Podcasting: Learning On-the-Go

David Arendale

Students often maximize their time due to responsibilities for school, work, and personal lives. Around 2005, I noticed more students listening to their mobile media players like iPods or iPhones. I thought it would be a way to reach them while they are walking on campus, standing at bus stops, and multi tasking other things. It allows them to learn on-the-go. It also makes critical course review sessions open for all.

A podcast is like an Internet radio show except it can be listened to when and where a person wants. Podcast episodes are automatically downloaded to the student’s computer and can be listened to there or synced to their iPod, iPhone, or other mobile listening device. There are thousands of podcasts that can be subscribed to for free. Some are rebroadcasts of programs from television or radio. Others are independently created. Nearly all can be subscribed through Apple’s iTunes online, http://itunes.com.

I have been teaching college history courses for several decades. While I have worked to include media as a component of the learning experience, working at the University of Minnesota has afforded me more learning technology tools and opportunities for training to use them. For the past five years, podcasting has been an important course component. More than 200 episodes have been produced thus far. My learning objectives for my students with the iPad Project include: (a) Increase engagement with the learning process through direct involvement with producing and sharing course information; (b)  Stimulate learning through emerging technology-based learning venues; (c)  Build community by involving students in teaching one another; (d) Empower students to co- produce their learning process and the outcomes; and (e) Increase outcomes such as lower rates of course withdrawal and higher final course grades.

Podcasting is part of the learning experience for students in my history course. For the past five years in my class, podcasts have been delivered automatically to them through their computer, iPod, or smartphone. I named the podcast “Then and Now” since it helps to connect historical events in the past to today’s headlines. An important early decision was to involve the students in the production, on-air voice, and the content of the Then and Now podcast.

Students and I co-create weekly audio podcasts to review course material, interview history informants, review potential essay questions, and connect today’s news headlines with the course content. The history course podcast is called Then and Now, http://thenandnow.org. Weekly podcast episodes provide a review of class topics, exam preparation, and interviews with people with life experiences related to class history events. Students also contribute special music shows devoted to a country or region of the world, interviews with community experts on historical issues, and special exam preparation episodes. Having the students serve as the on-air voice allows them to share in their own words that communicate effectively with their classmates.

A simple route for creating podcasts is using the computer you probably already have. Most laptop computers come with built-in microphones. I recommend downloading the free software program “Audacity” (http://audacity.sourceforge.net/) to do the recording and editing of the audio podcasts. Free print and video tutorials are available at the Audacity website (http://audacity.sourceforge.net/manual-1.2/tutorials.html). Each audio segment of the larger podcast described in the previous paragraph is recorded separately. Copyright free music is available for use on podcasts at Music Alley (http://www.musicalley.com/). The finished podcast episode could be placed on a course Moodle page, uploaded to the University’s iTunesU service which makes it available to all (http://itunes.umn.edu/), or uploaded to a blog page created by an instructor where episodes could be downloaded or the entire series could be subscribed through an RSS feed (http://blog.lob.umn.edu/uthink/) through the blog page.

I took a more complex route in creating the podcast. Maybe it was because I was a former radio station DJ during my college years. I received a small grant to purchase equipment that helped to produce a nicer sound. I recorded the audio segments in my office using an audio mixer and professional-level microphone from BSW for $250 (http://www.bswusa.com). I used Apple’s GarageBand ($14.99) audio editing software on my Apple MacBook laptop (http://www.apple.com/ilife/garageband/). I bought several instruction manuals for the software at a bookstore and attended the free training workshops held at the Apple computer stores. I also bought several books on podcasting. Other resources on podcasting are available my web page, http://podcasting.arendale.org.

The best help I received was from my students. Erik Tollefsrud and Brian Fredrickson volunteered to organize  “Apple Technology Camps” on several Saturday mornings. They developed tutorials, and we created the podcasts together. I hired Erik for the first year to edit the podcasts while I continued to learn how to edit. Erik also created our logo for the podcast “Then and Now” displayed earlier in this chapter. I finally took over responsibility for editing after a year. Now it takes me about 90-minutes to produce a 30-minute podcast episode.

The podcast episodes are uploaded to the Internet using a blog page through the University (http://thenandnow.org). Listeners can go to the blog page, click on the web link, and listen to the episodes they like. Or, they can subscribe to the podcast through Apple’s iTunes, http://subscribethenandnow.info. The free iTunes software can be downloaded from http://itunes.com.

In addition to podcasting, several other complimentary learning technologies are embedded within my history course, providing opportunities for students to co-create their learning experience.

  1. iPad. First-year students use iPads to complete readings (paper textbook eliminated), listen to audio and video files including the course podcast, and create a group visual history project .
  2. Animoto. http://animoto.com/education I use the free online music video software to create summaries of my class presentations.
  3. Xtranormal. http://www.xtranormal.com/ I use the free online animation software to create short dialogues among historical characters.
  4. Twitter. I alert students to relevant news stories related to class topics. The history course Twitter feed is http://twitter.com/pstl1251
  5. iPad TV apps. Free apps permit watching TV news stories produced in France (France24), Middle East Al Jazeera), and England (BBC).
  6. Wiki Web Page. Students create an exam review web site before major exams. UMN Google Sites is used to host the web site, http://myworldhistory.org
  7. UMConnect. http://www.oit.umn.edu/umconnect/ I use the service provided through the University to host study review webinars before exams.
Quantitative Analysis of Podcasting with Student Outcomes
I have conducted several studies with students enrolled in my history course. The following is a brief overview of results from Fall 2008. Sixty-seven students were enrolled in the class.  Several factors were statistically significant (p>.05) for higher student satisfaction with the course learning experience through listening to the Then and Now podcast: less academically prepared and more skillful in use of the Internet. Factors related to higher final course grade achievement included listening to the course podcast (approached statistical significance (p> .05), better academically prepared (p> .05), and more skillful in use of the Internet (p> .05).

The students most likely to have higher satisfaction levels with the class were those less academically prepared. This accomplished one of the purposes of podcasting as an effective academic support system for students in a large class without an assigned tutor. A mitigating factor both with higher satisfaction with the course as well as higher final course grade was higher student skill level with use of the Internet. There is a learning curve for subscribing and syncing podcasts to mobile devices such as iPods, and related technical issues are a barrier for some students. As a result of these findings, I have spent additional time as the class instructor with in-class demonstrations and creating short video tutorials. Since 2008, the listenership of the course podcast has nearly doubled. Listening to the podcast contributed to higher mean final course grades, but the statistical impact appears to have been overshadowed by the powerful pre-entry academic preparation level of the students. The professional literature documents the most highly predictive factor in grade achievement is the previous academic success of the student. As I conduct future research studies, I will use more sophisticated statistical treatments to help separate the influence of the variables to more clearly identify the contribution of podcasting.

Suggestions for Exploring Podcasting
I have learned many lessons over the past few years. The quality of the podcasts is essential for students to value them enough to insert them into their lives. It is important as the class instructor to provide sustained awareness of the course podcast and also demonstrate how to locate, subscribe, and listen to them. I spend some class time throughout the semester and have developed short video tutorials. One should never assume that students by instinct intuit how to do things. More general information about podcasting and our Then and Now podcast are at http://podcasting.arendale.org.

I have four suggestions for next steps for people new to podcasting.
  • First, subscribe to podcasts of high personal and professional interest. Listen to them while sitting at your desk or exercising. Talk with your children or grandchildren. They will be happy to help. Talking with them is much quicker than going through the learning curve by yourself.
  • Second, learn how to podcast. Talk with some technology users  at your institution. Pick up a book on podcasting at the bookstore.
  • Third, experiment with the technology. Don’t wait to be perfect or think you need to know everything. Involve students in your class with the project by placing their voices on the podcasts and involving them with the audio production. Remember it is the value of the podcast content and not the production values that will attract your students and others to listen.
  • My final word of advice is to keep going and it will get better and better.


David Arendale <arendale@umn.edu>
I am an Associate Professor in the Department of Postsecondary Teaching and Learning in the UMN College of Education and Human Development. I will continue the podcast project in my history class and develop new categories of audio and video podcast episodes. More at http://arendale.org