University professor creates podcasts for course textbook

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Beginning in the spring 2008 semester, some University of North Texas students will be able to learn how healthy eating habits can reduce risk of diabetes, heart disease and other chronic diseases while driving, exercising or just walking across campus to their classes.

Dr. Priscilla Connors, an associate professor in UNT's School of Merchandising and Hospitality Management, and a group of UNT alumni are creating podcasts for students enrolled in Principles of Nutrition. The distributed learning course -- using instruction that relies primarily on indirect communication between students and teachers, including Internet delivery -- was first launched at UNT in 2002.

 Available to students for the spring 2008 semester as portable auditory lessons, the podcasts include contents of the course's online textbook that Connors, a registered dietician, authored and updates annually.

Connors said Principles of Nutrition is a popular course because it satisfies the wellness requirement in UNT's core curriculum, which is required for all students receiving bachelor's degrees. The course delivery is one hundred percent via the Internet and features self-assessment, interactions, online lessons and links to relevant web sites.

Connors said podcasting overcomes several limitations of online teaching. She noted that students in focus groups have said they don't feel a sense of urgency in reading e-mail messages from instructors of online courses, so a podcast is part of the solution to the problem of reaching them.

"Podcasting is a mode of communication that students find natural. Lessons travel with any MP3 player-enabled student," she said. "We have found that students like alternate channels of receiving information besides seeing it online. IPods and podcasts may not meet the needs of every student, but

they do assist those who are auditory learners."

In addition, she said, once a student downloads a podcast, the course information will be available to him or her even if the student can't have access to a computer.

"Podcasting also has the potential to accommodate students with visual disabilities and enhance understanding for non-native speakers of English," Connors said.

During the 2004-2005 academic year, all first-year Duke University students received iPods and voice recorders as part of the university's iPod First-Year Experience project. Podcast course content was created for 15 fall semester courses and 33 spring semester courses.

A report about the project found that students liked using the iPods and voice recorders for the convenience of portable digital content for classes, reduced dependence on printed materials and laboratory or library locations and hours for use of computers, greater engagement and interest in the courses' contents and enhanced support for individual learning preferences and needs.

The podcasts for Principles of Nutrition are the first to be created at UNT for the full course content. UNT's Center for Distributed Learning, which assists faculty members with creating quality technology-based courses, mostly produces audio streams that are not true podcasts, said Amber Bryant, senior marketing specialist for the center. However, the center has created a seminar on the Internet that will help faculty members in the design process for effective podcasts, she added.  

Connors hired Tom Rose, a 2005 UNT graduate, to help her create the podcast for her course. Rose, the owner of Art Six coffee shop in Denton, had taken Principles of Nutrition and recognized Connors as the course's instructor when she visited Art 6.

"She asked me what I thought about the course and what could be done to improve it. With the whole new wave of iPods, I thought that podcasts would be a good way for students to download information, just as they download music. Even if they don't listen to the whole thing, they can be a great portable way for students to review for tests."

Rose, who studied theater design and technology as a UNT student, asked Olivia de Guzman, a 2003 theater graduate at UNT and co-owner of Art Six, and Ben Mayer, a UNT graduate who does voiceover work in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, to provide the voices for the podcast. The two prepared for the recordings by reading the print version of the textbook used for the online course.

"Dr. Connors said that the recording didn't have to be verbatim from the textbook -- we could have fun with it," Rose said.

De Guzman said she used different vocal techniques to keep students' attention. She said she and Mayer alternated reading every few paragraphs "so the voices didn't get monotonous."

"After about 30 minutes of speaking aloud, words tend to get jumbled," she said. "Ben and I may go back and add something, like some witty banter between lessons."

Connors also had Cynthia Beard, a doctoral student in musicology, create a jingle to sound whenever students opened the MP3 file. In addition, Rose said he, Mayer and de Guzman are working on a video that will introduce students to the podcast and the voices they will hear.

"We want to put a fun spin on the video to interest them," Rose said.

He added that he hopes more UNT faculty members will consider making podcasts for their students.

"If someone talks to you in conversation, you're more likely to retain the knowledge than if you just read about the subject," he said.

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