You can use podcasts to supplement or replace some of the direct instructional materials in your courses. Doing so can provide a personal touch to your course and increase student engagement. Suggestions for preparation and recording will help you to hone your message and deliver natural sounding audio that will engage students and help them learn and retain course materials.
Questions to Consider:
- What materials in your course could be improved through the use of podcasts focusing on contextualizing, summarizing, and synthesizing information for students?
- Does your course contain readings that do not explain what students should be learning and retaining from them?
- Does your course balance methods of instruction between reading, audio, and visual modes?
Introduction: Direct Instruction in Online Courses
One of the dirtiest phrases in education is “direct instruction,” the transmission of content (facts, concepts, etc) directly to students. One reason it has such a low reputation is that its usual implementation is the dry oral lecture. Picture the professor reciting the lecture they know by heart, hitting all the beats, pulling the concepts together, working through it, minute by minute, for an hour. Done well, these lectures are exceptional performances, a demonstration of knowledge and practical presentation skill. Done poorly, they are a cage for both professors and students, an uncritical recital that could easily be replaced by a book, a pamphlet, or even a record on an old Vibraphone in the middle of the lecture hall.
When we think about creating lectures for the modern student, we need to think about how our goals align with the student’s needs. We want to transmit high-quality information in a form students can absorb and understand. An excellent lecture has transitions, examples, some repetition for emphasis, and a pace that encourages engagement. In online asynchronous courses, without the benefit of face-to-face interactions, instructors must plan other types of engagement into the student experience. One such method is the use of audio-visual instruction.
Podcasts: Benefits and Pitfalls
The most immediately accessible form of audio instruction might be the podcast. A podcast is simply an audio file that students can listen to asynchronously—on their own time, at their own pace—via download or streaming. This is a tremendous advantage – think of all the time a student has asked you to repeat something you just said. Now students can rewind your lecture, listen to it more than once, and do so at a time that is convenient for them.
We can meet our instructional goals through podcasting if we use the best practices I’ve outlined below. One note to remember: we’re considering replacing our primary lectures – the rules below are a little different if you’re creating supplementary materials to compliment another source of information. We’ll address that in another article.
We don’t want to simply pull the audio from a lecture and use it verbatim for a podcast. While it’s possible to make that work in some contexts, it’s not the most useful way to use the podcast medium – it does make the information more portable, but it remains locked in the lecture format, with its particular cadence and flow of information.
The trick is that we have to meet a number of instructional goals with a podcast that are trickier than they seem at first glance. Your students need a value proposition that makes sense for them: if they listen to your podcast (or lecture, for that matter), they should do better in your course. In preparing ourselves to record, we need to keep in mind that no matter what audio-visual magic we produce, if it doesn’t better prepare our students to do well in our course and our program, we aren’t fulfilling our own educational purpose. With that in mind, let’s get started!
Planning your podcast
Write an outline
Most audio should be done from an outline, not a script. When reading from a verbatim script, most people tend to speak in a certain mechanical way. It drains some of the authenticity and enthusiasm from even the best presenters. Recorded audio will sound most fluid when presented from an outline, where the speaking is part extemporaneous, with the advantage of being able to stick to the points that you want people to hear, while not being stuck to the exact words used on the page.
If you are writing a script to clarify your thinking and make sure you cover all the information, try to condense that information down to an outline afterward. It will improve how you sound in the recording, while still allowing you to carefully form and cultivate your thoughts for broadcast.
We are in the enviable position of having a lot of knowledge about a particular area of expertise. We could talk for hours and investigate many different details on these subjects. But would this serve our students?
The modern student is time-starved. If we want to engage them with our material most effectively, we should do our best to target our communications. That means choosing the most important information for our podcast. Pinpoint the purpose of your podcast so you can make sure the information all fits.
Preparing your podcast can also help you refine what materials should NOT be in your podcast. Sometimes it’s tempting to include a story or concept that is interesting, but not useful. While this might encourage a little engagement, you’d be a lot better off if you can work in a specific and relevant example instead. If certain information doesn’t help students understand the material better, doesn’t help them achieve the course objectives and outcomes, and it doesn’t help them process the materials better, then leave it out of your podcast (and your course)!
Don’t say what they can read
This point can feel sort of subtle, but it’s important – many instructors go overboard in their instruction and end up reiterating of all the reading for the week, without adding context and content to the learning. This isn’t an effective instructional strategy. If we assign the reading, we expect students to do the reading – and if we then lecture with the content of the reading, that gives students who did the work a feeling that they might have wasted their time.
Use your “face time” to emphasize the most important points. If you wouldn’t put it on a test, don’t put it in your outline. Your lecture is how you emphasize the most important information, by prefacing what to look for in the readings, drawing connections, or asking critical reading questions.
Of course, if you like to break the rules, you can also use your podcast to summarize the readings and ask questions that students should be able to answer after doing the reading. This can be especially helpful if there’s a particularly difficult, complicated, or important point made during the readings that you don’t want students to lose track of.
Plan to repeat yourself, if it’s important
If you listen to a story on NPR, you’ll notice that very important facts, like a person’s name, are usually repeated three to four times in a story. This level of repetition is necessary to help people remember important details. When you write your outline, think in threes – introduce your most important information, give details about it, and sum it up.
So for our podcast, we want to start by introducing ourselves, and then giving a brief overview of what we’re going to talk about on the podcast. As you work your way through the topics of the podcast, feel free to connect ideas back to previous ideas, adding repetition where needed. When you reach the end of the podcast, go back to your outline and repeat the most important information again. If done well, you’ll have helped your students immensely.
Rehearse, and go through the whole thing at least once
The first time you work with an outline, it’s possible you’ll stumble or have a long pause when you’re at a loss for words. This is totally okay – just keep going forward. The first time you work through the outline, you’re putting your thoughts into speech. This is your chance to form your speech naturally. This will also help you to create cues for yourself. By this, I mean that as you approach a particular place in the outline, you’ll have sentences and thoughts that you naturally want to cover, and after practicing a few times, those sentences and thoughts will spring to mind when you look at the cue. This leads to more natural speaking, which will sound more authentic to your students.
Again, if you do want to write a script in order to help clarify your thinking, work it into a detailed outline – practice performing your script, but also think about how your delivery sounds and what you can do to sound more natural. Some people find it useful to record podcasts with another person – an instructor, a student, or even a family member – in order to simulate a conversational tone.
Remember your audience – and engage them
Each student will listen to your podcast as if it were a conversation between yourself and themselves. Engage them! Students can respond to your podcasts, you can integrate podcasts into your assignments, you can use your podcasts to trigger student recall, ask them to think about how materials are related, ask them questions before you answer them, and use other good teaching practices to engage them in the course.
Listen to what you record
This is something that a lot of people who record dislike doing, but in many ways, it is as important as writing your outline. It’s important to listen to the audio you record – it will help you take the perspective of your students. Are you making everything as clear as it could be? Did you find yourself wanting to add details? This will give you the opportunity to hone your message. Additionally, you can use this opportunity to edit your audio or note the places you’d like your technology collaborator to edit.
Using podcasting to replace some of the direct instruction in your course can increase student engagement and learning, but it requires you to focus on what you want to accomplish – whether you’re trying to instruct students, reinforce learnings, synthesize learnings, summarize the takeaways for the lessons. Once you’ve determined your learning goals, you can carefully prepare in order to produce a conversational podcast that fits your educational mission.
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