Technology, politics and the Beatles

By Shannon O’ Brien

Michael CheneyPaul McCartney is dead. That was the rumor going around in 1969, after the Beatles had recorded their “Abbey Road” album; college radio stations and student newspapers fanned the flames, and fans scrutinized Beatles’ album art, and played records backward, looking for clues to the truth. Michael Cheney, UIS professor of communication and an associate professor of economics, considers the “Paul is Dead” conspiracy to be “one of the first urban legends.” As an undergrad student, he took a one-credit special topics course on “Paul is Dead” while a student at the University of Illinois-Champaign in 1970. Now, he teaches an online Liberal Studies course on the Beatles, and creates podcasts to supplement the coursework, including one devoted to the “Paul is Dead” episode. In 4 minutes and 41 seconds, listeners can learn background information on the conspiracy, the response from the Fab Four, and the eventual resolution.

At the end of 2010, Cheney’s podcast “Unit 1: Beatles as Mosaic” was listed as the second most downloaded podcast on iTunes U, a service offered through Apple that distributes free educational content to students as well as anyone else who finds a topic that interests them. Visitors to iTunes U will find courses offered by Oxford, Stanford, UC Berkeley, Ohio State University and the University of Illinois Springfield, to name just a few participants. The only requirement to accessing all these courses is access to iTunes software.

iTunes U is an ideal outlet for a technophile like Cheney: “I have to have the latest app in my iPad. I’m not just leading edge—I’m bleeding edge. I’m probably out there where there’s no oxygen some times,” he says with a laugh. Creating podcasts for iTunes U allows him to continually develop his skill with the program, work with gadgets and electronics in the process of recording, and perfect the nature of a compelling podcast designed with the student listener in mind.

The BeatlesProfessor Cheney’s interest in technology started earlier than most people might expect. He attributes it to another class he took at UI-Urbana. “I had a master’s thesis advisor, who was head of broadcasting for WILL AM/FM and TV. He started developing a course on broadcast management with the PLATO system; I learned the system with his guidance and developed a course in television lighting. That was the genesis of my early interest in using technology,” he says.

The PLATO (Programmed Logic for Automated Teaching Operations) system is nearly 50 years old, and it originated at the University of Illinois-Urbana campus. Access to it started Cheney on a path where he would embrace technology as a tool for education, and encourage those around him to embrace it as well.

One stop on that path included a 20-year stint at a private university in Iowa. “I have a passion for media and politics, so when an opportunity presented itself to teach in the School of Journalism at Drake University in Des Moines, given presidential campaigns begin in earnest in this state, I took the position,” he says. During that 20-year timeframe, he “followed everybody who ever ran for president,” interviewing candidates, their staff, and reporters on the campaign trail, and contributing to media discussions in Iowa about the presidential campaigns. He became the Dean of the School of Journalism, and later the Associate Provost. “When I was at Drake, we joined the Apple University Consortium, which included 36 schools in the country. These included the University of Illinois – Urbana-Champaign, Princeton, Harvard, Dartmouth and other very well known schools. Drake was fortunate to be in on that group of 36. Within this consortium, we started doing a lot of different things with technology,” he recalls. Before the Web existed, there was an application called Hypercard, which he describes as a hyperlinked set of data sheets. He used this application, and created a unit for the Iowa caucuses in 1988, as well as one on television lighting; these were used at Drake heavily. Being part of the Apple University Consortium, projects were shared with other campuses in the Consortium, “so my Hypercard stacks were being used across the country,” he explains.

In 1986, Drake gave every faculty member a computer desktop; in 1988, the university gave one to every student who lived in a dormitory. This was long before the sleek design and light weight convenience that most computers offer today. These were cumbersome and not lightning fast. And, of course, the faculty needed to be taught how to use this new device. Cheney recalls one professor who was trying out the new computer. “He wanted to use the menu in the upper-left corner [of the screen],” he says. With the cursor two-thirds of the way to the menu, he ran out of space on the table to continue moving his mouse; the computer was in the way. Not sure what to do, he lifted the computer and continued moving the mouse in the direction he needed. Those more familiar with the computers explained to him that he could simply pick up his mouse and restart the movement somewhere else on the desk. There was no need to move anything out of the mouse’s way.

Michael CheneyIn 2001, Cheney became the Provost and Vice-Chancellor for Academic Affairs at UIS. As a Provost, he helped bring in Sloan Foundation grant money, which assisted in putting some degrees online. He returned to the faculty in 2005 and began teaching online courses. At that time, he also became a senior fellow of the University of Illinois’ Institute of Government and Public Affairs.

When he returned to teaching at UIS, Cheney wanted to explore the kinds of technologies available to enhance his classes. At this time, the campus, both faculty and staff, was beginning to use podcasts for educational and informational purposes. “ I had done radio, so an audio podcast was nothing unusual,” Cheney says. He liked the idea that podcasts would appeal to a different learning style: “A lot of people when they teach a class, they just think of one learning style…visual.” He thought the web presented a great opportunity to incorporate multiple learning styles. “When I develop a course, I’ll go through and make sure each of the learning styles is present in each of the units of the course,” he says.

He also knew the Beatles was a ripe topic for interesting information beyond what could be covered in class. “I started going through all the various parts of the course, and I was finding there were two or three topics for every year of the Beatles story” that should be mentioned, he explains. “For example, John Lennon was involved in something called the 14 Hour Technicolour Dream, which was basically just a huge love in,” he says. But students aren’t going to go digging up information on this sub-topic, so he did a podcast to explain it.

The podcasts also provided a solution for him when he found material that wasn’t easily accessible to students, or wasn’t condensed in a manageable form for a classroom setting. He would include the information in his podcasts.

In 2006, UIS joined iTunes U. “Once we got into iTunes U, I suddenly had a little bit more traffic. The ITS office is also able to get data on how many people are downloading your material, how many people are previewing it and we started getting some interesting statistics,” he says. When the first wave of statistics came through, his Beatles podcast was number one for the campus. “I was just amazed. Even before the Beatles [songs] were on iTunes, the number of people listening to the podcasts was between 50 to 60,000 a month,” he says. Once the Beatles’ musical catalogue became available through iTunes, which happened in 2010, Cheney saw his podcast downloads increase to half a million in a three-month period. The podcasts also received two million previews—another way of listening to the recordings on iTunes—during that same timeframe.

Now he’s tweaking his podcasts to make sure they are of the highest quality. “I’m a constant editor,” he says. He’s also upgraded some of his equipment, including a new, top of the line microphone. “I now have a microphone that looks like the vintage microphones you’d see on Letterman’s desk, but it is state of the art” he says with a smile. He’s making recordings for his other classes, too, and trying to perfect the right length for a podcast. He strives to keep them between three and five minutes. “It seems that’s about the right length,” he says. “People will listen to that length.”

Cheney is also exploring the role social media plays in the narrative of politics, tying together his three core interests: media, technology, and politics. The idea occurred to him when following Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. “Obama’s whole campaign began because of Facebook,” he explains. Facebook support groups for Obama began cropping up throughout the country, which helped the grassroots campaign gain momentum. Cheney was intrigued by this phenomenon, and paid attention to how social media would be used throughout the election. “I now have a grant from the Center for State Policy and Leadership to look at how representatives and senators in Illinois’ legislature use social media and talk about issues,” he says.

Today’s society is a technological one, and there’s no question Professor Cheney feels right at home in it. He had an iPad on the first day they were available. He has the most recent iPhone, and is looking forward to upgrading to the next one as soon as it’s released. Cheney’s interest in the next new technological opportunity that can enhance student learning is surpassed only by the speed at which those opportunities seem to present themselves.


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