File-osophy rules the podcast age

May 5, 2006

As US universities explore 'course-casting', Apple is trialling iTunes U, an academic annex to its successful music download service. Stephen Phillips listens in

Homework for Deb Reisinger's second and third-year French students at Duke University has a new twist this semester. The 95 students have been using fifth-generation Apple iPods, standard issue for the North Carolina campus's language students this academic year, to tune in to songs from Serge Gainsbourg, Edith Piaf and other Gallic icons between lectures.

The music isn't just background noise. Technology aboard the latest version of the media device displays lyrics as a song plays, which allows students "to work on sound-symbol correlation", explains Reisinger, acting director of Duke's French language programme.

Students have also been using the machine's new video capability to view clips of a performance of Jean-Paul Sartre's play No Exit as well as their own dramatic sketches. Reisinger credits the initiative with improving oral comprehension. "We're working harder, more often, and students seem to be enjoying it more."

It is not just a one-off project. Reisinger's students are guinea pigs in a larger initiative to create a free collegiate annex to Apple's iTunes store, the world's leading legal music download service. Over the past year, Duke, alongside Stanford University, Brown University, the University of Wisconsin, Madison, the University of Michigan School of Dentistry and the University of Missouri School of Journalism, has been piloting a prototype of the service, dubbed iTunes U. In January, Apple announced an extension to the trial, inviting applications from other US and Canadian higher education institutions.

A spokesman for Apple in California declined to say when iTunes U would be available worldwide, but officials at the "beta" sites say this could happen as soon as June. The service will offer campuses a platform to work with emerging consumer technologies such as audio-based podcasts and video-enabled "vodcasts", and integrate them into coursework. Instructors and students will be able to post multimedia files to iTunes U, hosted on Apple servers, and download them to personal computers, laptops, iPods or other portable devices.

Each institution will get its own iTunes U website, which will be password protected to restrict access to designated users and will be customisable with logos and colours. End users can set protocols for files, making them available to the whole class or an instructor alone. Nodding to its potential as a fundraising device, Stanford set up its own iTunes site last October. It is open to the general public, but alumni are its primary market. Stanford on iTunes, which sports the university's cardinal red colour, offers podcasts of layperson-friendly lectures with intriguing titles such as "Stress and coping: what baboons can teach us" and "Why zebras don't get ulcers".

For its part, Apple hopes to parlay its powerful franchise in higher education - a traditional stronghold for its Macintosh computers - into a compelling service that, not incidentally, is expected to contain a link to the money-spinning commercial iTunes site.

This proximity does not especially trouble Samantha Earp, Duke's iTunes U faculty liaison officer. "Faculty and students already use iTunes, and there's no requirement to buy anything," she says, noting that Duke and other campuses pay licence fees for course management systems such as Blackboard.

But Earp and others admit that there are faculty misgivings about the general advent of "course-casting", in which lectures are made available online. Some fear that audio files could reduce attendance, with students content to tune in online rather than turn out in person. At Michigan, dentistry students are using iTunes U to store podcasts of information-intensive lectures as a way to review material amid the steep learning curve many face during the four-year postgraduate course, according to Trek Glowacki, the project leader.

But officials elsewhere stress that iTunes U will be used mainly for activities that are an adjunct to lectures. In an effort to spark innovative podcasting at Wisconsin, officials at its flagship Madison campus recently made available 80 grants, at $800 (£457) each, to bankroll novel faculty suggestions. One proposal already funded is podcasts of birdsong for an ornithology course, says Jan Cheetham, the project leader.

But perhaps the most ingenious and potentially far-reaching idea for harried academics involves a proposal to capture student questions left on voicemail as MP3 audio files, to which staff would add their own recorded answers using an open-source editor called Audacity.

Meanwhile, at Missouri, journalism students have been asking and answering their own questions, honing reporting skills by recording mock interviews as podcasts for fellow students to pick apart.

"These kids are digital natives," says Keith Politte, the university's development officer. "We're trying to meet them where they already are."

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