Audio podcasting: An important pedagogical tool for flexible and online learning

Source: Dr Collin Bjork

Today’s students—especially those engaged in blended and online learning—face many external pressures that impact their studies. Many students work one or more jobs, often full time, to keep up with the current cost-of-living crisis and housing crisis. Others have families and caretaking duties that require their time and attention. Flexible, blended, and online learning makes a high-quality education accessible to these students. That’s a good thing.

But too often, online learning asks students to park themselves in front of a computer with a fast and stable internet connection, working through screen after screen of content on a learning management system. Many rural students, however, don’t have consistent access to fast and stable internet. And natural disasters like Cyclone Gabrielle—which, in the future, will only increase in quantity and scale due to climate change—can disrupt the accessibility of online learning for students anywhere. Plus, many students simply don’t have time to sit for hours at the computer because they need to watch the kids or make a meal or run errands on the other side of town. Simply put, it’s not enough to put a course on the internet and say that it’s now accessible to all. Accessibility is more complex than that. 

That’s where podcasting comes in. But people disagree about what a podcast is. Does a podcast need an RSS feed? Or can streaming audio also be a podcast? What about video podcasts? As these technologies continue to change, so too will definitions of podcasting. Given the aforementioned challenges that students currently face, this blog post focuses specifically on the affordances of audio podcasting, an intimate medium that makes audio recordings available with or without an active internet connection. 

cat with a digital microphone
Source: Dr Melissa Gunn

Audio podcasting, as a pedagogical tool, can improve accessibility for flexible and online learning. When educational content is packaged as an audio podcast, students can download that podcast to their mobile device and access it anywhere, any time. This means they can listen while they’re commuting to work, doing the washing, or exercising. And even if students don’t have a mobile phone or don’t like learning on their phone, they can access podcast content through the same computer and internet connection that they use to engage with other course content. Podcasting, in short, improves accessibility. 

Crucially, however, any medium for online and flexible education must also be accessible to students with disabilities. Too often, online course content lacks alt-text for images, transcripts for video lectures, slides designed with colorblind awareness, and so on. Podcasting is no different. To be accessible, pedagogical podcasts should have written transcripts for students with hearing disabilities. They should also have content warnings for any audio that students may find unsettling, especially students who have experienced trauma. These podcasting strategies create an inclusive and accessible pedagogical environment for flexible and online learners. 

Despite these benefits, podcasting does not work in every educational environment. Not all course content is suited to audio-only delivery. In many courses, students need to see charts, graphs, images, and other visual content to enrich their learning experience. This makes sense. But lecturers in visual-heavy courses might still consider what elements of their course could be taught via audio. Perhaps some theoretical background. Or historical context. Or an interesting anecdote. In every course, there’s probably some content that could benefit from being delivered orally and consumed aurally. 

The most common concern that educators express about using audio podcasting to teach is this: how much do students actually learn when listening to a podcast while doing something else? Many consumers indicate that they listen to podcasts to learn something new, but audio podcasting can seem like a passive—even distracted—mode of learning. The reality, however, is more complicated. Podcasting allows students to easily pause, rewind, and replay content. And an increasing number of podcasting platforms are making space for dialogue among listeners and the podcasters themselves. Podcasting is more interactive than it seems. 

It’s also important to encourage students to find a note-taking strategy that works for them when listening to podcasts. Some will want to have a notes application open, so they can jot down important ideas. Others will prefer to leave audio messages for themselves after listening to each episode, and some will prefer simply to listen to episodes multiple times as they prepare for their assessments. Of course, many students won’t take notes at all. But frankly, there are plenty of students who don’t take notes during lectures or when they’re reading course content. And heck, some students don’t attend lectures or even watch them online. In terms of student engagement, then, podcasting is hardly different from these other pedagogical forms. 

Ultimately, podcasting can be a fruitful tool for augmenting the accessibility of courses, especially in flexible and online learning environments. And I encourage you to give it a try!

If you’re unsure about how to begin creating your own pedagogical podcast, you can download a 1-page “How to Guide” from my website. You can also learn more by subscribing to my podcast about podcasting: Pod Uni. The latest episode features an interview with media whiz and podcast host Lucy Blakiston from Shit You Should Care About

Dr Collin Bjork
Dr Collin Bjork

Collin Bjork is a Senior Lecturer in Science Communication and Podcasting at Massey University in Aotearoa New Zealand. He uses rhetorical theory to examine the mutually informing relationship among media, power, discourse, and democracy. His research has been published in Philosophy and Rhetoric, Rhetoric Society Quarterly, College Composition and Communication, Convergence, and Computers and Composition. He is currently working on a project that traces the complicated relationship between true crime podcasting and civic dialogue. In addition to Pod Uni, he also co-produces the academic podcast Global Rhetorics