Friday, June 07, 2019

Podcasts - 20 reasons why we should be using more podcasts in learning

Even the Obamas are in on the podcast act, signing a deal with Spotify. Hardly surprising, as over 50% of Americans have now listened to a podcast, very much a medium for people of working age, with the listening figures dropping off in the 55+ age group. Reuters Journalism, Media and Technology trends highlights audio as a significant growth area and Spotify are investing $500 million in the medium.

I’m a podcast fan myself. Whether it is Talking Politics, where some of the best minds in political science discuss a contemporary political topic, or In Our Time, where history, philosophy, art and science is brought alive with a trio of academics. If I want an in-depth learning experience, this is often my medium of choice. For real depth I prefer text – books, papers, articles and blogs. For practical learning, video. For really practical learning – doing stuff and experience. But podcasts lie in that niche between long-form text and short-form video and  have their own special allure, as well as being so very convenient. So why use podcasts in learning? What type of content is suitable? How does one make one?

Podcasts tend to be long form and content rich. They are, in a sense , the opposite of microlearning or the tendency to reduce things into small pieces. They also have different cognitive affordances from video, text or graphics. Video is great for ‘showing’ things such as drama, objects, places, processes and procedures with more of an emphasis on attitudinal or practical learning. Text may be better for semantic and symbolic knowledge, where the art of the wordsmith comes into play and subjects like maths. Graphics, of course can visualise data, show schemas; diagrams can illustrate what you want to teach and photographs give a sense of realism. Podcasts, however, tend to deal with more conceptual knowledge, where ideas and discussion matter. They seem better at allowing experts or leaders to explain more complex thoughts and issues, where genuine discussion or stories can reveal the learning, with deeper levels of reflection and different perspectives. Relying on spoken language alone often gives them a depth that other media don't carry.

Many like to listen to podcasts when walking, running, in the gym, car or commuting. The sheer convenience of time shifting the experience, of using this dead time, in what Marc Augur called ‘non-places’, even if only to hold off boredom, is what makes podcasts a form of productive, mobile learning. I personally, like to listen while sitting down, with headphones, as I’m a note taker but many listen when they are doing other things. This convenience factor is a big plus.

Oral communication is more natural and feels more authentic than written text, as it has many of the human flavours of the speaker, such as tone, intonation, accent, emotion and emphasis. Technically, we are grammatical geniuses aged three, able to listen and understand complex language, without formal learning. This makes such content easy to access, especially for those with lower levels of reading literacy. It is, in this sense, a very natural form of learning. This more frictionless form of communication allows us to take deeper dives, through attentive listening (as opposed to hearing), making them potent learning experiences.

Listening to a podcast, especially with headphones, can be an intense, intimate and private affair. Many podcast fans report that sense of eavesdropping into an intimate conversation, you feel as though you get to know the people over time. There is a sense of focus and attention that the learner feels, as if one was part of the conversation, literally sitting there next to the participant(s). So in this process of eavesdropping, how many participants should one have in a podcast? 

It is hard to hold full attention for long when it is a single podcaster. Imagine sitting in a plane, asking someone a question and they come back with a 40 minute reply. Although, as a fan of the comedian Bill Burr’s podcasts, it can be done. The difference is that Bill has decades of experience as a stand-up comic and can hold an audience’s attention.

A more popular format is the interview. Joe Rogan is a good example, with massive audiences - there are many others. He interviews an individual, drawing out their stories and anecdotes. The questions in an interview format act as breaks, chunking the content down into meaningful pieces, making them easier to learn. It sometimes feels as if it is you, as the learner is asking the questions, and in that sense, feels like a personal dialogue.

Some of my favourite podcasts, the BBCs In Our Time and Talking Politics, often have three or four participants. Interestingly, they both have an anchor, Melvyn Bragg and David Runciman, who hold the discussion together and give it shape and direction. The advantage of this format is that it provides different angles on the same subject, sometimes different areas of expertise, even disagreements.

Some of the most popular podcasts have been series, where they’ve built an audience over time. These segment the content and often have cliff hangers, to make you want to listen to the next one. In learning, of course, this has the advantage of splitting material over time, introducing spaced practice, by taking just a minute or so to recap on the previous episode and summarise that the end, to top and tail, improves retention.

Media rich is not mind rich
Mayer and others have, over decades, shown us, through pinpoint research with good controls, that rich media, used unwisely, can inhibit learning, as in learning 'less if often more'. This has much to do with the limitations of working memory but also with using up cognitive channels. Yet online learning seems to ignore that simple, popular, single-channel medium – the podcast. Podcasts have the advantage of low cognitive bandwidth and low costs, along with several other advantages in learning.

Audio has the advantage of taking up only one channel, the auditory channel, leaving the mind free to generate, through the imagination, your own interpretation, allowing the brain to integrate new knowledge with your prior existing knowledge. As working memory has a limit of 4 or so registers, which we can hold for around 20 seconds, keeping some free from imagery can, for some types of knowledge, be a powerful advantage, especially for conceptual content, as it gives your working memory some time to interpret, even manipulate ideas.

Take notes
Podcasts have one great advantage over video or text/graphics. For active learners, the simple fact that you don’t have to look at a screen allows you to take notes. Research shows that note taking can increase retention from 20-30%. In learning podcasts it is important that you recommend note taking, as you are hands and eye free, allowing more sophisticated notes in your own words.

Speed control
Many listen to podcasts at 1.5 times normal speed as they can still understand what is being said. We read faster than we listen and many find that they can still get the full meaning at speeds beyond that of spoken delivery. This variability of speed allows different learners to listen at different rates, giving learning, almost personalised advantages,

Content control
Another form of control is stop, back, forward and control over a visible timeline. Most find themselves doing a lot of this when using podcasts to learn, when you don’t understand something, want to reflect more, skip extraneous material, take more detailed notes and so on. This, again, allows the learner to process content at a much deeper level for retention.

Audio quality
Nass and Reeves, in research in their book, The Media Equation, showed that although one can get away with low fidelity images in video, this doesn’t work for audio. Poor quality audio has a significantly detrimental effect on learning, lowering retention. We have evolved to have visual systems that can adapt to twilight and distance. Our auditory systems are less forgiving, and expect high fidelity audio, as if delivered by a person speaking in front of you. Distance, volume, tinny sound, mechanical delivery, all diminish attention and learning. Experienced podcast producers will recommend either a studio or as quiet as possible an environment, with a good microphone to get best results. Some avoid table-top mikes and prefer lapel or head mounted.

Reading content from a script can be a killer as delivery really does matter. Listeners want energy, passion and expert or academic gravitas. Humour often helps to punctuate, dwell, then move on. It is that sense of listening to an ‘expert’, also shown by Nass and Reeves to increase retention, that is so important in learning. Above all, podcasts seem to give authenticity to the ‘voice’ of the speaker. It must be and sound natural. Over-produced podcasts can often be counter-productive.

A good podcast also needs god preparation. Make sure your technical set-up is clear. Then prep the participants. A structured script is useful, even if it just a series of agreed questions, along with advice on short answers to questions. Test the levels, make sure the atmosphere is relaxed to encourage good discussion.

There’s an argument for having music as a lead-in, even leading out at the end, as it helps brands podcasts, especially if it is a series of episodes, but avoid laying down a music track behind the speakers – it just kills attention and retention.

While recording
‘Go again… this time shorter” if often good advice, editing out the longer version. Try to avoid recording over several session, as it is difficult to get the same levels and sound the second and third time around. And if you think you can simply drop a word into a sentence that may have been mispronounced or the wrong word, think again – this is notoriously difficult. For 'learning' podcasts, there is something to be said for more structure in the content and clear edit points for different learning objectives. There are also strong arguments for more recaps, summaries and repetition to increase retention.

AI generated podcasts
One can already generate speech from text with relative ease. This is passable but still a little ‘mechanical’. However, we are reaching a position where it will feel very natural, so automatic podcasts from text scripts will be quick and cheap to produce and one can change and update them by simply changing the text, without going back into a recording studio. We already do this in WildFire for short introductions to pieces of learning.

Google is introducing real time transcription. This is a boon for note taking, as you can annotate, add your own words, summarise, mind-map, whatever. This is often difficult when you have to ‘watch’ a lecturer, PowerPoint or video. With WildFire we have also grabbed podcast transcripts, used AI to generate active online content to supplement the listening experience and solidify knowledge.

Before commissioning or producing podcasts, listen to a few. They’re everywhere on the web. But listen to those that are most popular. You will find all sorts of subjects, by all sorts of people and variations on formats. For learning, listen to some of the more serious podcasts, although there’s nothing wrong with lightening things up. I know of several companies who do ‘learning’ podcasts and have been on the end of quite a few. Given that it is a massively popular medium, cheap to produce, with significant advantages in terms of learning, why not give them a try?
Edison Report. (2019)
Llinares D. (2018) Podcasting: New Aural Cultures and Digital Media 
Nass and Reeves. The Media Equation
Newman N. (2019) Reuters. Journalism, Media and Technology Trends and Predictions 
For some interesting, and detailed research on podcasts, try Steve Rayson's blog. He has a strong learning background and is doing detailed research on who uses podcasts and why. Some of the ideas in this piece have come from his blog.

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