(Originally Published in TEACH Magazine November/December 2018)
By Adam Stone
As a digital learning specialist for the 55,000-student Plano Independent School District in Texas, Clara Alaniz is excited to bring podcasts into the classroom.
“After listening to the story, children will be asked to draw a picture of the characters or the setting using only the descriptive words that the author included,” she says. “That brings out great creativity in the children and it also helps them develop their listening skills.”
Podcasts are increasingly popular: One-third of Americans say they’ve listened to one in the past month, according to Reuters Institute’s latest Digital News Report. Educators now say this emerging technology could play a key role in the K-12 classroom.
A Different Format
A podcast is “a digital audio file made available on the Internet for downloading to a computer or mobile device, typically available as a series, new installments of which can be received by subscribers automatically,” according to the organizers of International Podcast Day.
Unlike radio, podcasts are available on demand. Because they are downloadable, students can carry them on their personal devices or listen to them at home. Unlike audio books, they are typically offered in an ongoing series, rather than as stand-alone items.
Listeners can subscribe to podcasts—many of which are available for free—by clicking on an RSS icon or subscription button, accessible through a number of podcast-listening apps. Subscribers typically will receive a notification any time a new installment becomes available.
There’s a level of independent learning inherent in the podcast format that some teachers find appealing. “One of the benefits of a podcast is that it is asynchronous—each student is listening individually, rather than having a single storyteller with all the students listening at the same pace,” Alaniz says. “They can pause to reflect, they can rewind if they didn’t quite catch something. It puts the students in the driver’s seat of their learning.”
The ability to go back and listen again can be especially helpful for students who may not have English as a first language. “In a classroom where students have language issues, they can hear how certain sounds are coming across, and they can listen as many times as they need to. Those things are hard to do in group instruction,” Alaniz says.
Others take an even broader view of podcasts. They’re looking to the new delivery mechanism as a way to potentially augment classroom content and broaden the learning experience.
‘More Nuanced Experience’
A former 5th grade teacher in the New York City public schools, Monica Burns sees the podcast format as bringing new possibilities to the table. “It’s a way to give kids information that complements what they read in text,” says Burns, a curriculum consultant and founder of Class Tech Tips.
“If you are reading a social studies textbook, and then you can hear an interview with someone who was present at that event, that can bring a whole other layer that wouldn’t otherwise be there. You’re giving students a deeper, more nuanced experience,” she says.
But content consumption is only one half of the podcast story. In addition to listening to other people’s stories, K-12 learners can also create their own podcasts. This offers them a way to reflect on classroom learnings, express their creativity, and connect with one another.
“When students share about themselves, it can help to develop schools that are more anti-bullying, that have a more sophisticated language of cultural understanding and cultural acceptance,” says Renée Laverdière, principal in The Boston Consulting Group’s education practice. “That’s why people like listening to podcasts: Because you feel like someone is talking directly to you, as a friend.”
Breadth of Content
Teachers can find a wide range of podcasts touching on a variety of subjects.
The iTunes podcast library for K-12 features hundreds of titles. There are language-based podcasts—Italian, French, Spanish, German. There are math programs, biology podcasts and many others.
Podcast delivery site ThePodcastHost offers a roundup of popular K-12 programming. Top shows include Everyday Einstein (bringing science to everyday life); the Math Dude (making math concepts accessible); and Aesop’s Fables, among others.
Podcasts also offer teacher resources. In Talks with Teachers, interviewers deliver insights from educators who are driving innovative projects in their schools. Teacher’s Aid addresses practical classroom issues, from overcoming burnout to teaching in impoverished communities.
With so many options available, it isn’t always easy to know which podcasts make sense in a given classroom. What are some of the criteria a teacher might apply in seeking out the best, most appropriate podcasts?
First, a podcast ought to have crystal-clear audio. A podcast is a listening experience, after all, “so poor production quality tends to be a red flag for me,” Burns says. “If someone isn’t putting in the effort on what ought to be an easy win, it makes me concerned that they won’t be putting in the effort in terms of the overall content.”
Many podcasts, while free, are supported by advertising revenue. Educators therefore will want to make sure that any advertising is age-appropriate. It’s also helpful if ads are grouped at the start or at the end of the podcast, rather than popping up obtrusively in the middle of the experience.
Advertising isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and may in fact present an opportunity. “An educator can have a really rich and meaningful conversation about digital literacy, helping kids understand what is an ad and why it has to be in there. In the real world they are going to encounter advertising and students need media literacy around that,” Alaniz says.
Some podcasts make transcripts available to accompany the recorded material. Students may find it helpful to read along, and the teacher can use the transcript as an easy reference point when planning lessons around the podcast.
As a general rule, experts recommend that a teacher listen through at least a couple of installments in their entirety before introducing a podcast in class. “You don’t want any surprises. Inappropriate language can sneak in there, maybe someone in the podcast is surprised by something and an expletive gets thrown out,” Alaniz says. “And you want the right level of content. If you’re not ready to have a conversation about war in your classroom, if that is something sensitive, you want to know about that before you ever play something for your students.”
While some teachers will ask students to listen to podcasts at home, others will use the tool in class. When playing a podcast in class, the group setting should inform the pacing. “There should be thoughtful pausing and prompting and discussion,” Burns says. “If you listen to a 15-minute recording with a group of third-graders, you should have heavy discussion going into it and then you pause and discuss it every couple of minutes. Let them think aloud about it and let them see how you as an educator make use of this information and interpret this content.”
Just as there are rules of the road for content ingestion—keep it age-appropriate, help kids to interpret what they hear—there are likewise a number of best practices around content creation.
Done right, a class-produced podcast can have considerable pedagogic value. “It gives students a new way to demonstrate their understanding, to synthesize information from multiple sources, and to create something that is representative of the media they consume outside of school,” Burns says.
She relies on third-party apps like Garage Band or Sound Trap to support the recording process. “With the apps you will have enhanced data privacy. They also make collaborative workflow more seamless, with students collaborating side by side or asynchronously through the apps,” she says.
Laverdière encourages teachers to let students take the lead in formulating the theme of their podcast. “It would be important that students build content related to the learning objectives, but that they also have some ability to choose the topics they feel strongly about,” she says. “We learn best by teaching others, so creating a podcast becomes a way for students to teach their fellow classmates about something they have learned or that they feel strongly about. That is really powerful.”
At the same time, she notes, it’s also important for teachers to keep in mind that a podcast is fundamentally a technology-driven experience. Kids need access to devices and bandwidth in order for this to work.
“How are you thinking about equitable access to that material?” Laverdière says. “Do they have access to a device? If they need to download material, do they have access to the Wi-Fi that they need? Have you thought about accessibility for students with special needs, for instance deaf students?”
For those who are able to work through the technical hurdles, experts say, there is much to be gained by a foray into this emerging digital delivery platform.
“This is something that is becoming a norm for people of all ages, so the more we can prepare students to interact in this space, the better equipped they will be to engage with information in this format,” Burns says. “When a medium is this popular, we want to use that. It helps set them up for success as both consumers and creators.”
A seasoned journalist with 20+ years’ experience, Adam Stone covers education, technology, government and the military, along with diverse other topics.