UTS tags podcasting as future teaching tool

The University of Technology, Sydney could be anything but, students say
  • Liz Tay (Computerworld)
  • 07 June, 2007 09:47

In response to student demand for more flexible learning options, the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS) is investigating the use of online technologies to supplement, or replace, lectures of the future.

The issue was discussed at a UTS Student Forum this week where podcasting took centre stage for its potentials in self-paced learning and remote education. Other potentially useful technologies have been said to include Second Life and social networking tools.

"There have been so many requests from students to introduce podcasting," said Shirley Alexander, the university's Vice Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Vice-President of Teaching, Learning and Equity.

The start-up costs of podcasting are estimated at hundreds of thousands of dollars, not to mention ongoing maintenance costs, and potential costs and disruptions to students already entrenched in existing teaching methods.

However, this could be a small price to pay for the University of Technology to live up to its name.

Darren Loasby, President of the UTS Students' Association, debated that the university's lack of standardized online teaching methods could be putting it behind its more technologically-enabled peers. The Queensland University of Technology and the University of Sydney were named as institutions with online education systems already in place.

"Podcasting of academic material is being implemented all around Australia and all around the globe," he said. "Students are frustrated that going to the University of Technology, Sydney doesn't give them access to similar systems."

"In 2007, it's harder than ever to be a student," he said, citing an unavailability of income support, a shortage of time, and rocketing education costs as likely causes of difficulty. "Basically, students are paying so much for education; I believe they should have some flexibility in how material is accessed."

Podcasting could alleviate scheduling difficulties for some students as podcasts are easily accessed online and can be made available on-demand. Furthermore, Loasby said, podcasts would allow students to learn at their own pace and in their own time, so students could potentially be listening to course material while at the gym or in transit.

For lecturers, Loasby expects podcasts to allow the university to track student study behaviour, and identify any systemic problems. Far from encouraging students to stop turning up to class, podcasts could drive lecturers to improve their in-class teaching methods, he said.

"If I can download material off the Internet, then there has to be a reason for me to come [to class]; and that should be face-to-face interaction with my teacher," he said.

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An ongoing study conducted by Dr Maree Gosper of Macquarie University, in conjunction with Murdoch University, Newcastle University, Flinders University and the Carrick institute, has found that a majority of students report having had positive experiences with "Web-based Leaning Technologies" (WBLT), such as podcasting.

Results were obtained via an online survey that received 817 student responses. Almost 80 per cent of respondents found that WBLT made it easier for them to learn course material, and 66.7 per cent believed that it helped them achieve better results.

More than two-thirds of the survey respondents claimed they could learn from WBLT as well as they could from face-to-face lectures. Worryingly, a quarter of the students admitted to not attending face-to-face lectures, most of whom blamed their regular absences on scheduling difficulties.

However, more than half of the students using WBLT still claim to be attending lectures frequently. Gosper highlighted a motivational atmosphere, and interactions with other students and lecturers, as students' reasons for attending.

Dr Sue Hood, a lecturer in the Faculty of Education at UTS, specialises in language and literacy teacher education. From her research on the role of gesture in creating meaning in face-to-face learning, Hood warned against using podcasting as what she believes will be an incomplete substitute for existing teaching methods.

"We mean through language, we learn through language, we construct knowledge through language," she explained. "What we also know is that language changes as modes of learning change, so if we change a mode [such as moving from face-to-face lectures to podcasting], we are not only changing the mode but also the meaning and knowledge."

"If we are extracting sound from lectures and presenting it in a different context, we are impoverishing the meaning potential," she said.

While Loasby agreed that some subjects may not lend themselves to being podcasted, he said that podcasting should not be used as a simple replacement for face-to-face classes, and should, instead, be used to supplement other existing material.

"Depending on individual lecture styles, not all material is suited to being podcasted," he said. "But I think what students want is a broader range of educational options."

"I don't think that podcasts should ever replace meaningful face-to-face interaction between teachers and students," he said. "While podcasts should be supplementary to other academic material, they can become a very significant part."

Hood said that the use of podcasting as a follow-up supplement to lectures "seems a more attractive proposition". However, she raised the question of if podcasts would then be viewed as a replacement for reading material, which could then present problems in how lecture supplements would be designed.

Meanwhile, Alexander encouraged the university's staff and students to explore other, new uses of technology, rather than considering them mere replacements for existing methods.

"My concern about the way in which we have embraced technology is that we have often used it just because we can; we tend to use it as an automated replacement for existing technologies," she said.

"Let's not just automate what we are doing already; let's look at the root of the problem, which is that students are time poor."

The university has formed three working groups with the aim of formulating a future education strategy within the next 12 months. The groups have been charged with the responsibilities of researching the current and future design of curricula, investigating necessary infrastructure changes, and designing learning spaces of the future.