Podcasts are an easy way to liven up an online course. Podcasts are nothing more than audio files, and have been found to enhance student learning, satisfaction, and feelings of connectedness in online courses.
One use of podcasts is to deliver course content. Instead of writing out a “lecture,” an instructor can record it for the students to download and listen to through their cell phones and earbuds while walking to class, riding a bus or bike, driving, etc. Beyond portability, podcasts have been shown to improve the ability to convey nuance in the message, as much of our communication comes through the tone and other inflections in our voice. This is also particularly beneficial for instructors using podcasts to provide feedback on student work, and accounts for much of the universal praise that those podcasts receive from students.
Instructors can also have students make podcasts. Marjorie Chan (2014) had her students record interviews with business leaders for a management class. The interviews were in a live radio format, with the host interviewing a guest, and students calling in with questions. This added an exciting, interactive element to the course. The recordings were then put together into a series that could be added to the course content for the benefit of future students. A department can also create a podcasting series on monthly topics, with interviews of students, faculty, or outside experts.
Another use for podcasts is as a form of assessment. Students can be assigned to make podcasts in an NPR-segment format to explain a topic. The benefit of the radio documentary format over a traditional academic paper is that students are forced to ask what makes the topic interesting, and how to present it in a way that will be understandable to a lay audience, rather than just their instructor. The experience helps them develop communication skills that are relevant in today's digital world.
Recording a podcast
A good entry into podcasting is to simply record your voice for course content, tutorials on course processes, or feedback to a student. One option is to record with the free, open source Audacity program, which is available for download at Sourceforge. You can both record and edit your recording directly on Audacity, and then export it to be hosted elsewhere.
Recording interviews for a radio show format is not much harder. BlogTalkRadio is a paid service that is designed to create live radio shows. It hosts a live show with multiple callers, and saves a recording to its Web site. The site provides all of the search, cataloging, and publicity functions that you need to run a radio series.
A free alternative to BlogTalkRadio is Google's Hangouts on Air, a feature of Google+. Hangouts on Air will broadcast live video of up to 10 people at once to YouTube, and automatically create a recording of the outcome as well.
If you only want to record interviews that are not broadcast live, you can use Skype. Skype allows free group calls for a small number of users at once. However, it does not come with recording capacity, so you will need to download and run a free Skype recording app such as MP3 Skype Recorder or Pamela Skype Recorder to record the outcome.
Hosting a podcast
Your Learning Management System might come with podcast hosting capability built in, and if you use BlogTalkRadio, or the video version of the Hangouts on Air broadcast, the website itself will host both the live event and the recording. But if your LMS does not have this capability, or you want to make a podcast available to others outside of the course room—such as for a departmental series—then you will need a way to host it. Luckily, there are a number of free and easy options.
A simple hosting method is to load the podcasts to either a Google Drive or Dropbox account, and provide students with the link. Another possibility is to load them to iTunesU, which is designed for higher education. Your students are likely already familiar with it.
Best practices for making podcasts
Remember that the goal of a podcast is to sound natural, as if you are sitting next to the listener. The problem is that most people tense up in front of a microphone, producing monotone recordings that lull the listener to sleep. You can avoid this result by following a few simple rules.
First, don't slow down. We tend to slow our cadence in front of a microphone because we are unsure of ourselves. But keep in mind that the person listening is not hard of hearing, and so you should speak with the cadence you would use with someone sitting next to you.
Also remember to add the voice inflections that produce emphasis. If you are asking a question, do so in a tone that sounds like you are asking a question. In fact, you should probably overdo the expressiveness, as the listener does not get the facial cues that add emphasis to our speech. Feel free to add the conversational elements that create interest for the listener. Say “wow” or “that's crazy” when appropriate.
As for the recording processes, there is a reason why NPR segments do not last longer than about 15 minutes. Fifteen minutes is the limit of our attention span, and so if your topic is longer than 15 minutes, break it into a sequence of shorter podcasts.
Most important, nothing will drive your listeners away faster than having a hard time hearing the message. Most sound quality problems are the result of a poor microphone. Avoid using the pinhole microphone built into your laptop, which gives a distant tone, usually with static. Instead use a headset microphone. Webcam microphones also generally produce decent sound quality.
If you are not recording a live show, but rather course content, you will want to eliminate errors to make a “clean” recording. Restarting from the beginning every time you make an error will cause your production time to explode. A good trick is to record with an editor such as Audacity, and when you make an error, just pause and start again from the last natural break. Then delete the mistakes using the editor at the end, which will leave the clean runs. The pause creates a flat line on your recording timeline to insert your curser to make the cut.
Consider how podcasted interviews, radio shows, or course content can liven up your online course.
Chan, M. (2014). The Use of BlogTalkRadio in Online Management Classes. MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, Vol. 10, No. 3, pp. 504-23.