Podcasts a big hit at local colleges

University of Washington freshman Amy Somermeyer had a typical Tuesday this week. She was in class from 9:30 a.m. until 2:30 p.m., went over homework with a friend, got together with her Bible study group and played an intramural soccer game, squeezing in meals along the way.

At 11 p.m., just before she went to bed, she curled up in front of her dorm-room computer to listen to a "podcast" of her oceanography professor's lecture that day.

"It's nice because I can do it whenever I want," she said. "You're sitting in your room, but you feel like part of the classroom at the same time."

Last fall, the UW was the first college in the state to formally offer podcasts — audio recordings posted online that can be downloaded to computers, iPods and other MP3 players — and the trend is spreading, officials say, because it meshes with students' busy, tech-savvy lives.

Bellevue Community College launched a pilot program this month that will allow students to listen to interviews, lectures and class recaps online and record their own podcasts as class projects.

At least nine other schools around the state — including Washington State, Seattle Pacific and Pacific Lutheran universities and Tacoma, North Seattle and Highline community colleges — are either offering or planning podcasts for students.

Podcast lectures at UW have been downloaded 37,000 times. At both UW and BCC, the general response from students has been: Thank you!

"When we see an opportunity to try some new way of communicating with students, we owe it to ourselves to check it out," said Steven Duncan, a philosophy instructor at BCC.

Online audio files have existed about as long as the Internet, but podcasting is a phenomenon that took hold around the country last year. With the growing popularity of iPods and available programming, people began to subscribe to podcasts — everything from sports analysis and religious sermons to news stories and political diatribes — that then automatically showed up on their computers.

One of the first colleges to embrace podcasts was Duke University, which gave iPods to all its incoming freshmen two years ago and offered lectures, songs and historical speeches online. Other universities, such as Purdue and Stanford, have also jumped on board.

The first few months of the program at UW produced some surprises: A notable portion of the lecture downloads were coming from people outside the UW community. And about 80 percent of students were not moving the files to MP3 players; instead, they were just listening to the files on their computers.

Apparently, students felt more comfortable studying at their desks, rather than while they were occupied with other things, said David Aldrich, the head of UW's podcast program.

"I don't think that people are listening to Psych 210 while on a treadmill," Aldrich said.

UW professors worried that students would be more likely to skip class, but attendance has either stayed the same or improved.

Aldrich says this may be because podcasts help students "feel more in tune with the class."

Richard Strickland, an oceanography professor at the UW, said the podcasts do make it easier for lazy students to skip his 100-level class, which is in a large lecture hall.

But "the amount of help it gives to good and responsible students, who need flexibility," outweighs the drawbacks, Strickland said.

Worried about copyright concerns as files spread through cyberspace, the university decided this month to require users to have a school ID to access new podcasts.

Not that it's stopped demand. Just in the past five days, lectures have been downloaded 1,800 times.

The recorded lectures don't usually pick up the give-and-take between professors and students, which can be a drawback. Strickland, for one, teaches a 200-level discussion class about the Puget Sound ecosystem and says the course would not work as a podcast.

Despite all the distance technology, you must "have your body in a certain place at a certain time once in a while in college," Strickland said.

At BCC, officials are encouraging experimentation. A health-sciences teacher, for instance, plans to record interviews with potential employers for her students. A digital-media professor wants to use podcasting itself as a case study, and students will record their own podcasts.

The college is also teaching instructors how to speak in the authoritative style of a radio broadcaster. "Even though they're used to talking, they're not used to broadcasting," said Eva Philpot, the head of BCC's podcast program.

Duncan, the BCC philosophy instructor, is ready to lend his rich bass to his class recordings.

He's going to preface his talks with 1920's jazz tunes, "just as a hook to make it more entertaining," he said. "There's a tremendous amount of freedom with podcasting."