UC Berkeley News


Are you listening to me?!
Podcasting technology doesn't just make courses available to students anytime, anywhere. The doors of Berkeley's classrooms are now open to an eager audience of listeners worldwide

| 27 April 2006

As Nancy Amy walks around campus and sees students plugged into their iPods, she thinks, "They could be listening to me," she confesses with a laugh. Amy, an associate professor of nutritional sciences and toxicology, doesn't front a band in her off-hours - she's participating in a pilot program to podcast one of her courses this semester.

iPods in blue and gold?
iPods in blue and gold? Further extending its curricular reach to the iPod generation, this week the campus announced "Berkeley on iTunes U," a free service that makes video and audio recordings of a growing number of course lectures available both on and off campus through Apple Computer's iTunes Music Store. The agreement brings the campus's multimedia assets under one UC Berkeley-branded media gateway. To access "Berkeley on iTunes U," visit itunes.berkeley.edu.

"I do anything I can to make the information learnable, relevant, and interesting," she explains, a commitment borne out by her track record as an early adopter. Amy began webcasting NS 10, an introduction to human nutrition, five years ago. Such innovations, she's found, go over well with her students, who recently reported on mid-term evaluations that they appreciate and value the class webcasts and podcasts.

Amy is among 30 faculty members who have agreed to clip on a microphone in class so that their courses' audio can be recorded and then posted online. The 750 students who fill Wheeler Hall twice a week for NS 10 can access the course's MP3 files via webcast.berkeley.edu or, more recently, through "Berkeley at iTunes U" (see box at right). By subscribing to an RSS feed for selected courses, they can download new postings to their handheld audio devices or computers.

Even the questions students ask in the class are audible on the podcast, because Amy repeats student queries before responding. Though Amy does cite some drawbacks to podcasting - the slides she uses to illustrate the ravages of various diseases aren't visible in the audio format (though they can be reviewed on the course website) - she's a fan of the technology.

Breaking new ground

Obadiah Greenberg, product manager of webcast.berkeley.edu, has long envisioned podcasts as a natural extension of the coursecasting that Educational Technology Services (ETS) had launched five years ago. "I've been a bit messianic about podcasting," admits Greenberg, who says the new format breaks new ground on many different fronts. Podcasting is a push technology, explains Greenberg, meaning that it's a form of distribution to which people subscribe. The fact that subscribers can listen to downloaded content on a portable device - as opposed to being tethered to a computer while the lecture streams over the web - is also a huge breakthrough, he says.

The hard work of ETS's Obadiah Greenberg (top) makes course podcasts by faculty like Nancy Amy available not just to Berkeley students but to a wide, and growing, off-campus listenership.(Wendy Edelstein photos)

"We're making this content freely available to the public. They can't sell it, but they can freely use it." Such flexibility, Greenberg says, facilitates discussion, sharing, and collaboration anytime, anywhere. "I've never in my short career been able to jump in on a technology when it was so new and helped to apply it on a scale like this," he says with more than a little excitement and pride.

This semester's pilot podcast program is undeniably ambitious - 100 hours of lectures are being podcast each week, from courses as diverse as Existentialism in Literature and Film, Animal Behavior, Introductory Physics, and an undergraduate colloquium on political science. Many of the courses, like Nancy Amy's, are already being webcast, while a dozen others are only podcast. Some of the latter come from disciplines that had not been part of Berkeley's coursecasting before this spring - history, philosophy, economics, art practice, geography, political science, and environmental science, policy, and management - a development Greenberg attributes to the fact that participating is low-cost to free.

Visitors to Berkeley on iTunes U will find podcast offerings in three main categories: courses, events, and campus life. Courses are divided into broad academic areas - arts and humanities, physical sciences, and engineering, for example - that lead to specific courses once visitors drill down a level. Events, long a mainstay of webcast.berkeley.edu, are broken into topic areas, including arts, journalism and media, science and technology, global affairs, and politics and public policy. The offerings in the campus life area are scanty at the moment, though audio walking tours of the campus, narrated by guides from the Visitor Center, are now available.

Minor misgivings

Ann Kring, associate professor of psychology, has noticed the 160 students in her clinical-psychology course using the course's podcasts in different ways. Those students who miss class catch up by listening to the podcast. "More importantly, students who attend class can listen to the lecture again to help the material solidify," says Kring, who has noticed another benefit to her podcasts. "I tend to talk really rapidly, and it's hard for students to both listen to me and take notes. So they have the option of listening to the lecture again, if they can't get it all down the first time."

Though Kring was surprised by how popular podcasting is with her students and considers it a great teaching tool, she has misgivings about making her lectures available to the general public. "Anybody in the world can get onto the website and get that podcast," she says. "Students here pay for that content, while the rest of the world can get it for free. It somehow seems not quite right."

Kring also feels that the audience outside of her Berkeley lectures might lack the context of students learning the material as psychology majors. "Because I talk about mental illness, perhaps I'm more sensitive about the material being misinterpreted or me being misquoted," Kring says. She adds that as both a teacher and a researcher she's committed to trying to reduce the stigma associated with mental illness. "I just don't want the material misconstrued," she explains. Reservations aside, Kring most likely will podcast her course in future semesters, though she's eager to learn why the campus decided to make the audio of courses available for free.

The whole world's listening

When he started podcasting his course this semester, history professor Thomas Laqueur began receiving e-mails from as far away as Israel, Mexico, and Zurich about his lectures on European Civilization From the Renaissance to the Present. "That makes me feel a certain weightiness, though I don't mean to sound pompous about it," says Laqueur. "It's not like I'm enlightening the heathen, but it does give you the sense of having a broader international audience."

Such an audience is a welcome development, says Christina Maslach, vice provost for undergraduate education and instructional technology, who oversees ETS. "Berkeley faculty have always been engaged in the production and global dissemination of new knowledge. With the emergence of podcasting, we now have an exciting new vehicle to deliver our rich intellectual content to alumni, parents, the California public, and the international community."

Laqueur is far from alone in attracting an external audience to Berkeley lectures. "We get love letters every day from around the world," says Greenberg. "People who may not have been thinking about Berkeley before are now auditing classes and thinking about Berkeley every day." As ETS executes its plans to install technology in nine additional classrooms over the summer and to podcast many if not all campus events, it's a good bet the audience will continue to grow.

To learn about Berkeley's podcast courses and events, visit webcast.berkeley.edu and itunes.berkeley.edu.