St. Mary’s College, is building a course around a series of 30-minute podcasts about film-noir classics that he and a colleague had made. Students will listen to the podcasts and then elaborate on Mr. Edwards’s talking points in class. “Instead of having to run through all of our thoughts on Double Indemnity,” Mr. Edwards says, “we can actually start our discussion in the 31st minute, in media res, without setting up the movie for everyone.” ….

Volume 52, Issue 10, Page A39
Copyright © 2005 by The Chronicle of Higher Education

I’ve known Patrick for nearly ten years; during that time he’s always been on the intellectual vanguard of teaching strategies. I’m glad to see he’s getting some major recognition.

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Daniel H. Nexon is a Professor at Georgetown University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. His academic work focuses on international-relations theory, power politics, empires and hegemony, and international order. He has also written on the relationship between popular culture and world politics.