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Ear Buds Shown to Stimulate Brain

Five short years ago — long before Shuffles, Nanos, and even video iPods were available — if you saw a person wearing the white Apple headphones around Duke University's campus, there was a good chance they were a doe-eyed freshman.

In my fully disclosed, blatantly biased opinion as a jilted upperclassman at the time, I remember Duke's giveaway of 1,600 iPods to the entering freshman class seemed more like a publicity stunt than genuine attempt at transforming a hip technology into an educational tool.

Sure, there were some classes, particularly music and foreign language courses, that gave students supplemental audio course material for use with the iPods, but the only change most people saw was increased instances of "iPod isolation" on campus buses.

As it turns out, perhaps it was not the audio device but the digital media itself that the Duke administration should have been promoting as cutting-edge educational technology.

In a study recently published in the journal Computers & Education, researchers Dani McKinney, Jennifer Dyck and Elise Luber found evidence that podcasts of college lectures can be more effective than the real thing.

The research team divided a class of 64 psychology students into two groups. The first attended a regular course lecture and the second only had access to the lecture in a podcast form. All were given printouts of the PowerPoint slides used in the lecture.

Students who were in the podcast group achieved significantly higher scores (average was 71 percent) on an exam of the course material than those who attended the in-class lecture (62.5 percent). If the podcast students took notes of any quality while viewing the lecture, their average score climbed even higher to 77 percent.

The researchers are quick to say that the results of their study "are in no way an indication that audio copies of lectures could or should replace actual professors, or even regular class attendance." Besides, when you think about it, it's rather difficult to ask a computer a question on psychology or chemistry. Sadly, artificial intelligence hasn't quite gotten there yet (but at least we can make robots that drive cars, carry army supplies, and climb stairs on their own — oh wait, scratch that last one...).

Instead, they indicate that podcasts give students repetitive chances to pick up the course material. In a traditional lecture setting, a student can only hear the material one time. Students with access to a lecture podcast, however, can and are more likely to listen to the lecture more than once. In fact, two thirds of the students in this study's podcast group did.

Currently a graduate student, I know from personal experience that even if I have printouts of PowerPoint slides before lecture, I often miss one or more concepts a professor dishes out during lecture because I'm quickly scribbling notes on a previous topic. If I knew I could go back and listen to the professor again, I'd probably be able focus more on the material itself and less on taking detailed notes.

Of course, I'm sure being able to focus on absorbing material rather than taking notes was probably the same argument for offering copies of PowerPoint slides to students. It makes me wonder what would happen to education if one day all the computers, printers and projector systems in the world spontaneously combusted. ... Let's all hope the Kindle 2 wouldn't be included in my fiery phantasm. I was already rejoicing about never having to buy another 10-pound textbook in my life.

For professors worried that students will prefer to listen to a lecture podcast in bed rather than go to class, a simple "sign in" sheet or threat of a pop quiz will ensure attendance levels are maintained. Much to our chagrin, I and 40 of my classmates had to learn of President Obama's election results via text message on Nov. 4 because a significant portion of our grade for a Tuesday evening class last fall was based on weekly attendance.

The concept of learning via podcast is not new. iTunes U, Academic Earth, and MIT's Open Courseware Web sites all offer a plethora of recorded college lectures to both college students and the public at large. As a more condensed learning experience, podcasts available through the iTunes Store, like Stuff You Should Know — a personal favorite — offer "continuing education" for anyone looking to learn and be entertained while waiting in traffic or jogging around the neighborhood.

Three cheers for killing two birds with one stone.