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Attend class, or just download it?

February 26, 2009 | 10:08 am


In 2007, professor Hubert Dreyfus of UC Berkeley, above, said that he'd seen classroom attendance drop after his courses became a cult hit on iTunes U. But now it turns out that the students who were cutting to listen to his podcasts may actually be scoring better on exams.

A new study by a researcher at the State University of New York at Fredonia shows that students who download podcasts of lectures do better on tests than those who attend the lectures themselves.

When it comes to literature, most of the podcasts on iTunes U tend to stick to lectures and special events. Oxford has podcasts on Milton and J.R.R. Tolkein. Emory has posted lectures by Umberto Eco and Alice Walker. MIT, USC and Yale have all posted a handful of lectures.

Stanford has an outstanding actual literature course, which appears as the Literature of Crisis in the listings. That's the umbrella topic for last year's required introduction to the humanities. As the podcasts begin, you can hear the scuffing of people settling into chairs, the professors -- Martin Evans and Marsh McCall -- speaking up to bring the room to order. The entire course, from Plato to Voltaire, is now online, and it sounds not like a lecture but like a class.

That liveliness is what can set a podcast apart. Which is why I also like the "Stanford Three Books" lectures (found among their Authors podcasts), given at the beginning of the year to incoming students, who have been told to read the books during the summer and who cheer with enthusiasm for Tobias Wolff, Julie Orringer, Khaled Hosseini, Junot Diaz and more.

Downloading classes may help student test scores, but the grades were not impressive: a D average for those who went to class, a C average for the podcast-listeners. Obviously, more is required to get an A than just playing audio or video tracks. But if we're not in school, we can download the classes without fear of being called on unprepared or getting hit with a pop quiz.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Dave Getzschman / For The Times