Podcasts provide access anytime to campus news, experts and events  printer 

First-year student and pod person Douglas Howley listened to his mp3 player while studying at a table on the Sarratt Student Center Promenade.

by Kara Furlong

Walk around Vanderbilt’s campus on any given day, and you will notice them: pod people – students, staff and faculty wearing the telltale white earbuds of Apple’s iPod, or headphones attached to another brand of mp3 player.  

While a majority are enjoying music as they make their way from building to building, others may be listening to a recent Chancellor’s Lecture they missed or catching up on the latest Vanderbilt research news.

The latter are partaking in a fast-growing technological trend: podcasts, multimedia digital files that act as a sort of radio programming for the Internet age.

Podcasts get their name from a blending of the terms “iPod,” after Apple’s popular device, and “broadcast,” though the name is something of a misnomer – podcasts can be played on any digital audio player or personal computer, and no over-the-air broadcasting is required.

Instead of tuning in, the way one would to a radio show, listeners download free content directly from a Web site at their convenience, or content downloads automatically for those who subscribe to a syndication feed, such as RSS. Downloading content is as simple as the click of a mouse, and it can be listened to via free software, such as iTunes.

Podcasts have been available on the Web since around 2003, and today the Internet is home to thousands on a variety of topics, from news and political discussions to commentary on television shows, music and books to interviews with experts and celebrities. 

Vanderbilt has gotten in on the act by offering a host of audio and video content concerning university and medical center news, people, research and events, as well as recordings of prominent campus lectures, topical discussions and even sermons from Vanderbilt’s St. Augustine’s Chapel. Many of these podcasts are gathered on VUCast, the Vanderbilt News Network, at www.vanderbilt.edu/news/podcasts.

“Every day – every hour – on the Vanderbilt campus, we are generating content that is of interest to people not just here at Vanderbilt, but in Nashville, across the country and around the world,” said Melanie Moran, assistant director for Web communications. “Podcasts offer in-depth content – you can listen to an entire hour-long lecture, or you can listen to a two- to three-minute produced news story about a topic of your choice – and you can do so at your convenience.”

Over lunch, Vanderbilt podcast subscribers can learn more about their surrounding universe with “Stellar Conversations,” a program featuring Dyer Observatory’s Nancy Dwyer and Rocky Alvey interviewing Vanderbilt astronomers. When dashing to class or meetings, they can catch up on upcoming campus events with “Calendar Listings” or hear 90-second news spots on cutting-edge research and programs via “That’s Vanderbilt.” Or they can take a mid-afternoon break with “The Sounds of Blair,” featuring past performances by faculty and students at Blair School of Music.

Scott Merrick, teacher-in-residence at Vanderbilt’s Center for Science Outreach and a technology coordinator at the University School of Nashville, has been a fan of podcasts since their inception and has followed the evolution of the genre. “Early on it struck me that this medium would be an excellent way to let people know about Center for Science Outreach programs, especially our interactive videoconferencing programs,” he said.

Merrick created and produces a podcast called “Snacks4theBrain!” which highlights the center’s efforts to connect working research scientists with K-12 students around the world. In addition to interviews with experts on a variety of science-related topics, the podcast “features podsafe independent music and often a technology tip, and occasionally an interview with a leading expert on the future of education in general,” he said. Merrick maintains a blog, http://snacks4thebrain.blogspot.com, which contains additional links and information about the shows.

Merrick noted another benefit that podcasts provide in a world where news and information is fast-paced, multi-sourced and sometimes overwhelming. “These interviews with scientists can also serve as permanently archived resources for students,” he said. Teachers, students and science enthusiasts can access past “Snacks4theBrain!” podcasts, which number 45 and counting, anytime at www.vanderbilt.edu/cso/files_s4theb.php

When all one needs to access it is an Internet connection, a podcast’s reach can be far. Merrick was reminded of this over the summer at the National Educational Computing Conference, where he was presenting a session. “An attendee came up to me and – introducing himself as a California high school teacher – said, ‘Wow! I can’t believe how much you sound like you do on your podcast!’ I had to laugh.” 

Agreed Moran, “Podcasts make it easy for anyone to access Vanderbilt in a meaningful way, no matter where they are.” 

To see a list of Vanderbilt’s podcast offerings, visit www.vanderbilt.edu/news/podcasts. To suggest an interview subject for the “Snacks4theBrain!” podcast, e-mail scott.merrick@vanderbilt.edu.

Posted 09/25/06

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