Podcasts: Improving Quality and Accessibility

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Podcasts are increasingly being used in K-12 and in higher education. In part 1 of this two-part series, I discussed their nature, demonstrated their potential for learning, and pointed out that in developing podcasts, students become involved with the project method, which is a real-world experience. I also voiced my concern that many podcasts I've heard suffer from poor quality of the audio, content, and speaker presentation. Accessibility is also a major issue that is being overlooked in their development. Let's now look at what you might do to improve the quality and accessibility of your podcasts, so that all learners can benefit, including those with disabilities.

Creating a Quality Podcast
The podcast file can be created using a computer with a sound card, microphone, audio recording and editing software, and access to a website for posting (Warlick, n.d.). While you can use a microphone built into your computer, better sound might be captured using a headset, such as those produced by Logitech. For higher-quality audio, professional and semi-professional equipment would be optimal. Midrange USB and FireWire audio interfaces, such as those from PreSonus, M-Audio, and Digidesign, can be found starting at around $200 or so, as can semi-professional microphones from the likes of MXL and AKG. (Studio monitors or monitoring headphones are also recommended for mixing and editing.)

On the software side, there's a fairly wide range of solutions available. For recording and mixing, Audacity works on several platforms, including Windows and Mac OS X, and GarageBand is for Macs. For conversion of audio to MP3, LAME is an open-source solution available for Mac OS X, Windows, Linux, and a variety of systems you've probably never encountered before. (There's also a LAME encoder for iTunes for Mac, called iTunes-LAME, that allows for high-quality MP3 conversion directly within that program. It's also quick and easy to install.) iTunes for PC or Mac is, of course, the great podcast aggregator.

There is nothing worse than listening to a poor speaker who spouts unprepared text that was posted without editing the sound. It makes me want to turn off the podcast. Fortunately, there are several Web tutorials on how to create quality podcasts. It's more than the techy side of learning to record audio. Learninginhand.com is particularly relevant, as Tony Vincent (2007), the site developer, suggests resources and discusses the four phases of production. These are preproduction, recording, post-production, and publishing.

Preproduction takes the longest time because a script is developed to fit a particular time length for the podcast. Rehearsal should take place so that the speaker learns to control his/her volume, speed, and fluency. Audio can be recorded in segments. This makes the recording process faster and minimizes the editing. At post production editing, unnecessary audio pauses are eliminated. Podcasters can also freely jazz up their casts with sounds from The Freesound Project and music posted at Podcast Audio, as both are Creative Commons licensed. Publishing involves posting the podcast to a web page and creating an RSS Feed. Will Richardson (2005) includes resources and describes the process for setting up your own RSS Feed Reader, how to find and add feeds, and using RSS feeds in the classroom in RSS: A Quick Start Guide For Educators.

K12 Handhelds includes suggestions for recording and editing software and how to publish a podcast. There are samples of podcast directories, devices for listening to podcasts, content that might be included, and the relevance of podcasts in education. You can learn to prepare, record, and publish your podcasts at Yahoo! Podcasts.

Text Equivalents for Accessibility
Schools are in the business of educating all learners. If the podcast is on a school Web site, or is hosted at another site and has potential for use in schools, then its text equivalent should be provided. Text equivalents help meet the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 508, which require streaming media to be accessible to the deaf and hearing impaired. There are also times when individuals who can hear would benefit from text, such as when silence is required in a room and headphones are missing for listening to audio, when audio might not be available on a computer, or when the listener is in a noisy room.

Automatic Sync Technologies, a captioning service for podcasts, reminds us that text equivalents also help content to be retained. Comprehension improves, which is particularly important for students with learning disabilities and those for whom English is a second language. Seeing the text equivalent also minimizes problems with understanding technical content, unfamiliar terms, non-native English presenters, or poor audio quality. Captioning enables traditional text searches to be used on the content because the text is synchronized with the audio material.

Unfortunately, schools and podcast producers might have limited resources and time to make text equivalents. But there are options to make the process easier.

Consider MAGpie (Media Access Generator), which is free captioning software available from the National Center for Accessible Media. It comes with documentation and a help option via a listserv. The University of Wisconsin also provides an excellent tutorial to walk you through the steps of preparing your system to work with the software, installing MAGpie 2, creating the transcript, importing the transcript into MAGpie, adding timecode instructions to control when the caption is displayed, and then combining caption files with QuickTime, RealPlayer, or Windows Media Player, the three popular media formats.

If you transcribe your own podcast, starting and stopping it to transcribe what you just heard might take several times longer than the podcast itself, depending on how fast you type and how much you can remember at one time. Express Scribe is free professional audio player software for PC or Mac to help transcribers control the speed of playback of the audio using either a foot pedal or the keyboard with hot-keys. It works with Microsoft Word and other word processing software.

Express Scribe also works with speech recognition software like Dragon Naturally Speaking. A few years ago, I experimented with Dragon Naturally Speaking. At that time the product required "training" to my voice. Word recognition wasn't always the greatest and some editing was required, but I was eventually pleased to just talk and have text automatically appear on my computer. However, the latest version 9 is improved with no voice training required and comes with editions that support pre-recorded .wav and .mp3 input.

Alternatively, consider using transcription services, such as CastingWords Transcription Services or Enablr. Some services are better than others. After submitting a three-minute podcast to four vendors, including the aforementioned, the University of Wisconsin-Madison found costs, turnaround time, and errors varied, as did the quality and format of the transcription provided by each. Regardless of the service you choose, you would still want to proofread, particularly for technical jargon, punctuation, spelling errors, fidelity to the original recording, and output formatting.

Conclusion
Deciding what to write and what to say in a podcast is paramount. We're not all professional broadcasters, but listeners and readers will better appreciate your message, if you have also considered the technical merit of your podcast when it is developed. Hopefully, the resources suggested here will help you improve that quality and accessibility.

Resources:

References:

Richardson, W. (2005). RSS: A Quick Start Guide For Educator.

Vincent, T. (2007). Create podcasts.

Warlick, D. (n.d.). What is a podcast? Education Podcast Network.

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About the author: Patricia Deubel has a Ph.D. in computing technology in education, and is currently an adjunct faculty member in the graduate School of Education at Capella University and an education consultant. She is also the developer of Computing Technology for Math Excellence at http://www.ct4me.net.

Proposals for articles, news tips, ideas for topics, and questions and comments about this publication should be submitted to David Nagel, executive editor, at dnagel@1105media.com.

About the Author

Patricia Deubel has a Ph.D. in computing technology in education from Nova Southeastern University and is currently an education consultant and the developer of Computing Technology for Math Excellence at http://www.ct4me.net. She has been involved with online learning and teaching since 1997.

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