A growing iPod hit: class time

10/13/2006
By From the Lowell Sun

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By MATT MURPHY, Sun Staff
Lowell Sun

LOWELL -- Patrick Lozzi is not what you'd call a "morning person." The 24-year-old UMass Lowell sophomore said the question of whether he will wake up in time for his 9:30 a.m. calculus class is simple -- it's not going to happen.

A few years ago, this might have been a problem for Lozzi. New technology that allows lectures to be viewed from a home computer or laptop and downloaded to portable music players is redefining the very idea of a classroom.

At UMass Lowell and on college campuses across the country, innovations are changing the way teachers teach and students learn.

"The overall goal is student performance, and if we're seeing an increase in performance without the traditional students being in the seats, then great. If we're meeting different learning styles, that's really the goal," said Michael Lucas, UMass Lowell coordinator of distance learning.

UMass Lowell has started to equip larger lecture halls with podcasting systems that capture video, audio and digital notes taken by a professor during a lecture. The lecture is automatically published to a course Web site where students can watch and rewatch their lectures, take notes or review for exams.

Apreso Classroom, manufactured by a Virginia company called Anystream Apreso, allows students to watch classes online and download the audio from class to their portable iPods or digital music players.

Three other smaller classrooms and three professors with laptops can capture audio versions of class for downloading from the course's university Web site. The services are being offered for nine courses, mostly in science and math.

"What we're finding is that students are getting more of the material, getting better grades and being more engaged. It gives them more flexibility if they have to miss a class. They don't fall behind," said Mark Jones, vice president for Apreso products.

Apreso had no customers 18 months ago. Now it has 85 customers from MIT and Princeton to smaller community colleges. The UMass Medical School in Worcester has signed on.

UMass Lowell started experimenting with podcasting in January 2005, in professor Ronald Brent's Calculus I class. Brent has been videotaping his lectures manually for the Internet for about three years.

He said his students have embraced the tool as a way to reinforce concepts taught in class.

"They don't have to take down everything I write, and that makes a huge difference. They can just listen and watch me solve the problems, and then I tell them to go home and try to recreate the steps," Brent said.

Biology major Sue Vail said the tool has helped her immensely in calculus.

"I need repetition. What I used to do is bring a recorder to class so I could listen while I commute," Vail said.

Engineering professor David Kazmer questioned whether online learning would work at first. He said he doubted how effective it would be to have his lecture notes appear on both an overhead projector and the Internet.

"I was a bit of a skeptic at first. I thought it would get in the way of just teaching," Kazmer said.

Kazmer is a convert.

"It begs the question, if you can just watch the information in a static video, why have a live classroom?" he said.

Kazmer teaches introduction to engineering, and his Webcasts have been accessed more than 1,000 times for his first eight classes.

Brent has found similar popularity in his calculus course.

Following the spring 2005 semester, 72 percent of Brent's students responded to a survey indicating they found that video lectures contributed to their understanding of calculus concepts.

The number of students receiving failing grades or withdrawing from the class dropped from 62 percent to 53 percent.

While its impossible to definitively tie these successes to online learning, Brent said anything that makes studying and learning more accessible to students is worth the investment.

"What I've noticed is that the percentage of students who get the grades to move on to Calculus II has consistently gone up. Is it because of this? I don't know," Brent said.

Critics argue that the technology encourages students not to come to class. But Lucas said the university has seen very little dropoff in attendance, about 4 percent.

Brent says he encourages his students to come to class, but in the end it's their call.

"I don't care how they learn this stuff, as long as they learn it," he said.

The energetic -- some would say zany -- professor admits, however, that the technology means he sometimes has to watch his words, careful not to make an off-color joke that could offend someone a continent away.

"There have been instances where I've had to call Mike (Lucas) and tell him to snip part of the lecture," Brent said, laughing. "This can be a killer class and boring, too. If they come to class and see this crazy guy Brent, then great. Luckily, I haven't been fired yet."

Apreso Classroom starts at $5,000 a year for one classroom, and the cost falls as a university purchases more units.

"It pretty inexpensive, when you consider it. It's a compelling investment for any university," Jones said.

The Apreso vice president said he can easily imagine a future 10 years from now when every college classroom in America is outfitted with technology to broadcast lectures on the Internet.

Kazmer took it a bit further, suggesting universities might one day specialize in subject areas and form partnerships with other universities to offer their students the best instruction from the best professors across the world online.

Brent has heard from unenrolled students as far away as the Netherlands auditing his course and commenting on his lecturing style.

But for now, it's just another teaching tool in the arsenal of professors looking to educate the next generation of professionals.

"The work in my computer-science major pretty much keeps me up all night," Lozzi said. "For someone like me who can't get there in the morning, this is an invaluable resource."