‘What’s a podcast?’ was the reply I got when I suggested to a young lady recently that her forthcoming study trip to India might feature in my podcast, Absolutely Intercultural. As I am about to facilitate one of The Consultants-E’s short podcast courses aimed at language teachers, this shows that the concept is perhaps not as well-known as we might think. If asked to explain, I usually reply along the lines that it is an Internet radio show but most of the assumptions you may make when you hear that can be broken and still be a podcast. So what does the phrase Internet radio show suggest? Audio, public, regularly published, professionally produced and available online. Why would any teacher want to commit themselves to that? Sounds like a lot of hard work.
The main advantage for language teachers is that podcasts support speaking and listening skills which can be overlooked in favour of reading and writing. The main advantage for language students is that when they make their own podcasts they can hear what they sound like and they can practice over and over before making their final recording. And practice they will, because a podcast is not just homework when it has an audience, even if that audience is password protected. As for listening, there is a wealth of free podcasts available to use whenever convenient as they can be downloaded and stored on an mp3 player or mobile phone for later.
So let’s take a closer look at what a podcast is to see if Internet radio show is a good description.
Audio: Most podcasts are audio but many are also video. Video is more attractive. You only have to consider the popularity of YouTube to see that. Can you name the audio equivalent of YouTube? No, I don’t suppose you can. But video is also more challenging to produce and not quite as mobile as audio for viewers who can’t enjoy video without risking their lives if they are watching on their morning run for example.
Public: The idea here is that the sound file you produce is uploaded online for others to enjoy rather than sitting on your local computer. Many people forget that that it’s possible to control access online through a password, for example if you upload your podcast to a blog. Many people also forget or are unaware of the powerful effect of audience. It doesn’t matter if the audience is only class peers and possibly parents. What matters is that this audio recording is suddenly not just homework, but a production that others are going to hear. This is a powerful motivator for most language learners and this is why they will suddenly want to practice again and again before they commit themselves to a final recording.
Regularly published: This is one of the easiest rules to break. It may suit your purposes that the podcast is just a one-off. On the other hand the discipline of producing a regular podcast could be another powerful motivator, providing that additional stress just before publication day when everything has to be ready. In fact there is an English course build around that regular stress, UIC London Radio, which recently won a prestigious ELTON award for good practice in TEFL. Although you get an audience more easily if you register your podcast with iTunes, this is not necessary for it to be called a podcast.
Professionally produced: The tools available to make a podcast are either free or ubuiquitous and quite easy to use so there is no need to call in professional help. Your PC has had a built-in audio recorder for years; your laptop too. But nowadays almost every language student comes to class with a mobile phone and even the most basic phone has an audio recorder. If you don’t believe me then I suggest you take a tour around your phone now. It may be called ‘audio notes’ or similar.
There are two choices about editing: Either you plan the recording meticulously so that no editing is needed or you record spontaneous conversation and edit later. Both approaches have merit for language learners. Learning the basic features of highlighting, copying, pasting or deleting and moving sections of audio around in the free audio editor Audacity is all you need to make a podcast of good enough quality. It’s only fair to mention that to save your creation in mp3 format in Audacity, the standard audio format for online sound, you also have to download an extra little bit of programming called the Lame file. I have explained how to do this in this short video.
The final part of podcasting is uploading it online. This can sound daunting but dedicated podcasting sites such as podomatic.com make it very simple and of course free. Most blogs now accept audio files so you can use a blog as your podcast portal. I would especially recommend the newer services such as Posterous and Tumblr which make it super easy to upload audio files and any additional notes and images you want to accompany the podcast.
Available online: Whether it is Internet or Intranet, uploading the finished sound file makes it much easier to share with others than if it is left on a local machine. I don’t think that storing a sound file locally qualifies it as a podcast. So, of all the assumptions conjured up by the term Internet radio show, this is the one which you really can’t avoid.
You and your students can also be consumers of podcasts; there are thousands out there both specifically for language learners and authentic recordings made in English. You can find a good list recently compiled by The Consultants-E here.
So is Internet radio show a good description of what a podcast is? I think it will do, though podcasts are probably more varied and flexible than what is implied by radio show. But the key concern is that the word does not seem to have penetrated the public consciousness which makes marketing podcasts and podcast courses slightly more difficult than it otherwise might be. But I’m looking forward to working with those brave souls who have made it through the jargon jungle to learn more about podcasting later this week!