Using Podcasts in Large Lectures: Francie Chew

Phil Gay


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Interview Participants
I am one of the instructors who is in charge of the Biology Department’s introductory sequence, Biology 13/ 14. And we have been teaching the class for many years which has something like 300 to 400 students in it. So this is a large class. And it has many laboratory sections, but for the lecture part, it’s a large auditorium, Cohen Auditorium.
And for a long time we have been thinking about how to assist students to assimilate the lecture material more easily and to be able to go back and ask questions and so forth. Biology, of all of the sciences, is a particularly vocabulary laden science, and an English laden science. So not only the specialized vocabulary, but the particular way in which it’s put together
become very important in understanding what are the issues. So, we started video taping. Around about five years ago, Ross Feldberg found that there was some lovely software to make what is called a podcast. And a podcast, it’s actually an enhanced podcast. So a podcast which just be the audio file, but the enhanced podcast is an audio file that is synchronized with the slides that the viewer is showing.
So you can actually put it into your computer, put your computer up on the projector, have it project on the big screen, and your micced up, and out the other end comes this wonderful product, podcast enhanced, in which the students can access slides as well as hear your voice over and they can go back to the specific part of the lecture that they feel a little confused by.
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If usage fails once a semester, so we tell students that it is still a work in progress, it is not guaranteed, we have not given them permission to take the course remotely, which is to say to sign up for another course in the time slot and come to us only when we’re doing exams. Students have asked, that permission has been denied. It is not a technology without the need for support.
You will have a difficult time. I think, did I have to do all of this myself? Cart the computer down to Cohen auditorium, set it up in advance, cart the computer back, all of that, you know, and it has to be synched with the projector in Cohen auditorium and so forth. It would be a very difficult for one person to do, you actually need a dedicated tech person.
We use in our lectures and we embed in them an opportunity to do quizzes and if you’re not there at the lecture you miss out on this. So there are actually things that we do in class that we view as absolutely essential. We post our slides to Blackboard the night before. So students download those, they come to class with a set of printed slides and places for taking notes.
We don’t give the answers away until we’re actually in class and, you know, there we are. So you can get them afterwards, but you have to wait until afterwards. I often, before I introduce the concept of “a normal curve” which we talk about in relation to models of natural selection. One of the things I do is a class survey on birth weights and you have to be in class in order to participate in that.
And I start out asking how many people were of which weight. And people get to see the normal curve form with a population of 2 or 300 people before they actually see the data. So, things like that I think are very valuable as a way to use the large classroom for instructional purposes. I also do a, we pass out little slips of paper, different colors, and we use this as an example of sampling error.
And we have people, we get people to calculate the fractions of people that have blue slips, yellow slips, red slips, and green slips. But, it doesn’t become concrete for you until you see the ten people in the corner hold up their slips and you realize that their particular ratios of those colors are widely different from the class average.
So, you have to be in class to see that. We then take that file and post it to a site called Spark, which is spark.uit.tufts.edu, and students access it through Spark. They are able also to subscribe to it, so it comes to their iTunes account and they can download it. And although there are podcasts which are public, ours is not public. You have to have a Tufts password in order to gain access to it.
But anybody in the Tufts community who has a Tufts user ID and password could actually gain access to it. I think some of the opportunities that we have more recently taken advantage of include being able to put quiz questions up in advance, but not give the answers. We’ve learned not to give the answers on the version that the students download
but to withhold them until we’re actually in live lecture. We can also with the technology now, embed videos, which is really a lot of fun. Some of the vulnerabilities include that we have to be very fluent with what we actually give in lecture, and we have to be very very careful if we correct ourselves because otherwise a student who hears the earlier version and then
doesn’t go back and listen to the later version is going to get the wrong message and we don’t want that to happen, so when that happens we usually have to mark the episode with some kind of a comment on our announcement section of Blackboard and say “Be aware that this particular issue is discussed in two places on this podcast and one of them is wrong.”
The sort of question that we used to get a lot of in review session which was, “When you talked about x, you said y. Can you repeat that please?” That kind of question almost no longer exists, because the students just go back and they know to go to the specific part of the podcast and review that.
And I have no hesitation these days if I get a question like that, to say “I’ll give you the very brief synopsis of it now. If you want the more detailed version, please go back to the podcast.” And since they have no trouble finding it, it’s right there. There’s no excuse for them not to do it. We get as a result better student questions, more thoughtful student questions.
Questions that suggest they’ve actually reviewed the material, mulled it over, maybe talked it over with a friend of theirs and that actually have insight, and I think that is very rewarding to observe. Many of them tell me that they actually find the podcast extremely useful. Now one of the ironies of this is that students have gone from taking notes,
and a really good condensed set of notes, to simply listening to podcasts. And as I like to emphasize to them, you can listen to the podcast all you want, and it’s a very good way of putting information in your mind. It’s also a very good way of distracting yourself with the information that is wonderful to listen to,
like Professor Bernheim’s jokes, but it’s really not relevant to what you need to study. What you really need to study is to prepare yourself a study guide and an outline. And so, in some ways the podcasts have been a distraction that I would say net benefit over all, 99% on the plus side.
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