Technology offers teachers new options. What about assigning podcasts to replace some course readings? So far, at least in the literature, teachers have created their own podcasts and used them instead of or as supplements to lectures. In a recent study (Oslawski-Lopez & Kordsmeier, 2021), two teachers used a couple of podcasts in place of some assigned readings. The students in their two undergraduate sociology courses had the option of either listening to the podcasts or reading transcripts of them.
The teacher-researchers were interested in whether the podcast option might improve reading compliance—which is low virtually everywhere and improves only when not doing the reading has consequences (e.g., quizzes that count, test questions from reading material, or the teacher calling on students to answer questions about the reading). In these two courses, only 5 percent of the students reported that they did not listen to or read either of the podcasts. That’s a dramatic improvement. Hatteberg and Steffy (2013) reviewed multiple studies from across disciplines and report that on any given day in class, only 20 to 30 percent of students will report that they’ve done the reading.
Not surprisingly, more students in these sociology courses preferred listening to the podcasts than reading transcripts of them and for reasons we might suspect. They said they could multitask while they listened: one reported doing so while cleaning and cooking, while another listened during the commute to school. Probably a consequence of this multitasking, the students who listened did less well on quiz questions about podcast content than those who read the transcripts.
In responses to open-ended questions, students found the podcasts more engaging than assigned readings, and they liked having the option to either listen or read. Some switched between options, and a few reported that they listened to the podcasts and checked the transcript only for content they did not understand.
Even though this study sample involved a small cohort of students (45), the work starts the systematic exploration of podcasts’ potential in lieu of assigned readings. The teacher-researchers note an important implication of their work: students must learn how to listen to podcasts with academic objectives in mind. Like most of us, they find podcasts informative but closer to entertainment than instruction. Teachers have learned that students need help with reading strategies suitable to academic content. They need the same sort of help when it comes to podcasts.
Like so many new media, podcasts encourage multitasking, and that may be even truer when listening is involved. How many of us sort of listen to what we’re hearing while we write, look at our phones, drive, eat, and do other routine activities? The researchers identify a related problem. “One idea suggested by the open-ended data is that listeners are less likely to treat the assigned podcast as a ‘real’ reading assignment and listen to the podcast in the background as they engage in other tasks” (p. 342). Only one student mentioned the potential value of having access to both spoken and written versions of the content. None of the students mentioned taking notes during the podcasts, although the researchers did not specifically ask whether they did.
For teachers, the challenge is finding podcasts that cover course-related content or having to create engaging ones on their own. Then there are issues related to integrating podcast material and course content. Are there ways podcast content differs from what students typically read in the course? Podcast content and quality vary widely, but if students tend to engage more with podcasts and come to the course having listened to them, that might mean richer in-class and online discussions.
The researchers that note podcasts, like other newer teaching technologies (actually, like any new instructional strategies), come with “both opportunities and potential pitfalls” (p. 343). For teachers, course experiences will reveal both. Research like this helps teachers prepare. It identifies potential mistakes and highlights positive possibilities.
Hatteberg, S. J., & Steffy, K. (2013). Increasing reading compliance of undergraduates: An evaluation of compliance methods. Teaching Sociology, 41(4), 346–352. https://doi.org/10.1177/0092055X13490752
Oslawski-Lopez, J., & Kordsmeier, G. (2021). “Being able to listen more makes me feel engaged”: Best practices for using podcasts as readings. Teaching Sociology, 49(4), 335–347. https://doi.org/10.1177/0092055X211017197