Why some educational podcasts are engaging (and others are not).

A flipped classroom stands or falls on the engagement (or boredom) students feel when listening to the podcast or video.

How can it be that some teachers who make an educational podcast are overwhelmed by the positive responses of enchanted students, yet other teachers who experiment with podcasting, report that students don’t even listen to theirs?

In the classroom, there is more than just a teacher’s voice to command students’ attention. A skilled teacher uses body language, eye contact, facial expressions, visual aides, posture and even his physical location in the room. In a podcast these are all stripped away, leaving his voice alone. If that’s all there is, then despite all the advantages of flipping the class, so far as the teacher’s explanations are concerned, it’s quite likely they will be even more boring than they were in the classroom!

So it seems logical to me, that one successful strategy for creating an engaging podcast is to recognise the strengths and weaknesses of the medium, and capitalise on any devices available to a podcaster but not available to a classroom teacher. A good example is soundscaping. Sound effects, jingles and mood music if used well, can provoke an emotional response hard to match in a classroom.

Sound effects are often dismissed as mere icing on the podcast cake. I disagree. I think thoughtfully selected soundscaping is core to the effectiveness of an educational podcast.

Put yourself in the shoes of a student. Imagine the emotional experience of listening to an explanation of how the malaria Plasmodium is carried from host to host by a mosquito. Now imagine hearing the very same explanation, this time, textured by the thick sound of the rainforest in the background and in the foreground the high-frequency whine of a mosquito growing louder in your left ear, then fainter, then louder again … now suddenly stopping. Although a student may be listening on a suburban train in Melbourne, sound could transport him in his imagination to a mosquito-infested rainforest in Papua New Guinea!

That’s why radio is such an effective advertising medium.

If you can make a student slap himself while listening to your podcast – you have captured his interest!

“Mr Douch, please never do that again! I was sitting on the train listening to you explain mosquitos and malaria and I was slapping myself in the face – I must have looked like a nut!”
~ A listener of Douchy’s Biology Podcast


5 thoughts on “Why some educational podcasts are engaging (and others are not).

  1. Good point (as usual) Andrew – I think the challenge for teacher’s is finding the time to learn this to the point that it’s as ‘natural’ as knocking out a worksheet in a climate of shrinking funds – interested, committed teachers will do it – I think I just answered my own question – if it’s going to happen, it will most likely be through a ripple effect started by those teachers

  2. Andrew,

    Great points! Creating great “theater of the mind” with inflection, sound effects and great storytelling are key to audience engagement. The old radio shows of the 1940’s did this very well. Stories on NPR also stir the imagination with their use of audio.

    -Erik Johnson

    • Erik – thank you for your comments. You remind me of a quote by Marshall McLuhan ~ “Anyone who tries to make a distinction between education and entertainment doesn’t know the first thing about either.”

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