Podcasting finds a place in education

IPods and MP3 players seem to be everywhere, their users easily recognized by the long, thin cords trailing between the ears and pocket.

Most of them are listening to digital music. But increasingly, they are also listening to podcasts, a web feed of audio or video content that is placed on the web for access by anyone with an internet connection.

Recently, podcasts have been finding new applications in schools and universities.

“Podcasting isn’t a replacement for in-classroom teaching: it is, however, an excellent supplemental study aid,” said Chris Dawson, CTO of Web Cast in a Box. “The option to review a lecture on an iPod, while in the car, on the train or on vacation, is something many students are interested in. Many already have iPods [or another MP3 player] and can listen to podcasts with very little effort.”

Schools and universities are beginning to use podcasting to archive and make available lectures and seminars. Bart Massey, professor of computer science at Portland State, is investigating podcasts for use in his own classes.

“This summer I’ll be teaching my open-source lab course as a telecourse, which means sending lectures likely to OSU and EOU, but also having some kind of virtual lab for the remote folks,” Massey said. Massey is considering podcasts as one possible solution.

The word “podcast” is a combination of “iPod” and “broadcast.” The iPod is Apple’s digital audio (and recently, video) player. When podcasting first took hold, the iPod was the sine qua non of digital music players. Today, many different types of audio/video players can be used for podcasting, yet the original name has stuck.

Podcasting is a step above internet streaming. When audio or video is streamed, a single piece of content is downloaded from a single web site on a single occasion. The user can save the streamed file to storage media, but in order to listen to or watch it, they must be connected to the internet.

Podcasts, on the other hand, offer the chance to subscribe to a regularly updated source of information. A user can download a podcast and can then listen to it later, at a time and place of their choice, and with no internet connection needed.

Streaming can be used to broadcast and transmit live content, while podcasts feature content that has already aired and been saved or archived, much in the way that radio and television broadcasts are archived after being aired.

Automated updates can ensure that users don’t miss a single episode of favorite podcasts. Students can also use podcasted materials for in-depth study of class content.

“You can review a podcast until your understanding is perfect, at whatever speed you want, rather than at the instructor’s speed, or the speed of your fellow students,” Dawson said.

The process has created its own lexicon. Podcasters are those who podcast, and the place where all podcasts meet is podworld, or the podosphere. Podcatchers are pieces of software that locate aggregate podcasts, download them and transfer them to an MP3 player or other end source.

Some sources refer to videocasting as vodcasting or vlogging. Podkey, a phonetic search engine for finding podcasts, debuted in 2004.

Creating one’s own podcast is easier than it sounds. All that is needed is a computer, a built-in or external microphone, an internet connection, and a web tool for podcasting, e.g., Audioblog.com, ClickCaster, Odeo or Podomatic. You may also need a podcasting service – an electronic agent to archive and broadcast your finished work. Some podcasting services are free; others are available at low cost, a la the longstanding example of Shareware.

“Podcasting is built on top of very standard technology,” Dawson said. “It uses MP3 files, which are the de-facto standard audio format on the internet, and it’s organized using XML, which is an open and standard form of information interchange. Podcasting is an open media system.”

Traditional broadcasters have begun to embrace the idea of podcasting. The BBC began podcasting in 2004 and continues the practice to date. National Public Radio (NPR), ESPN and CNN also podcast, as do many radio stations.

The legalities of podcasting are still evolving. While copyrighted music cannot be podcasted without permission of its creator, public libraries can podcast local publications without worry of copyright infringement, and politicians can use podcasting to avoid regulatory bodies and rules.

Apple’s iTunes music store has a dedicated podcast section, with thousands of podcasts available for free download. Users subscribe to the podcasts they’re interested in, and whenever they connect their iPod or MP3 player, the latest episodes are automatically downloaded.

A recent search for “Portland, Oregon” in the iTunes store yielded the following podcasters: the Portland City Club Friday Forum, the KBOO Bike Show, PDXBands, PDXBluescast, Personal Telco Project, The Bookcast at Powells.com, Portland Jazz Jams, Portland Stories, Big Time TV, Melissa Lim’s Media, Rose City in 60 seconds and Mr. Spooner’s 4th Grade class Live.

Podcast variations continue to surface. Podnography represents the intersection of podcasts and pornography, while Godcasting refers to podcasts used by churches to extend the reach of sermons, etc. Podmercials and poditorials introduce commercialism and commentary into the process.

Perhaps nowhere is the seriousness and importance of podcasting better demonstrated than this: the word “podcast” is slated to enter the New Oxford American Dictionary in mid-2006.