Tuesday, May 09, 2006


Podcasting and DRM

My wise and conspicuously good-looking readers – I seek your wisdom.

Some of us at my cc are flirting with the possibility of enabling and encouraging (not requiring) faculty to put podcasts of their lectures on password-protected sites for their students. We use a standard web platform for all of our distance ed courses, but some faculty also use that platform to post online ‘enhancements’ to their traditional classes. (Popular uses include posting copies of syllabi and assignment handouts, a gradebook, and links to websites for supplemental reading.) Given the ubiquity of ipods on campus, and the realities of an entirely-commuter student population (we don’t have dorms), it seems like an obvious winner to allow students to listen to lectures in the car.

That said, I’ve stumbled onto some complications that I don’t know how to finesse.

Password-protection can keep non-students away from the mp3’s for a while. But once a legitimate student has downloaded Professor Bob’s lectures on The History of the Fork onto his ipod, what’s to keep him from simply reposting them elsewhere without password protection? What’s to keep him from copying them, distributing them, selling them, or otherwise doing the kinds of things that password-protection is supposed to prevent?

I know that some of the legal music-download sites use Digital Rights Management software to put what amounts to a self-destruct mechanism on downloaded stuff, so if your subscription lapses, you lose access to your music. (My local public library does something similar with audiobooks – you can ‘check them out’ for a short time by downloading them onto your mp3 player, but they self-destruct at the borrowing deadline.) But the DRM software I’ve seen is fairly buggy, and it doesn’t work with ipods specifically (as opposed to other brands of mp3 player). Since students seem to choose ipods far more often than other mp3 players, requiring them to purchase other players on top of the ones they already have would be, um, let’s go with ‘unpopular.’ Relatively few brands work with multiple flavors of DRM, so student choice would be pretty constricted.

For that matter, what’s to stop a curious administrator from ‘eavesdropping’ on a course, once the mp3’s are out there? And what if that unscrupulous cretin doesn’t like what he hears? What if the David Horowitzes of the world (or their left-wing doppelgangers, if you prefer) decide to start eavesdropping on classes in suspect disciplines, and packaging selected quotations out of context (hell, even in context) to make yet another political argument against academic freedom? What if helicopter parents start monitoring their kids’ classes, and start policing content they find unsuitable for tender young ears? What if local politicians decide to justify funding cuts by finding quotes they know would look silly in a headline?

(There are also the more mundane issues about student attendance, but I expect that canny faculty can find ways around those.)

In sum, is there a way to embed a reliable ‘self-destruct’ mechanism that doesn’t unduly restrict student choice of hardware, isn’t ridiculously buggy and/or expensive, and will combine increased access for enrolled students with safeguards against undue exposure?

Wow, I hadn't thought about any of that stuff and we do podcasting all the time, completely in the open. You could look into iTunesU by Apple. I'm certain it costs money, but the main reason people want to use it is the DRM it offers. Other people don't want to use it for that reason, but that's another story.

As for the spying administrators, it still won't keep them from downloading a lecture themselves, but it would keep outsiders from doing so and it would keep students from posting the lectures to their websites in order to make fun of their professors.

Someone else may know a cheaper or even free solution.
"Someone else may know a cheaper or even free solution."

Umm, encourage students to come to class and take notes? Real cost of paper and pencils are now at historic lows.
Actually, it looks like ITunesU is free (with an eligibility check as per the Apple Website.).

Dean Dad: I think you should assume that there will be some level of "leakage", no matter what level of protection you use. In fact, the barn door is already open (see below).

ITunes has already been cracked several times, although Apple keeps trying to stay ahead of the hackers. So, a sufficiently motivated and geeky student will always find a way around.

Heck; if a student (or anyone else) wanted to broadcast lecture content, there's a low-tech crack available. Use audio capture on a speaker playback of the podcast, convert to the format of your choice, and off you go. You'll lose some quality, but for a classroom lecture, no-one will notice.

This would, of course, work just as well on an audiotape of the lecture. (Do your students tape lectures? Mine do.) So, if your students really wanted to put something on the Web, you can't stop them.
As a student with an 'other brand' mp3 player, I think it is definately important to make sure whatever DRM approach you take includes brands other than Apple. Also, students are crafty. If they wanted to post lectures on their own sites, they would just bring a micro-digital recorder to class.

I do have to ask the most important question, are you just jumping on a podcasting bandwagon? Will this increase or aid student learning? This is why I know many faculty who do not use PowerPoint. The bandwagon craze is well over for PPT but people still use it incorrectly. By offering this to faculty, will they use it correctly (meaning providing students with an edge/ability to learn). I think its a good idea in a perfect world. However, student and (some) faculty apathy may turn this into a major problem.
There will be "leakage" as already pointed out.

As an instructor, and someone who teaches about and studies communnications technologies, not to mention an ipod addict, I would probably refuse to let you podcast my lectures. The reason? Copyright. Unless you have a clear agreement about who holds the rights to the kecture material (and I would argue that it is the instructor) then you risk running into legal issues demanding this. Most academics would probably be happy to share their stuff online (look at how many people post papers on websites) but there needs to be an option to 'opt out' for those who don't want to, and some clear articulation of rights. For example I might r willing to podcast portions of lectures under a Creative Commons agreement.

Another rights issue is about class discussion - will this be inculded in the podcast? How do you protect student speech from surveillance and potential rights infringement? Does everyone sign a release?

Of still greater concern is how this will effect the learning environment. Will it inhibit discussion, or allow wing nuts who like the idea of being podcast to vent unecessarily? People wiil stop coming to lectures which will limit discussion and change the learning process. In order to get bums in seats instructors will have to give quizzes etc., punative measures that some teachers hate to employ.

And just to round this out, who will manage the technology? Is this yet another thing for instructors to do? What about the luddite profs who, even if they want to do it have yet to move out of the overhead projector age and won't be able to handle the tech?

This is a more complex issue than it first appears to be, at least from where I'm sitting.
Out here at the California community college where I teach English, the focus of staff development for at least the past fifteen years has been on a movement away from traditional lecture classes.

Lecturing, we're told (and I agree, by the way), is the least efficient way to deliver infomation to students, and we need to make students more active participants in their their education. "Collaborative learning" and "learning communities" are the current buzzwords.

Distributing a lecture through a podcast seems like a high-tech way do deliver an old-fashioned product, kind of like printing out an email message and sending it through the post office.
If the lectures need to be kept private, you should not distribute them in any fashion.
Agreed about the pedagogical point made by anonymous two above me. Seems like a lot of work just to deliver a kind of pedagogy that has limited effectiveness. (I would, however, amend the prior comment to say that lectures CAN be effective but only in particular situations.) And if you are podcasting class discussions, the copyright issues do get thorny.

As for the worry about snooping eyes - many faculty have syllabi on the web and that could be a somewhat less dangerous version of the same problem. Even with the fear of state legislators peeking in (as if they don't have plenty of other mischief to get into), we do it. Are full lectures all that more dangerous?
To my understanding there is a way to create an mp3 so that it is only playable once. Meaning, even if they do copy it, once it's played, that's it, you get a dead link. Where, how, who etc... I haven't the slightest but I know the Apple Help team is good about responding to these type of questions. You may want to contact them and let them know what your concerns are. They helped me a great deal when I began podcasting
This is really no different than for-profit notetakers, lecture-recorders, etc.

Students already record my classes on their iPods (with the microphones). One offered to upload them onto my WebCT site for the course. We got the kinks worked out and it has worked well.

Will non-registered students have access to them? Eventually, I guess. Is that a concern? Not really. I mean, a non-registered students could walk into one of my lecture courses and I'd never know it. So what's the problem here?

A non-registered student still does not have the opportunity to submit work for grades and credit, or to receive the same e-mail or office hours attention that a registered student does.

My lectures change from term to term anyway; they're not scripted. So this doesn't bother me. As for administrators...If I'm saying something that will get me in trouble, I hear about it from them one way or another. If they want to spend hours of their week listening to my classes, I'd *LOVE* that.

The only FERPA violation would occur if a student's whole name is mentioned in connection to assessment of that student's work, which is something we wouldn't (or shouldn't) do in class anyway.

But...and here's another way to look at it...we have no control over what students do with what they hear in our courses anyway, do we? Whether they write it down, record it, repeat it, or apply it...what happens in our classes gets out.
I agree with much of the above. If all the instructor does every day is deliver a 50 minute lecture, there's a bigger problem than the security issues, there's the "students are all asleep and no one is learning anything" issue. At the least the instructor is hopefully writing things on the board and/or displaying some overheads, etc.

At our college when we were getting started with distance learning, there was a lot of discussion about who would "own" the web content that comprised a new online course. Now that half the faculty are doing online courses, everyone has realized that "it's the teaching, stupid", not the online content that matters. Once this podcasting thing gets a little more common, I don't think many instructors will be concerned about who owns or has access to their lectures.

- Another Dean
I'm creating some podcasts for a course this summer, and I want to point out that if you are using this medium simply to provide a backup for students who missed class, that it is a waste of time. If, however, you are using to it create first-exposure to material outside of class and then using class time for application and synthesis, then you are on to something.

I hate to be a stick-in-the-mud about it, but who cares about copyright? It's not like I'm cruising to a big payoff for my lectures on (insert subject here.) Maybe some of the to-be-superstars will think so, but I'd imagine that the appetite for podcasted lectures on the black market of shadowy file-traders. I'm perfectly willing to concede that my lectures will function in the public domain, beyond the control I have about distribution through ITunesU.
Students have been bringing tape recorders into lectures for years (I've personally only seen a professor attempt to ban this once, and they were over-ridden by the administration). There has never been any safeguard in place to prevent people from giving those tapes to a friend who always skips class, making copies and sending them to their parents/the administrators/the evil faculty member down the hall, converting them to digital format and sharing them online, etc. But how often has this caused a serious problem? (I’m sure it probably has, but I’ve personally never heard of it.) Sure, posting them online makes them a bit easier to access and distribute, but you've really only taken one step out of the process for the determined unauthorized redistributor of lecture content. . .

In short, if you've never had cause to worry about tape recorders in class, I wouldn't spend any more much time fretting about the security of your podcasts.

Distance education rocks! Podcasts rock! Join the new millenium, already! :-)
Who cares about copyright? Lots of people do, and Universities and Colleges should because unless they have a policy they can get into legal hot water. Even just a Creative Commons agreement saves people a lot of trouble in the long run.
Might I suggest a few things.

First, I appreciate the Dean's idea in that it isn't technology for tech sake, but rather seems to be applying a refreshing way of making content more available to students, and perhaps even to others. Think about it--people listening to us--hoping to actually learn something. And heaven forbid, maybe even people not registered in my class could learn! (Hey, they STILL need to register, AND pay, if they want credit, right?) But seriously, if students find that they can listen again to a lecture, pick up the finer points, and perhaps even remember what that question was that they wanted to ask--isn't that all achieving the goal we seek--Learning?

I would encourage more to think about ways that this technology could be helpful. For instance, develop interesting interviews with movers and shakers in our respective disciplines, and even make them available for free over iTunes. Use this as a tool--"This podcast is provided as part of the ____ curriculum at ____UNiversity. For more information about this program, contact the University at..." If our work is good enough, and people are interested in it, it will generate positive attitudes about the professor, and the university (or CC, or LAC)

Lastly, it is kinda interesting to think that we are somehow important enough, or good enough, that people would want to steal our stuff. Certainly copyright notices can be embedded in the files, both in the datastream, and the audio itself, so if we are concerned about that, the faculty members could protect themselves. But honestly, how many of us are "Carl Sagan's" and have a "Cosmos" waiting to be published?
As mentioned above - the stuff leaks anyway. All we're doing by delivering lectures/discvussions/interviews etc via podcasting is making it easier for our students to access material asynchronously and in a fashion that is perhaps more suitable to their learning needs.

Combine podcasted material with a topical online discussion board and you might have a way to make notoriously inneffective 'lectures' more useful for a broader range of students.


Universities should eschew DRM technologies, as DRM is diametrically opposed to the purpose of the university and poses a serious threat to the further development of human knowledge All available DRM systems remove some fair use rights, such as use of excerpts from the material and first sale doctrine.

Worse, all common DRM systems are perpentual, preventing the eventual return of the material to the public domain when copyright expires. Today we can research the archives of centuries past. Our descendents won't have that ability, as we lock up more and more forms of content inside encrypted DRM systems that protect their content from access long after copyrights have expired.

On the other side of the debate, MIT has made their entire curriculum publicly available for free with their OpenCourseware project. Universities should follow the example of MIT and not follow the path of attempting to gain total control that Hollywood is going down
In what way is this different from providing supporting material online for students to download (and then print out, give to their friends, etc)?

Make sure that you have an IPR policy which protects the rights of both Faculty and College, but accept that you can't stop people breaking the law by circulating material; you can only tell them what the law is. If you password protect the resources you can find out who had access if you ever had to investigate. (I can't imagine you could ever make a case based on that access, but if someone was found to have made copies of something and they had access to the files from your servier, it would be supporting evidence).

More importantly, make sure that you pay your Faculty enough so that they feel their Intellectual Property is valued (if they are good enough to produce materials which people want to copy, do you value this?) - and teach your Faculty to use these technologies wisely....there are many more interesting things to do with audio files than record lectures!
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