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Issue 13 July 2008   Monday, July 21, 2008

ISSN 1748-3603

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A social constructivist approach to the use of podcasts
by Cheryl Reynolds and Liz Bennett

Does listening to something, perhaps once, perhaps more than once, perhaps over and over again, mean that it is learned in a way that is useful to the student and that they can retrieve and re-use in an appropriate context at a later date? It is a proposition that seems to conflict with the situated learning theories of researchers like Brown, Collins and Duguid (1989), which assert that learning always lies in the interactions between people rather than in the content itself or in the minds of the individual learners. The general premise that listening is often more engaging than the written word and that diction, intonation and inflection add meaning might be acceptable at face value, but as Hargis and Wilson (2005: 6) point out, ‘there are currently no examples which clearly indicate proven foundational pedagogical uses and outcomes for podcasts.’. Though the technology is quite recent, it may tend to lead teachers towards outmoded, didactic approaches to delivery rather than the constructivist, collaborative activities recommended by more recent learning theorists.

A number of authors including Franklin (2006) and Ge & Tok (2006) point out the fact that there is a lack of interaction, that the learner is the passive recipient of the content and that if they want to discuss the content, they will need to do so through another channel. Peter’s (2005) assertion that a recorded lecture, in which distance learners can hear the questions that were asked by those in attendance, constitutes an interactive resource seems less than convincing.   
There may well be ways of addressing the lack of interactivity. A cognitivist approach would be to provide students with supplementary resources that would prompt them to undertake some cognitive activity whilst listening to the podcasted material.  

A social constructivist approach to addressing lack of interactivity is to consider the podcasted material within the broader context of the platform through which it is delivered. The platform should provide opportunities for listeners to converse about and record their reflections on what they have heard so that the flow of information does not become one way. This is broadly similar to a face-to-face approach in which the tutor gives a short lecture, followed by activities that encourage interaction and debate or that test what has been learned in a formative fashion. 

The project discussed in this case study followed an action research framework within the context of a Foundation Degree in e-learning at the University of Huddersfield. Podcasts were used to support the delivery of a module on the use of Web 2.0 technologies in Education. The aim was to explore whether, in this context, podcasting could be an effective component of online learning. In particular, the project asked:

  1. Do students like listening to educational podcasts?
  2. Do students learn from using podcasts?

Thirteen podcasts were created and hosted on a syndicated blog site. The podcasts contained course materials relevant to the “Web 2.0 in Education” module. The podcasts were in a range of formats including audio files created by the module leader and video files sourced from YouTube. The content focussed on the relationship between theories of learning and the use of new technologies for learning and teaching. Some podcasts were supplemented by a gapped handout that required the student to fill in the gaps using information gained as they listened. The aim of the handout was to provide students with an activity to guide and focus them as they listened thus strengthening their cognitive engagement in the podcast material.

Podcasts were only part of a set of broader learning activities, designed following Laurillard’s recommendations for conversational framework (2002). See table 1 below.

Types of activity
How this was facilitated in the delivery of the module
Being exposed to the knowledge.
Traditional text-based delivery or podcast.
Expressing their own ideas about what they have read or heard.
Students recorded and discussed their learning in a wiki. They also completed a written test on the material covered.
Completing an activity where they are called upon to apply what they had learnt within their own working practice.
The content of the podcasts was an explanation of web 2.0 technologies, including the potential use of wikis as educational tools. Students then had to apply this learning by using a wiki themselves in order to collaborate in the production of a representation of what they had learnt from the podcasts and text-based delivery.
Discussing the ideas and how they worked in practice.
Use of the wiki and through a social networking/blogging tool, Eduspaces.

Table 1: Teaching and learning activities on this module analysed in terms of Laurillard’s conversational framework (2002)

The aim of the study was to find the best strategies to employ for a particular course and group of students in order to inform future practice on the course. The small sample size means that no claims are made about the generalisability of the findings. The aim of the research design was not to establish causations, rather to understand the students’ responses to the podcast medium and its potential as a tool to support learning at a distance.

Students’ views were collected via an asynchronous discussion board. Data was collected to address two research questions: ‘do students like learning from podcasts?' and ‘do students learn from podcasts?’ Students’ responses were categorised as either strongly positive, positive, neutral, negative or strongly negative. The second question was analysed using Bloom’s taxonomy (1956). The number of instances of students showing knowledge, understanding, application, synthesis and evaluation was recorded, as was the number of instances of mistakes, misconceptions and omissions. This enabled the effectiveness of the podcasts compared to text based methods to be judged.
Do students like listening to educational podcasts?

Chart 1 Students' Responses to Podcasts


Chart 1: Students' responses to podcasts

Chart 1 shows that 52.1% of responses were either strongly positive or positive, whilst 29.2% were negative or strongly negative. The remaining 18.8% were neutral. Whilst there were some neutral and negative responses to podcasting, there was a significant tendency towards positive perceptions. In addition, the negative comments were more frequently elicited in response to a particular episode, in which one of the speakers had a slow and monotone style of delivery. This is in line with earlier findings on the effect of delivery style on perceptions of listeners (Cebeci and Tekdal (2006)). 

Students involved in this study tended to be negative about the use of gapped handouts to supplement the podcast. This was unexpected, since it was initially felt that providing the gapped handout would make it more interactive by eliciting some cognitive activity by completing the handout 
Do students learn from using podcasts?
Chart 2 shows the frequency with which students exhibited learning at different levels of Bloom’s taxonomy (1956) when relying on the primary delivery mechanisms of podcasting compared with text-based methods.

Instances of Learning at each level of Bloom's taxonomy

Chart 2:  Instances of learning occuring at each level of Bloom's taxonomy

There was found to be no significant difference between the frequency of learning occurring at the different levels of Bloom’s taxonomy for podcasted and text-based delivery. However, there were significantly more omissions of important information occurring in students’ responses to text-based material than in their responses to the podcast. Since a similar amount of time had elapsed in each instance the conclusion is that, in this case, students retained more detail from listening to the podcasts than from reading material. 
The following recommendations on the use of podcasts in teaching and learning have been drawn from the findings of the study; ensure pace, style, content and length of podcasts consider guidelines based on the research of Cebeci and Tekdal (2006) and of Kallinen and Rajava (2005):

  • Podcasts should be less than 15 minutes. long
  • Recordings should be logically sequenced.
  • Speech should be interspersed with music.
  • Content should be placed in the context of the course of study and of the learner’s own working practice.
  • Pace of speech should be approximately 143 words per minute.
  • Ensure that audio content forms part of a wider range of learning activities that allow students to process, discuss and apply what they have heard and to gain formative feedback on their responses.
  • Recommend that students undertake cognitive activity whilst listening to the podcasted material but take account of the type and level of learner in deciding upon the form this activity should take. Lower level learners might appreciate structured activities which higher level learners might find inhibiting.
  • Inclusion of audio content may help students to retain information more effectively than purely text-based delivery.
  • Provide appropriate metadata for podcast episodes to allow learners to glean the essentials and assess the relevance and content of the episode before they listen to the whole thing.

Podcast Resource
The podcast material produced as a part of this study is found at
Cheryl Reynolds
Liz Bennett,
School of Education and Professional Development
University of Huddersfield

Brown, J.S., Collins, A. & Duguid, P. (1989) ‘Situated Cognition and the Culture of Learning’ Educational Researcher; v18 n1, pp. 32-42

Bloom, B.S. (1956) Taxonomy of Educational Objectives: the classification of educational goals New York: David McKay

Cebeci, Z. & Tekdal, M. (2006) ‘Using Podcasts as Audio Learning Objects’ Interdisciplinary Journal of Knowledge and Learning Objects, v2, pp. 47-57

Franklin, G. (2000) ‘Augmenting print-based distance learning with other technologies can enhance its effectiveness for adult learners’ Journal of Educational Technology Systems, v28 n4, pp. 327-334

Ge, S. & Tok, M. (2003) ‘Enhancing online education using collaboration solutions’ Journal of Educational Technology Systems, v31 n4, pp. 361-380

Hargis, J. & Wilson, D. (2005) ‘Fishing for learning with a podcast net’ [online] Available at: [Accessed 3rd August 2006]

Kallinen, K. & Rajava, N. (2005) ‘Effects of Rate of Computer-Mediated Speech on Emotional Related Subjective and Physiological Responses’ Behaviour and Information Technology, v24 n5, pp. 365-373

Laurillard, D. (2002)   Rethinking University Teaching: A Framework for the Effective Use of Learning Technologies 2nd EdLondon: Routledge Farmer

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