Less is More: Why audio podcasts are more powerful than video for flipping a class

It’s counterintuitive.

Most of the talk around flipping classrooms assumes the use of video.  That’s understandable.  One would intuitively think that a vodcast or screencast is more effective than a humble audio podcast, but that is not my experience.

I have been flipping my classroom using audio podcasts (see example) since 2005.  Then, as screencasting tools became increasingly user-friendly, I started in 2008 to make e-podcasts and screencasts (see example) – thinking that the visual element would augment the effectiveness of my out-of-class tuition.  I was wrong.

The response my students gave me was quite unanticipated!  Almost unanimously they said that they preferred the audio podcasts!  While this was initially unexpected, their reasons actually make sense, and highlight a fundamental advantage of audio podcasting.

One boy explained that he likes to listen to the podcast while working on the farm on the weekend.  He could no longer do that now that he had to watch the screen.  Another said he likes to listen to the podcast while working out at the gym.  One of the girls said she likes to listen to the podcast while soaking in the bath, another on her morning walk.  Yet another student said she just likes to sit on the bus after a long day at school, shut her eyes and listen – without having to look at anything.

We all have daily activities that preclude us from watching a screen: driving, washing the dishes, walking the dog, shopping or mowing the lawn.  An audio podcast fits perfectly in that space, allowing a student to focus his mind on biology (in my students’ case), while using his hands and eyes for some other mundane chore.  It’s a win-win.  The Podcast makes the chore less boring, while the chore makes the learning feel like a good use of time!

A video on the other hand, can’t be multitasked with anything else.  It competes for time with reading, traditional homework, watching TV and in fact, with most of our other daily activities.

There are of course, some topics that can’t easily be explained in an audio-only podcast (think: calculus, fine art or in my case, genetic pedigree analysis). That’s where video is the right, and only choice.  But in my experience, when there’s an option, audio podcasts have proven more effective and certainly more popular with students.

As an indication of their relative popularity, my weekly 90-minute biology podcast gets more than 1000 downloads per day on average.   Even my most popular 10-minute YouTube screencasts might only get 1000 views per month.

Have others found this too?