Are Podcasts An Effective Way To Learn?

Is listening to a podcast—or watching a video podcast (a Vidcast)—really that appealing? Effective?

On the topic of podcasts and m-learning, I saw an article that said: “Learning from podcasts has many benefits over learning from books.” What was really interesting here was that it was on BMJ.com—the site of the British Medical Journal. Even MDs are being encouraged to listen to podcasts?

Is listening to a podcast—or watching a video podcast (a Vidcast)—really that appealing? When talking about m-learning, almost everyone mentions podcasts and how effective they can be (plus how easy it is to make your own podcast). I quite believe it.

I’ll give myself a pat on the back first. Well before the word “podcast”—in fact, well before the iPod—I used to download lectures at grad school. The same lectures that I’d attended, I’d download off my university’s site. My friends found it funny, but I had my points: “The videos help me recap... they let me take notes...”

So anyway, looking at the huge number of free podcasts we have access to in 2011, let me recap why I think podcasts are an effective learning medium.

#1: You’re more likely to remember stuff.

When we read, we usually try to follow all the words. If we can’t keep our attention, we switch off. Or we get distracted—a little at first, then completely. (Skimming seems like a solution sometimes, but have you actually learnt anything when you were skimming?)

It’s totally different when you’re listening to someone speak. You don’t try to catch every word; you don’t get thrown off even if you miss entire sentences. You go right ahead, listening partially in the foreground, and understanding quite a bit in the background. And, if you realise that you missed an important detail, you can always go back in the recording.

This can be made to sound like a complex psychological matter, but it’s quite simple: We’re used to reading carefully, but we’re used to listening to people casually. In the latter case, you try less to focus, so you learn more—counterintuitive but true!

 #2: It facilitates note-taking.

Looking at on-screen words, you’re not very likely to take notes—whether it’s on your computer or phone, or even mentally. (That’s because you’re too busy reading.) But when you’re listening to someone speak, you do tend to say “Hey, that’s something to remember”! Beyond that, audio in the background means you can actually step away to make a note of interesting things, perhaps on paper, or on your computer. You might do this even without pausing the recording.

#3: Anyplace

You can listen to a podcast anyplace and anytime. This is often the best thing about podcasts (as opposed to written material), but audio makes sense even if you’re sitting at your computer.

#4: Audio is the lazy option, which is often good.

When it’s about doing something new, it’s easy to put off things—as we know all too well. (Think about the books you bought but never got past page 6.) But when it’s an audio recording, you can just... switch it on. There’s somehow less of an unwillingness to begin. Okay, for a few minutes the speaker seems to be saying something in the background and you aren’t really listening. Then you get interested!

#5: Speakers are usually passionate about their topics

When someone explains a topic by speaking about it (and then making it live), I see an instructional motive. The speaker does wants to share something. What that means for the listener is engagement and motivation—perhaps even inspiration.

 

As an endnote, I’ll mention a good podcast source in case you haven’t tried learning from audio. Learnoutloud.com is a well-organised directory of free-to-listen podcasts on general-interest topics. If you’re looking for audiobooks of comprehensive titles, including classics, OpenCulture’s audiobook and podcast section is a good repository of free and paid material.