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Are Schools Missing the Podcast Wave?

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The youth demographic of the podcast audience has continued its recent growth. The Infinite Dial 2019 survey showed that for the first time, a majority of the U.S. population age 12 and older (55%) had listened to a podcast. Growth in the youth sector has been remarkable, with 91% of Americans between the ages of 12 and 24 having listened to online audio in the month before being polled in the 2019 survey, and 40% having listened to a podcast. The Infinite Dial 2020 survey provides a less school-age-specific 12–34 demographic in which 49% listened to a podcast in the previous month. Mind-blowing to me, respondents to the 2020 survey spent an av­erage of 6 hours and 39 minutes listening to podcasts in the week prior to being polled—and note that this polling was conducted before stay-at-home orders were even being considered.

How does this growth in the popularity of long-form content (like podcasts) with school-age Americans square with contrasting research-driven best practices arguing for short, concise micro-lecture curricular content? My best answer is that lectures and podcasts serve different functions that can most definitely be complementary. Core materials in a course that students absolutely must take should be presented with extreme focus and parsimony. Podcasts, however, should encourage contemplation and exploration, prioritizing entertainment over brevity. To find the line dividing appropriate short-form and long-form content, we should listen to our ruthlessly efficient students when they ask, "Is this gonna be on the test?"

It’s fair to ask students to learn micro-lecture content backward and forward. It’s not fair to expect students to maintain the same level of concentration while listening to an hour-long podcast—something they should be able to enjoy in the background while doing chores, exercising, or commuting. To get students to engage with an expanded view of your core course material while multitasking dur­ing their extracurricular activities is a non­trivial achievement, so don’t spoil it by setting excessive expectations.

Existing course-relevant podcasts or other engaging and thought provoking long-form content like TED talks can be introduced into effective instruction as either supplemental materials or as prompts for interactive activities, such as online forums or in-class discussions. If your ambitions are even greater and you’d like to try your hand at producing your own podcasts for your courses, the good news is that podcasting may be the simplest means available to disseminate time-based media. There are plenty of podcast delivery platforms, but really, all you need to distribute a podcast is access to a web server that can host the audio files and a page that the students can easily find to link to them.

To prepare the content for your podcast, work backward from what you want students to do with it. If you want the episode to serve as a prompt for a discussion activity, choose a topic that doesn’t have a "right answer" and explore it thoroughly enough that students can have respectful differences of opinion to hash out. If you want it to be a more thorough exploration of a particularly difficult concept to supplement the more concise micro-lecture, prepare to approach the concept from a variety of opposing directions. Many popular podcasts are built around interviews or conversations, so, if possible, persuade a colleague to co-produce it with you, ideally splitting the preparation workload and doubling the audience size. 

One final suggestion, which is mostly appropriate for residential higher education, is an idea I call "priming the pump." In this model, you provide roughly 10-minute podcasts prior to either the first lecture of each week or every lecture. Before your class, the students can listen to the mini-podcast and arrive ready to focus on the lecture material. To incentivize listenership, you can provide code words or other gamification elements that listeners can cash in for either pure fun and satisfaction or extra-credit points.

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