Jeff Cooper, from TappedIn, is working on an article arguing against podcasts in education, and he asked for feedback on some of his points. I gave it to him there, but I think they’re points that could come up elsewhere, too…so I’m giving that feedback here, too…quoting his points and then giving my responses. My “hacksaw is not a hammer” theme is one that I hammer on quite frequently, but it’s one that I think is relevant to a lot of the critiques of a lot of technologies. So it bears repeating.

I argue that text (chat) means a step forward in education, whereas podcasting actually represents a step backwards.

I think we have to be very careful in making any kind of broad claim, whether positive or negative, about any specific educational tool. Podcasting is neither a step forwards nor backwards–and the same can be said for text (chat) or multimedia, or the chalkboard or overhead projector or even writing.

Any technology should be used for what it does well, and not used for what it does badly. A hacksaw makes a terrible hammer, but that doesn’t make it a bad tool. It’s only a step backwards if you try to use that tool for driving nails.

However, it’s certainly the case that (particularly in education) we’re often subject to trumpets and drumrolls announcing that each new tool is going to be ultimate answer to every question. And of course, that’s not true for podcasting.

1. Audio needs real time listening. Time is a commodity missed by most educators and students. Text may be easily scanned and searched and read at 400 wpm. Archives of Podcasts will not be listened to in the future whereas text will be read.

This is a deficiency of audio only if you think of audio as a replacement or substitute for text.

But there are things that audio can do that text quite simply can not do. Books have been available for some centuries now, but people still tell stories to children, present orally at conferences, and listen to music. Written letters have been available even longer than books, yet people still enjoy conversation.

If podcasts are seen (as is too often the case) as just a way to distribute the exact same content, thoughtlessly “translated” into the audio medium, then, yes, they fail in that regard. But if the content is intentionally and thoughtfully produced for the audio medium, taking advantage of its strengths, then it can be much more successful. All the best podcasts do exactly this.

In addition, the idea that podcasts can not be scannable or searchable is no longer accurate (although it was at one time). Podcasts can be played at fast speeds for scanning (without any distortion) thanks to Apple.

Even more exciting, Podzinger and Podscope have begun the process of indexing the content of podcasts by keywords, so users can go directly to a specific point or subject in the cast. Although this is not yet perfect, it’s a very good start.

2. Audio is one to many and basically perpetuates the “sage on the stage” rather than “guide on the side” approach… old style didacticism vs. constructivism.

Although many podcasts do replicate the one-to-many, “sage on the stage” approach, this is far from the only way to use this technology. Podcasts at their best recreate conversations–and allow students, as well as faculty, to participate and broadcast. In this sense, opening up the world of “radio” to a huger audience–allowing production rather than just reception, podcasting can be revolutionary (not just for education).

Podcasting makes a perfect medium for producing “think alouds” and conversations where experienced and novice learners can model how to approach a text (or image, or math problem, or science experiment). It’s also excellent for oral performance (by students, by authors, by teachers, etc.) of literary works (poetry, stories, drama).

3. Lack of hyperlink. Text chat not only allows multiple threads (many to many and indeed even synchronously), but also allows quick and easy hyperlinking to resources. You’re not going to get that easily in a podcast (if at all).

On the other hand, text chat does not allow the same emotional contact and nuance of expression as the human voice. And the “enhanced podcast”–rapidly becoming easier to produce and easier to receive–certainly does allow hyperlinks…as well as pictures, video clips, emphasis by combination of text and sound.

Additionally, podcasting can include musical enhancement (or other types of sound files–bird calls, heartbeat sounds, ambient sound, etc.), which is completely absent or impossible in text, and which can greatly enhance the educational experience.

4. Bandwidth and connectivity. This tech issue will increase the digital divide. Not only do podcasts require higher end connections, speakers, mikes, etc. they represent another level of what may go wrong with tech.

Bandwidth is always an issue–but audio files do not require a very high end connection at all, and the speakers and microphones involved need not be anything more than the standard included with every desktop computer and most laptops.

5. Lack of multitasking. With text you may be holding several simultaneous conversations, researching links in other tabs and reporting back, copy/pasting prepared dialogue and getting access to a whole realm of resources you can’t get with audio.

One of the main benefits of podcasting is that it does allow (some kinds of) multitasking. It’s perfectly possible to listen to a podcast at times and during activities which would make reading impossible. (Podcasts are great for driving, for riding on a crowded bus or subway, for washing the dishes, for working on restoring an antique radio in the basement–OK, that last one might be personal to just me!).

Also, podcasts are (at least potentially) mobile–both for listeners and for producers. A podcast can be heard and learned from in a museum or on a walking tour–where it would not be possible to read. And students can produce podcasts by recording interviews or comments “in the field”–to be edited later.

The experience of interviewing and editing and thinking about how to make the points in this medium is an experience which is different from writing a paper…but it’s not an experience which is necessarily educationally inferior, by any means.

I think that to argue *against* using podcasts in education is just as much a mistake as it would be to argue in favor of *always* using podcasts in education.

We should, instead, be arguing for using podcasts (or any other technology) in education–but using them well.

Let’s not use hacksaws for driving nails, or hammers for cutting a piece of pipe. Instead let’s work on the best way to design and use a hammer for its specific purpose, and the hacksaw for its purpose.