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Podcasting arrgh ! Everyone is talking about it, but where do I start?

At the moment podcasting seems to be the buzz word in learning technology. Here at the University of Bristol, I’ve just started two pilots studies involving podcasting to support teaching and learning. Given the increased interest I think it is worth going back to first principles to identify what it offers you, the Blackboard instructor. This article addresses four questions which are often asked by lectures/teachers with respect to podcasting.

  1. What is podcasting?
  2. How might it be used within education?
  3. Can I use it on my Blackboard course?
  4. As a Blackboard instructor, where should I start?

The first question is relatively straightforward, podcasting can be defined as

“Podcasting is a blanket term used to describe a collection of technologies for automatically distributing audio and video [files] over the internet via a publish and subscribe model. Podcasting enables independent producers to create self-published, syndicated "radio shows," and gives broadcast radio or television programs a new distribution method.

In the podcasting model, the publisher publishes a list of programs in a special format, known as a "feed", on the web. A user who wants to see or hear the podcast subscribes to the feed in special "podcatching" software (a type of aggregator), which periodically checks the feed and automatically downloads new programs as they become available. Typically, the podcatching software also transfers the program to a desktop or portable media player.”

Aware of that misleading association from the beginning, some writers have suggested alternative names or reinterpretations of the letters "p-o-d", without winning much of a following. One little-used alternative is "blogcasting", which implies content based on, or similar in format to, blogs. Another is "audioblogging."”

Source: Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Podcasting) [ 12 th November, 2005]

From the definition we can draw out some key characteristics;

  • Podcasting is associated with the creation, distribution and listening of audio content.
  • It is a subscription model. Students (listeners) make a conscious decision to subscribe to the broadcast using their own technology as opposed to visiting a web site or Blackboard course.
  • It is a low threshold technology. Like blogging it is very easy to create a podcast. All you need is to create an audio (mp3) file, and have a distribution route.
  • It is not the sole domain of iPods. From the subscribers perspective all they need is a device(s) that can access the Internet, store and play audio files

A point of confusion is the “podcast feed”. This is simply the web address where the software checks to see if any new audio files have been uploaded since the last time it checked. If there are any new files then it will download them.

Given we are a little clearer on what is a podcast, the next question is how can it be used with teaching and learning? As a stimulus, I’ll focus on the outcomes from a set of sessions I ran at the recent Handheld Learning Conference, at Goldsmiths College. During the workshop I ran a flip chart activity which required the participants (over 40 people) to brainstorm how they might use podcasts within learning and teaching. As you’d expect there was a wide range of uses and these were strongly influenced by the educational sector and role of the attendee. I’ve selected a small number below.

  • youth work (sharing of digitally created music)
  • recoding content eg regional dialect
  • pupil generated ideas, i.e., processes, instructions, record discussions, guided tours
  • collaborative group work,
  • improve self esteem (speaking and listening, editing and drafting)
  • thought for the day / the weekly message
  • lesson / lecture casting,
  • audio version of homework
  • teacher training in hubs
  • international cooperation
  • peer reflection

Clearly, from this snapshot podcasting can be viewed as a flexible and adaptive learning technology. It has an application within knowledge dissemination (lecture casting), student group / collaborative learning (recording discussions) and potential within formative and summative assessment (peer reflection).

An interesting question for me is, do these uses actually need to use podcasting or can the same outcomes be achieved through students accessing a web site and downloading the audio file? In other words, what value is the subscription model adding?

The next part of our journey is to think about how it can be used within your Blackboard course. In particular, is Blackboard podcast friendly?

The answer is, currently no. However, in the very near future through the use of a Building Block we will be able to incorporate podcasts within our Blackboard courses. A current discussion on the Blackboard Open Source Plugins Discussion List ( BB-OPEN_SRC@LISTS.VCU.EDU) has been to specify the technical and user needs requirements for the development of a podcast Building Block, after which it will be developed.

Therefore, for Blackboard instructors this relatively simple technology will become even simpler. The current method which requires an added layer of complexity when podcasting via Blackboard courses. The Blackboard course contains all the information about the podcast, including the podcast feed address and the expectations of student use, but audio file is uploaded to non Blackboard web space so the aggregator software that the students uses can access it. Fortunately, in future the inclusion of podcasts in your Blackboard courses maybe as simple as adding an item. This will significantly reduce the technical barriers to using podcasts in Blackboard.

It appears that there is a rationale for using podcasting and it is easy to do, so where should you start? When developing any online activity you need to account for different issues, including, defining the learning aims, developing engaging content, and managing student expectations. The point I wish to discuss in more depth is awareness of the audience, in particular, do they have the required technology and is their current behaviour receptive to receiving material as a podcast? Much of the discussion on podcasting has focused on the lecturer (creator), and not on the student (listener). However, in practice if the student is not confident or is unaware of how to manage audio files from the Internet and/or do not have the appropriate technology then the effectiveness of the podcast is likely to be significantly lower.

One of the podcasting pilots at the University of Bristol is within the Faculty of Engineering. The starting point of the pilot involved a student survey which attempted to assess the current behaviour of students accessing audio (mp3) files. A key research question was, would students be receptive to material in an audio format? In particular, have they the technology that will allow them to access the audio material? and do they currently download and listen to audio files?

Table 1 summarises some of the initial findings, from selected questions. At the time this went to print the survey had only just been released. The response rate was 15%, based on 312 students on the course.

Table 1: Selected findings from the survey in the Faculty of Engineering

 

Yes

No

Do you have access to your own computer when you are at University?

86.7%

13.3%

If yes, do you have access to the Internet during term time on this computer?

97.4%

2.6%

Do you own a mobile mp3 player?

60%

40%

Do you own a mobile phone?

100%

0%

Does your mobile phone play mp3 files?

42.2%

57.8%

Have you listened to the radio over the Internet in the last 6 months?

71.1%

28.9%

Have you subscribed to a podcast?

14.0%

86.0%

Do you transfer mp3 files from your computer to your mobile mp3 player (iPod, PDA, mobile phone etc.,)

76.2%

23.8%

If yes, is this more than one transfer session per week?

31.2%

-

From this it can be suggested that the large majority of the students we surveyed have technology allowing them to access the podcasts. In addition they have the practical skills of subscribing to an internet based audio broadcast and then transferring files to their mobile audio player. The number with Internet connected computers and mobile mp3 players is very high. The majority appear to have listened to internet radio (71%), and some have even subscribed to podcasts (14%). Therefore, on the assumption that the podcast has appropriate learning aims and is in an engaging format then the students should readily subscribe to the podcast. However, if the response indicated that as a group the students did not have access to the required technology and had no previous experience of downloading and transferring audio files then there would need to be significant emphasis on user education, if the podcast is not going to simply end up as a niche activity. There would also be serious questions of equity if information could not be accessed via other routes.

In summary, this article suggests that from a technical perspective podcasting is a very simple process, which is becoming easier over time with the imminent inclusion into Blackboard. As a learning technology it offers significant potential benefits, however, the successful implementation of podcasting depends on a large number of factors, one of which is the student. The emphasis is on the individual subscribing to the podcast using their own technology, so if they do not own the technology or if there is a skills gap then there are potential issues. I’d suggest a good starting point is to talk to your students to identify if they have the technology and the skills to receive your podcasts.

For more discussion on podcasting as a learning technology see the author’s mobile learning blog (http://www.mobile-learning.blog-city.com)

Andy Ramsden is a Learning Technology Adviser in the Learning Technology Support Service (LTSS) at the University of Bristol. He would like to acknowledge the LTSS Team for their comments on this paper.

Author: Andy Ramsden

06 July 2006

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