Educational technology the easy way

Coursework podcasted with automation

Capture ScreenThe computer interface that launches the iTunes U lecture capture is simple – push any one of four buttons depending on what you want to capture. Instructors must use Apple operating system to send data to iTunes U.

Most educators agree that making coursework available to students through podcasting improves learning. The problem is that instructors must devote significant work time in creating the audio files, videos and other instructional materials to be shared.

To simplify the creation and posting of online materials, the University of Missouri, significantly represented by the College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources, is finishing a beta test of technology making online course creation almost as easy as launching an application. It takes advantage of a second generation of Apple’s iTunes U, an educational offshoot of the company’s popular iTunes entertainment platform.

Apple’s iTunes U operates much like the company’s iTunes service. Instead of downloading movies and music, users obtain and play educational-content files ranging from class lectures to laboratory experiments.

The MU enhancement of this service, being tested with spring 2009 courses, simplifies the way that instructors create and post their materials, said Marc Strid, CAFNR’s program director of educational technologies. Currently, he noted, instructors wanting to podcast have to be masters in video and audio editing, photo editing and PowerPoint. Then, they have to be technically savvy enough to weave these materials into a coherent presentation that is compatible with users’ computers.

Click here to podcast

Mizzou on iTunes UThe University of Missouri header on the iTunes webpage.

Using Apple’s second-generation capture technology and iTunes U, the new process mostly eliminates those steps, Strid said. With the software being tested, the instructor merely dons a lapel microphone to pick up the audio, opens a browser Web page, presses one or more of four buttons to indicate the type of resource to be captured, and then launches into the lecture. The capture software automatically recognizes anything projected via a computer in class, converts it into appropriate files, brings in the audio, and saves everything as one podcast in the appropriate place in iTunes U. If the instructor feels ambitious, a digital video camera can be added to the capture process.

Students who missed the classroom lecture, or want to hear the lecture again, go to the iTunes U site, open the appropriate course page and download the material. Any computer that can play the popular iTunes entertainment files will work. Students need no training if they already are downloading music. As iTunes is already set up for the popular personal communications devices that students use, iTunes U files are almost universally playable.

The new technology also allows teachers to create even more educationally dense materials at their office desks. The instructor can shuffle movies, photos, illustrations, text and animations into a supplemental podcast without the need for multiple software programs. The software also allows the instructor to underline important text or draw circles in synch with the lecture, just like on a conventional blackboard.

There are many advantages to making things easy, Strid related. It allows instructors to devote more time to students and content and less to fiddling with the technology.

Either on the leading edge, or bleeding edge, of the MU effort is CAFNR which has the largest presence on the Mizzou iTunes U platform. Eight major areas of the college, including hotel and restaurant management, agricultural education, food science, agricultural economics, and parks, recreation and tourism, have materials available. A dozen instructors with about 20 course sites are operational.

An enhanced learning experience

Jan DauveMiss a class lecture? No problem if the instructor captured the class with a video camera and posted the information as a podcast. Jan Dauve, associate professor in agricultural economics, uses video to capture information that he writes on an overhead projector.

The advantages to students are many, Strid said. Podcasts are available 24/7. Students can review materials as many times as needed to attain proficiency. They can study where and when they wish to, watching particular pieces again if something wasn’t understood the first time.

Instructors can use the best communication medium – be it video, audio or photos – to effectively communicate the material. In an age of tight budgets, a lab experiment recorded once is cheaper than a live demonstration for each class.

iTunes U features a subscription RSS (Really Simple Syndication) service which allows the automatic downloading of materials. Students sign up for feeds within iTunes U by clicking on a button – the course material automatically downloads when posted.

Part of the beta test will gather preliminary information about what works and what doesn’t work, Strid says. “We don’t exactly know where this could go,” he noted. “Students have grown up with digital technology and take it for granted in a way that we who grew up with books and 50-minute classroom lectures may not appreciate.”

Strid said instructional delivery is not limited to instructors talking to students. Creating a 21st-century version of the term paper, students can research and make presentations to be submitted for a grade or share with fellow students. Such peer-to-peer work is known to be an effective educational tool but one waiting for an easy-to-use and universally compatible presentation vehicle. Podcasting via iTunes U may be such an answer.