The Promise of Educational Podcasts

Zachary Davis
Zachary Davis

How the medium is poised to become an essential learning format.

As a podcast creator, you've no doubt tuned into your fair share of podcasts. And when you've listened to an outstanding informational one, how often do you find yourself thinking about it after you'd popped your earbuds out? Or bringing up factoids from it in conversation with friends? This happens a lot when a podcast has not just entertained you—maybe without you even realizing it, it's taught you something. No surprise, then, that podcasts are being looked to as a promising new tool in the field of education.

Academics were some of the earliest adopters of podcasting and remain popular hosts. The format allows for deep explorations of topics beyond an introductory level and specialization in extremely niche topics. It’s a style perhaps best embodied by Peter Adamson’s long-running History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps. But some podcasts are now investing more in general education avenues as well.

Consider Duolingo, the language learning app. Over the past two years, the company has expanded its footprint into the world of podcasting, first with a Spanish-language podcast in December 2017 and then a French version in June 2019. Episodes are bilingual, and conversations take place between two people in French or Spanish with English narration framing the scenes. Transcripts for each episode are available on the Duolingo podcast website.

Connecting with educators

It’s all a precursor to where Duolingo wants to go next: inside classrooms. “We are aware [anecdotally] of teachers who have listened to the podcasts with their students in a classroom setting to complement their regular coursework,” says Michaela Kron, Senior PR Manager at Duolingo. She notes that her team is in the process of creating teaching materials to accompany the first seasons of both language versions.

Joining Duolingo in the march to the classroom is the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, which debuted a new pilot project on September 3 called Podcasts in Class. Course materials like slideshows, activities, and homework were developed around selected episodes of the shows Tai Asks Why and The Secret Life of Canada. CBC Podcasts senior producer Tanya Springer says the teaching guides website has received more than 20,000 hits since launch, without any promotional efforts or marketing dollars.

Other shows have been successfully pursuing a classroom model for much longer. Brains On! is a STEM-based show for grades three through five that uses adult experts to answer kid submitted questions. Its website includes “curiosity kits” as a resource for teachers that suggest activities for 7 to 11-year-olds.

New formats, new appetites

The driver behind the push for institutionalized audio learning is a change in the way people are opting to consume information, as well as technological advances that create learning options beyond print materials. Many of the ideas for the future of podcast-delivered education were spotlighted in early October at the second annual Sound Education conference, which is dedicated to academic and educational podcasters. Sound Education president Zachary Davis moderated a panel that explored whether advances in formats are reshaping the educational business model.

A podcaster himself—he’s the creator and host of Ministry of Ideas—as well as VP of premium content at Himalaya, Davis has embarked on an ambitious audio education project. It's called Lyceum, and he says one way to envision it is as a 21st-century update of The Teaching Company’s Great Courses audio lectures. “I think we’re a millennial podcasting refresh of that concept,” Davis says.

Incidental learning

Swirling amid the fervor to explore the frontiers of audio education are questions about what we know about audio as an educational instrument. A big part of the pitch to include podcasts in lesson planning is predicated on the belief that they are not only a valuable learning tool, but can be a superior one as well. Duolingo likes to point to what it calls incidental learning, or learning that takes place despite the recipient not being exclusively in learning mode. Think driving to work, cleaning the house, or cooking—all the activities that podcast fans point to as ideal times to listen to shows. The ability to learn while doing everyday things can make it more feasible to dive into subjects, and to fit education goals into busy schedules.

“There are some things you cannot learn passively on the subway,” Davis says. “But listening to good content pulls engagement out of you. You can’t help it. You want to talk about it. That’s why people are so struck by this weird magic of the podcast community.

“There’s still a lot of research that needs to be done about how people learn through podcasts,” he acknowledges. “We learn through stories and I think a lot of people understand that. But I think we also learn through emotion … When a teacher teaches you about Shakespeare or biology it actually does matter how they talk to you.”

—Zach Brooke