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?

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