The simplest way to look upon a podcast is as an audio recording. Strictly speaking, podcasting is a more sophisticated concept than this, which involves a user subscribing to an ongoing series of recordings, which are then automatically downloaded to the user’s computer as they are released, and then copied to the user’s iPod or similar MP3 player for listening to as and when the user wishes. In practice, once you have produced a learning podcast, you don’t really mind how it is accessed. Yes, lots of users will find it convenient to listen to the recordings on their iPods while they commute to work, walk in the park or workout in the gym, but they might find it just as useful to listen to the podcasts directly from their PC or even from an audio CD.
A podcast can employ only one media element and that’s audio. Although, in general use, podcasts will often contain music, for learning purposes the primary component will usually be speech. As an alternative verbal channel to text, speech benefits because it conveys tone of voice as well as the words, but the listener is not able to control the pace at which the words are delivered. Delivery of the spoken word is much slower than the speed at which a person can read, which makes a podcast an unsuitable tool for reference information. Although audio does have limitations as a stand-alone medium, it allows the listener to maintain visual attention on the environment around them, which they would certainly need to do if they were on the move.
For more information on audio as a medium, see our posting The elements of online communication: audio.
A podcast is a passive medium with no interactive capability except simple navigation. As such, its use is limited to the following learning strategies:
- Exposition – required listening as part of a set curriculum
- Exploration – as developmental material for use by learners at their own discretion
While limited in terms of media elements and interactive capability, podcasts have a great many applications. You should be encouraged by the success of radio over more than eighty years. Radio has the same limitations – audio only, no interaction – yet continues to entertain and inform hundreds of millions of people daily. While it is easy to think of podcasts as a way of delivering monologues – such as lectures – you will rarely find this technique in use on the radio. The best applications employ multiple voices and a lively, informal style. Consider using podcasts for interviews, panel discussions, debates and drama. Wrap these up in familiar radio formats such as news shows, plays, talk shows, reports from the field, journalistic investigations and so on.