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February 1, 2007

Why Many Profs Don't Podcast Lectures – A Response

In this post Anupam Chander raised four points exploring why more faculty are not podcasting. I would like to respond to each of those points as a way of expanding the discussion. Most of what I know about podcasting in law schools comes from the experience of developing, implementing, and supporting the Classcaster blogging and podcasting network for CALI. I will draw on that experience in responding to Anupam's points. I will also propose a use case for podcasting that some may find interesting.


First, the benefits may not be obvious. After all, most students do attend the lectures, few students likely have the time or inclination to replay them online.

Yes, the benefits of podcasting are not obvious, in part because there are few examples to demonstrate the benefits. It took the incentives offered as part of the Legal Education Podcasting Project (LEPP) to prime the pump of Classcaster. Getting faculty to podcast courses requires demonstrating the benefits to students. Most students do attend the lectures, but they do find the time to access the recorded lectures. We surveyed students of LEPP faculty last spring and asked them if they used the podcasts. 38.4% of the students responding indicated they listened to most or all of the podcasts and another 14.5% of the students listened to 6 to 10 of the course's podcasts. About 25% downloaded the podcasts to listen on an MP3 player or iPod or burn to a CD. The comments collected from the survey generally indicated that students found the recordings useful and they found ways to make listening to the podcasts fit into their schedules.

Course podcasts need not be recordings of the lectures. A number of faculty record 10 – 15 minute summaries of the material covered in the class. These highlight the important parts of the lecture and are useful as a supplement.

Second, will podcasting just encourage absenteeism? There may be little reason to attend lecture if one can simply get it off the web while still wearing pajamas (and surfing on a laptop in bed wirelessly).

Our experience with Classcaster indicates that making recordings available does not promote absenteeism. Anecdotally, faculty using podcasts are not seeing any drop in attendance. Many do take attendance and enforce their schools policies on missing classes. About 80% of the students replying to the question in the survey indicated that they attended courses with podcasts as regularly as other courses. Students tend to use the recordings as a way of clarifying what they are learning, a supplement for the course, not a replacement for the lecture. What better study aid to provide for your students than your own words on a subject.

Third, posting a lecture may hamper class discussion. Perhaps a controversial discussion about sexual crimes, or abortion, or limits on free speech, or limits on freedom of contract might become somewhat stilted if a student realizes that his or her statements are being recorded for posterity. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton may be grateful that we don't have audiotapes of all their in class comments while they attended law school. Most likely that such a recording would demonstrate yet again their formidable talents, but yet, public scrutiny of law school classroom dialog seems unwarranted.

This is a very big concern. The answer is that recording classroom lectures for podcasts is not always appropriate or desirable. Recording of classes works well for lectures that are primarily the professor speaking. It doesn't work well for most seminars, or classes that are discussion driven. There are considerable technical difficulties with recording a whole classroom. Sensitive subjects are also problematic. For example a professor teaching family law wanted to podcast the course but discovered early in the first lecture that the subject matter of the discussions in class was quite frank and personal. The recorder was turned off and the course was not podcast. Podcasting is just one tool and like any tool, it has it uses.

Most professors announce their intention to record and podcast a class at the beginning of the first session. I have heard a number of faculty ask for objections after informing students that their in class comments would be recorded. I have not heard any objections from students. Faculty recording lectures generally report no drop in either the quantity or quality of student in class comments. Indeed, I had an email exchange with a student who was concerned with the quality of audio of a particular podcast. Seems he couldn't quite hear himself giving some lengthy rely to a faculty question and was there anything I could do to boost the level of his voice.

Fourth, professors may worry that their teaching style or content may be second guessed by others.

A valid worry. Faculty have reported listening to other, more senior faculty's lectures to get tips and listening to their own lectures for self-evaluation purposes. Students have reported listening to other faculty lectures to help work through some point that they were not getting from their professors podcast and listening to podcasts from professors at other schools as a study aid. One faculty member keeps the podcasts behind a password because other faculty teaching other 1L sections do not want their students listening to those lectures. Podcasting lectures exposes the most intimate part of your teaching to the world, so you have to be comfortable and confident in what you do and ready to take what this exposure brings.

A use case for podcasting

All this really focuses on the notion of recording full in class lectures for podcasting. That is just one possibility. Right now on Classcaster faculty from over 50 schools are podcasting a variety of things. Some podcast full lectures. Others record class summaries. Some do weekly summaries. Some add interviews and guest podcasts. Most do exam review podcasts (very popular). Some mix and match these different formats depending on the course being taught. All of these formats work and it would not be difficult for a professor to find a format that fits into their style of teaching.

There is another use for podcasting that is being explored more and more at the undergraduate level that I think may be a good for law: the use of podcast lectures as class preparatory material. The give and take of the Socratic method is a mainstay of legal education. Law professors enjoy engaging students in these discussions that are aimed at bringing the student to understanding the nature of the law. Yet, this is a difficult task. Required reading often needs some elaboration through lecture to bring the student to a base level needed to begin discussing the concepts. And there are only 50 minutes! Podcasting offers some assistance here.

Imagine recording the lecture part of the class before the class is held. 20 – 30 minutes of lecture to be listened to before attending class. Then the in class time is focused on discussing and expanding the concepts raised in the recorded lecture. The expanded time for discussion means engaging more students at greater depth. A richer discussion will follow allowing students to get more from the class. Students will appreciate the higher level of engagement and will quickly learn that they do need to listen to the lectures before attending class.

Using the tools provided by Classcaster, a professor could experiment with this approach for a few classes. If anyone out there wants to give it a try, I'd be more than happy to help out in any way I can.

I hope this response helps further the discussion over the use of podcasting legal education.


Elmer Masters – blogged with Word 2007

February 1, 2007 in Technology -- in the classroom | Permalink


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Thanks, Elmer, for a quite cogent rebuttal of the concerns I raised earlier. There clearly is a time and a place for podcasting. I especially appreciate the various creative suggestions for podcasting as an adjunct to classroom discussion--rather than simply a duplication of it.

I have in fact use podcasting myself previously. Stanford Law School has superb facilities for recording class lectures--and indeed I used these facilities in Spring 2004 when I visited there. The podcasts proved especially popular when the L.L.M. students in my class could not attend a class because they were going to a job fair in New York. I did not look at download statistics to see whether other classses were reviewed.

I note a few things from that experience that moot some of my earlier concerns. First, the podcasts were not made available publicly--but were only available on the class website, which could be accessed through a password. I do not recall now whether the password was available to all Stanford Law Students, or only those registered for the course. Second, perhaps because these materials were not publicly available, no student offered any hesitation about the podcasting. Students instead saw it as a service for them--which was my intention.

Posted by: Anupam Chander | Feb 6, 2007 9:14:06 AM

There are a number of fairly excellent points raised in regards to the merits of podcasting in that post. After all, it is one of the ways that the much touted advances in technology can enhance the learning experience. Podcasts themselves are a very convenient form of access to class material; students can listen to them while doing a myriad of other daily activities.

If applied outside of the law school student population, I have doubts about whether the second point in regards to absenteeism would be true because it appears that many students would forego the class altogether if they could readily access essentially all of the material (minus the visual content) online via a podcast. This is especially evident with larger class sizes (at least 150), where students believe that absenteeism would not be noticed anyway. This would be true if only one student was missing--but for every student who does not attend the lecture, there are probably at least a few others who have similar thoughts. This may also be more pronounced when paper due-dates are near. Podcasts inevitably make class a little more expendable in the eyes of the student. Anyhow, I will leave that matter for another discussion.

I wanted to mention that I have had some experience with that latter format of utilizing podcasts or other video recordings as something to be viewed before class. This was one of the primary means of delivering course content in a bioethics course, a pioneering distance education effort that attempted to draw on the expertise and experience of an entire health authority, which spanned a radius of at least 100 kilometers (with many substantially sized municipalities including Vancouver). This was interspersed with monthly full day workshops. Of course, in an academic setting, the classes would be more frequent than this, but that is not really relevant to my point. A higher frequency of workshops would have been nearly impossible for most individuals to accommodate in his or her schedule, as all of them were employees and many of them were managers or in a similar capacity.

The general format of the class involved reading over the material and watching lectures provided on DVDs in regards to each of the topics prior to weekly discussions of about 2 hour duration via teleconferencing (led by a professor who had expertise in that area). The DVDs contained a lecture (often by a guest lecturer from a variety of well-known ethics centres) about the core material of that week's topic. Hence, the "lecture" part was provided prior to these teleconferences. To illustrate my point, I will consider teleconferencing as analogous to classroom situations. People were actively encouraged to give their input and opinions (often from their personal experiences in different fields of the health care system) regarding various ethical issues. As a participant, I really felt that the lectures that we were required to view prior to the teleconference ensured that people had a similar focus and knew the bare essentials of the materials to be discussed.

The teleconferences themselves were reserved for active debate of issues. Often, the discussions started out with people giving their opinions about the lecture material (ie. all the concrete concepts and examples) provided on the DVD. This then led naturally into a guided exploration of various issues and dilemmas--often with very specific cases proposed by the participants in the teleconference. In many cases, the conversation itself was self-propagating, and little intervention was needed by the coordinator/professor in charge, except for interjecting with the odd question asking for clarification or a few other pertinent points/special cases for consideration. I appreciated the teleconferences greatly since they brought a whole level of added dimension and depth to the topics. The discussions were very thought-stimulating, and a much higher level of engagement was obtained than if the coordinator of the teleconference spent (or essentially wasted) time presenting lecture material. That being said, of course there was time to review certain topics with which students had some difficulties or needed additional clarification.

There were, however, a few issues with such a format. One of them was the sense of runaway discussions, where it seemed that the discussion wasn't really going anywhere. All of the core ideas had been presented on the DVD, so there wasn't much incentive for the professor to keep the discussions on track and to ensure that they were of reasonable length. I can say that there were quite a few occasions where we did not have an opportunity to address a few of the issues that were supposed to be dealt with during that teleconference (due to time constraints). However, this can easily be remedied by a professor who keeps in back of his/her mind a rough breakdown of how much time needs to be devoted to each topic. The coordinator, in some cases, seemed not to be cognizant of the concepts that needed to be covered as he or she became completely involved in discussions about certain topics, and there was no longer much of a sense of duty that such topics needed to be explored since that, in a sense, had already been done on the DVD. Inevitably, the use of guest lecturers contributed to this disjointedness, but the potential for missing some key areas still exists.

Second, it is quite difficult to draw an arbitrary line between what is "lecture" material and what is to be left for the discussions. In fact, segregating the two goes against practicing an integrated curriculum in which concepts and models are continually linked to discussions and cases in which the application of such concepts may have been problematic. This factors into the professors' choice of what to include and what not to include in their podcasts. A significant point of discussion that may momentarily cross the professors' mind when he or she is explaining the concepts on the podcast may fail to be brought up at all when there is an "open forum" model since the lecturer is no longer asked to go through the process of presenting "lecture" material. One may inadventently stumble across a few more arguably important issues while presenting than if one lets the discussion flow by the process of free conversation and exchange of ideas.

Anyhow, both of the issues mentioned above can be resolved by careful management of the discussion and not getting too carried away (which is often difficult, especially with topics about which professors have special academic interests or if a student brings up a view at odds with the professors' belief system). Podcasting definitely has a place in making more effective use of classroom time --and making it more engaging and memorable.

Posted by: Odell Pui | Feb 14, 2007 6:16:48 AM

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