My wife started playing the next episode of The Radio Adventures of Eleanor Amplified on her smartphone for the kids in the backseat as we drove to our destination. It is a serial podcast produced by National Public Radio’s Fresh Air for families. Listeners follow Eleanor’s weekly adventures as she spoils sinister plans by evil masterminds. Sound effects and different actors deliver the script. We also learn about the locations of her worldly travels. This podcast recalls the old radio shows our grandparents and great-grandparents listened to before the advent of television. When this episode ended, our son wanted to know when the next show would be available.
Podcasting might be simple in theory, yet the power of this medium should not be underestimated. I speak in terms of the audio-only podcasts (there are video podcasts too). Listeners can download shows on their smartphone, put on headphones, and listen while doing just about anything. Many podcasts do not have the same production value as Eleanor Amplified. Introductory music and a brief summary of the content by the host is really all that is necessary to produce an episode.
This is why podcasting can be an excellent tool for the literacy block. Students can convey their knowledge about a topic of study they read and/or wrote about. In small groups, students can collaboratively write an original play. Whatever the task, students using podcasts to share their learning should be expected to write a script, read and revise their work, listen to first audio recordings and make edits, and, when deemed ready, publish their podcast. A wider audience is now available. These three tools can facilitate a modern literacy experience.
audioBoom—If you are looking for the easiest experience in creating podcasts, this may be the tool for you. audioBoom does one thing really well: it records your audio and posts it online. This is the essence of a podcast. A cover image can be added to each podcast that visually describes the topic being presented. What I appreciate about this type of technology is the limitations it brings to the students. They cannot get too fancy with the fonts of the text or the transitions between slides like they might with multimedia. The focus is on producing a high-quality presentation that represents student learning. All of the extraneous details fall by the wayside. To upload podcasts to iTunes, users need an audioBoom Plus account, which currently goes for $90 a year.
GarageBand—This app is almost like having a recording studio on your mobile device. Students can record audio and play it back to assess their performance with ease. What differentiates this product from audioBoom are the tools for creativity. For example, after recording audio of a conversation, students can layer in music they produced in GarageBand within the original audio. This includes keyboard, guitar, percussion, bass, and string instruments. You can even plug guitar into your mobile device to record music and create a track (a nice option for our musically inclined students). Once ready, the student(s) can upload their finished product to SoundCloud, iTunes, audioBoom, or other services that publish audio files online.
Skype—For documenting interviews with people from around the world, Skype is the best tool. At first you might not associate this tool with podcasting. When we Skype, we generally think of having a video chat with someone. What I have discovered is that many pro-casters (professional podcasters) actually prefer Skype for facilitating conversations for their podcasts. The sound is clear, especially when speaking with someone in another location. With the help of third-party applications, Skype has the ability to capture audio and save it for later use as a podcast. For younger students, the teacher should take the lead in creating a Skype account and facilitating a literacy-based conversation, such as a chat with a favorite author. Older students might find Skype helpful for conducting video-based interviews with experts for a research paper.
Podcasting might provide an easy entry point for students and teachers who are considering using digital tools during their literacy instruction. The limitations of an audio-only environment can actually benefit the learning by spurring creativity and innovation in how students can communicate their understanding and skills to an authentic audience. That they can upload their final products for the world to listen to makes podcasts purposeful.
One of the negative aspects of school is that projects all have endpoints. This is unlike what happens in the real world, where learning is often ongoing. Podcasting can be that antidote to this mind-set. If students find that their interests are piqued by the possibilities that podcasting can provide, teachers can encourage this activity within the context of a literacy-focused environment. Students could produce weekly or monthly school newsletters via podcasting, create a series around an original story they had written, or interview various people in and beyond the school about their roles as members of the community. With the right purpose and interest, podcasting can become a focus of its own.