Audio learning has been on a long journey since the UK’s Open University sent out cassette tapes in the post and Australia’s School of the Air was connecting with remote outposts over the radio. More than half a century later, learning with audio is bigger, better and more dynamic than ever.

When podcasts first came on the scene and into our MP3 players (remember those?) in the early 2000s, who knew that the global podcasting market would be expected to reach $41.8 billion by 2026? As founder and host of long-running Edtech Podcast Sophie Bailey pointed out in a recent post, audio is exploding right now. So what does that mean for learning and teaching?

What are we listening to?

In Australia, podcast listening increased to include 32% of the population in 2020 (up from 27% in 2019), but is still behind the global average of 41%. Podcasts regularly hitting the top of the charts tend to focus on news, lifestyle and entertainment, but there’s lots going on in learning, too.

All over the world, learners young and old are tuning into podcasts for high school exam support, professional development and to access expertise in disciplines from science and technology to arts and languages.

Here at UTS, Impact Studios has also been busy in recent years, combining academic research with audio storytelling to create podcasts on current issues such as Black Stories MatterThe New Social Contract and UTS 4 Climate. The UTS Student Hacks podcast, launched in 2020 to deliver peer-to-peer support to students online, has grown in popularity and has already run for four seasons.

What makes audio special?

We’re lucky to have some great precedents to learn from in the field of audio. In the early days of the Open University, for example, course teams who wanted access to BBC resources for multimedia were asked to identify what teaching functions television and radio would contribute to teaching:

After allocation and development of a course, samples of the programs were evaluated in terms of how well they met these functions, as well as how the students responded to the programming.

Teaching in a Digital Age Chapter 7: Pedagogical differences between media

Over time, research from the OU team and other contributors has highlighted the benefits and disadvantages of audio for both teachers and learners. Some of the benefits include:

  • Audio clips are usually easier and quicker than creating video
  • Quicker downloads than video and can be used over relatively low bandwidths
  • Can help develop literacy skills or support students with low levels of literacy, when combined with text
  • Provides a ‘break’ from text-based learning that refreshes the learner and maintains interest
  • Increases students’ feelings of personal ‘closeness’ with the instructor compared with video or text, in distance learning (Nicola Durbridge, Open University)

Here at UTS, Inclusive Practices Support Officer Ashley Willcox highlights some clear benefits of podcasts for learners with accessibility challenges. She describes her own struggle to focus on reading longer texts, the clarity that audio guidance can provide and the benefits of replaying content as many times as she needs.

Like other media for learning, audio also comes with some downsides, especially if you’re using it for the first time. There is some additional workload to create audio resources combined with text, images and other media, for example, and some degree of technical proficiency is needed. Spoken language can also be less precise compared to text, and as Ashley notes in her article, teachers and learning designers need to consider accessibility issues for hearing-impaired learners, such as availability of transcripts.

Richer, deeper, more personal learning

Audio offers rich learning experiences, from expert interviews and discussion formats to lively primary audio sources (people, places, events), real-world insights and nuanced verbal summaries of complex concepts. Podcasts in particular can enhance learning with ‘show notes’ and links to related resources for further research and exploration, as well as opportunities to submit comments and questions.

Perhaps most importantly for a teacher, audio lets you literally add your voice to a topic, course or program, with a personal touch that can help students connect with learning more effectively in blended, online and remote learning modes. With podcasts becoming frequent companions on our commuting, exercise, chores and home learning environments, why wouldn’t we take a break from the screen and make the most of audio for learning, too?

Looking ahead: podcasts for professional development

Audio is clearly in a good place right now, with both Spotify and Apple podcasts launching paid podcast options which could change the landscape for quality learning content, too. As Sophie Bailey concludes in her own reflections on podcasting in education, there’s plenty of innovation happening, and lots still to come.

Coming up next in our series, Ann Wilson looks at the role of podcasts for teacher professional development, and the vast range of styles and topics available for us to explore. We’ll also be looking at practical ways that audio learning can enhance different aspects of the student experience, from how they can access and create learning content, how they interact with assessment feedback and different forms of student support and community. 

References: A.W. (Tony) Bates, Teaching in a Digital Age

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