Podcasts: Where's the Learning?


Podcasts are becoming popular for educational purposes. Increasingly students in K-12 and in higher education are creating podcasts to demonstrate what they are learning. The technology is becoming so important that online course management systems, such as Angel Learning, are now incorporating features enabling content providers to include podcasting (Nagel, 2007). However, many of those I've heard appear to be created by individuals experimenting with the technology and suffer from poor quality in the audio, content, and speaker presentation. It appears accessibility is also a major issue that is being overlooked in their development. Think of the last time you were in a public place watching a large screen TV with captions. Why were they there? Obviously, so that you would know what was being said over the din of the crowd. And you hear just fine. Then put yourself in the shoes of a deaf or hearing-impaired learner who is asked to listen to a podcast as part of a course learning experience. There is no text equivalent provided. Unless you are hearing-impaired, you probably don't think about this problem in using or creating them. Let's begin with some discussion about podcasts and their role in learning, and then look at what you might do to improve quality and their accessibility.

What Are Podcasts?
You can think of the word "podcast" as derived from "POD" (playable on demand) and "broadcasting," but the term was inspired from Apple 's iPod. A podcast is essentially an audio file on the Internet, like a radio program. At sites that host podcasts, such as Podcast.net or the Education Podcast Network, you can selectively listen to one at a time via your computer or download them to an iPod or any device that can play mp3 files. According to Wikipedia, what makes podcasts different from other digital media formats is that they can be downloaded automatically using software capable of reading feed formats, such as RSS (which stands for Really Simple Syndication).

Podcasts are one-way communications and not designed to be interactive. The better sites that host them categorize podcasts to help retrieval on a topic of interest. Better searching is made possible because of tags or keywords that are added to each podcast to help identify its content and to help with navigating the entire directory.

When you subscribe to a tag via an RSS link, such as at Podcast.net, you automatically receive new podcasts that contain the tag of interest. Thus, content finds you, not the other way around. For managing podcasts, consider using Juice for Mac OS X, Windows, and Linux users. Juice is free software, lets you capture and listen to podcasts anytime anywhere, and supports more than 15 languages.

Where's the Learning?
Students develop literacy skills as they create podcasts. They become more engaged with their learning, or at least with the uniqueness of the technology itself. David Warlick provides evidence of learning at his Education Podcast Network. You will find topics in 21st century teaching and learning and subject-specific podcasts ranging from computer and information skills to dance, music, and visual arts education to mathematics, science, and second languages. There are also student and class podcasts categorized for elementary, middle, and secondary school.  

There seems to be no limit to ideas for learning with podcasts. Tony Vincent (2007) suggests that podcasts can be used to provide weekly updates on classroom news, report on field trips, record a class discussion, conduct interviews, share book reviews, and review curricular content. Peter Meng (2005) notes that university students can record and upload foreign language lessons to their instructor's website. Teachers can record notes and lectures for download. Students can use podcasts for projects and project support interviews. They can be used for oral history archiving and on demand distribution. Podcasts can be used for audio recordings of chapters in textbooks, which support audio learners and make content easily portable. Podcasts that capture unique sounds found in nature, such as animal, bird, and human heart sounds, would be valuable for studies in the field.

In developing podcasts, students become involved with the project method, which is a real-world experience. At Longfellow Middle School in Wisconsin students write storyboards, conference about the content, edit, perform, analyze the raw footage, combine the spoken word with photos or video, work in teams, and meet the class deadlines. They develop higher-order thinking skills, their ability to write, select facts, develop and organize ideas and content, and communicate orally.

Jim Moulton (2007) reported in his blog that seventh graders are creating "Words of Wisdom" podcasts for their school's morning announcements. They are "spending significant amounts of time reading, understanding, rereading, reflecting on, and ultimately recording the words of Mahatma Gandhi, Winston Churchill, Eleanor Roosevelt, and others, along with a pithy moral. They are thinking about how to modulate and pace their voices, how to read in tune with the words so as to make their recording engaging and meaningful, entertaining and instructive, popular and purposeful" (para. 5).

With guidance, elementary students can create podcasts. Students at Willowdale Elementary School in Omaha (NE) created Radio WillowWeb, a podcast series for kids. Third-grade students recently posted what they learned about the ear and the world of sound in Willowcast #26. Grade 5 students at Tovashal Elementary School (CA) post what they are learning to ColeyCast, named for their teacher. Their recent podcasts address interesting facts about the United States, Puritan life in New England, weather, inside the human body, and the solar system.

Ann Marie Dlott (2007) suggests using a think aloud strategy to demonstrate how to rewind, replay, and pause to take notes, which are skills students need when using podcasts for instruction. If students then create their own podcasts, provide a rubric, such as the one developed by Ann Bell at the University of Wisconsin-Stout, so they will know how their work will be critiqued.

So the potential for positive, rewarding learning experiences is there, along with proven strategies for using podcasts in a wide range of academic scenarios. But, technically speaking, not all podcasts are created equal. Next week, in the second part of this two-part series, we'll take a look at methods for raising the level of quality in podcasts and making those podcasts accessible for all learners, including those with disabilities.



Dlott, A. M. (2007). A (pod)cast of thousands. Educational Leadership, 64(7), 80-82.

Meng, P. (2005). Podcasts and vodcasts: Definitions, discussions, & implications. The University of Missouri.

Moulton, J. (2007). What has podcasting done for you? Edutopia Spiral Notebook Blog.

Nagel, D. (2007, May 9). Angel adds LOM, podcasting in 7.2. Campus Technology.

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

Vincent, T. (2007). Create podcasts.

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


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.

Have any additional questions? Want to share your story? Want to pass along a news tip? Contact Dave Nagel, executive editor, at [email protected].