Podcasts have grown in popularity for two reasons: every podcast fits a niche, and by nature they are convenient to access and highly portable. These characteristics make them useful as a delivery system for particular applications of eLearning—from basic content delivery, to repetition that helps retention through restatement. This article will help you identify particular cases that may apply to your situation, and will also point out ways in which good design and newer technology can enhance their usefulness.

Why podcasts? Why now?

Today, there are hundreds of thousands of podcasts—not just ones publicly available on the internet, but also internal podcasts used for training and learning.

As awareness of podcasts has grown, they have come to the attention of more instructional designers. Podcasts are relatively simple to produce, cheap to distribute, and (with thoughtful design) effective. They do not require special equipment (beyond a smartphone) to access, and they can be consumed almost anywhere if the user has a way to listen to them privately (using headphones or ear buds), or while driving or on certain smart speakers.

Tips for effective podcasts

There's no research that indicates podcasts in and of themselves are any more effective than lecture. They might even be less effective in some situations because of distractions while driving, for example, or the difficulty of taking notes, such as when listening to a podcast while on public transportation. However, these are challenges that can be overcome if the designer is aware of the context in which a listener might be consuming them, or of technology that can minimize them.

Don’t overload the listener

Information overload is real, and may happen more quickly if a podcast is a dense, rapid-fire presentation. While many podcasts intended for public access entertainment may be 30 minutes to an hour long, podcasts intended for instruction will benefit from appropriate pacing and being “no longer than necessary,” as is true for any form of microlearning.

Consider using stories

Stories or narratives are a way to deal with information overload and with distractions, but keep the stories short and to the point. Don't let production values (music, sound effects, etc.) become another distraction or a mask over the content.

Give the listener a transcript or “show notes”

Transcripts no longer require that someone manually type them. There are now many online podcast transcription services. They are not free, but since they use artificial intelligence to do the work, they are not expensive. And remember that your podcasts for instruction are going to be short: a 10-minute podcast might only cost $1 per minute to transcribe. Google “online podcast transcription services” and check out the rates.

You can offer listeners downloads of show notes, which are transcriptions of the dialog that you have supplemented with relevant images and links.

Use podcast annotation technology

At the present, I have only found one app that supports making annotations to podcasts while listening to them. I am sure that others will follow, but EX-IQ has released an innovative app, NoteCast, that enables podcast listeners to save snippets of podcasts as digital notes. It is said to also work via Bluetooth in cars (I have not tested this).

When you hear something you want to remember, tap a “record” button on the display screen of your device, or say, “save that”. The app will transcribe and save a 30-second snippet of the podcast to your device; you can choose to have EX-IQ send an email later with your notes. If you use the app with more than one podcast, the email will organize your notes by podcast and episode.

The app is a free download for iOS and Android devices, from their respective app stores. This is not an endorsement from me or The eLearning Guild. As always, readers should download the app and evaluate it for their own applications and learner situations.

Hosting podcasts

There are three basic options for hosting podcasts so they are easy for employees to access.

  1. Host on your own in-house server; email link(s) to employees.
  2. Where appropriate, post on a publicly accessible site.
  3. With the growth of use of smart speakers and Amazon’s Alexa, there is a new way to host podcasts: publish them to the Alexa Skill Store. You can post a podcast as a flash briefing or as an audio file. I don’t believe you can use the NoteCast apps to annotate these, however.

You may (emphasis mine) also be able to publish podcasts as Actions to Google’s Assistant or Home products. See the Google Developers site. Under the heading “Link to your Actions,” Google advises that you can create a URL that will link directly to, for example, voice-guided instructions from a how-to website.

Resources: How to make podcasts

Learning Solutions has published many articles about making podcasts. Here are six that you may find helpful in getting started.

Simple, Mobile, Engaging: Podcasts Pack eLearning Punch

Podcast Audio Production Basics

Podcast Production Planning, Skillsets, and Time Needed

What Basic Podcasting Equipment Do You Need?

Production Values for Audio Podcasts

Using Copyrighted Music and Media in Your Podcast