Princeton University Archives Go Portable as Public Lectures Gravitate to the iPod

Matthew Hersh

Ah, the iPod. The next generation of music portability is lauded for its technological advancement in the distribution of audio and video, but critics say the iPod starves the senses.

If academia continues to embrace the technology that supports the iPod and its kin, however, the device may feed those very senses.

Princeton University has, for the better part of a decade, made available its public lectures via streaming audio, and sometimes video, on its Web site. But in the past year, following a national trend throughout colleges and universities, the University has started releasing a major portion of its public lectures recorded over the past decade as Podcasts, or mp3 formatted audio suited for an iPod or other mp3 players.

The move, as one can imagine, is an exciting step for academic institutions that are looking to take advantage of new technology, while opening campus events to, literally, a pocket-sized world.

"We were 25th overall for all Podcasts, and for education, we were number 4 in the iTunes ranking," said David Hopkins, manager of the New Media Center at Princeton University's office of Information Technology, referring to the Apple program that serves as the ostensible middleman in Podcast distribution. Podcasts are also downloadable directly from the PU Web site, but Mr. Hopkins said iTunes serves as a good gauge in determining how effective the new service is.

So far, so good, he said.

At this point, the PU Podcasts do not offer a glimpse into the private classroom, but for general consumption, the lectures made available seem to be serving a public that is interested, but could not necessarily get on to campus, or take the time to sit in front of a computer listening to a lecture. From Hillary Clinton to Bill Frist (both sides of the aisle, of course), to Commencement, most of the stuff is out there, and it seems to be catching on, said Serge Goldstein, the director of Academic Services in the Office of Information Technology.

And while the University has been making lectures available at www.princeton.edu/webmedia, starting about a year ago, University IT realized that the service could be "kind of limiting in a way," Mr. Goldstein said.

"We thought if we took the recordings we currently have, re-encoded them, and did the whole conversion, we could make 800 recorded lectures available," he added. "Eight hundred and counting," Mr. Hopkins quickly added.

The important thing about making the lectures in a Podcastable format is that "wherever you are, on a bus, train, you can listen to the lectures."

Academic institutions, in converting most of the archived material into mp3 format, are now likely to continue releasing new material in the same manner. On iTunes, for example, you can find Princeton University lectures in the search mechanism, and then subscribe, for free, to University-related content so that when the University posts new material in Podcast form, a computer will automatically download that lecture.

"It'll go out all by itself, and it's there on your iPod for your review," Mr. Goldstein said.

At some point, this technology could be used for distance education, but the University is still figuring out how to distribute Podcasts for private classes without the material being stored forever in a listener's private library. The "dream set-up," Mr. Hopkins said, would be for private lecture Podcasts to expire on the last day of class.

At the moment, private lectures are available through streaming media on the more controllable University Web site when a student enters a specific access code. The technology is not yet available for the portable realm, but Mr. Hopkins and Mr. Goldstein seem optimistic.

"It's all gotten steadily easier," Mr. Goldstein said, adding that Podcasting could someday be used for hearing-impaired students. "This is certainly something we're looking at."

And who said the iPod starves the senses?

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