However, conference organizers can also use podcasts to provide attendees useful orientation material, directions, and last-minute updates to locations, schedules, or presentations. Because of its defining feature of subscription-based syndication, podcasting seems well suited for such uses, especially because such podcasts would address a specifically targeted audience. Given our technological ability to conduct such events at a distance, one could even question the very need for in-person conferences, opting instead for downloadable or streaming sessions that could be experienced from the office, classroom, or home. Alternately, used in tandem with the traditional face-to-face conference setting, podcasting has the potential to expand the site of the academic conference, reaching a broader audience than the one physically seated in questionably upholstered conference room chairs.
Playing With Digital Audio and Thinking Ahead
During the 2006 Computers and Writing Conference (C&W) in Lubbock, Texas, I (Time) attended two workshops related to using audio within the classroom: “Using and Understanding Digital Audio in the Classroom,” facilitated by Dean Rehberger and “Casting About with Sounds Through Podcasting,” facilitated by Daniel Anderson, Erin Branch, and Stephanie Morgan. These workshops discussed the equipment and techniques involved in using audio technology, focusing primarily on classroom applications. In the latter workshop, following the facilitators' presentation and discussion, the attendees split into groups to experiment with recording podcasts and to ponder some of the general concepts gleaned from the discussion. I collaborated with two other individuals with whom I shared a quad-suite during the conference. We were able to experiment with the podcasting process using a basic sound editing application, free sound files, and our still-nascent scripting and recording techniques in a collaborative setting. Our selected podcast topic took a humorous approach to an ongoing conversation throughout our stay regarding a foul odor in the room of our fourth suite-mate who had not attended the podcasting workshop. The podcast, appropriately enough, was dubbed “Smelly Cat Podcast.” While I acknowledge the podcast produced in this ten-minute period is a rather sophomoric, comical piece and has many issues regarding volume levels and general audio quality, the exercise demonstrates one use of podcasting within the context of academic conferences. An activity such as this exposes conference-goers to the idea that podcasting is a compositional tool that we have access to as producers, a tool that requires a relatively small investment in time and energy to learn how to use. The activity itself serves as a heuristic that reinforces the participants' concept of audience in a very immediate context: who will be listening to the digital audio that I produce, for what purpose, and how can I ensure that I create a product that adheres to audience expectations? Additionally, the activity has another heuristic function, creating an occasion wherein participants begin to consider future possibilities for the technology.
The "Casting About with Sounds" workshop can be seen as a meta-comment on the topic: podcasting about podcasting. This format consists of a facilitator who presents material and then has the attendees work together to produce a podcast. Additionally, the format allows individuals to explore technical and pedagogical topics such as experimenting with recording techniques, developing student podcasting assignments, collaborating with peer educators, identifying research resources, and so on. However, this podcasting application could be adapted to include virtually any workshop or session. For example, a workshop facilitator might assemble a league of pre-trained, volunteer conference podcasters to produce condensed synopses of several panel presentations consisting of time-edited portions of presenters' talks as well as audience reactions to the sessions. The conference organizers could then feed the resulting audio files into a conference podcast as a means of publicizing future conferences, building an archival record, or providing content to subscribers who could not physically attend individual sessions or even the entire conference.
The Future Promise of Podcasting?
Podcasting conference presentations in the way described above is similar to commonly available "webinars," but with the added advantages of podcasting—the files are downloadable and the user can listen to them anytime. Furthermore, as the syndication feature is its most defining aspect, podcasts can be used to build an audience of composition professionals by offering the promise of serially produced content, content that extends the space-bound and time-bound limitations of the conventional conference experience. The serial release of conference podcasts extends the energy of the conference and keeps attendees and possible attendees alike interested in and anticipating the latest material. Taking a cue from the popular NPR radio program This American Life, which releases its free podcasts and removes them a week later (you can purchase archived shows), conferences could release podcasts for a limited time, again pushing the listener to subscribe so that he or she will not miss an episode. This situation is also monetarily beneficial for multiple factions. The conference host, which collects funds for individuals attending, can also charge fees for each downloaded podcast session. Additionally, those individuals, campuses, or other organizations interested in the podcasted sessions can obtain and experience them for a fraction of what it would cost to attend the entire conference.
Taken to its logical ends, an entire conference could be conducted at a distance (asynchronously) with participants presenting their papers or topics, then providing and receiving feedback via electronic communication method. For example, organizations can ask conference attendees to recommend podcasts for publication and limit how many they will upload. This gives the membership a voice and allows it to determine what kind of audience the organization has. Thus, an organization can stay apprised of what its members respond to and know what kind of material is most appreciated. Attaching a blog to these podcasts could further the conversation between the organization and its audience. While this method does not possess the same sort of dynamic as a live, in-person conference, there are advantages to the approach, such as the potential to reach a wider set of interested colleagues over a span of time as opposed to having to rely on the luck of good scheduling and a lack of concurrent competetive panel presentations. To apply the valuable interactive aspect to conference podcasting would require the ongoing discourse of individuals offering critique, additional considerations, and areas of future research for a given topic. In traditional conference settings, there is often little time for questions and most attendees are passive observers, but it is the hallway and lunch discussions that produce the most personal and in-depth feedback and opportunities for general networking. A model that successfully employs podcasting and also provides a robust forum for feedback can capitalize on those moments of serendipitous interaction and attempt to recreate them virtually.
Beyond these noted workshops mentioned above at the 2006 C&W conference, a number of conference presentations addressed uses of digital audio in the classroom, revealing that instructors are beginning to use podcasting both in course delivery and in class assignments. The variety of uses demonstrates that as more instructors and institutions begin using podcasting, even more uses will be developed for it. Although presenters differed on the way they used podcasting, they all implicitly agreed on and contributed to one important goal: bringing variant and emergent uses of podcasting to a public arena. These discussions and demonstrations are an invaluable and integral part of how academics will come to understand and use pedagogically responsible podcasting. Moreover, they also signal an increased interest in the relatively new technology, an interest suggesting that our professional community is becoming a more receptive audience for podcasting uses that go beyond classroom assignments and artifacts for research and analysis. Such future applications may very well allow us to reimagine the way our professional community interacts, the way we produce, disseminate, and receive information from one another.