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Top of the Pods - In search of a podcasting ”podagogy”
for language learning
How to cite:
Rosell-Aguilar, Fernando (2007). Top of the Pods - In search of a podcasting ”podagogy” for language
learning. Computer Assisted Language Learning, 20(5), pp. 471–492.
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Top of the Pods – in search of a Podcasting “podagogy” for language
The popularization of portable media players such as the iPod, and the
delivery of audio and video content through content management software
such as iTunes mean that there is a wealth of language learning resources
freely available to users who may download them and use them anywhere at
any time. These resources vary greatly in quality and follow different
approaches to learning. This paper provides a taxonomy of podcast resources,
reviews materials in the light of Second Language Acquisition (SLA) theories,
argues for better design, and outlines directions for future research.
A cartoon on the (UK) Times Newspaper on 5/5/2006 shows two drawings:
under the heading “University lectures then”, one is of an elderly man, in
jacket and bow tie, reading from notes; next to it, under the heading
“University lectures now”, a student in a t-shirt and cap is sitting, smiling,
listening to his portable media player. Whilst most would agree that the
depiction is currently not and may never be an accurate representation of
Higher Education teaching, it does show that universities are perceived to be
moving on with the times and that podcasting has a place in education.
What is podcasting? The definition on Wikipedia (July 2006) states that a
“the method of distributing multimedia files, such as audio programs or music
videos, over the Internet using either the RSS or Atom syndication formats, for
playback on mobile devices and personal computers. The term podcast, like
'radio', can mean both the content and the method of delivery.”
The fact that podcasting uses RSS is what differentiates it from simple
downloading or streaming. The use of RSS, or Really Simple Syndication,
means that the user can subscribe to a podcast that will be downloaded
automatically every time there is an update or new content is uploaded. A
podcast is also different from a Webcast, which is a live feed normally
accessed on the computer. The major difference with traditional internet audio
or radio broadcasts is that podcasts can be listened to when and where the
user chooses to, and that they are automatically delivered to subscribers
(Diem, 2005, Sloan, 2005).
The word podcast is a combination of the words iPod, probably the biggest
selling portable media player, and broadcast; but as Kaplan-Leiserson (2005),
Campbell (2005), and Meng (2005) indicate, the use of the stem pod- is
misleading, since podcasts are usually in mp3 format which can be played by
a number of portable media players, computers, and stereo systems and not
just the iPod. The term Vodcasting (the “Vod” stands for “video-on-demand”)
was used to refer to podcasts with video rather than audio content but this is
now generally referred to as video podcast. It was hypothesised that video
content would be more likely to be played on a computer than a portable
media player (Meng, 2005) but with the launch and success of video-enabled
portable media players (such as the iPod video, Creative Zen video, Archos
multimedia players, the Sony Video walkman and the iPhone) these are likely
to become almost as accessible and popular as audio content.
Podcasts are usually made available online through the providers’ own
websites or blogs where, as well as the multimedia files, a number of
additional content and tools can be found. These podcasts can be easily
accessed by subscription from online podcast directories (such as Odeo, or
Podcastalley - a search for “podcast directory” in a search engine will bring up
thousands), or by content management software, (also known as aggregators
or podcatchers) such as Juice (formerly iPodder). This ease of access was
multiplied by the adoption by Apple of podcasting distribution via their iTunes
store, where podcasts are arranged by topic or can be searched and can be
subscribed to with a single click (see figure 1: iTunes podcast directory).
Before that, podcast directories were there to be found only by those actively
looking for them. By making them accessible within a shop that caters to
consumers of audio and video who are looking for content for their media
players, Apple have delivered worldwide exposure to public podcasts and
created opportunities for casual access to content to become a formal
learning opportunity (the concept of “stumble and learn”, Kukulska-Hulme &
Shield, 2006). Podcasting may appear to be elitist and limited to those that
own a portable media player, but many western secondary and HE students
have a portable player and / or access to iTunes (University of Michigan
School of Dentistry reports that 65% of their students own an iPod, Blaisdell,
2006) and most podcasts can be played through a PC, a PDA or an mp3-
enabled mobile phone.
Figure 1: Podcast directory from iTunes. Podcasts are classified by categories and can be
searched. The education category lists all educational podcasts and includes a section for
Graham Davies (2005) claims that the single piece of technology that has
affected language learning most is the cassette recorder. The typical personal
media player is no more than a walkman with digital media files instead of
cassettes (in fact, the French words for podcasting, diffusion pour baladeur or
baladodiffusion, originate from the French word for walkman) and the delivery
of media content online is not new either: audio and video on demand, either
as a download or via streaming, has been popular since the 1990s. The
impact of this phenomenon is not in the device itself or in the availability of the
content but in podcasting - “what’s new about podcasting is the ease of
publication, ease of subscription, and ease of use across multiple
environments” (Campbell, 2005: 34) - and its popularity. This popularity
comes from the aforementioned ease of access, the increase of broadband
users, and the proliferation of portable media players.
Developments in podcasting technologies provide two main potential uses:
creating podcasts and using the podcast resources available. Most literature
on the use of podcasting for language learning (Diem, 2005, McCarty, 2005,
Meng, 2005, Bankhofer, 2005, Stanley, 2006) has focused on technical issues
of creating and distributing podcasts, and not on the theoretical underpinning
of teaching through the medium or an evaluation of the resources available
based on SLA theories. This paper will focus on the latter, evaluating a
number of podcast resources available through iTunes. Podcasting can
provide access to a large amount of authentic input, as well as to teaching
materials of varying quality that have different approaches to language
learning behind them (depending on the content provider): from behaviourist
to cognitive constructivist and communicative approaches, situated learning,
and lifelong learning. The impact of podcasting on learning in general and
language learning in particular could be similar to the impact of the arrival of
the internet in terms of giving access to language learning materials (mostly
free of charge). The issues its availability presents are in many ways similar to
those that arose in the early days of the internet, when the pioneers were
enthusiastic individuals rather than institutions and the quality of the content
varied enormously before a pedagogy of learning, task design, interaction and
other issues was developed. The following sections will present a review of
the potential of podcasting for language learning and current resources
available, and discuss what the next steps are to arrive at a “podagogy” for
language learning and its research potential.
2 Podcasting and language learning
Language learning has been identified as one of the disciplines likely to
benefit from developments in podcasting (Kukulska-Hulme, 2006). In this
section the current practices in podcasting are presented along with theories
of learning, potential for learning in general and for language learning in
2.1 Current practice in podcasting
Podcasts are available for many different types of content from various
providers or podcasters. The main content providers in no particular order are:
• broadcasters who place their radio programmes or especially-recorded
• performers who wish to promote their material,
• film studios who make film trailers available to promote them (both
mainstream and independent studios),
• individuals with something they want to say or share,
• educational institutions and teachers who provide learning content on
many fields. Initially these were more technologically oriented.
Podcasts have evolved at a rapid pace. Whereas in 2005 podcasting was
limited to audio files, in 2007 there is a range of multimedia content available.
The main type of content available is still audio, usually in mp3 format files,
although they are also available in other formats such as mpeg 4 audio (mp4
or m4a extensions) and ogg formats. Some podcasters produce podcasts
which include images that display during play. This may be a single image
which advertises the podcast provider or, in the case of enhanced podcasts, a
number of images to support the audio content. Video podcasts are
increasingly available. These usually come in m4v format - which can be
played through iTunes, Quicktime, or some video portable media players - or
the more traditional mpeg format. In addition some podcasters also provide
documents in PDF format. These formats and how they are used will be
Earlier in this paper, podcasting was divided into two main potential uses:
creating podcasts and using the podcast resources available. For those that
wish to create podcasts, there are two main types: podcasts created by
teachers, and podcasts created by learners. Meng (2005:5) lists the following
possible uses of creating podcasts:
• Record and distribute news broadcasts.
• Recorded teacher’s notes.
• Recorded lectures distributed directly to student’s MP3 players.
• Recorded meeting and conference notes.
• Student projects and project support interviews.
• Oral history archiving and on-demand distribution.
Available language learning podcast resources can be classified into two main
groups: the first one is authentic content provided by native speakers of the
target language, primarily to be used by native speakers, such as news feeds
or radio programming. Examples of this can be found in the webpages of
major television and radio broadcasters or by searching for themes of interest
(football, news…) in the various aggregators available. iTunes used to feature
an international category among its podcasts which allowed users to search
by language of the podcast, but that category was removed from later
The second group is language courses or teaching content specifically
designed for language learning. This content can be classified (like other
online learning materials) into whole stand-alone courses that strive to
operate as virtual classrooms or add-on activities to classroom teaching or
distance education (following Felix, 2003). Therefore there are two types of
resources: those that aim to provide whole stand-alone courses and those
that provide supporting material. The former will be reviewed in section 3.2
with two examples of podcast-led course material provision. The latter are
classified into two subgroups: materials designed for an established audience
- such as the materials provided by teachers or institutions for their own
students - and supporting materials designed for independent learners who
are not enrolled on a particular course, delivered as a public broadcast.
Teaching materials for an established audience are materials that are custom
made by the instructors for the needs of their own students and support the
course syllabus by providing additional material to their classroom-based
tuition. Among the first institutions to implement the introduction of portable
media devices to learning were Osaka Jogakuin College in Japan, which was
the first educational institution to provide iPods for its students (McCarty,
2005), and the initiative at Duke University, in North Carolina (US), to provide
all first year students with iPods. Their use of the devices was based on the
provision of custom-made materials to their own students. For their provision
of Spanish at Duke, the teacher provided audio recordings of texts, oral
quizzes, pronunciation samples, oral feedback, audio exercises, songs (with
copyright clearance) and “audio flashcards” where she reads out loud key
vocabulary items. She also sets “audio diary” assignments on a weekly basis,
which consist of students’ recordings on given topics
(http://cit.duke.edu/ideas/newprofiles/merschel.do). After the success of the
Duke initiative, other institutions began providing podcast content for their
students. At the time of writing, Stanford University, the University of Michigan
School of Dentristry, and Berkeley University in the US use iTunes U, a
content management software almost identical to iTunes but which provides
content tailored to the students of those institutions and which does not
promote the retail side. Another use that teachers make in their institutions is
podcasting projects, in which students work individually, together in peer
groups or together with their instructor to create content which is then
uploaded to a podcast directory. As well as the language learning advantages
of this work, its production can be motivating and stimulating (Stanley, 2006),
but with some exceptions where the content is actually of use to other
learners, it could be argued that this may be more a case of vanity publishing
and using podcasting as a distribution method.
Supporting materials for independent learning are materials provided by
institutions or individuals who have no particular fixed target audience (at least
not in the sense of a particular group of students in the previous category) and
are the subject of a fuller overview in section 3, where these initiatives will be
examined and some of the current practices reviewed.
This taxonomy of uses of podcasting for language learning can be
summarised in the following way:
Figure 2: taxonomy of uses of podcasting for language learning.
Due to the relative newness of podcasting and its adoption as a tool for
language learning, academic literature on the subject is scarce, but the next
section will present what some education bloggers, software developers,
journalists, and enthusiastic individuals have written on the subject. In addition
it will present the advantages and challenges of podcasting for learning in
general and for language learning in particular in the light of theories of CALL
and second language acquisition (SLA).
2.2 Podcasting and theories of learning
A number of theories of learning can support the use of podcasting for
language learning: constructivism; the use of authentic materials for language
learning; informal and lifelong learning; theories on the use of learning objects
for the provision of learning materials; mobile learning; as well as the
practices of chunking and just in time teaching, among others.
Podcasting is consistent with a constructivist view of the learning process,
where an individual representation of knowledge is constructed through active
exploration, observation, processing and interpretation (Cooper, 1993). Some
may argue that podcast materials on their own fall short of one of the “basic
tenets” of constructivism (Dalgarno, 2001) in that there is no social context for
learning to occur and interaction to take place. However, Ellis (1999) argues
that whilst interaction is facilitative, it is not necessary and learners can learn
from non-interactional input, which supports the use of podcasting within this
framework. In addition, this only applies when the podcasts are accessed on
their own. Since most podcasters give access to their material through a blog
(which is also linked to from aggregators such as iTunes), the benefits of Web
2.0 affordances can create social environments where interaction could take
place, as will be discussed later.
As stated above, podcasting provides access to authentic materials which, as
well as the potential for learning about aspects such as the history, culture,
and politics of the areas where the target language is spoken, provide
opportunities to notice vocabulary and grammatical structures. Authentic
materials thus also become sources of information about the usage of the
language (Ryan 1997) and have the potential to draw the learner into the
communicative world of the target language community (Little 1997).
Authentic materials bring together language learning and use and can
develop confidence in the learners, as they appreciate that learning can take
place successfully even if the learner does not achieve total comprehension of
the input (although the lack of comprehension can also be a source of
Theories of Informal and Lifelong Learning suggest that learning can happen
all the time and, depending on the learner’s intent, be intentional or accidental.
This view of learning which “takes it outside the classroom and, by default,
embeds learning in everyday life” (Naismith et al, 2005:3) is appropriate to
podcasting, as users may come across content more by accident than design
but also consciously look for it, and learning (both accidental and intentional)
is taken outside the usual learning environment and accessible anytime
With regards to the use of podcasts as a source of language learning
materials, podcasting can also be viewed as the provision of learning objects.
David Wiley defines learning objects as “any digital resource that can be
reused to support learning” (Wiley, 2000:7). Another definition states that “the
term "learning objects" generally applies to educational materials designed
and created in small chunks for the purpose of maximizing the number of
learning situations in which the resource can be utilized” (Kovalchick &
Dawson, 2003). In fact podcast directories could be viewed as the next step in
the availability of repositories of learning objects adapted to an RSS feed, as
advocated by Wiley (see Godwin-Jones, 2004).
Podcasting shares its salient characteristics with the field of mobile learning,
which “can be spontaneous, personal, informal, contextual, portable,
ubiquitous (available everywhere) and pervasive (so integrated with daily
activities that it is hardly noticed)” (Kukulska-Hulme, 2005:2). Mobile learning
is defined as “taking place when the learner is not at a fixed, predetermined
location, or when the learner ‘takes advantage of the learning opportunities
offered by mobile technologies’” (Kukulska-Hulme, 2005:1). However,
literature in the field has been slow to include portable media players, which
until very recently it did not seem to consider part of the expanding range of
mobile learning devices. In a major review of mobile learning in 2005, many
other devices were included among personal portable learning devices
including mobile phones, PDAs, games consoles, tablet PCs and laptops, but
not portable media players (Naismith et al 2005). This was probably not an
oversight: portable media players were irrelevant to mobile learning as
available learning content for such devices was non-existent or very limited.
What has brought a change is not the players, which have been available for
years, but the popularization and availability of the content through
podcasting: later literature on mobile learning does include portable media
players among mobile learning devices and highlights the fact that, unlike
PDAs, mp3 players are widely owned (Kukulska-Hulme & Shield, 2006), and
reports that mp3 players are “particularly conducive to creative and social
uses that had not been anticipated” (Kukulska-Hulme, 2006:304).
Many of the lessons learnt in the field of mobile learning apply to podcasting
for language learning, such as design that takes into consideration screen
size, chunking knowledge as independent learning objects to facilitate
processing of information (Ally, 2004), and most importantly the distinction
made between didactic and discursive learning. Didactic mobile learning is
“learning from mobile educational material (…) in a way that responds to the
potential and the limitations of mobile devices” (Kukulska-Hulme & Traxler,
2005:26) whereas discursive mobile learning is based on the interaction
among mobile learners. This is similar to Felix’s distinction between delivering
content and creating interactivity and connectivity to achieve best practice in
online language teaching (Felix, 2003). Among the podcast resources
reviewed for this paper, the practices observed in the materials support
didactic learning / delivering content. The opportunities to encourage
discursive learning / creating interactivity could be provided through the
associated blog environments (for those that offer them), but this is limited to
use through devices that provide access to such environments (PDAs, laptops,
desktop computers) and not accessible through most personal media players.
Furthermore, many of these providers fail to encourage users to interact and
the only tool they tend to provide is the comment facility, where many of the
contributions are limited to short comments to thank the providers for the files
and say how useful they are.
2.3 Potential for learning: advantages and disadvantages
The introduction mentioned how, as research field, the potential of podcasting
is only beginning to be explored. The literature on the subject is very limited,
but there has been some discussion on podcasting, its advantages,
challenges, and many potential uses (Sloan, 2005, Meng, 2005, Clark &
Walsh, 2005, Kaplan-Leiserson, 2005, Menzies, 2005, Thorne and Payne,
2005, Stanley, 2006, Moody, 2006, Scinicariello, 2006).
As well as the aforementioned access to authentic and bespoke teaching
materials, among the advantages of podcasts for language learning are:
• Portable, convenient and easy to use format (Blaisdell, 2006, Clark &
Walsh, 2005): once downloaded, the files can be can be taken away
and listened to anywhere, as many times as necessary, at a time when
it is convenient. Functionalities such as pause, forward, or skip mean
that the user is in control of the pace (Sloan, 2005). This also enhances
support for students with particular needs or learning preferences and
contributes to reduced dependence on physical materials (Menzies,
2005). In addition, the content can also be played on a computer if the
student does not have access to a portable media device.
• Attractive (Stanley, 2006): “in terms of design, marketing and consumer
appeal, [iPods] are hard to beat” (Clark & Walsh, 2005: 11). The fact
that portable media players are widely owned and podcasts can be
obtained from a music store may both increase use (attracting a
potentially very large audience and also audiences who may not
otherwise access learning materials) and make listening to an
educational learning object feel less like studying.
• Motivating: students are likely to be attracted to the new format, which
could be motivating and help them engage with materials which they
might otherwise not use.
• Easy access: content management software such as iTunes or Juice
can be downloaded free of charge and navigation is simple.
• Value for money: downloads of learning materials are free, and
developing materials can be done for a fraction of the cost of producing
traditional materials and in hours rather than years (Moody, 2006).
• Publicity: public podcasts give visibility to the individuals and
institutions that provide them and institution-wide initiatives give those
institutions free publicity as well as a good reputation for using the
• For those providers that use podcasting within an institution to provide
additional resources for their students, podcasting provides the
potential to allow lectures to focus on interaction, shifting preparatory
work to outside times and locations (Blaisdell, 2006) as well as
integrating in-class and out-of-class activities and materials (Thorne
and Payne, 2005).
Among the challenges of using podcasting, Sloan (2005), Menzies (2005),
and Blaisdell (2005) highlight the increase in teacher workload for those that
create the content. Menzies mentions the fact that podcasting may be a
barrier for students or teachers who are technically challenged, and also
raises other issues such as the lack of searchability of files and the potential
for information overload (although sites such as Podzinger now allow the user
to search text within podcasts and search engines can find transcripts from
those podcasters that provide them). Blaisdell lists other challenges including
the changes in the relationship between teachers and students - “If the lecture
is going to be available for downloading, why bother coming to class?”
(Blaisdell, 2005: no page number) -, the fact that the pedagogical
opportunities provided may require rethinking course objectives and learning
outcomes, and questions about copyright issues and lack of administrative
and technical support. He wonders whether the use of iPods may not be
“more of a gimmick than a true pedagogical tool” (Blaisdell, 2005: no page
Perhaps the biggest issue to arise from the use of podcasting for learning is
the fact that content has so far been mostly delivered mostly through audio.
Clark & Walsh (2006) claim that as a channel for learning, hearing has a
number of advantages, which include being instinctual (as opposed to reading
which has to be taught), gets round issues such as illiteracy and dyslexia,
frees eyes and hands for other purposes, is socially acceptable (as something
to do whilst commuting, for example), is aligned with lifestyle (the cool factor
of owning a trendy gadget such as an iPod) and that listening and learning go
hand in hand. They claim that the mp3 player is “a sit back and listen,
reflective device that allows you to relax, think and learn” (Clark & Walsh,
2006:11) enhanced by the fact that having to listen through earphones
heightens isolation and concentration. This has obvious implications for
learner types: visual (as opposed to aural) learners may not find materials
suitable or be able to engage with them. Another factor that is inherent to
audio content is that it cannot be skimmed (Jennings, 2004) to check the
content and its suitability or appropriateness for purpose, which can be very
disappointing and/or time consuming after having downloaded a resource
from a repository.
Some reports outline the potential uses of podcasting for learning. Among
these uses, Sloan (2005:slide 12) lists:
• For distance learning.
• To facilitate self-paced learning.
• For remediation of slower learners.
• To allow faculty to offer advanced and or highly motivated learners
• For helping students with reading and/or other learning disabilities
• To provide the ability for educators to feature guest speakers from
• To allow guest speakers the ability to present once to many sections
• To offer a richer learning environment.
Kaplan-Leiserson (2005: no page number) lists the following ways that
podcasting can contribute to the learning process:
• Assist auditory learners.
• Provide another channel for material review.
• Assist non-native speakers (who can listen many times, stop, rewind…).
• Provide feedback to learners.
• Enable instructors to review training or lectures.
• Replace full classroom or online sessions when content simply requires
• Provide supplementary content or be part of a blended solution.
The lists above are generic, not specifically for language learning, although
the uses listed are particularly suited to studies of music and languages,
where the audio component is most beneficial.
3 Review of current resources available
Initiatives such as Duke’s provide not only content, but also the actual
portable media players for their students. However, as stated above, one of
the success factors of podcasting is the fact that portable media players are
commonplace devices. Many users log on to online music retailers to
purchase audio or video content and only then discover the array of materials
available free of charge in the form of podcasts. Other users may actively look
for those materials in podcast directories. Some of these public podcasts are
very successful and report monthly subscriptions of 800 (Diem, 2005) and
1000 users (Moody, 2006). The amount of free content (of varying quality)
available in the internet has led many users to expect all learning online
content to be free. The amount of sites that charge for their language learning
content is quite limited, and even those normally provide some free content or
free subscription for a short amount of time to sample their product. Among
the current providers of independent language learning podcasts, there are
two clear distinctions: those that do it to generate profit and those who do not.
The podcasters that wish to generate profit are those who either wish to gain
publicity for their institution (language schools that want to get their name
known or publicise their services by providing some free content, for example)
or those that provide content (such as online exercises, feedback and support,
transcripts, or flashcards that support the content of their podcasts) as an
incentive to subscribe to their premium services. The podcasters that do not
appear to be providing content for profit are for the most part enthusiastic
individuals or organisations that wish to share their knowledge and their work
or their students’ work.
Having audio or video online is not new, but what is innovative is to provide it
as stand-alone items for independent learning delivered direct to your
computer or portable media player. Like in many cases in the past, with the
arrival of new software affordances the pioneers at times appear to be
producing content more because they can than because they have a product
that fits or has been designed for the new medium. Most content currently
available is provided by innovative teachers (rather than language learning
institutions), some of whom do not seem to have learnt the lessons from the
past (Levy, 1997) to inform the use of new technologies.
Describing the different materials available as podcasts would be like trying to
describe all types of language learning materials available as websites, there
are many different types with many different approaches and with great
differences in quality. In this section examples available from iTunes (as it is
the most popular provider) will be examined.
One big issue about evaluating any medium or tool for language learning is
fitness for purpose. Despite the fact that some materials aim to generate profit
and / or publicity for the institutions that provide them, it will be assumed for
this review that their main purpose is language teaching, and therefore
resources will be evaluated under the light of theories of language learning.
The materials available as free teaching podcasts for independent learning
will be examined from two overlapping perspectives: design and pedagogy.
The design of bespoke language teaching materials depends on the
resources and tools available. Podcast content can include audio, video,
images, music, and ancillary materials.
Audio: currently, the format most used to deliver tuition through podcasting is
audio in a variety of digital formats. Most teaching materials consist of a
monologue or “lecture” on a specific grammar point by a teacher, or a scripted
dialogue with a native speaker or a person posing as a learner. Whilst some
of the teachers / presenters are very skilled at this and manage to
communicate both the content and their passion for the subject in an
appealing manner, some have very flat voices or styles which do not help the
learning process in an environment where the auditory channel is (unless
support material is accessed) the only channel for intake of information. Other
materials (with some examples that can be found on iTunes in brackets)
include: recipes (both in the target language and foreign recipes in English,
such as Cuisine from Spain), interviews (BBC Estudio 834), poetry (Easy
French Poetry), intercultural knowledge both in English and in target language
(Notes in Spanish and Impresiones de España), showcases of students’ work
(French for kids by kids), or podcasts about language learning resources and
strategies (Trying to learn Spanish). Audio quality varies between providers.
The average length of each the language learning podcasts available varies
enormously. They range from a few seconds for those that provide just a
useful phrase and its translation, to over 40 minutes of lengthy explanations,
repetitions and examples. The issue of how long podcasts should be has
been the matter of several online discussions1, with preferences expressed
for nothing over 2 minutes to users who prefer up to 30.
Video: although at present the vast majority of materials are audio only, video
podcasts are becoming more popular. Some video materials consist of a
teacher talking to camera to explain a grammar point, much like the audio
“lectures”, but aided by graphics or subtitles (such as the Rolling R’s podcast).
In some cases, these are accompanied by semi-authentic video recordings
(Japaneseclass podcast). There are also mini-documentaries with a target
language track, or even a short soap opera (Mygermanclass.com) with video
episodes subtitled in German. Some providers take into consideration the
medium in which these are going to be displayed (the screen size of a video
iPod is 3.5”) and others do not. Podcasters such as Rolling R’s show subtitles
with a suitable size that can be read on an iPod screen, but also show words
on a board behind the instructors that can only be read if the video is
displayed on a computer screen. Similarly Japaneseclass displays too many
items on screen (kanji characters, their roman alphabet phonetic transcription,
translations, and subtitles, all too small for the small screen) at great speed.
The Frenchpodclass podcast delivers video files which work like audiovisual
1 Such as the one at http://www.ericmackonline.com/ica/blogs/emonline.nsf/dx/whats-your-
ideal-podcast-length or the discussion at
flashcards that consist of still pictures with an object and its name in French
whilst an audio track comments on the words, meaning, and pronunciation.
Images: the audio tracks can have images associated to the file that display
alongside the audio track. Most providers use a single image throughout the
track, which is normally the same as the podcast logo they use to advertise
their presence on iTunes. Unfortunately, many of the language providers opt
for images that perpetuate the stereotypes about the cultures of the language
they teach rather than trying to educate learners into breaking away from
them: a bull with a Spanish flag background, a flamenco dancer, the Eiffel
tower, a frog holding a baguette… (see figure 1). Moreover, these images
also seem to favour certain countries among all the many areas where the
language is spoken: materials for Spanish tend to have images related to
Spain and not any of the Spanish-speaking countries in Latin America, for
Music: Many podcasts begin and end with a snippet of music which, again, is
often very stereotypical (accordion in French, guitar in Spanish…). This can
be quite tiresome when doing repeated listenings and when listening to
several episodes of the same podcast. Some also keep the music in the
background, which is at best distracting, and in some cases impedes
Ancillary materials: some content providers include additional materials in
PDF format into their podcasts. Frenchpodclass, for example, delivers
vocabulary sheets with translations, transcripts, and images, exercise sheets
with solutions, and bilingual texts. Other providers choose to make these
resources and other supplementary materials available to subscribers only.
A newer podcast format is enhanced podcasts, which have more affordances
as they can be divided into chapters (which offer the opportunity to skip to the
wanted section), can come with lyrics or transcripts, and more than one image
can be embedded allowing for photos to be used to illustrate the point being
made in the audio track. However, a problem with podcasting is that the more
affordances that are provided, the more restrictions that are placed in terms of
the audience that the material will reach and how it can be used. Enhanced or
video podcasts, for example, can only be played on personal media players
with video capabilities or on a computer with iTunes. Similarly, PDF materials
do not display on personal media players, therefore limiting mobility, one of
the identified advantages of the format.
In section 2 it was argued that podcasting had the potential to support
learning as it is understood by constructivist theories, and was consistent with
the thinking behind theories such as the use of authentic materials for
language learning; informal and lifelong learning; theories on the use of
learning objects for the provision of learning materials; mobile learning; as
well as the practices of chunking, and just in time teaching, among others.
With the current affordances listed in the previous section, materials
developed for podcasting fit with SLA theories as they have the potential to
• make use of authentic materials (Little, 1997),
• be meaningful and engaging rather than repetitive or stressful (Oxford,
• offer opportunities to hear modified comprehensible input that allows
for a focus on target features of the second language (Holliday, 1999)
• be appropriate to the medium used (Furstenberg, 1997),
Whilst the potential is there, many of the materials and designs available
appear to be mostly consistent with outdated theories of learning, such as a
behaviourist view of language learning, where the teacher is the only source
of knowledge, materials consist of lengthy grammar explanations, and
knowledge is assumed to be acquired individually by a “listen and repeat”
approach. Furthermore students are not encouraged to interact with one
another, therefore appearing to be more consistent with the input hypothesis
than with an interactionist approach to SLA. Much of the material is not
organised in any obvious way in the directories and it is only after
downloading that users can check level and content. In most cases there are
no available suggestions about how to use the materials, syllabi, or
statements of objectives, either in general or for the individual episode.
Furthermore, users are addressed mostly in English regardless of the
language level, and some of the materials reinforce cultural stereotypes. The
length of some of the resources makes them unmanageable and inconsistent
with theories of distance learning or learning objects. Also, the aural-only
approach that many providers use is limiting and sometimes frustrating, and in
addition, it does not seem to take into consideration visual learners or dyslexic
users (for example, when words or URLs are spelt quickly).
However, “hit and miss” pedagogies are commonplace with emerging
technologies and the fact that many providers are podcasting materials that
are not consistent with current thinking in the field of language learning does
not mean that the potential is not there, or that the current materials are not fit
for purpose. There are providers who are producing pedagogically sound
materials, but a deeper look into how the materials are conceived is
necessary: on iTunes and other directories, users can try different sources
and pick and choose whatever suits their needs and style best, so in most
cases the podcast materials they use will most likely not be the only source of
learning, but part of a “pick and mix” of resources. It is most likely that those
podcasters that provide content that does not require subscription do so with
a view of their materials as peripheral to some form of formal tuition. In fact,
user feedback in the form of reviews of each podcast reveals that many
learners use the materials to “brush up” on languages they studied at school
or as revision and additional support to their current tuition.
From that perspective, the materials available can work to support language
learners with a variety of learning styles, and listening to grammar
explanations, drilling grammar points, repeating useful expressions and
vocabulary, and practising listening and pronunciation, as well as learning
about the cultures of the target language, are very valid and worthwhile
activities to do whilst commuting, or whenever the listener accesses the
podcasts on their portable media player. Most distance language teachers
would probably agree that despite the efforts to provide activities that engage
the learner in communicative social acts, what the students always request is
more grammar drilling. User reviews support this point as most of the
materials used for this review (including those whose approach may not be
considered pedagogically sound in the light of SLA theories) have achieved a
star rating of four and above out of a possible five-star rating by listeners.
That is not to say that all content meets the minimum quality standards.
Another downside of publishing available to all is the well-meaning content
provider who not only knows little about teaching, but also knows little about
the subject. A podcast called Spanish Phrase of the Day exemplifies that. This
podcast, created by a Californian magician, claims to provide “at least one
useful and practical Spanish phrase every day from someone who loves the
language”. In practice listeners get phrases that are often grammatically
incorrect, badly spelt, and of doubtful value to the learner, such “He has
committed a crime and now he is in prison”, “He refused to give a speech”,
and “In the next four days I will do four magic shows”. The files are of varying
audio quality and the explanations by the author include lines such as “I think
this means…” The podcast has been online longer than many others but had
not received any positive feedback at the time of writing.
Top of the Pods
There are two main examples of best practice in podcasting: Chinese Pod
and Japanese101. Their providers follow a podcast-based language tuition
model where the podcast materials form the main basis for teaching. Their
• clearly identified levels and content. Japanesepod101 divides materials
into survival phrases, beginner or intermediate. Chinese Pod into
newbie, elementary, intermediate, upper intermediate and advanced.
They also specify the type of content: audio magazine, culture,
traditions, news or language points.
• use of a variety of native speakers with different voices, styles and of
• engaging, charismatic presenters.
• podcasts that last about 15 minutes on average, a length that feels
neither too long nor too short.
• where appropriate, slowed down pronunciation, repeated carefully,
taking beginners into consideration.
• cultural information that ranges from politics or sport to pop music.
• news programmes.
• clear methodology and outcomes: Chinese Pod’s first podcast explains
the aims of the materials (to teach spoken Chinese), delivery strategy,
levels, and support materials available.
• A vast selection of support materials online (available to subscribers
only) which include video content, grammar explanations and exercises,
flashcards, transcripts, glossary, a comment tool, and online forums for
peer support and opportunities for interaction within a developing
Their model is already being adopted by other podcasters such as
Learnfrenchbypodcast.com. As these are commercial providers, they spend
the time, effort and money to provide pedagogically sound materials and
support. Therefore they produce resources that are worth buying as a
distance learning course (although the actual audio materials are still free)
and which are consistent with current SLA, Mobile learning, and Open and
Distance Learning theories and practices as presented in section 2.
The previous sections have described and presented an overview of the
different types of materials available to language learners. While there is
potential for a pedagogically sound approach, many of the resources available
do not follow one. This paper has argued that the effectiveness of podcast
materials depends on purpose. As a support tool, there are many
opportunities to enhance language learning, be it through materials designed
for a specific audience, teaching materials made available for a general
audience, or authentic materials aimed primarily at native speakers. This
paper also described how creating podcasts can be a worthwhile task for
learners, motivating and engaging for the students who create them. Finally
good practice in podcasting as a potential main stimulus for language learning
The first obvious conclusion of this review is that the technical know-how does
not imply a pedagogic know-how. As in the early days of CALL, many
providers have focused on the technological and neglected the pedagogical
issues. Other issues include upcoming technological and content
developments and their implications for teachers, students, and language
teaching material providers.
Both podcasting and mobile devices capable of playing audio and video
content are increasingly popular, and this popularity, together with the
expanding capabilities of those devices “will create a flood of multimedia
content” (Meng, 2005:10). This language learning content will be accessed by
students and become commonplace and there are calls to act upon this:
“those of us in higher education owe it to our students to bring podcasting and
other rich media into our courses so that they can lift their learning to a whole
new level” (Campbell, 2005:44). The drive, however, should come not only
from enthusiastic individuals, but also from institutions adopting the
technology, accepting the implications of its use in the curriculum, and
providing necessary training for all involved in its development and use.
Although a few may appear in a “featured” section and there are podcast
download charts, all materials have the same status on podcast directories.
They are one of many on a list, and a prospective user has to fully download
at least one podcast episode to be able to evaluate it for their individual needs.
Studies of online information literacy show that users should be aware of a
number of issues regarding online content (who says what, when, why, how);
similarly, podcasts should be evaluated in the same way. Students will have
to develop a new skill to their online information literacy and use cues such as
the descriptions provided, peer reviews, statements of aim and level, and their
own skills to identify those materials that are suitable to their learning needs.
Next steps: design and research
Just like writing online is different from writing for print, when writing or
designing materials for podcasting, authors should be aware of some rules of
task design for distance language learning and CALL with regards to, among
others issues, length, content, style, approach, supporting materials and
The development of materials so far seems to have been left to enthusiastic
enterprising individuals and, although some academic institutions have
adopted podcasting as a medium of delivery for their own students, there are
very few professional language learning material developers producing
content for independent learners as a viable course. This may not last long:
“as the technology grows in popularity so too will the desire and demand to
associate revenue with the content” (Meng, 2005:8).
There is more potential to be developed in task design for podcasting material
within the scope of current affordances: audio is already being linked to
images by some providers, and text is being presented in PDF format, which
is very convenient for web delivery and supports visual learners but cannot be
displayed on most portable media players (although it can on PDAs). As the
iPod, for example, is able to display .txt text formats, and synchronise them to
audio files, the potential to read whilst listening is enormous: from the use of
transcripts for comprehension, shadow reading, or pronunciation work, to
comprehension activities related to the audio.
As mentioned above, the more affordances that the formats allow, the more
restrictions that are placed in terms of the audience that the materials can
reach and the mobility that they allow. By providing materials that limit the
mobility aspect of the medium, podcasters compromise the flexibility of the
delivery, one of its main perceived benefits. Should providers compromise
and sacrifice the excellent opportunity for ancillary materials to provide a
service that is universal (mp3 only) or make a choice to alienate some but
offer a richer product that affords more? Given that there are millions of users
of iTunes, which allows the use (for example) of video and enhanced
podcasts, would they actually be compromising their product? As far as the
benefits of mobile learning are concerned yes, as only those users that have
personal media players with video and enhanced podcast capabilities could
take full advantage of the materials (and even then only some of the ancillary
materials as PDFs, for example, would not display). PDAs or similar devices
may provide a solution to this, as most can display the ancillary materials and
different formats discussed and allow the user to take notes on the go, for
example. But since these are devices that are more expensive and less
widely owned than portable media players, they do not support the main
original idea of providing content to the mass audience that use personal
Of course, it could be argued that a possible model for delivery of learning
materials with a mobile strategy, where the multimedia materials are
presented as mobile learning objects that are part of the mobile strategy and
the ancillary support materials what the learners do at their computers. Online
exercises related to the audio and video content are already available in some
podcasters’ sites. Pedagogically, though, the more you integrate the
peripheral materials with the main audiovisual material, the better. By opting
for a more pedagogically sound approach, the providers run the risk of
alienating some of their audience or removing the mobility and flexibility. A
compromise that some providers are opting for is to provide both options:
Coffeebreak Spanish, for example, occasionally offer the same episode of
their programme both as standard audio-only and as an enhanced podcast.
This paper has argued that most current podcasting practices support didactic
learning, but do not, as yet, fully encourage discursive learning. Although
interaction may not be necessary for learning to take place (Ellis, 1999), the
medium of learning should provide learners with opportunities for interaction
to negotiate meaning and opportunities to produce or write modified
comprehensible output (Holliday, 1999). In addition, a wide range of theories
in the field of SLA propose that language learning tasks should:
• be collaborative, interesting, rewarding, and challenging (Meskill, 1999),
• provide opportunities to produce target language (Chapelle, 1998),
• be interactive and include reporting back of the communicative
outcome (Skehan 2003).
Some podcasters already incorporate contributions from listeners into their
podcast materials, but these are few. Learners could be encouraged to send
in or podcast their audio contributions in the target language (introductions,
exercises, thoughts on a given topic) and a general feedback recording could
address major issues of presentation, style, pronunciation or important
grammatical points to be aware of. With web 2.0 support capabilities, this
could also be done through blogs and forums by teachers or peers, as
exemplified by Chinese Pod and similar enterprises. This way, learners would
have the opportunity both to produce output and monitor their performance.
The adoption of audio and or video conferencing through synchronous
communication tools such as Messenger, Netmeeting, Skype or similar
software could be the next step in the efforts to encourage production and
facilitate interaction with others. This would promote communicative
competence and further develop community building.
Within those affordances and with that potential in mind, materials for
podcasting should therefore:
• Provide exposure to the language and its characteristics
• Use a range of materials, including authentic materials
• Provide explicit learning outcomes with clear objectives within a
• Provide exposure to the culture of the areas where the target language
• Be engaging and of adequate length
• Have a clear consideration of the medium: including portability and
In addition, podcasters should provide environments that generate
opportunities to produce output and interact with other learners and are
supported by additional resources, such as transcripts, grammar explanations,
glossaries, interactive online exercises, and forums for learners to form
communities of support and to engage in communicative acts with others.
The field of podcasting for language learning goes beyond the distribution of
language learning materials and there are many issues that need to be
researched to gain an understanding of the implications of the availability of
this content and the best way to develop and make use of the existing
resources before arriving at a sound “podagogy” for language learning. The
research agenda for mobile learning includes questioning the differences
between face-to-face learning, learning supported by online technologies and
learning supported by mobile technologies; the differences between the
different technologies and their impact; and the types of learning, learner,
subjects and situations that mobile learning can support effectively (Kukulska-
Hulme & Traxler, 2005). These apply to learning through podcasting as well.
Kukulska-Hulme & Shield (2006) hypothesise that the arrival of new activities
through new devices may change the learning experience by possibly
widening participation, giving more flexible access, shifting focus to aural
learning, stimulating informal learning and making it easier for learners to
contribute to, and build on, course content.
Before the impact on the learning experience can be researched, data is
needed on the actual use of the resources. Duke University published a report
which found that the iPods they distributed were used by faculty to
disseminate course content, and by students as a recording tool for the
classroom and outside it (although this is not a functionality that comes with
the iPod – an additional accessory needs to be incorporated), and as a study
support tool (listening to the content provided or recorded) (Kaplan-Leiserson,
2005). But the affordances of the tool stretch beyond the initiative at Duke and
questions that need to be asked include:
• How many users own a portable media player?
• How many of those have video capabilities?
• How are the resources accessed?
• When are they accessed?
• Are they played through the computer or on mobile devices?
• Do users utilise the resources as support for formal tuition only?
• How do different learner types use the resources available?
• How do students feel about the use of podcast resources? Does it feel
like learning? How do they compare it to formal learning opportunities?
• Is there any evidence of effective learning through a podcast-based
course based on feedback or assessment?
The answers to these questions would help inform design. Knowing whether
learners watch videos mostly at the computer as opposed to their portable
media players, for example, would have an impact on designing materials
taking a 17” rather than a 3.5” screen size into consideration. So far design
has informed usage (if the materials are designed for a bigger screen or come
in format unsupported by personal media players such as PDF, there is no
choice but to use the computer), but information on usage could turn this
around. With the right information about usage, design and pedagogy would
be aimed correctly at the different types of user.
An initial criticism of web-based language learning resources was that
materials were mostly useful only to develop reading skills, and even that was
questionable due to the varying quality of online resources. Similarly, it would
be easy to assume that the possibilities of Podcasting are limited to
developing listening skills; but it has potential to be much more than that,
some of it already realised (and at the rate advancements are happening by
the time this paper is published surely even more). With the right
supplementary materials and environments, podcasting has the potential to
bring us one step closer to fully delivering online language learning that can
really take place anytime anywhere.
I would like to thank Tita Beaven from the Open University (UK) and the blind
reviewer for this paper for their valuable suggestions.
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