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Podcasting: Do you really need to know?

Roger Atkinson

No doubt many members of HERDSA have experienced the feeling that there are just too many new technologies being foisted upon us. Do you want to say, or even scream, that you have reached your technological saturation point? We understand, and in recognition of that feeling, here is a column asking the question "Podcasting: Do I really need to know?", and giving an answer, "No", in the first paragraph.

However, I invite you to read on, because it's not exactly an unequivocal "No", and there are interesting ramifications. To start with, it's highly likely that you have encountered the iPod from Apple Computer, Inc [1]. Teenagers (and occasionally other kinds of persons) listening to their iPods. Advertisements for iPods from all the major retailers, your Harvey Normans, Myers, etc. Numerous imitators also in the market. Even the writers of email viruses are on the iPod bandwagon (I wasn't fooled by free iPod offered by the email quoted below, and anyway, as a Mac user, I'm immune to virus attachments :-)

Dear user rjatkinson,
You have been picked to receive a free prize!
Check the attachment in this email for claiming your prize.
Thank you
The YourFreeiPod Team

+++ Attachment: No Virus (Clean)
+++ Bigpond Antivirus - www.bigpond.com
Here is a illustrative excerpt from iPod advertising, that also takes us on to the main topic, podcasts [1]:
How much can your pocket hold? That's up to you and your iPod. It holds up to 20,000 songs, up to 25,000 photos and up to 100 hours of video - or any combination of each... So you can browse music on the iTunes Store, download the ones you want, then sync it to your iPod. Same goes for new iPod games, best-selling audiobooks, and an entire universe of free podcasts. Go ahead. Fill 'er up.
Note the lovely new, recently invented words, iTunes, sync, audiobooks and podcasts. Fortunately for Apple Inc's bottom line, podcasting seems to have slipped into our everyday language. In particular, broadcasters and publishers have adopted it. Here are several of my favourite examples, starting with a definition from our own ABC [2]:
What is Podcasting
Podcasting is a way of automatically downloading audio files to your computer. You can then listen to this audio on your computer or transfer them to an MP3 player.
The best known "MP3 player" is probably Apple's iPod; numerous competitors are available in the form of portable, pocket sized devices, even some that are also mobile phones, and as computer software such as Apple's QuickTime. In passing we could note that even our ABC has some uncertainties on its web pages. Should podcasting encompass video and audio files or should we adopt the term vodcasting to distinguish video from audio only, reflecting the difference between radio and television? [3] The word vodcasting very conveniently seems related to "video on demand", linking the concept, the practice, and, pre-eminently, the marketing, to the worlds of entertainment, journalism, the big, multinational media players, pay TV, and even some players in academic publishing. That brings me to the next example, from Nature, after this digression into another of my favourites from our dearly beloved 50 year old Aunty TV. Of the various explanations given by the ABC for its adoption of vodcasting, the one that appeals to me most relates to the ABC TV program The Chaser's War on Everything. Now available on vodcast [3]:

Chaser's war graphicAll year, people have told us they missed our show because they were in the pub. So we have come up with a way you can watch it in the pub, or anywhere. So the only excuse for missing the show now is that you just don't like it very much.

Back to the serious stuff. Nature is a very well known, highly prestigious publication dating from 1869 [4]. Definitely not a teenager in scholarly publishing, but nevertheless Nature is into podcasting [5]:

Nature subscription graphic Subscription to the Nature Podcast is FREE!... The Nature Podcast is an audio file you can play on any computer - you don't need an iPod... See our podcast index page to enjoy more specially-commissioned broadcasts... You can post comments using our discussion blog. Listen to the latest show and join in the debate.

Browsing recently in another academic journal, the International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning (IRRODL) [6], I encountered its invitation, "Please complete the online readership survey". The first paragraph of this survey's welcome to the reader is [7]:

Welcome to the new IRRODL, which along with a new technical backbone supported by open source PKP publishing technology and the adoption of Creative Commons Licensing now comes with MP3 audio downloads starting from volume, Vol. 7. No.1, forward. MP3 audio technology will enable those with mobile phones and mobile devices to access IRRODL's content anytime, anywhere.
Now I can understand the teenage desire to have songs galore podcasted to them, and I can understand Nature making podcasts for those parts of its content that relate more to science journalism than to conventional academic reporting of scientific research findings. But I rather doubt the existence of a demand for audio files containing review articles on academic topics in distance education and open learning. This is partly because I already have a mechanism for "anytime, anywhere" access to journal content. Instead of downloading to an iPod or other MP3 player (that I don't have), I dump to printer and I can read that "anytime, anywhere", though, in practice, I rarely dump to printer. Over 95% of my academic reading is on screen only, using 100% recycled electrons, and I hope you do the same (HERDSA News excepted :-)

There are several other reasons for being lukewarm towards podcasting for academic journals. The podcasts may be accompanied by advertisements, just like commercial radio (e.g. Nature podcasts). In my humble opinion, that's an irritant. More significantly, audio files do incur much greater traffic volumes than plain text files. For example, from Nature's website I tested one audio file and its plain text transcript, finding audio file 10,700 kB, about 31 minutes playing time [8] compared with transcript 80 kB, about 5600 words [9]. Ouch, 10.7 MB!! I had to abandon that investigation and also I should qualify a comment I made in an earlier edition of HERDSA News, "With marginal costs of digital network transport approaching zero, let's be indulgent in the number of articles that we download!" [10]. Add "...excluding podcasts". To summarise, podcasting is appropriate for a "song" or "clip" with duration 3-4 minutes, but for other kinds of content, conserve bandwidth and read rather than listen. If you need really need portability of content, use your printer rather than your MP3 player.

Whilst podcasting is an additional method of distribution for producers of radio and TV broadcast content (e.g. the ABC, National Geographic [11], Nature), does it have applications in higher education? Here we need to consider another aspect, deftly summarised by Mark Lee from Charles Sturt University [12]:

Many of our students - even the young ones straight out of high school - tell us that they set aside specific times to listen to our podcasts, whether this be on their portable devices (e.g. iPods) or on their PCs. They generally don't seem to be comfortable multitasking these learning activities with other (household, work, leisure etc) activities, perhaps because they are inclined to treat them as formal, deliberate learning efforts. Many think that they have to sit and concentrate!
As a method of distribution, podcasting is likely to have only a minimal impact upon higher education teaching and learning. There are other methods of distribution, in particular conventional reading and viewing of files (mostly text, diagrams, illustrations) web served by LMS software such as WebCT. Concepts such as "subscribe to a podcast" are not especially relevant (higher education uses "unit enrolment"), and in many or most cases portability via an MP3 player is of little relevance, given the intense interaction and concentration demanded by higher education learning activities ("...have to sit and concentrate!" [12]).

However, the lack of impact from podcasting as a method of distribution should not lead us into overlooking the significant influence that podcast creation tools are developing in education (see [13] for one supplier's list of "creation tools"). The emerging developmental and research direction seems to me to be learning through creating podcasts and similar, in contrast to learning from podcasts. Especially in the schools sectors, podcasts are being created mainly as experiential, authentic, group based, constructivist learning experiences. The providing of information to others is a secondary and lesser purpose. Although at present there is relatively little research to support this prediction (see [12] and [14] to [18] for examples), there is a growing number of school podcasting sites which illustrate the prediction very well indeed. For excellent examples from Western Australia, see Blitto's (Rod Blitvich, [19], [20]) and Podkids (Paul Fuller, [21]).


  1. Apple - iPod. [viewed 6 Nov 2006] http://www.apple.com/au/ipod/ipod.html
  2. ABC. Podcasting. [viewed 6 Nov 2006] http://www.abc.net.au/services/podcasting/
  3. ABC. Podcasting - Video podcasting. [verified 6 Nov 2006] http://www.abc.net.au/services/podcasting/video.htm
  4. Nature Publishing Group (2006). Archive of issues: Nature. [verified 10 Nov 2006] http://www.nature.com/nature/archive/index.html. NPG states "Nature archive is available online back to January 1950. The archive back to 1869 (volume 1) is being digitized and will be available in late 2007."
  5. Nature Publishing Group (2006). Nature Podcast. [verified 10 Nov 2006] http://www.nature.com/nature/podcast/
  6. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning. http://www.irrodl.org/
  7. IRRODL Survey. [viewed 2 Nov 2006] http://klaatu-dev.pc.athabascau.ca/research-survey/index.php?sid=21
  8. Nature Publishing Group (2006). http://www.nature.com/nature/podcast/v443/n7112/nature-2006-10-12.mp3 (the main topic sfor 12 Oct 2006 were "The 'Great Oxidation', mammalian extinction patterns, Nobel and Ig Nobel Prize roundup, 'Tripoli Six' update, and vaccination strategies and the Ethiopian wolf." In the podcast interviewer Chris Smith discussed these topics with four scientists).
  9. Nature Publishing Group (2006). http://www.nature.com/nature/podcast/v443/n7112/nature-2006-10-12.html
  10. Atkinson, R. (2004). Technology interactions: Scholarly publishing. HERDSA News, 26(3), 19-21. http://www.roger-atkinson.id.au/pubs/herdsa-news/26-3.html
  11. National Geographic. Free Podcasts from National Geographic. http://www.nationalgeographic.com/podcasts/
  12. Lee, M. (2006). Re: Optimum Podcast Lengths. List posting, 1 Apr 2006. Instructional Technology Forum. http://it.coe.uga.edu/itforum/
  13. Apple Education (2006). Tools for Creating and Distributing Podcasts. http://www.apple.com/au/education/resources/060726podcastingedu.pdf
  14. Chan, A. and Lee, M. J. W. (2005). Venturing beyond recorded lectures: Using podcasting to give a voice to learners in higher education. In Balance, fidelity, mobility: Maintaining the momentum? Proceedings ASCILITE 2005, Brisbane. p.129-130. http://www.ascilite.org.au/conferences/brisbane05/blogs/proceedings/P3_Chan.pdf (see also http://www.csu.edu.au/division/studserv/sec/papers/chan.pdf)
  15. Leaver, T. (2006). iTeach, iLearn: Student podcasting. In Experience of Learning. Proceedings of the 15th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 1-2 February 2006. Perth: The University of Western Australia. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2006/abstracts.html#leaver
  16. Anderson, L. S. (2005). Podcasting: Transforming middle schoolers into 'middle scholars'. THE Journal, 1 December. http://www.thejournal.com/the/printarticle/?id=17607
  17. Crofts, S., Dilley, J., Fox, M., Retsema, A. and Williams, B. (2005). Podcasting: A new technology in search of viable business models. First Monday, 10(9). http://www.firstmonday.org/issues/issue10_9/crofts/index.html
  18. Burrell, J., Griffin, T. & Olivieri, K. (2006). Creating a podcast system that is RSS (really simple and stress free, not to mention cheap). Proceedings Educause 2006. http://www.educause.edu/ir/library/pdf/EDU06222A.pdf
  19. Blitvich, R. (2006). Blitto's Podcasts. Balcatta Senior High School. [verified 10 Nov 2006] http://web.mac.com/blitto/iWeb/Blittos%20Stuff/Podcasts/Podcasts.html
  20. Blitvich, R. (2006). Human Biology Student Podcasts. Balcatta Senior High School. [verified 10 Nov 2006] http://web.mac.com/blitto/iWeb/Blittos%20Stuff/My%20Students%27%20Podcasts/My%20Students%27%20Podcasts.html
  21. Fuller, P. (2006). Podkids Australia. A podcast by Year 4/5 kids in Perth, Western Australia. [verified 10 Nov 2006] http://www.podkids.com.au/

Author: Roger Atkinson retired from Murdoch University's Teaching and Learning Centre in June 2001. His current activities include publishing AJET and honorary work on TL Forum and other academic conference support and publishing activities. Website: http://www.roger-atkinson.id.au/ Contact: rjatkinson@bigpond.com

Please cite as: Atkinson, R. (2006). Podcasting: Do you really need to know? HERDSA News, 28(3). http://www.roger-atkinson.id.au/pubs/herdsa-news/28-3.html

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