Podcasts: Another view

Rutger-Jan van Spaandonk says that podcasts (audio or video files on demand on the internet) have an enormous and, as yet, unrealised potential to make a positive impact on the quality of teaching and learning in South Africa at primary, secondary and tertiary levels. We at Mindset could not agree more.

The availability of high-quality, curriculum-aligned and easily accessible learning resources is one of the foundations required for an effective and efficient education system. Mindset Learn was established to provide such resources.

Mindset Learn, the schooling programme and broadcast channel run by Mindset Network, does broadcast much of its material on DStv channel 319 and TopTV channel 319. Although both of these are pay TV channels, Mindset Learn is carried on all bouquets including the R20-a-month DStv EasyView bouquet, placing access to these broadcasts in the hands of a wider segment of the population than Van Spaandonk assumes.

Although his general assessments of the limits of broadcast as a delivery platform are accurate, there are still certain advantages to the broadcast model that he overlooks, particularly in the context of a developing country. A look at the relative penetration rates of television versus the internet in South Africa will reveal that those with access to television greatly outnumber those with access to the internet, particularly the kind of broadband access required to download multimedia materials.
Hence, for all its drawbacks, broadcast is still an effective way of reaching the most people possible, especially in rural areas.

To mitigate against the potential access barrier to its broadcast channel, Mindset Learn is also broadcast as a free-to-air digital satellite channel and it actively seeks and secures funding for the installation of broadcast receiving equipment at schools, clinics and community centres.

Having said this, the scheduled nature of broadcast is often not the the best way to provide for effective education.

Not only does it limit the user’s ability to interact with and control the pace of the learning being presented, as noted by Van Spaandonk, but, more importantly, it also often limits the ability of teachers to integrate these resources into their lessons.

This is particularly true of formal schooling where, even with access to a wide array of learning materials, the teacher is and will remain central.

Indeed, much of Mindset’s work in the schooling sector is focused on empowering and enabling teachers to use our and other resources and to conduct the kind of interactive, learner-centred lessons that Van Spaandonk envisages, although this transition is often not as effortless as he suggests.

For the past six years, Mindset has actively sought ways to provide access to its content without the time and location limitations of broadcast while also keeping in mind that relatively few of our target users have any sort of high-speed, reliable and affordable internet access.

For example, we were the first in the country to develop and deploy an education-specific forward-and-store multicast system that delivers high-resolution video content to Mindset servers around the country.

In 2004, we also became one of the first organisations in South Africa to make all its materials available for free download from the internet under a creative commons: attribution, share-alike licence.

Not only does this licence mean that all materials are free but users are also given default permission to adapt and re-distribute them.

Today, www.mindset.co.za/learn hosts more than 300 hours of video content available for free download. Users can select to download a series or an entire section of the curriculum by means of one of the many RSS/podcast feeds available.

Mindset still makes its content available for purchase on DVD, finding that the convenience and quality of this product complements rather than conflicts with the free podcasts.

Finally, it is important that the value of podcasts (and other kinds of learning support resources) is not overstated. Simply put, podcasts are good but good teachers are better. It should also be noted that as the means of production and distribution become democratised, the ability of learners and teachers to select materials that are accurate, appropriate and aligned to their needs will be put to the test.

Accessing free materials from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is great. Unfortunately, most grade 12s still lack the means to do so. Podcasts can be an important part of the solution, but will remain just that — a part of the solution.
Dylan Busa is schooling executive: Mindset Network.

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