Podcasts as a Learning Tool in Economics

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Contact: Geraint Johnes
Lancaster University Management School
Published July 2005

This note concerns my use of podcasts as a learning tool in economics during academic year 2004-05 at Lancaster University Management School. A podcast is an audio clip that is broadcast over the internet and which may be listened to at a computer or on an MP3 player (such as an iPOD).

To create the podcasts, I recorded a series of three minute clips based on topics in my final year undergraduate human resource economics course. These were recorded as wave files using the windows sound recorder, and then converted to mp3 files using dBpowerAMP Music Converter (http://www.dbpoweramp.com/dmc.htm). The files were then uploaded onto an weblog account freely hosted by blogger (http://www.blogger.com/start), one each week. The account was given RSS syndication using the FeedBurner service (http://www.feedburner.com). Students were then given the web address for the RSS feed.

To retrieve the podcasts, students need to install a podcast receiver on their computer. A popular option is iPodder (http://ipodder.sourceforge.net/index.php). Once this is installed and the address for the RSS feed has been entered, the student's computer will automatically download each podcast at the time that it is uploaded. Each podcast will also be downloaded automatically onto students' iPODs, though for some other types of MP3 player the files may need to be manually ported from the PC to the player.

Since many students will not have their own computer, it is important that the audio files should be made available also through direct web access (ideally within the module's virtual learning environment). Students accessing the material using lab machines then simply need to connect headphones to the PC to listen to the podcasts.

All of the software referred to above is free, and the processes of creating and receiving the podcasts are straightforward.

A virtue of the podcast system is that it is, to some extent at least, a push technology, contrasting with the pull technology that is characteristic of many internet applications. The podcasts are automatically delivered to the student; the student does not have to remember to fetch them each week.

There are several lessons to be learned about the pedagogy of using podcasts. First, a podcast is (currently at least) an audio event only. It lacks the impact of an audio visual presentation. This means that podcasts should be short, and should contain material that is vivid and arresting, and supplementary to what has been covered in class. Secondly, the material delivered in a podcast should be provocative and should aim to make students think. Thirdly, it should be remembered that, immediately after listening to a podcast, the student will most likely listen to music. This means that thinking time needs to be included within the podcast itself. Do not be afraid to leave gaps of silence embedded in your podcasts. If you want your listeners to think about a question, give them time within the podcast to do so - they won't do it afterwards. Fourthly, the podcasts should be embedded in the curriculum; students should see that there is advantage to them in listening. In my course, this advantage was apparent in that assessment was by way of a learning journal, and students knew they could get ideas for this journal by following thinking leads given in the podcasts.

Students who used the podcasts report that they found them immensely helpful. However these students were in the minority. This seems to be because the facility is most useful to students who have their own PC (and ideally also an MP3 player), and broadband access. (While the podcasts can be downloaded on a dial-up connection, this is slow. Broadband access is of course a problem for many students living in private rental accommodation, since broadband providers typically impose a 12 month contract.) Of course, students could access the audio clips through the virtual learning environment, but many did not do so - presumably because this is a reversion to a pull technology. In these respects, podcasting may be a learning technology for the future rather than the present. Nonetheless, the results of my experiment suggest that the podcasts have, for the students that access them, measurable pedagogical merit.

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