Podcasting emerged over the first decade of the 21st century as a relatively cheap and easy way for communicators to create and disseminate audio content. Audience engagement with podcasts continues to increase year on year; in 2017, 40% of people polled had ever listened to a podcast–an increase of 4% on the previous year’s statistics (1). At the same time, talk radio, which has been popular for nearly a century, continues to thrive; an estimated 90% of the population tune in, and listen to an average of some 21 hours of radio, each week (2). Cumulatively, then, audio platforms offer scientists, researchers, and educators an opportunity to reach audiences in a creative and engaging way without having to invest heavily in training, tools, or dissemination. Further, podcasting assessments can be assigned to students to provide them with an opportunity to produce audio outputs that are not only educational to audiences, but also useful in honing transferable skills and emphasizing the importance of engaging in ‘scicomm’ as professionals (3).
But what about using podcasts to help students review lecture content and prepare for assessments? Although this has typically been the purview of video recapture and shared slides, innovative research (4) on a cohort of students at the University of Michigan’s School of Dentistry suggests that podcasting can provide students with an easily accessible, highly portable record of in-class experiences to help them ensure they have heard and understood all the key points. The audio recordings aren’t likely to be as popular as, say, Science Friday or Armchair Expert, but they have been praised highly by students–and, surprisingly, preferred over videos.
Interestingly, the utility of podcasts was discovered almost by accident. A quartet of educators undertook an instructional design project in response to student requests for video recordings of lectures to be posted online after class. The researchers saw this as a good opportunity to run a case study that would not only allow them to base their educational techniques on real-life data, but would also empower students to become involved in the project and so act as co-creators of their own education–goals that my University of Exeter colleagues may recognize from our institution’s education aims.
The case study sought to answer six questions across three separate pilots:
- What is the best media format in which to review lectures? Rather than immediately agreeing to use videos, the researchers first asked whether videos were actually the best way to capture lecture activity.
- What is the best method to acquire the media? The authors recognized that there might be financial, technological, and staffing constraints to consider when implementing a system, so they explored different techniques that would allow them to identify an optimal plan for their students.
- What is the best way to disseminate the media? Although students specified that they wanted recordings made available online, the researchers needed to figure out how to deal with technical considerations that could impact how the recordings were shared with students.
- Which courses would students benefit from having recorded? Since the research was being conducted as a pilot project, the authors didn’t want to jump straight in to recording every single module only to discover that students weren’t using the recordings, or were only using them for certain classes. Instead, they wanted to target modules with specific characteristics (highly visual content, fast-paced delivery, etc.) to see where recordings are most helpful.
- What are the support costs in terms of staff time and workflow? Even the best educational technique is difficult to implement in the absence of a budget, so the researchers were careful to keep track of resourcing needs associated with this sort of recording activity.
- Does the number of students participating warrant the cost of the project? Performing a cost-benefit analysis allowed the authors to determine whether the effort associated with recording is worthwhile, or whether the resulting educational resources sounded better in theory than in practice.
Question 1 was the focus of the first pilot. Video recordings, audio synced with PowerPoint slides, and audio-only recordings were generated for a microbiology course on which 105 students were enrolled. These students were administered a questionnaire after the pilot concluded, and a small subset of the class also participated in a focus group. Overwhelmingly, the results showed that, though students had originally requested video recordings, they actually preferred audio; 66% of all downloads were the audio-only format. Students reported mostly using the recordings at home, to review lectures they had already attended–and, in particular, to do this shortly before the exam period. A majority of students felt that the audio recordings had a positive impact on their grade, and, as a result, the research group felt that they had identified ‘a satisfactory and cost-effective solution requiring less technical support than a video solution’. However, they still wanted to streamline the process used to produce and disseminate this solution, and so they ran the second and third pilot studies in parallel.
The second focused on question 2. The researchers used different equipment and setups to create, label, save, and share audio files, and then requested student feedback on the quality and usefulness of these recordings. Ultimately, they found that the best audio quality resulted from rigging a computer to capture audio from each lecture room’s public address system. Conveniently, use of the computer also allowed technicians to write scripts in order to automate file processing and posting to the Internet. Although it may sound like the study could have concluded here, the authors point out: ‘Stopping at this point would leave several student needs unexplored, however. Specifically, students requested that we examine ways of automatically notifying them of updated content and provide better tools to navigate available files, along with enhanced features for working with long audio recordings.’ This is where the researchers finally made the jump from simply creating audio files to producing a podcast.
The third and final pilot study, therefore, focused on question 3. Thanks to feedback from students in the focus group, the researchers realized that iPods were a preferred method of listening to the recordings–and, in particular, that the audio book feature was often used to enhance that listening experience; further, they realized that they needed a way to place all module recordings in a single Web location that was easy to access, and, if possible, automatically alert students when files were available for download. As a result, the researchers created a custom website to house all the audio recordings in two different formats (MP3 and AAC), and then they established a Real Simple Syndication, or RSS, feed to inform students of new content and make the download process quicker. Thanks to these modifications, recordings were utilized by nearly twice as many students.
The remaining three questions were answered across all the pilots. An end-of-project review suggested that the podcasts were indeed valuable to students across a range of different courses, and at a relatively negligible cost. Both faculty and students at the focal institution expressed an interest in pursuing future podcasting projects similar to this one, expanding on the pilot work; however, the authors note that a drastic increase in podcasting–ultimately across all modules in all programmes across the university–could substantially increase the amount of investment required. They also point out that some faculty may feel nervous about disseminating the content of their lectures in a format that can easily be downloaded and shared, rather than simply embedded online (as is the case in many video recapture systems); there could be intellectual property (IP) issues that should be discussed with any lecturers asked to participate in these sorts of endeavours.
Although the study was primarily about the educational use of podcasting, the authors also highlight that two of the most important lessons they learned had to do more with the way in which the research was conducted and progressed. First, they remark on ‘the importance of actively involving the client’–in other words, working closely with students in order to more effectively understand, assess, and respond to needs, which enabled the authors to ultimately make a recommendation that was quite different from what they originally anticipated. Second, they emphasize ‘the importance of using proven instructional design and formative evaluation techniques’–a four-part process they describe at the beginning of their paper as involving define, design, develop, and demonstrate phases. Teaching practices in general, and technology-enabled teaching practices in particular, are often implemented because they seem modern and therefore worthy, but the authors and their student collaborators modeled an evidence-based approach that yielded a useful–and cost-saving–practice supported by real data.
Overall, the case study is a fascinating read for educators who are interested in technology-enhanced learning, research-inspired learning, students as co-creators, assessments and evaluations, decisions around institutional policy, and, of course, podcasting. Hearing about this popular and helpful use of podcasting in an educational setting makes you wonder what other technologies could be co-opted and employed in innovative new ways. If you have any ideas, perhaps you can grab some student collaborators and run a few trials!
1. Edison Research and Triton Digital. 2017. The Podcast Consumer 2017: The Infinite Dial. Research report.
2. RAJAR/Ipsos MORI/RSMB. 2017. RAJAR Data Release, Quarter 3. Research report.
3. McGarr, Oliver. 2009. A review of podcasting in higher education: its influence on the traditional lecture. Australasian Journal of Educational Technology 25(3):309-321.
4. Brittain, Sarah, Pietrek Glowacki, Jared Van Ittersum, and Lynn Johnson. 2006. Podcasting lectures. EDUCAUSE Quarterly.