iTunes has its own "iTunes U" section, dedicated to university podcasts
More and more podcasts are being used on courses – so is this the end for lectures, asks Andy Sharman

Nothing, it seems, is safe from the onward march of technology. Now, a practice that has been at the centre of higher education for centuries – the lecture – is under threat from alternative methods: foremost among them is the podcast.

This month Dr Steve Jones, a biochemist at King's College London, has sparked debate about what alternatives could be used to improve upon, or indeed replace, the lecture.

"The traditional lecture has stood the test of time but it's now under attack," says Dr Jones. "It's considered by some to be an ineffective way to construct understanding of a topic."

With MP3 players widely used by students, some universities are seeking to exploit podcasting technology to create the modern lecture. This could see more and more lectures recorded as digital media files and put on the internet for students to download.

Apple is at the forefront of the podcasting revolution and the company's iTunes music store even has its own "iTunes U" section, dedicated to university podcasts. However, the service only hosts broadcasts from US institutions, and Apple would not say whether it planned to open iTunes U to British universities.

But forget Apple: we've got Ashraf. In May 2006, Dr Bill Ashraf, a senior lecturer at Bradford University, abandoned lectures in favour of podcasts on his first-year biochemistry and second-year molecular genetics courses. He has also offered students the chance to send questions to him by text, which he answers, for all to see, on his blog. He did this, he says, after seeing how his teenage daughters were organising their social lives via mobile phones and online social-networking sites. "That's how my future students are going to be thinking: online," he says.

Ashraf also discovered that he is dyslexic, which motivated him to seek an alternative to lectures. "With a podcast, you're not struggling to write down notes. You can pace yourself," he says. "What's more, students don't have to chase me round for lecture notes – it's all on the podcast."

The project has proved successful with students. Kaz Matsumoto, a student on Ashraf's molecular genetics course, says: "Before exam time, I listened to them over and over again while going to the gym and even while walking between lectures. It also helps when you miss lectures from time to time to be able to hear the lecture in its entirety."

Ashraf has begun to offer "enhanced" podcasts which feature slides and video. Does this spell the end for lectures? Many universities are offering podcasts alongside lectures. As a result, there is concern that students will stop turning up for lectures if they can download the podcast.

But according to Lynn Vos, senior lecturer in marketing at Middlesex University Business School, these fears are unfounded. Research shows that the introduction of podcasts does not reduce attendance at lectures, and students see the technology as an additional educational tool, not a replacement, she says. "Podcasts will not supplant the traditional lecture in the near future. I believe they will be viewed as a way to enhance the student experience and form an additional set of materials students can use to remind, de-mystify and clarify."

The lecture offers a forum for student-teacher interaction, according to Vos. Students are able to question tutors on material they find confusing, and the tutor can then adjust the content to improve students' understanding. "Also, the lecture can be viewed as an 'event' where students get together and participate in what is in effect a live performance," she says.

Others don't see podcasting as progress. "I don't think that digitising lectures in itself is the best way of using the technology," says Professor Allison Littlejohn, director of the Caledonian Academy. "After all, it's not that different to what the Open University was doing in the 1970s when it was sending out video tapes."

The Academy, a centre at Glasgow Caledonian University, is charged with investigating new approaches to teaching, looking at the use of computers, MP3 players, social-networking websites and mobile phones. "We're looking at other ways of using podcasts to transform the technology into something that can help students learn," she says.

Warwick University is also seeking to use podcasting as a way of supporting, rather than supplanting, lectures. The MA creative writing course has a podcast for which students are asked to submit short stories. "It's the first podcast with a call to action," says Tom Abbott, who looks after podcasting and the website at Warwick. "It's integral to what the tutor is trying to achieve with his course."

French students at Warwick are also able to download a 10-minute introduction to each lecture. "They go into the lecture better informed and in a better frame of mind," says Abbott. "If we restrict podcasting to just recording lectures, we've missed a trick."