Podcasts In Education

  Charles Thacker       February 7, 2007      Tutorials Education

Although the concept of streaming media has been around almost as long as the Internet itself, and Podcasts specifically since 2000, the use of Podcasts in education has recently experienced a growth spurt around the world. Education is not generally known for its quick adoption of new technologies. There are still districts that don’t have a presence on the Internet, although I would be surprised to find some that don’t communicate electronically. However, Podcasts are quickly gaining popularity in the educational environment. This article will discuss what Podcasts are, why and how they are used in education, and the basics of creating Podcasts.

What is a Podcast?

I won’t take much space here to try and give a full history and description of a Podcast. You would be better served by reading the Wikipedia entry for Podcasts.

A Podcast can be defined as a media file that is freely available for download from the Internet automatically with software that can handle RSS feeds. This file is then played on a personal computer or mobile device at the listener’s convenience.

This media file may be just audio, audio enhanced with graphics (quite often slides from a presentation), or full video. In fact, a Podcast can be any type of file, but the most common are audio and video files. Podcast files are created by individuals and companies on computer systems with the appropriate hardware and software—which can be as minimal as a way to record sound—and then uploaded to a server that allows visitors to download the file. These servers often provide a list of available Podcasts, called episodes, to special software that can read the server’s feed. A very popular reader of these feeds is iTunes, which can automate the download of Podcasts and help to synchronize the downloaded files between a computer and a removable device, such as an iPod.

Owning a mobile audio player, or MP3 player like an iPod, is not necessary to download and listen to Podcasts. Some statistics show that nearly 80% of downloaded Podcasts are viewed on a personal computer.

In the classroom, a Podcast can be a lecture, presentation, announcement, audio book, or any kind of supplemental material facilitating the educational goals of the teacher and students. It can be created by an outside entity, the teacher, the students or any combination thereof.

Education as a Consumer

Any educator interested in using Podcasts in the classroom should begin by watching a few of them. There are Podcasts for every subject area and for a variety of grade levels. At the post-secondary level it is not uncommon to find entire lectures available for download. A quick search through the iTunes Music Store will return results on almost any topic you are interested in. If you are new to Podcasts, you can familiarize yourself with the general concept by subscribing to a few that are of interest to you, regardless of their applicability in the classroom. This allows you to experience the asynchronous nature of the medium.

Podcasts are similar to e-mail messages in regards to their creation and consumption. They are built around the idea of ‘convenient for me, convenient for you’. This means that I can create a Podcast when I want and on a topic I want. You can then listen to that Podcast if you wish, and you can choose the time to do so. You are not required to be online at a given time. You can choose to listen a week, month, or even year after I’ve created the Podcast. In the classroom this is valuable for repeated use of material, from day to day or semester to semester, and it allows you to match the timing of the presentation to the content of your curriculum. You are also not forced to listen to the entire episode. You may want to be selective regarding what you present to your classes. Once downloaded to your computer or MP3 player, the Podcast can be started anywhere, as well as paused, restarted and stopped at your discretion. The Podcast can also be made available to each student individually if they have Internet access, either from school or from home.

Consider how you can use some of the material being published to supplement your lessons or your child’s schoolwork. Two advantages of Podcasts as supplemental material in schools are the opportunity to provide information in a variety of ways to better meet the diverse learning styles of your students and the inclusion of current technology that is already being used by your students personally for educational purposes. Many educators have found that the use of technology in the classroom has changed the interest level of many students simply due to the fact that they are using technology themselves for personal reasons and are more interested in material presented through this familiar medium.

Podcasts should have a planned presence in your classroom. They should not be included with little or no planning. Consider the pedagogical approach you’ll be taking and match the use of Podcasts to that approach, not the other way around. Careful preparation and planning are necessary to succeed with new tools, and Podcasts are no exception. If you’re expecting to download and play some Podcasts and gain student interest and increase performance, you’ll be disappointed. Planning a Podcast as a resource to enhance your classroom is a better, and more professional, approach. For example, it’s very likely that you’ll want to use just snippets of some Podcasts to highlight concepts and support the curriculum, so you won’t be playing the entire file. You can skip ahead to specific parts and play only those pieces that are pertinent to your class objectives. Compared to the Fast Forward and Rewind of the filmstrip, film projector and VHS days, Podcasts make selective presentation of material exceedingly simple and powerful. However, this requires that you listen to the entire Podcast and select those portions you wish to use. The time invested in this process now will pay off when your lessons are focused and appropriate.

I’ll close this section with a few examples. These aren’t fantasies, but potential realities in your own classrooms.

Education as a Creator

The next step in the use of Podcasts in the classroom is to start creating your own. Teachers may want to start by creating a few episodes of their own, on their own (with technical help where needed), and then move on to having students create their own Podcasts.

A paradigm shift is happening in education, one that is flattening the pedagogical approach in classrooms. What this means is that the traditional top-down approach - teachers lecturing and students taking notes - is being replaced with a collaborative approach where students are creating their own content and learning in the process. Technology has been accelerating this shift by equalizing access to information. Students now have quick and simple access to the same information that any educator or parent has. Since they’ve grown up with these tools, they may have more access due to their familiarity with the Internet and technology in general. In many ways, adults are playing catch up with the kids around them when it comes to technology. Instead of educators being afraid of their students’ access to all this information, they should be encouraging further exploration and helping to guide the process of analysis and synthesis in the classroom. Ignoring or denying the benefits, power and advantages of the ubiquitous access to information their students have will only decrease the effectiveness of their classroom. This is not to say that every class needs to use technology on a daily basis, or that technology should replace all educational resources currently in place, but it should be included where appropriate and effective.

Creating a Podcast requires hardware and software for recording sound—and saving it in the appropriate format—as well as a server to host the Podcast file. The server does not have to be accessible to the public as long as your intended audience can access it. In our district, we have a few options for staff depending on their system and level of comfort with technology. Our FirstClass Unified Communications system provides a very simple way to both create audio Podcasts and publish any type of Podcast. A built-in microphone is available on all of our staff computers, or a variety of external microphones can be used. Staff with more powerful machines, such as those participating in our Technology Leadership Program, can take advantage of what may be the perfect Podcast-creation suite for educators—iLife. GarageBand has all the tools you need to create professional Podcasts in an extremely simple interface. Combine GarageBand with iTunes, iMovie, and (if you want to move into presentations) iWork’s Keynote and you have an unbeatable combination of tools for Podcasting.

Students can participate in this creative process as well. After the instructor is comfortable with creating and using Podcasts, it is a natural evolution to allow students to be involved in the instructional environment using available technology, in this case Podcasts. This gives the students ownership of their education, which can happen with or without technology and should be occurring in the classroom anyway. This flattening of the instructional environment is paramount to the success of students in an ever-changing world where higher level thinking and creative problem solving skills will be the differentiating factor in whether you have an enjoyable and productive career or become the disgruntled worker watching their job get outsourced to a competitive market. This flattening will be the topic of a future TechEd article as we take a look at how education has been, and is being, impacted by the world Thomas L. Friedman describes in his book The World Is Flat. (Recommended reading for everyone, everywhere.)

There are numerous resources on the Internet addressing the how-tos of Podcasting, and you need to find those resources that match your skill level, interest and computing system. The links at the end of this article are just a starting point, and I had to trim the list quite a bit so that it was not overwhelming. Whether you introduce Podcasting to your students or children will most likely be irrelevant as to whether they use and create Podcasts. Take advantage of their curiosity, ingenuity and creativity. Include them in the process of educating themselves. You’ll be encouraging the creation of lifelong learners.

Advantages of Podcasting in Education

Podcasts provide several advantages to teachers, students and parents. The points made above all support the list of advantages below, which is certainly not all inclusive and is growing as Podcasts become more prevalent in our educational systems.

  1. Meet the needs of more students with varying learning styles and aptitudes.
  2. Provide ‘make up lectures’ to students who were absent.
  3. Supplement existing material and resources with a portable and remotely accessible source of information.
  4. Audio benefits vision impaired students and non-native speakers.
  5. Ability to replay and review information helps to embed lessons in memory.
  6. Asynchronous consumption allows for convenient access and multi-tasking (riding the bus, walking, working out, etc…).
  7. Flexible curriculum pathways to encourage student participation and facilitate success.
  8. Most appropriate presentation of spoken/audio material—e.g. native language, foreign language, speech therapy, music, reading assistance.

Future articles in TechEd will discuss some specific Podcasting in Education tips and tricks, but this introduction should give you a sense of how Podcasts are making the classroom a truly collaborative and dynamic learning environment.

I always welcome your comments, questions and criticisms regarding the articles in TechEd on Macinstruct. Please e-mail me directly at cthacker@macinstruct.com

You will be surprised by the number of educational Podcasts available on the Internet, created by educators and students, through the links below. Please visit these sites and navigate a few pages on each to see what is happening with Podcasts in education.

My personal favorite Podcast list (for now)

These are not all intended for use in a classroom, but they are in my subscriptions and I’m a regular listener to them all.

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