Now Hear This: Podcasting for Teaching and Learning

PodcastsScreenshot_2016-04-15-12-07-52 are having a moment. The Economist magazine declared 2016 “The Year the Podcast Came of Age.” New York magazine recently asked, “What’s Behind the Great Podcast Renaissance?” And the New York Times just announced a couple of weeks ago that they are launching a new digital audio/podcast endeavor. Why, with the dominance of video and social media in the last decade, are podcasts enjoying a resurgence? Are there implications and opportunities here for teaching and learning?

Digital audio is hardly a recent phenomenon, and podcasting itself has been around for a good fifteen years. It make seem like the distant past to some, but there was a time when the iPod, after its 2001 debut, was the device of choice on college campuses and beyond. The first wave of podcast enthusiasm was driven by the relative ease of creating spoken word audio files coupled with the distribution and subscription system of iTunes and other applications. By 2005, thousands of podcasts were being created, and colleges and universities started handing out iPods to freshmen and exploring the pedagogical potential of podcasts. In his 2005 article, “There’s Something in the Air: Podcasting in Education,” Gardner Campbell pondered how and why a liberal arts community could make use of the new medium:

There is magic in the human voice, the magic of shared awareness. Consciousness is most persuasively and intimately communicated via voice. The voice is literally inspired language, language full of breath, breath as language ….. A voice that creates a theater of the mind–radio’s time-honored heritage–can connect with the listener on a profound level …. At it’s best, podcasting can serve as training in rich interiority and its shared message.

There’s also considerable value in what I call “the explaining voice,” the voice that performs understanding. The explaining voice conveys microcues of hesitation, pacing, and inflection that demonstrate both cognition and metacognition. When we hear someone read with understanding, we participate in that understanding, almost as if the voice is enacting our own comprehension. In other words, the explaining voice trains the ear to listen not just for meaning but for evidence of the thought that generates meaning.

After this initial burst of activity in the mid-oughts, interest in podcasting seemed to decline, and podcasts became a more marginal feature of the media ecosystem. But digital spoken word audio has persisted and is finding new and growing audiences today. So it seems appropriate to revisit the possibilities of podcasts for teaching and learning.

I see three broad categories for thinking about pedagogy and podcasts: (1) utilizing already existing podcasts in your particular discipline; (2) instructor-created podcasts, which could be used as part of a flipped-classroom design; and (3) student-created podcasts. In the first case, you might see if there are existing podcasts that might supplement your other course materials, or that might provide presentations on a topic that your students could critically analyze. For example, economics and business students could examine episodes of Freakonomics Radio or Planet Money to dissect how financial topics are being explained to a general audience. Political science students could dissect the Five Thirty Eight Elections podcast to study political commentary. Philosophy students might do something similar with Philosophy Bites or History of Philosophy Without any Gaps. No matter what your discipline, there are probably experts in the field who are podcasting about it on a regular basis.

Secondly, instructors can create podcasts for class use. Just as Andy Carr is creating videos for students to watch as he flips his organic chemistry classes, so podcasts could also be used in situations that don’t require a significant use of visuals to convey the subject matter. You might think that it is always better to produce videos as forms of digital media since, as it is said, “a picture is worth a thousand words.” But that’s not necessarily true. Audio-only content stimulates the listener to actively construct mental imagery that corresponds to the spoken words. Podcasts could thus promote more generative learning on the part of students if they are required to create their own visualizations rather than simply looking at pre-made images. Sometimes, though, it’s simply the case that a podcast can extend the teaching opportunities for the instructor. Philosopher Peter Adamson, producer of History of Philosophy without any Gaps, observes in “To Podcast, or Not to Podcast” that

You can get into more detail in a podcast than you can in classroom teaching. When I first began the project, I wondered whether I could be accused of “dumbing down” the subject for a broad audience. But in fact, I find that I have to tell my students to go listen to my podcasts if they want the full story behind the texts and issues I have time to present during actual class time.

Thirdly, there are student-created podcasts. Here again, you would want to think through possible use cases that might fit your course design and pedagogy. What could students do with a spoken word digital audio assignment? Storytelling and narrative come to mind. Digital stories are usually assumed to involve a video or at least a visual component, but of course they could also be purely aural. Other possibilities might include interviews, documentaries, and exposition/explanation. Such projects would not dispense with writing, since the creation of a script is an essential element of producing a podcast. But it would be a form of writing that prompts the student to consider elements of oral presentation and proclamation as intrinsic aspects of composition. We want liberal arts students to be competent in a range of discourse forms, in order to effectively communicate to a general audience the value of their education in general and of their subject matter specializations in particular. Podcast assignments could help students hone important skills for presenting their learning through the spoken word.

Although podcasts are primarily designed for listening, they are in the best cases situated in a broader context that facilitates interaction between the speaker(s) and the audience. Ideally, podcasts are posted in a blog space that may contain transcripts, links, and opportunities for discussion, commentary, annotation, and social media recirculation. In fact, podcasts have sometimes been referred to as “audio blogs.” Placement in a blog also enables a core feature of podcasting, namely, distribution via and RSS feed so that new episodes are automatically sent to subscribers. You can also subscribe to many podcasts via the iTunes Store podcast section, but while that’s a great place (though not the only place) to discover podcasts, it is not an interface that promotes podcasts within the space of the open web, as Bryan Alexander argues in “What Happened to Podcasting, and What Didn’t.”

What tools do you need to get into the podcast game? On the listening and subscribing side, you probably want to look at mobile apps first. One of the selling points of podcasts is listening while otherwise occupied with relatively thought-free activities…in the car, at the gym, doing household chores, etc. Do a search for something like “best podcast app for android (or iPhone),” read some reviews, and see what you think. My current choice with an Android device is Pocket Casts, which I like for its smooth navigational layout and its syncing across platforms. Sometimes I listen to podcasts via my MacBook Pro laptop, and I have Pocket Cast there as well. Try a few apps out, and see what you like in terms of design and feature sets. Your podcatcher app will be your primary interface for discovering, subscribing to, and listening to podcasts.

audacityOn the production side, your basic needs are a microphone and recording/editing software. Will you need to record in the field or away from your laptop? Then your choice might be for a voice recorder app on your smartphone (I use one called Smart Voice Recorder for Android, but there are many out there). For higher quality on the go, a dedicated digital audio recorder device might be called for; check out this review of voice recorders at the Wirecutter. If you can record in your office or other such place, you can use the built-in mic on your laptop, but this is not recommended for good quality audio. Most guides recommend an external microphone, something like the Blue Yeti, that connects via USB. That’s what I have in my office, if you’d like to check it out or borrow it. For something a little less pricey, a decent headset mic would also work well. The most widely recommend application for recording/editing is Audacity, which is free and cross-platform. Audacity is a full-feature audio platform that will allow you to fine tune your audio file with noise reduction, normalization, equalization, and compression to create a professional sound. It’s not difficult to use, and there are plenty of guides and tutorials available, some of which I’ve listed below.

So, if you think podcasting might have a place in your pedagogy, let us know here at Digital Pedagogy@Austin College, and we’ll be happy to explore possibilities with you and support your project in whatever way we can.

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