Thursday, March 10, 2005

Odd Casting

The title is a bad pun on "pod casting" which seems to have caught the eye of a few of my staff and some other faculty on campus too. As is my ususal bent, I turn the idea inside out and then with the strange looking result make a case for it.

In this particular case, there are two thoughts. If the course management system is really being used as a virtual file drawer --- well you don't need that. All you need is a place to publish Web content. In my unit that is our service Netfiles, which relies on the software from Xythos. And you (the instructor) need a teensy weensy amount of knowledge about making an rss feed that has "enclosures." Then the students need some podcast software to subscribe to your feed and download the enclosures when new ones are available. Since the podcast software is currently free, the cost of this type of approach is really quite low.

Now I've deplored the CMS use as a file drawer and really hope that on our campus the typical class will move beyond that use to something that has more overt benefit to learning. But if we never get there, then it is modestly comforting to know we are not locked into the CMS to achieve that lower level functionality.

This, however, is not what has me hooked on podcasting. Rather the issue is distribution of high bandwith content. Envision that every instructor with a digital camcorder starts to tape the lecture so students have something to review afterwards. As an alternative to the live class this is probably a loser, but as an additional aid for the students, it might very well have value, even if the production quality of the video is not high. And I've already discussed the idea of making screen movies from writing on a Tablet PC. I think those might be more compelling (if more labor intensive to produce). The point is that they are high bandwidth too.

But once that content exists, how does the instructor get it to the students? Podcasting is the answer. Because the software downloads at prespecified intervals, when the student goes to her computer to view the video there is no lag --- because the movie is already on her computer. It downloaded earlier. And if the server which hosts the video is housed in a location with good networking - the downloading should not created any network congestion even if there are peak demands in when the video is viewed, again because the downloading is not contemporaneous with the viewing.

So that is really cool. Now if I can only convince the Netfiles people to allow instructors to have gigs and gigs of content, we're all set. But really, once the class has downloaded the content there is little reason to leave it on the server.

I suppose my only issue out there is how many students off campus still rely on dialup and what limitations that places. Alternatively, could the students do their podcast downloads from campus computer labs? I'll have to think that through.

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