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What Higher Education Can Learn From Podcasts: How to Go Long

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I usually discuss video in this column, but for just a moment I’d like to take up the subject of podcasts. Lasting an hour or more, with casual and conversational tones, podcasts tend to diverge from the kind of programs I’ve advocated for here, which I believe usually should be short, economical, and straight to the point.

Despite this, I think educational producers can learn something from podcasts. Moreover, while podcasts are strongly associated with public radio, there is a whole class of video podcasts too. Not surprisingly, video podcasts tend to be more popular with teens and Millennials than Ira Glass is. That’s why I think podcasts have something to offer.

The instructional video format I’ve criticized most is the long-form lecture. Rarely done well, the typical 60- or 90-minute lecture is barely sufferable in person, let alone watched on a laptop or mobile device. But the problem is not necessarily the length—it’s the lack of engagement.

If you survey the podcast world, you’ll find only a handful of shows that are just monologues—and a significant percentage of those will be shorter in length. Instead, podcasts are dominated by conversation. If there’s a single host, then an interesting guest is often the feature. Other shows trade on familiar personalities who have good chemistry together and whom, over time, listeners come to regard as friends. A key to their appeal is the engagement between the hosts and guests, which, in turn, engages the viewer or listener.

This is as true for video podcasts as it is for audio-only shows. Given their visual orientation, it’s not surprising that video games are a popular topic for video podcasts. The ability to highlight gameplay while discussing games is vital, but the gameplay is not the most important part. The hosts and their banter make or break a gaming podcast on YouTube or Twitch. They must have something to say that is amusing and astute; they’re experts and entertainers. That’s why channels such as Rooster Teeth have millions of YouTube subscribers and hundreds of thousands of views of their podcasts.

The TWiT.tv Netcast Network is a great example of a podcast network built on video that appeals to a wide-ranging, tech-savvy audience. Founded in 2005 by author and radio/TV host Leo Laporte, TWiT operates like a TV channel, with all shows streamed live and also recorded for both video and audio podcasts. Covering topics from weekly tech news and Android apps to ham radio and home theater, TWiT’s shows work because they focus on knowledgeable and relatable hosts who have authentic conversations on topics that matter to the audience.

That idea—capturing an interesting and engaging conversation—has a natural place in instruction. This might seem simple, but most teachers work alone, so their challenge is finding someone to talk with.

Keep in mind that many podcast hosts say their shows benefit them by allowing them to strike up conversations with interesting people with whom they might not otherwise speak. For instruction, think of asking a guest instructor for a lecture, only with a much lower commitment. Instead of having to prepare a talk and a deck of slides, your guest only has to show up and let you lead a discussion.

Of course, recording an audio-only podcast could be sufficient. And, in truth, many students will primarily listen to your podcast, multitasking with the video tab buried in their browsers. However, having the video is an extra attraction for students who want to see your faces, especially those who’ve grown up with YouTube. Plus, if you have visuals to share, there’s no more work to do.

Your video podcast is an opportunity to expand on a topic, go off on a tangent, and even have some fun, without using up precious classroom time. Because of the format, don’t expect students to pay rapt attention and memorize every bit of information. Instead, consider a podcast as an opportunity to help them engage with the material in a different way than they would a lecture or reading. If you enjoy recording the podcast, chances are your students will enjoy watching it too—all while continuing to learn.

This article originally ran in the July/August 2016 issue of Streaming Media magazine as “Learning From Podcasts.”

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