Podcasts as a tool for online learning

Authored by Tom Buckley, Lauren Philp
Edited by: Michael Harris, Ghizzi Dunlop and Paul Redford

‘Podcast’ has become the shorthand for audio-only media. It originally was synonymous with audio-only files shared on the Internet with the mediation of a radio station. The name derives from the iPod – a device that coupled with other technological changes democratised audio-only media consumption beyond corporate radio. In 2020 technological advancement has made it easier than ever to make a passable product, stimulating the growth in podcast production.

Why do people make podcasts? Podcasts are cheap to produce compared to video content and allow for natural flows in conversation between hosts and guests. Performers or experts use podcasts to cultivate an audience and make that audience feel part of a wider community – engendered by the intimacy of having someone speak directly to you. This has benefits for educators looking to create a feeling of belonging in distance education. A lot of revenue generation models for podcast fall into the ‘influencer’ business model. Stars get money for recommending products or getting sponsored by companies looking to get access to the audience they have cultivated. The alternative revenue generation model has the performer give free content away to generate real world sales of merchandise and tickets to live events. They connect that digital world to real world activity.

Why use podcasts in learning and teaching? ‘Professional’ podcasting has proliferated since 2010.  There are thousands of brilliant podcasts made every week. Some have a lot of educational value. There is a growing trend of using freely available podcasts in teaching and learning, both as a trigger for discussion or to reinforce learning.

With audio, students can listen anywhere, anytime using mobile devices. As they are only an audio stream they use very little mobile data. For the same reason, podcasts do not put much pressure on home broadband capacity, improving accessibility to online materials. In addition, podcasts allow teachers to provide more information when compared with written material alone. This is because the speaker can place emphasis, intonation and inflection on words or phrases, offering several advantages including: grasping concepts in a shorter space of time when compared with reading alone; improved understanding for students with reading or learning difficulties such as dyslexia; and improved student engagement with learning materials.

Historical trends in Higher Education suggest adults today enjoy multi-tasking when learning. Anyone who has seen a student conduct research on a laptop whilst also doing something else, such as listening to music, can affirm this. Research suggests that adults’ cognitive flexibility is improving compared with earlier generations. Adults may learn more when multi-tasking.

Podcasts allow students to multi-task: to listen while driving; walking the dog; or completing chores. Being easier to fit into an individual’s often busy life has made the humble podcast a popular way of learning. In 2020, second year UWE midwifery students preferred podcasts, selecting to use podcasts more often than options for online videos, narrated PowerPoints or written materials. Students reported an improved perception of learning. They were more likely to engage with online learning material where a podcast on the subject was made available.

Man cutting vinyl

So if you are interested in making your own podcasts for use with students at UWE Bristol it has never been easier. Below are some resources to show you how. Still not convinced? We recommend reading Podcasts – 20 reasons why we should be using more podcasts in learning . Or why not listen to some of the podcasts already created by UWE Bristol?

Examples of UWE Bristol Podcasts

Appearance Matters: The Podcast! is the official podcast of the Centre for Appearance Research – a world-leading research centre investigating body image and appearance psychology research, based at the University of the West of England in Bristol, UK.

Let’s Talk Now is UWE Bristol’s brand new podcast series to remove the stigma around mental health. This podcast follows our successful #LetsTalkNow campaign and is part of UWE Bristol’s Mental Wealth Lab initiative.

Top tips for planning a podcast

Create a punchy title

Adult learners engage more when they can see relevance and importance for them. Aim to make your podcast appealing from the very start. Trump their competing demands with a punchy title.

Create a narrative

A podcast shouldn’t be about reeling off facts on an audio file – this is enough to bore anyone. Create a narrative/a story. Think about beginning your podcast with a story that your learners can relate to, a challenging question or a surprising statistic. This will stimulate parts of the brain associated with emotional and relational learning, improving engagement and learning. You may even decide to stage a discussion or debate, drawing students into your narrative.

Think about your audience

However you decide to create the narrative, build on common concepts understood by your audience or build on learning you know the student group has previously grasped. Think about how the content relates to the specific group. Adapt the podcast to meet their specific needs or challenges. It can be tempting to list the learning outcomes at the start of the podcast. It is best to use learning outcomes to guide your content. You can detail them in the description.

Think of podcasts as a way to take students on a narrated journey through learning material. Podcasts offer many advantages. They can form an integral part of delivering accessible and inclusive content online, allowing teachers to create interesting and varied media to support engagement and learning.

How to make a recording using Audacity

We recommend a free audio editing tool called Audacity. Audacity lets you edit sound files much as you would edit text in word processing software, with the ability to highlight audio to delete / copy / paste etc.

You will find Audacity in the UWE software centre. You can download the software without administrative rights on your machine. If you are using your own machine for work at the moment then Audacity can be downloaded from their website.

Learning how to get started with Audacity is pretty intuitive, however you might want a more structured learning experience. I  recommend the LinkedIn Learning course ‘Learning Audacity’ skipping the ‘Getting started’ chapter. Also this all round overview How to Record and Edit a Podcast in Audacity (Complete Tutorial), detailing how the software works, with examples of how other people use it to make professional sounding podcasts.

Getting content for your podcast

You might want different voices on your audio files. We can all think of great guest speakers or parts of lectures we have attended that may be good to reuse. Below are three simple ways within UWE Bristol existing digital offerings to easily bring in external content. Please remember to get the required permissions!

From an Event Capture

You can download Event Captures from Panopto. See this Panopto useful support website page ‘How to Download Video or Audio Streams as MP4s‘ which you will find very helpful on this. To import into Audacity you will need to download and install an additional plug in called FFMPeg . Or you could ask your local TEL team for support converting the file. Be aware – some Panopto sound quality is too poor to use with headphones as the background noise may be too distracting.

From a telephone conversation

This is slightly more complicated. You can record telephone conversations conducted on your computer. You must get permission from the other person phoning in. You must declare you will use Audacity to record the conversation. This could be for interviews or any phone-in style interaction. There is a good guide on ‘How to record calls with Audacity on Windows 10‘.

Open sound libraries

Repositories for sound exist, though most need you to create an account to be able to download files. They are full of sounds you might not have known that you needed, such as tills ringing or dogs barking. One example of such a library is Freesound which houses, you guessed it, free sounds.

Getting the recordings to students

Give them the file via Blackboard

Your first option to get your recording to students is by attaching a file to a content type on Blackboard. You can add a sound file in the same way you would add a word document. If you need advice on how to do this, go to Blackboard Support Best Practice: Attaching Files. You will have to provide an alternative format of this file, usually in the form of a written transcript for those who are hard of hearing. You can do this relatively quickly using an AI-based dictation tool and proofing. There is currently no approved work flow at UWE for this.

Your second option is hosting on Panopto

You might be surprised that Panopto can house sounds as well as video. Audio-only tracks, such as podcasts, can be treated in the same way as media produced by making an Event Capture. From embedding to sharing, Panopto is a great option for using your existing skill-set. The other positives of using Panopto to serve your podcasts from include:

  • Making it easier for students to play content through their phones on the Panopto app.
  • Making it easier to take out on their runs.
  • It keeps all the learning content together in one place, so they can browse between media.
  • Once enabled, the closed captioning system will allow automated captioning on your recordings.

We would recommend always providing a transcript as good practice.

References

Gachago, D., Livingston, C. & Ivala, E. (2016) Podcasts: A technology for all?, British Journal of Educational Technology, vol. 47, no. 5, pp. 859-872.

Knoop-van Campen, C.A.N., Segers, E. & Verhoeven, L. (2020) Effects of audio support on multimedia learning processes and outcomes in students with dyslexia, Computers & Education, vol. 150, pp. 103858.

Rogowsky, B., Calhoun, M. & Tallal, P. (2016) Does Modality Matter? The effects of reading, listening and dual modality on comprehension. SAGE Open, vol. 6, no. 3, pp. 215824401666955.

Seemiller, C. & Grace, M. (2017) Generation Z: Educating and Engaging the Next Generation of Students, About Campus: Enriching the Student Learning Experience, vol. 22, no. 3, pp. 21-26.

Stott, A. & Mozer, M. (2016) Connecting learners online: Challenges and issues for nurse education—Is there a way forward?”, Nurse Education Today, vol. 39, pp. 152-154.

UWE (2020) Feedback gathered from second year Midwifery students about online learning [unpublished].

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