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Teaching with podcasts

MP3 players are becoming ubiquitous. Even the latest cellphones are being promoted on billboards around the country as multimedia centres that happen to have a phone attached to them. The must-have attachment is a shiny set of earphones that gives the phone the ability to provide a soundtrack to our lives.

But among the youth it seems a dedicated audio player is still the coolest way to go. Fortunes have been made at Apple because they developed the minimalist MP3 player, the iPod. It remains the hippest accessory despite a host of imitators. But can we teachers harness this device and others like it to improve teaching and learning?

The answer is: “Why not?”

The iPod and its imitators have introduced today’s youth to audio content. We might have grown up in the golden age of radio but this is something new to our learners. Podcasts, available for free download to an MP3 player or an appropriate cellphone, are basically potted radio shows.

The advantage is that you listen to them when you feel like it. You don’t need to worry about broadcast times. The ideal is to subscribe to a podcast and as new episodes are published they are automatically downloaded to your device.

“What content is available?” you might wonder.

Podcasts are popping up on many subjects. There is news, comedy, celebrity and sport content, but there are also many topics that relate directly to the curriculum. Recently I collected a catalogue of appropriate further education and training (FET) history podcasts.

I am amazed at the scope of titles. Predictably, general history is much better represented than local or African history. But there are episodes that span ancient times, medieval history, the World Wars and the Cold War. There is also some excellent audio content that records the narratives of individuals who experienced the evils of slavery first hand. These podcasts relate directly to the FET history syllabus. Languages, science and technology are other subjects in which there are lots of options.

So how might we use these mate-rials that support the learning process? Two strategies come immediately to mind. First, use them as either introductory, lesson-support or revision materials. Allow those children who struggle with text materials the option of listening to the content they need. Distribute the MP3 files to the class and assign them the task of listening to the content as they walk home or ride the bus or taxi.

An alternative strategy would be to make the class construct its own podcasts. Because there is an apparent lack of materials on African history, it makes sense that the class should script and record its own episodes on these topics and offer them to the global community. It’s not as ludicrous as it might sound.

A podcast called Hank’s History Hour is freely available from iTunes. Hank, an American high-school learner, has made a series of recordings, originally aimed at his peers, which summarise a number of sources available to them, the textbook, class notes and some library references.

The podcasts were a success and now have a global audience. The reason might have something to do with Hank’s accessible delivery and informal tone. The episodes are rich with student slang and told with an unassuming attitude in simple English. Hank is quick to break down complicated historical terms into straight-forward language. Why can’t our classes have a crack at making podcasts that might help learners with African history?

“How do I go about getting podcasts for my classes?” is a question you might now be contemplating.

The easy route is to download free software called iTunes and install it on an internet-connected computer. Navigate to the iTunes store using the software and then click on Podcasts. An extensive directory of podcasts is contained within. Identify something that is promising and subscribe. The vast majority of podcasts are free. Attach your MP3 player to the computer and the latest edition will be downloaded to your MP3 player.

Another way is to search the internet for podcasts using a search engine. There are many sites that link to podcasts. You click on the link and the MP3 file is saved to your computer. Then you must use the file transfer system on your computer to move the file to your MP3 player or phone. This sounds easy but can get a bit technical at times.

For the innovative teachers reading this, you might ask: “How can I learn about recording and distributing podcasts?” Despite the fact that it sounds involved, it is surprisingly easy because the process has been automated to a large extent. Use the links in the graphic to start the process.

Andrew Moore is a former teacher. He has an MEd degree in computer-assisted education. He works for Neil Butcher and Associates, an education technology consulting company

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