The power of podcasting lies in its subscription feature. Otherwise, digital audio is just media files on the web. Because listeners can use a web browser or podcatcher to be notified of changes to a site or to download new files automatically, information does not have to rely on user action. This is commonly referred to as “pushing” information to listeners, as opposed to requiring that they “pull” it to their computers manually. This crucial difference is commonly ignored online, and audio files are sometimes labeled as podcasts even when they are one-shot releases that must be “pulled” down by listeners. Interestingly, the subscription aspect of podcasts is not only its most powerful feature but also the way it is most akin to traditional educational practices. Podcasts attempt to bring an audience into a relationship that relies on the podcaster releasing previously prepared treatments on topics that are announced ahead of time and interest both the podcaster and the listener. With the possible exception of “interest the listener,” this relationship sounds very much like a classroom. Universities operate on a subscription model: students pay a subscription fee (tuition) to receive sequenced parcels of information that build toward the goal of a degree. Although most podcasts do not charge a fee or offer certification at the end, this could change as podcasting becomes a more accepted form of education. Emphasizing the connection between podcasting and educational practice has a potentially far-reaching impact, in that it brings the question of how best to engage students to the foreground of the educational mission, regardless of the instructional technology used.
Duke University is perhaps the most well-known example of an institution experimenting with distributing educational content via the etymological forebear of podcasts: iPods. As part of its Digital Initiative program, Duke gave its entire first-year class (over 1600 freshmen) iPods preprogrammed with information on orientation, class content, frequently asked questions, and even music. Duke also incorporated the iPod into the class curriculum of 15 fall courses and 33 spring courses (Belanger 1). Using podcasting as a means to disseminate course content was a major application for this project, and the variety of content—lectures, historical speeches, foreign language material, and songs—suggests that the students whose subscriptions could automatically bring them course material may have an educational advantage over those who have to seek out such material by other means.
Regarding podcasts as a convenient form that allows educators to deliver multiple types of media represents a better conception of the technology than simply thinking of it as an archival tool for recorded lectures. In other words, podcasts should be recognized for their ability to provide supplemental, additive content to the educational process, not just for serving a replicative function. Although the practice of podcasting lectures has received much media attention, it represents one of the least pedagogically interesting uses of podcasting. Leicester University Pro Vice Chancellor Professor John Fothergill argues that: “We are not interested in simply dumping lecture notes in a podcast. What we want to do is see whether podcasts can be motivational; whether it makes students’ learning easier or more flexible, and in what ways we can use it to enhance their learning” (Tysome 3). We applaud this view of podcasting as more than simply a time-shifting device for students, since this alternate method seems more likely to enhance learning. Certainly, students as listeners are a primary audience, but the image of students as an engaged and responsive audience with control over the artifacts of lectures and additional course content represents a new, productive way for them to participate in the learning process. Such uses might range from bringing in expert voices from outside of the classroom via a series of interviews, assembling pop culture references into a short montage that illustrates the central themes of a course, or even allowing the opportunity for student voices to directly contribute to the class discourse.
As student involvement increases along with the technologies of digital music (and digital music players), Paula Hane predicts that, "Content in downloadable formats that is easily listened to and absorbed will be commonplace as members of the next generation insist that their music live side-by-side with their serious student (then professional) needs" (22). Hane's claim for podcasting underlines an urgent need for educators who must compete for attention with entertainment. Podcasting foregrounds issues of how educators will increasingly face students who are as much an audience as they are learners. The Dean of Enrollment Management at Fitchburg State College, Pam McCafferty sounds a familiar refrain: “[T]oday’s students aren’t necessarily raised on paper communication. So the goal here was to find a way to communicate with students effectively and hopefully capture their attention” (“Podcasts Replace” 5).
One possible answer to this future dilemma can be found in the past. Just as the Internet brought new facets to distance learning (previously delivered via correspondence mail and television), so too does podcasting offer new methods for distance learning, as well as new ways to make on-site education more engaging. As before, the challenge for this new mode of delivery will be in finding its own best practices. Only time and experience will show whether courses will be offered primarily through this method, as a supplement to live lectures, or, and perhaps most fitting, as one component of a variety of delivery methods.
As increasingly effective practices for podcasting begin taking shape in the classroom, so too will uses emerge that address different factions of the higher education community lying outside of the classroom. In particular, composition studies has a range of distinct audiences, and productively using podcasting to engage them entails understanding the different motivations, ideology, and lingua franca defining each group. Therefore, this article describes both actual and hypothetical uses of educational podcasting, which we present as emergent best practices to meet the needs and expectations of those audiences located in the classroom, the writing center, and the professional conferences. As is the case with any communication technology, it is important to consider the function of podcasting within its use context: not simply a method of distributing files to users, it is rather a means by which a person with specific motives attempts to make contact with a particular audience. How well that attempt succeeds depends on how well the podcaster understands and addresses that audience.