Technology is full of surprises. No one predicted the success of the podcast, no one saw it coming, it just happened. Suddenly, it’s a mature medium, with major podcasters and podcasts pulling in listeners on all sorts of topics, from fun to esoteric, in the millions. So what makes them so good and what role can they play in learning?
I would say they already play a huge role in learning because there are podcasts that dive deep into every subject imaginable. This is the first surprising thing about podcasts – in the age of the attention economy, people are willing to take an hour or more to listen in depth to a topic.
Some of my favorites include the BBC In Our Time series with over 900 podcasts on history, politics, science, philosophy and art. Lex Friedman on AI. Talking Politics… we all have our go tos. When people talk about lifelong learning, podcasts offer precisely that, learning for all – for free.
Podcasts free you from the tyranny of time and place
Great Minds on Learning
John Helmer and I have done a Great Minds on Learning podcast series that takes groups of learning theorists and details their ideas and the practical application of those ideas. So far, we’ve covered cognitivists, behaviorists, pedagogues, pragmatists, moralists, evaluators, enlightenment, online educators, social, affective, informal learning, and workflow.
People tell us they listen on the way to work, walking the dog, exercising, sometimes intensely, taking notes. That’s the great thing about this medium, your mind can focus while your hands and body are free. Podcasts free you from the tyranny of time and place, you can listen to them anywhere and anytime.
Less cognitive load
Do any of these theorists explain the success of podcasts? Interestingly, John and I discussed this in several episodes. Our episode on cognitive scientists, like Alan Baddley, who unpacked working memory and John Sweller, a theorist of cognitive load theory, go into detail about why podcasts work so well in learning.
By having NO images and processing the information through our auditory canal in the brain, we free up working memory for thinking, imagining and understanding. For abstract subjects, this focus on what is being said helps focus and better process what is being said. This deeper processing increases thinking, comprehension and retention.
Another theorist, Richard Mayer, featured in the Online Theorists Podcast, has done over 500 scientific studies of online learning. He showed that streaming text and audio floods two separate brain channels, reducing learning and retention. His work shows that learning less is often more.
What kind of learning?
In my book, Learning Experience Design, I wrote in depth about the rise of audio and podcasts in learning, including the types of learning experiences most suited to podcasts.
The audio-only format tends to be more useful for abstract knowledge and skills, not those that require still or moving images. Learning designers tend to assume that all online learning experiences require images. It’s not true. Hundreds of millions of people listen to radio, music and podcasts without pictures. Indeed the absence of images can be a virtue.
Learning that includes the respected “voices” of experts can also be helpful, whether inside or outside the organization.
A good podcast is like listening to an intimate conversation. You feel like you’re there, sitting next to them. This is the cognitive trick. That’s why podcasts rarely work if they’re just monologues or scripted and produced in the studio by a voice-over artist. It’s not really a podcast, it’s a monologue.
The interview technique works well, one-on-one or with two, three or four experts. Having an anchor or interviewer keeps the experience together and increases the flow. They need to be able to ask the right questions, sit down and listen, and also follow up when something needs further clarification.
Overall, the evidence shows that, for learning, informal works best.
If you’re producing a podcast, the first rule is to have a good microphone. It doesn’t have to be expensive. Also, while it’s best to record in as quiet a place as possible, interruption by your dog or child isn’t a problem, it makes it real. My ALEXA went off once during a recording (I mentioned using ALEXA in learning) and it added to the informality, realism and made me understand.
Try to avoid too much editing by laying out a rough structure before you start and don’t worry about cleaning it all up. People want informal realism.
There is no real rule on length, but most are long in shape. Some are short, 15 or 20 minutes, but an hour is normal, others longer. James Manion does learning podcasts called Rethinking Education (which I highly recommend) which are sometimes over 3 hours long. He interviewed me for 3 hours 6 minutes!
A good trick used by the most successful podcasters in the world, like Joe Rogan, is to save them and then divide them into sections for YouTube consumption, by topic. So chapter your podcasts. Also look for a short phrase somewhere that captures the essence of the podcast, to post on social media for marketing purposes.
Some like to listen at x1.5 or even x2 speed and surprisingly evidence has recently emerged that this has little effect on what you learn and retain. Above x2 speed and things get lost, but if you want effective learning, listen fast.
An inclusive experience
We evolved to speak and listen, not to read and write, which are hard skills to learn. We are grammar geniuses at the age of 3. Audio is therefore an inclusive medium, useful for audiences who rarely read, have low literacy, or simply prefer to listen. It humanizes the learning experience and provides an almost frictionless interface.
Audio is now present on our smartphones as personal assistants, like Siri or Google Assistant. It’s also in our cars on our satnavs and in our homes with Alexa. Voice has always been present and is now part of the online landscape.
What’s not to like? They are cheap and easy to produce and distribute, have cognitive benefits, are enjoyed by many, and are effective in learning. Rather than spending tons on eLearning complete with videos, animations, and graphics, why not take a few topics and try a few podcasts? Good listening !