It seems elusive, a mirage shimmering in the distance: Short, engaging eLearning that learners actually want to consume, delivered anywhere, anytime in a flexible, accessible format. Best of all, this eLearning can be produced inexpensively using skills and tools you already have.
Podcasts fit the bill, but, oddly, are absent from many companies’ eLearning toolboxes. Nevertheless, podcasts provide what many instructional designers and developers seek.
“Honestly, it’s so easy; I don’t know why anybody would not do it. It is one of the easiest types of media you can make, unless you want to get really fancy with your postproduction sound editing,” said Ty Marbut, the executive producer at Ty Marbut Instructional Video.
According to Joseph Meyer, a multimedia specialist with the Nationwide Claims Training Organization, podcasting has “been overlooked in the eLearning world because of all of the new tech, the emerging tech—and because it is somewhat of an antiquated idea, that you basically make a radio show.”
The essence of a podcast
Hanna Umanskiy, a video producer at the Federal Judicial Center who creates podcasts as part of her eLearning strategy, emphasizes accessibility. “Podcasts are one of the most convenient eLearning tools that we can offer to our learners. It’s like listening to an audiobook or a radio show—at your own convenience!”
Among the attributes she extols are on-demand access, the ability to stream or download, and the lack of a tether—to a location, a device, even the Internet. “Podcast is beautiful in its simplicity and convenience,” Umanskiy said in an email interview. Learners “could listen to a new episode on their daily commute or lunch break, day or night. Even on a plane—the Internet connection is no longer needed; you can download an episode to your device.”
Calling something a podcast brings with it certain connotations, according to Marbut. “Every type of media that we use that doesn’t look like ‘Next’ buttons on a PowerPoint has a history outside of eLearning,” Marbut said. People come to eLearning with expectations for that media, whether video—or podcasts. “If you call something a podcast, it better be interesting and relevant and have a host who is friendly and interesting to listen to; it better have the features of a podcast, or else you have done yourself a disservice by calling it that.” He identified the following essential features:
- Podcasts are serial. “I am sure that there have been one-off podcasts. But I guarantee that if you tell someone, ‘Well, we’re going to have a podcast,’ that immediately evokes the idea that it’s serial in nature and that [episodes] will hopefully be of similar quality to each other,” Marbut said.
- Episodes must be planned. “To evoke the sort of feeling that I would expect to see in a podcast, I think that it needs to be planned like you would plan a film shoot. I think that it needs to be storyboarded. I think you need to be thinking about multiple levels of stuff going on, so it’s not just one person’s voice,” he said. Episodes should be similar in structure, too, Marbut said, citing Car Talk and This American Life as examples of podcasts whose listeners know what to expect from each episode.
- There is an expectation that some post-production work has been done—at least music and voice, maybe adding ambient sound. “I want to see that you can be a little bit creative and make something that sounds like a radio show,” he said.
- At the same time, it needs to be authentic. “That is the absolute key word for me,” Marbut said, adding that too much or too-perfect production can harm authenticity. “As we try to push production value higher and higher, we actually drop off a cliff of how authentic it looks to our learners.”
The length of a podcast varies, but brevity is one key to success. “No matter how fascinating your topic and guest are, not everybody can dedicate a whole hour to listening to an episode of podcast,” Umanskiy said. “On average, the length of a single episode varies from 30 minutes to one minute. Yes, one minute!” Umanskiy will teach participants to create ultra-short “micro podcasts” during a daylong pre-conference workshop on October 23 at DevLearn 2017 Conference & Expo.
Meyer, along with Jeffrey D’Anza, a design consultant with Nationwide Insurance, emphasizes story, turning what could be dull mandatory training into something that people want to listen to. “It doesn’t matter how good your production value is, how good your sound effects are, if the story you’re telling isn’t an engaging one. You have to hook the person in and make them want to keep listening,” D’Anza said. You can add in all sorts of “bells and whistles,” but “at the end of the day, if the learner is not interested in the story that’s being told, it’s not going to matter what’s in there.”
Meyer and D’Anza will present a DevLearn 2017 session on using story to make audio eLearning engaging. “Our hope is that when we present our case—‘Hey, we came from insurance; it’s tough to find anything more boring than that’—and we could actually weave that into a story,” Meyer said. “We’re hoping to inspire people to use this medium.”
A boon to corporate eLearning
Podcasts can tell a story, provide factual information, and, through their episodic nature, create continuity. Episodes build on one another and give listeners a reason to keep streaming or downloading the content, Marbut said.
Umanskiy agrees that the serial aspect of podcasts provides consistency in a learning program. “New content could be delivered to your audience’s mailbox weekly or biweekly. This will not only build a good relationship with a podcast host and create the sense of familiarity, but will also quickly become a habit. Just like checking a Facebook page or a newsfeed first thing in the morning, listening to a new episode of a Monday morning (or Tuesday night) podcast will easily become your learners’ second nature,” she said.
Podcasts differ from most eLearning in significant ways, the first being the expectation that each podcast is part of a coherent series. And, to truly be a podcast, there has to be an audio-only option, Marbut said. Many podcasts do not include video, though they can.
Finally, the crux: “The topic is inherently interesting,” Marbut said. With podcasts, “we’re drawing on the volitional aspect of learning. This is the gospel I try to preach: No one gets learned at,” Marbut said. He finds the idea of a “good non-voluntary podcast” paradoxical. “Being told that you have to listen to it makes it not like a podcast.” Audio-only compulsory eLearning should be called something else, he said: a “road show” or “mobile learning show.”
Rather than rename their podcasts, Meyer and D’Anza focus on making their required podcasts engaging. Both avid podcast listeners, they are members of a five-person training team that creates eLearning for 8,000 Nationwide Insurance employees. Around the time that the first season of Serial “put podcasting back in the spotlight,” they were working on a required course on insurance policy language.
“Our audience had a lot of, let’s call it ‘windshield time’—it’s basically time where they are away from their computers,” Meyer said. “So we decided to create something for them that they could consume while they were driving.”
D’Anza picks up the thread. “We looked at, ‘How can we utilize that time a little bit better?’ They have to get from point A to point B. Can we deliver them information and learning while they’re doing that?” Podcasting seemed a natural answer.
Meyer and D’Anza have used podcasts to teach technical information and soft skills; they’ve created fictional stories and told true stories. They have created podcasts as standalone eLearning and incorporated them into broader programs. “Honestly, I don’t think I would say there’s a type of learning that you couldn’t make this work for,” D’Anza said. “Stories are universal. I don’t think that there’s any sort of information that you can’t convey in the form of a story. And when you break podcasting down, that’s all it is; you’re just telling stories.”
Style spurs podcast success
Podcasts generally take one of two formats: a host who interviews guests, or stories around a particular topic.
“I’ve always been a fan of some podcasts, like This American Life and Radiolab, that do what I call ‘tent-pole’ storytelling. It’s a form of nonlinear storytelling where you have a central theme—the tent—and you have supporting stories,” Meyer said. He and D’Anza have used that approach in some of their projects.
For Nationwide’s course on insurance policy language, D’Anza and Meyer created a fictional “whodunit” story, which they told in a series of weekly podcast episodes. Along with virtual classroom sessions and online discussion boards, the 20-minute podcasts became part of weekly training—two hours per week over four weeks. “As the story goes on, more things occur, so we were able to layer multiple theories and multiple policies into one cohesive story. We made sure to end each of the four episodes on a cliffhanger, so there’s a point in time where you’re not sure what’s going to happen because you don’t have all the information,” D’Anza said.
A question was posted to the discussion board each week where learners could share their experiences and say what they’d do in a similar situation. Learners “really got into the discussions—people wrote pages on this,” Meyer said.
Another project featured veterans, a multilingual customer service team, and other employees telling personal stories as a way to convey different aspects of “service,” a Nationwide corporate value.
Meyer and D’Anza usually host their own podcasts, but, when time allows, they “put out a casting call” to recruit colleagues at Nationwide to participate. “We found out that we have a lot of amateur actors that we get to work with as well. That’s always fun—they’re good at what they do,” Meyer said.
Whatever the podcast style, variety is essential. “The ability to vary and change voices is important in an audio narrative; you don’t want one voice the whole time. That gets boring and you lose interest,” D’Anza said.
And participants have to be excited about sharing their expertise. “The secret is passion. You need to love what you do, as a host or creator. Same with your guest—invite someone who’s passionate about the subject they will be talking about. It’s all gotta start with a spark!” Umanskiy said.
An appealing aspect of podcasts is their simplicity: It’s possible to create them in-house with minimal overhead. That is the driving idea behind the session that Meyer and D’Anza will present at DevLearn 2017 in October. “With any learning technology, people can get a little scared and say, ‘Well, I don’t know how to make a podcast,’” D’Anza said. “But the thing is, most people probably do.”
Podcasting builds on skills we all have, he said: “You know how to tell stories; we’ve been listening to and telling stories our whole life. You’ve probably recorded audio in some form if you’re in the learning technologies world. You’ve got the basic tools to do this.” He said a goal for their session is “that people will walk out thinking, ‘This is something I can do—and I can do it tomorrow.’”
Meyer and D’Anza use Adobe eLearning tools. “Anyone who has that has everything they need,” D’Anza said. “If you want to spend a little bit of money to get a nicer mic, which is something I would probably suggest, or maybe a little better audio editing software—you can get into this space for under $200,” he said.
Marbut cautions against recording on a phone or computer, but agrees that a good mic is the most important piece of equipment; he favors a lavalier mic. “Unless your microphone cost less than $15, it can produce a decent podcast.” He said several times not to “get hung up on” equipment, but also to get a quality wireless mic. “You can’t skimp on a wireless mic; you can’t get the cheap ones. They will cut out and cause all kinds of problems.”
To create professional-sounding audio, Marbut recommends learning a little bit about audio engineering and understanding your equipment. “It’s not about having a nice microphone; it’s about knowing what you have,” he said. He favors using a dedicated audio recorder with XLR connections to the mic. The difference in audio quality is very noticeable, he said, with an XLR connection, versus the headphone jack or USB connector typically used with a computer or camera. It has to do with the amount of noise that gets recorded along with the person’s voice. Editing to reduce the noise also reduces the quality of the audio you do want. “The only way to take away the noise is to also take away the signal, so you end up with what sounds like low-bit-rate audio,” Marbut said. “It sounds like a bad cellphone connection.”
Novices need to learn a little bit about signal-to-noise ratio and setting up equipment for production, Marbut said, and ways to manually improve the sound quality and range in postproduction. “I know it sounds complicated, but this is three or four hours in a workshop—maybe less,” he said.
Consider adding video
Podcasts can include video, though this is optional.
Adding video, even if only in promotional materials, provides “a visual reference for the host and maybe the guest,” Marbut said. “We add more value than we would ever expect just by having a video version of the podcast. It can just be a short clip of the host. … Maybe it’s just a video with the person sitting there with a microphone and headphones, and they say, ‘Hey, why don’t you check out our podcast?’”
But, considering their audience—insurance agents, using “windshield time”—Meyer and D’Anza would need a compelling reason to add video. “If there’s a way that I’m using video to illustrate topics that are being talked about or to provide important visuals that you need to go along with the story, then absolutely, I think that can be helpful,” D’Anza said. “It’s really just understanding your audience: where they are going to consume these lessons and what best gets to them. The example of our folks in the car? We don’t want them watching video!”
For their insurance whodunit, Meyer and D’Anza added visuals—photos of the characters, documents that added to the story, such as police reports and diagrams—because the virtual classroom provided the opportunity to enrich the experience in that way. “You don’t have to have that for it to be successful,” D’Anza said. “It can exist just as the audio.”
Meyer and D’Anza were pleasantly surprised by their initial podcasts’ reception. “When you’re presenting a new medium—or any new technology—you can get pushback, but we actually got overwhelmingly positive responses. People were surprised that they could just listen to a radio show as their training and not have to go through PowerPoint after PowerPoint,” Meyer said. “People were happy overall that there was a fresh way of doing this—and that they didn’t necessarily have to spend time outside of their normal job.”
D’Anza said it comes down to learner autonomy; the team got “a lot of very positive feedback” about allowing people to set their own pace and choose when and where to do the eLearning. “If you allow a learner to control their learning, they’re going to be more engaged in the process,” he said. “They’re going to pay more attention; they’re going to learn more; they’re going to retain more.”
Several sessions at DevLearn 2017 Conference & Expo, October 25 – 27 in Las Vegas, will address podcasting in eLearning. Register now to attend Hanna Umanskiy’s pre-conference BYOL (Bring Your Own Laptop®) workshop, “Creating eLearning Podcasts from Scratch,” or DevLearn sessions presented by Ty Marbut, by Jeffrey D’Anza and Joseph Meyer, and by other industry leaders.