The rise in the use of podcasts over the past three years has been phenomenal. A recent Google search of the term returned over 16 million hits and this is up over 100 per cent from the same search carried out just over a year ago.

So what exactly is a podcast and why is podcasting becoming so popular? asks Brendan Murphy, head of ICT and marketing for Glasgow City Council's Direct and Care Services.

Whilst many will be familiar with entertainment podcasts (their first really big use) you might be less familiar with the revolution that is going on in the university sector. Here, the adoption of podcasts has been significant.

Stanford University and the University of California in the USA have made an institutional commitment to podcasting via Apple's iTunes music hub. Here, Apple provides a configurable, front-end, and free of charge, web-based application to the institution which is then used to upload and download podcast content as required.

Berkley University provides students access to a full site offering mp3 course and university event downloads - introducing formal and informal material for students to use. In 2005 at Duke University, North Carolina, in the biggest programme to date, all 1,650 freshmen were issued with a 20GB iPod.

Students use it to record lectures themselves to listen to at a later date. An evaluation report on this project identifies convenience, location-independent flexibility, effectiveness in recording lectures by students, greater student engagement in class activities, discussions, field trips etc and enhanced support for individual learning as benefits of this initiative.

What are podcasts being used for?

The main uses of podcasting in higher education are course lectures, pre-class listening material/extended course material, and coursework feedback.

Course lectures

Undoubtedly the main use to date of podcasting in a higher education setting has been in the recording of class lectures. To date, uses here have concentrated on simply recording lectures for review, however there are some examples where lectures have been completely replaced by the use of podcasts.

Recording methods adopted in creating podcasts vary depending on specific situations. Where podcasts are created on a PC and then uploaded to a server for distribution, one of the many free audio recording applications is used along with the standard recording capabilities of a PC / laptop. Where podcasts are created in a mobile environment such as a live lecture, the common recording method used is a portable MP3 player (typically an iPod), its in-built recording application, and a microphone attached to the lecturer’s shirt/blouse. 

Typically, lectures are uploaded by staff to a central distribution server where an application such as iTunes allows students and indeed the public to subscribe and access these lectures.
The Central Queensland University in Australia, an established distance learning institution, has made use of podcasting to help support distant learners on a procedural programming course.

Here, over 300 distant learners were provided with a course of recorded subject lectures - each lecture was recorded in a live lecture environment in classes with campus-based students studying the same course. Podcast lectures were supplemented with a blog for students to use.

Pre-class listening material / extended course material

At Charles Sturt University in Australia, podcast material has been successfully used to deliver pre-course material to students to allow them to prepare for face to face course lectures. The university also offered pre-course topic trailers to distance learning students to help prepare them for core learning activities and these trailers provided a broad overview of each topic enabling students to prepare for the lecture and associated activities. 

An informal approach to material seems to have been taken in areas where extended course material has been provided to enhance the learning experience of students.

At the University of Leicester, electronic engineering students were provided with supplementary podcasts on lectures and help with weekly activities, and jokes and news items were often included in these podcasts. At Charles Sturt University in Australia, podcasts released to distance learning students include not just lecture material summaries, but also assignment tips and hints and post-assignment feedback comments from lecturers.

Language learning has also been greatly enhanced with examples of podcasts bringing a cultural richness and context to study. Aside from the much publicised study at Duke University, Spanish and Turkish language students make use of podcasts for language specific material such as listening to news, songs and poetry as well as for other verbal material.

In the UK, the Open University is currently providing students with a series of helpful audio and video podcasts to support and complement course material on their undergraduate computing course 'M150 - Data, Computing and Information'. Each 10 minute podcast takes a programming topic and explains this further.

Coursework feedback

There are some examples where podcasts have been used to provide feedback to students. At the University of Chester, there is currently a three year research project looking at providing feedback on assignments to geography students. Here, a secure podcast is created for each student and this is split into two parts - the first part is a generic feedback portion for all students and the second is student specific feedback.

The IMPALA project at the University of Leicester gives a number of examples of podcasts being used for feedback including tutor evaluation of foreign language oral assignments at the University of Missouri, and peer evaluation using podcasts in foreign language classes at the University of Mary Washington. 

Top tips for podcasters

Whilst it's almost impossible to be prescriptive in this emerging technology area, the following tips will help if you are creating podcasts for learning or training purposes:

  • Don't get bogged down by the technicalities of podcasting;
  • Keep things simple;
  • Keep your podcasts fairly short (10 mins);
  • Plan ahead and use a script for guidance;
  • Keep your podcasts entertaining;
  • Informality works in most cases.

The future

The use of podcasting in higher education is set to continue to rise dramatically over the coming years. With the increased availability of broadcast quality technology and the pervasiveness of MP3 players and other mobile devices the likelihood is this emerging technology will grow in popularity. Many UK universities and research groups are carrying out important empirical research and the findings from these research projects is set to influence podcast use and design within the sector.

What is podcasting?

A podcast is an audio or video file made available over the internet which can be subscribed to and downloaded automatically each time an update becomes available. Podcasts come in many guises including video podcasts or 'vodcasts'.

The term podcast is an amalgamation of 'iPod' and 'broadcasting' and was coined due to the popular view that Apple iPods were the principal route for listening to podcasts. Whilst it is indeed true that iPods are used, the vast majority of podcasts are downloaded and listened too on PCs or laptops.

The beauty of podcasts is that they are delivered to you automatically each time you connect to the internet. All you need is some free software (aggregators) such as iTunes and a single click subscription to the podcast of your choice. When new content is added by the podcast creator, an RSS feed ensures it is made available to your aggregator.

Useful website

The author
Brendan Murphy is head of ICT and marketing for Glasgow City Council's Direct and Care Services. He is currently a part-time PhD student in the Centre for Research in Computing at the Open University focusing on mobile learning. Brendan is a regular podcaster.