Some students who miss classes at Purdue University in Indiana no longer have to bug classmates to fill them in on what they missed. Instead, they can download audio files of class lectures to their MP3 players or personal computers using the school’s new podcasting service.

BoilerCast has logged 533 downloads in its first week, although only about 50 of the university’s 2,500-plus tenured, tenure-track, and adjunct faculty members had signed up one of their classes for the service at press time, according to Michael Gay, manager of Broadcast Networks and Services for Purdue’s information technology department.

Students can subscribe to the service at the BoilerCast web site. After that, new lectures are automatically sent directly to their iPod or home computer.

Some professors have resisted the idea, saying it would reduce class attendance. But Gay disputed that notion.

“This is really just another step in the evolution of a 35-year-old classroom audio recording service,” he said.

The BoilerCast service makes use of Purdue’s existing in-class audio technology. Because most of the lecture halls now equipped with this technology seat as many as 600 students, professors in most cases already would be using some sort of microphone. Gay said the university’s telephone wiring infrastructure is used to run audio from the existing in-class amplification system to a central control room.

The control room is equipped with 10 Marantz PMD-570 recording devices, which convert the high-quality audio into MP3 files and record the data directly to a compact flash card identical to those used in a typical digital camera.

“But most of the magic happens in our custom software, which updates the webcast and the podcast feed and moves the file accordingly,” Gay said.

“Once the recording is made, a staff member takes the flash memory card and puts it in a workstation computer set-up,” Gay said.

Purdue’s Boilercast software makes it easy to update webcast and podcast feeds. (photo courtesy of Purdue University)

“Custom-designed software allows [the technician] to choose which course he recorded, update the [data] tag on the MP3 file, rename [the file], copy [it], and update the web site and the podcast RSS feed.” RSS, which stands for Really Simple Syndication, is a web format used to produce syndicated materials.

“We designed software that would update all these components … with one click of the mouse,” Gay said. “That process can happen for eight to ten classes within 15 minutes of the end of the class recording hour.”

Gay said the software was designed in-house for use on multiple platforms and in many different formats. Lectures can be downloaded or streamed directly to a PC or Macintosh computer and formatted for play in a digital music player.

“We tried not to favor one particular vendor and didn’t want to alienate those [students] who didn’t have iPods,” Gay said. “We tried to make it as ubiquitous as possible for students.”

Gay said most of the classrooms in which professors are making use of the voluntary service are large lecture halls that already are equipped to handle amplified audio, but he added that his staff can equip a classroom with all the required hardware within a few days if necessary.

Contrary to some faculty concerns, David Tate, who teaches a popular forensics class, said he signed up for the service to prevent truancy.

“We used to videotape the class, but students stayed home,” he said. “The point of class is coming and interacting, so we made the podcast available instead.”

Justin Williams, a senior computer technology major, helped test the system but said he hasn’t reaped any of its benefits yet.

“It seems like it’s mostly being done with freshman courses, you know, the 500-person lectures,” he said. “I tried to get some of my professors to use it, but they follow the, ‘Well, then you won’t come to class’ mantra.”

Links:

Purdue’s BoilerCast service
http://boilercast.itap.purdue.edu:1013/Boilercast