Before George Washington University renewed its iTunes U contract, the administration wanted to know how the podcasts impacted student learning and engagement.

In fall 2009, the university's Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning studied a world history class of 262 students to find the answer.

But the answer isn't yes or no — the answer depends on the student's learning style, gender and motivation.

“If your goal is to find a magic bullet that makes all students better, this isn’t it," said Hugh Agnew, a professor from the Elliott School of International Affairs who taught the course. "But If your goal is to reach some students better that maybe you aren’t reaching so terribly well, then I think this is worth trying.”

6 interesting results

He created 10-minute podcasts with graphics and audio, as well as a text transcript of the podcasts with visuals to supplement his lecture class. In the first research run, half of the class used the podcasts, and the other half used the text. In the second run, they switched.

Overall, the study found no statistical difference between the performance of students who used the text and the ones who used the podcasts. But in subgroups, the podcasts did make a difference, said Yianna Vovides, director of instructional design at the center who conducted the research.

Three results that Vovides found interesting include the following:

  1. Podcasts grab attention and maintain it.
  2. Students conceptually understood the content, not just remembered it, and the scale of understanding seemed to tip toward the podcasts.
  3. The students who said they weren't that motivated at the beginning of the class scored higher on the test when they listened to the podcasts.

And Agnew found these three results fascinating:

  1. Guys improved their results from the pre-test to the post-test more with the podcasts. But the women's results showed no difference.
  2. From the beginning of the research to the end, the number of students who preferred podcasts nearly tripled, jumping from 21 to 62.
  3. In general, no one saw a dramatic uptick in results with the text or the podcasts. If they did the work, they did better on the test, he said.

Investigating Podcasts in Relation to Student Learning Outcomes

Technology tools

No one can draw a simple conclusion from these results, Agnew said. Podcasts provide another instructional tool that will help some students, and professors should just try it.

After all, the technology doesn't make students learn, Vovides said. And in order for it to be effective, faculty and staff need support so they can implement tools in relation to learning, not just to implement the tools for the sake of the tools.

It’s important to have the infrastructure," Vovides said. "But it’s also important to have the support to help people use it for instructional purposes effectively.”

The traditional classroom ways of presenting information may not be the most effective delivery method to students who have grown up with digital methods, he said. And ultimately, the more ways a professor can present ideas, the better chance he has of infecting students with enthusiasm about what they're learning.

"There’s no particularly good pedagogical reason not to try it," he said, "and it’s not that hard to do.”

Agnew plans to incorporate more podcasts into some of the online classes he teaches. And since the university did decide to renew the iTunes U contract, professors can keep uploading podcasts.

In a chemistry course of 600 students, Vovides is continuing her research this semester. This time, she's trying to find out whether the podcast design makes a difference. The chemistry students will access text, podcasts and guided podcasts.

With a bigger course and a different discipline, she'll be able to see whether the results of the history class study hold up.