Pushing podcasts

The ability to subscribe to and receive podcasts is what makes iPods an educational winner, says Stephen Heppell

The 21st century is not the 20th century. In the 20th century, organisations anticipated your needs and then provided for them. Marks and Spencer's buyers guessed what you wanted; they stocked it and you bought it.

But in this century we all, not unreasonably, want a bit more choice and a lot more voice. As MS struggles to take on board the implications of this, other organisations, such as Google and eBay, understand exactly what the 21st century is all about - and are booming. What succeeds in this new millennium is anything that helps us to help each other.

This is a symmetrical, peer-to-peer world, where we make or exchange things for - or with - each other. For organisations like TV and radio companies this promises as big a revolution as it does for learning organisations. Just as the old Dick Turpin model of learning ("stand and deliver") started to die in the 1990s, so too did the one-to-many vision of the broadcaster's role.

As many schools will report, creating a school radio station, was, until recently, a pretty complex task. There were licences, a studio, equipment, skills and copyright to consider. Even with all that in place, and paid for, how would anyone find, or access, your broadcast pearls of wisdom or your school's battle of the bands?

Luckily, the internet was designed to allow people to post, find and exchange resources. The URL, a Uniform or Universal Resource Locator, did what it said on the box and helped people to find things, one item at a time.

Some years later, the internet's RSS protocol offered Really Simple Syndication (see column, next page) - which also delivered precisely what it promised, namely the ability to "subscribe" (in the technical rather than financial sense) to a flow of information.

Next, it was inevitable that people would want to enclose other media with their RSS feeds and, from early experiments in 2001 onwards, audio and images have been included. Add to this today's ubiquitous MP3 players, dominated by Apple's pocketable iPod, which can store the feeds, and podcasting was a solution waiting to happen.

At its simplest, a podcast is a collection of audio files, each pushed to a listener who has chosen to subscribe to a particular source. Having subscribed, when that listener's computer is connected to the internet it checks for updates and then downloads the latest files - they are then added to a pocket MP3 player.

Recently, video-podcasts have begun to show the same exponential growth in use that audio podcasts demonstrated.

This all matters enormously for schools for two reasons: first, there are now countless audio broadcasts on relatively esoteric topics which would never before have found airtime. There are hundreds of serious science broadcasts, some 20 weekly physics programmes alone. There are also UK podcasts for English, maths, ICT, PE and indeed covering the whole curriculum and beyond. Schools are finding some (but not all) of these streams to be rich and invitingly listen-able.

Second, schools are finding the ability to capture and "push" their students' voices - and this can be powerful as a learning tool too.

On one course at the University of Western Australia, students are assessed from the narrative of their podcasts. A new QCA project will use podcasting to capture the authentic voice of learners in the assessment process. In Blackpool, the blueIRIS project uses podcasting for learners with visual impairment and contributions are beginning to appear from schools all around the world.

Making a podcast is almost as straightforward as subscribing to one. The software is simple to use, and you just need a server to park your contributions on - either internally, for the school's intranet, or externally, for the world.

The 2005 celebration of schools' creativity at BAFTA - "Be Very Afraid I..." - was filmed, podcast, video podcast, burnt on to a DVD and parked on a website, all in one day's filming by a tiny team. This is very accessible technology. Some teachers will remember the early days of educational broadcasting as children stood in their primary schools to listen and perform to the BBC's Singing Together broadcasts. In the 21st century, we all do the listening, the performing and the broadcasting.

No wonder education is excited about podcasting.

Professor Stephen Heppell's monthly podcast is available from: www.heppell.net

RSS - Really Simple Syndication http:blogs.law.harvard.edutechrss

The University of Western Australia www.uwa.edu.au The blueIRIS project www.zen53678.zen.co.uk

Be Very Afraid (BAFTA) www.bafta.org

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