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Donald Clark

Wildfire Learning


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Podcasts: Your next learning and development offering?

The increasing popularity of podcasts makes them an invaluable addition to a training managers tool kit
Woman listening to podcast

Technology is full of surprises. No one predicted the success of the podcast, no one saw it coming, it just arrived. Suddenly it’s a mature medium, with major podcasters and podcasts getting listeners on all sorts of subjects from the fun to esoteric, in the millions. So what makes them so successful and what role can they play in learning?

I’d argue they already play a huge role in learning as there are podcasts deep diving into every imaginable subject. That’s the first surprising thing about podcasts – in an age of the attention economy, people are willing to take an hour, even longer, to listen in depth about one topic.

Some of my favourites include the BBCs In Our Time series with over 900 podcasts on history, politics, science, philosophy and art. Lex Friedman on AI. Talking Politics… we all have our go tos. When people talk about lifelong learning, podcasts deliver precisely that, learning for everyone – for free.

Podcasts free you from the tyranny of time and location

Great Minds on Learning

John Helmer and I have been doing a Great Minds on Learning podcast series that takes groups of learning theorists and goes into detail about their ideas and the practical application of those ideas. So far we’ve covered the Cognitivists, Behaviourists, Instructionalists, Pragmatists, Moralists, Assessors, Enlightenment, Online educators, Social, Affective, Informal and Workflow learning.

People tell us that they listen on the way to work, while walking the dog, exercising, sometimes intensely, taking notes. That’s the great thing about this medium, your mind can focus while your hands and body are free. Podcasts free you from the tyranny of time and location, you can listen to them anywhere at any time.

Less cognitive load

Do any of these theorists explain the success of podcasts? Interestingly, John and I have discussed this in several of the episodes. Our episode on Cognitive scientists, such as Alan Baddley, who unpacked Working Memory and John Sweller, a theorist on cognitive load theory, explain in detail why podcasts work so well in learning.

By NOT having images and dealing with information through our auditory channel in the brain, we free up working memory for reflection, imagination and understanding. For abstract subjects, this focus on what is being said allows us to concentrate and better process what is being said. This deeper processing increases reflection, understanding and retention.

Another theorist, Richard Mayer, featured in the podcast on Online theorists, has completed over 500 scientific studies on online learning. He has shown that delivering text plus audio floods two separate channels of the brain, leading to lower learning and retention. His work shows that learning less is often more.

What type of learning?

In my book, Learning Experience Design, I wrote in depth about the rise of audio and podcasts in learning, including what types of learning experiences are most suitable for podcasts.

The audio-only format tends to be more useful for abstract knowledge and skills, not those that require still or moving images. Learning designers tend to assume that all online learning experiences require images. This is not true. Hundreds of millions listen to radio, music and podcasts without images. Indeed the absence of images can be a virtue.

Learning that includes the respected ‘voices’ of experts can also be useful, whether internal or external to the organisation. 

Intimate conversations

A good podcast is like eavesdropping into an intimate conversation. You feel as though you are there, sitting next to them. That’s the cognitive trick. This is why podcasts rarely work if they’re just monologues or scripted and produced in a studio by a voiceover artist. That’s not really a podcast, it’s a monologue.

The interview technique works well, one-on-one or with two, three or four experts. Having an anchor or interviewer holds the experience together and increases flow. They have to be able to ask the right questions, sit back and listen, and also follow up when something needs more clarification.

Overall the evidence shows that, for learning, informal works best.

Good mic

If you do produce a podcast, the first rule is to get a good mic. It doesn’t have to be expensive. Also while it’s best practice to record in as quiet a place as possible, an interruption by your dog or child is not a problem, it makes it real. My ALEXA once sparked off during a recording (I mentioned ALEXA’s use in learning ) and it added to the informality, realism and made my point for me.

Try to avoid too much editing by getting a rough structure worked out before you start and don’t worry about cleaning everything up. People want informal realism.

How long?

There is no real rule on length but most are long-form. Some are short, at 15 or 20 minutes but an hour is normal, some longer. James Manion does learning podcasts called Rethinking Education (which I highly recommend) that are sometimes over 3 hours. He interviewed me for 3 hrs 6 minutes!

A good trick used by the most successful podcasters in the world, such as Joe Rogan, is to record them, then split them up into sections for YouTube consumption, by topic. So chapterise your podcasts. Also look for a short sentence somewhere that captures the essence of the podcast, to put out on social media for marketing.

What speed?

Some like to listen at x1.5, even x2 speed and, surprisingly, evidence has recently emerged that this has little effect on what you learn and retain. Above x2 speed and things get lost, but if you want efficient learning listen at speed.

An inclusive experience

We have evolved to speak and listen, not read and write, which are difficult skills to acquire. We are grammatical geniuses at age 3. Audio is therefore an inclusive medium, useful for audiences who rarely read, have lower levels of literacy or may just prefer to listen. It humanises the learning experience and is an almost frictionless interface.

Audio is now present on our smartphones as personal assistants, such as Siri or Google Assistant. It is also in our cars on our satnavs and in our homes with Alexa. Voice has always been there and it’s now part of the online landscape.

What’s not to like? They’re cheap and easy to produce and distribute, have cognitive benefits, are loved by many and are effective in learning. Rather than spending oodles on full-milk online learning with video, animation and graphics, why not take some topics and try a few podcasts? Happy listening!

Interested in this topic? Read How to select the right technology for enabling a learning culture.

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