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by Jim Lengel, Dean of Faculty, Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology, Boston (http://www.bu.edu/jlengel and http://www.lengel.net)

The title of this week's article is a word that did not exist a year ago. A podcast is an audio presentation that's distributed online and designed to be heard in an iPod music player. Everybody seems to sport an iPod these days -- commuters on my train, runners on the path, students in your class, citizens in the streets. While many of them are listening to music or a book downloaded off of Audible.com, a few ambitious souls are listening to educational material. This might be a recorded message from the company president, a sermon from their preacher, or an online lecture from their teacher. They are enjoying a podcast. This week's article looks at the educational possibilities of podcasts, and how you might produce your own.

Consider this:

Luke listened as Sir Laurence Olivier spoke the lines: "...oh that this too too solid flesh would melt..." He had just heard Mel Gibson deliver the same soliloquy from Hamlet in a very different way. Then he heard the voice of his English professor ask, "How would you compare these two interpretations of this passage? Which one seems closer to the 'Hamlet as madman' theory that we discussed in class?" Luke was on his long walk across campus to the science center. He rewound back to Mel Gibson and listened again.

The unit test on regions of the United States was slated for Friday. Helen heard the voice of her classmate Kyle as he summarized the economic activity of the southeast tidewater region: "The farmland is flat, and used to grow cotton, corn, and other crops..." Kyle had recorded these remarks the week before, based on the research work of the small group he was assigned to. His teacher had helped them to turn the recording into a podcast and post it on the class web page.

The trumpet played the notes quickly but carefully as Molly heard the last phrase. "That arrangement was by Louis Armstrong." came the voice of her teacher. "The next clip you will hear is the same piece played by the Preservation Hall Band. How is their interpretation different from Armstrong's? Consider rhythm, syncopation, and phrasing." Molly had downloaded the entire set of podcasts for her musicology class, and was listening to them as she rode in the back of the car.

Luke, Helen and Molly had been iPod users for four years, and MP3 downloaders for five. This was not a new technology for them. But its use as a learning tool was new, and highly effective. They prepared for class, explored new material, and studied for their exams using audio files recorded as podcasts. For their teachers, though, these were new technologies. Both the digital format of the files and the MP3 player were unfamiliar. But using audio for teaching was commonplace: all of the teachers had lectured, and used audio recordings in their teaching. A podcast combines a new popular technology with a tried and true method of presenting ideas.

How to make a podcast

Podcasting is a new phenomenon, but it's very easy for the neophyte to produce. All you need is an idea, a computer with a microphone, and some recording software. For this example, we'll use the program Audacity, which can be downloaded for free in versions for Windows, Macintosh OS X, and Linux. You can find Audacity at http://audacity.sourceforge.net/

Once you have installed Audacity, you should plan your recording (or your students' recording, as described in the second of the three examples above). Write a script if necessary, or make an outline of your remarks. Gather up any music or other sound clips you might need. It's easiest if you can find them in MP3 format. Plan for your first podcast to be brief and simple.

For a step-by-step lesson in using Audacity to make an original recording, or to combine originals with pre-recorded clips, refer to the article in this series, Sound Education. Make your recording, edit it, and export it in the MP3 format. (MP3 is shorthand for MPEG-3, which stands for Motion Picture Expert Group, Audio Layer 3. That's because the compression scheme used for MP3 files was originally developed to compress sound from motion pictures.)

What you end up with is an MP3 file of about a megabyte a minute -- typical three-minute podcast would be about three megabytes in size.

How to distribute a podcast

Once made, you need to find a way to get your podcast onto the MP3 players of your students. You have several ways to do this:

  • Save or copy the podcast to a CD or to a USB memory stick. From there it can be copied to the computers of your students or other listeners, and from there to their MP3 players.

  • Save the podcast to a volume on your Local Area Network. Then let the students know how to find it, and they can transfer it through their computers to their MP3 players.

  • Send the podcast by email. This works well only for short podcasts of small file size. Simply attach the MP3 file to an email message

  • Post the podcast to a Web site. Copy or FTP the podcast MP3 file to your web server, and link to it from your web page. (You can learn how to do this from your school's webmaster, or by reading the section on inserting multimedia in the article Building a Web Page with Dreamweaver in this series.)

Learn more

Finally, you can listen to a podcast of this article at http://www.lengel.net/podcast.mp3





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