Podcasting, despite its geeky name, is simple and practical, and has a wide range of potential uses in education and training. Abbreviated from “broadcasting to an iPod”, podcasting is, at its most basic, the distribution of audio content via the internet to mobile audio players. The name is a red herring, because you don’t have to be a Mac user – you can podcast any audio format and play it back on any compatible player, even if it is not mobile. Rarely does my audio go mobile – I prefer to simply listen at my desk. Podcasting lets you listen to content of your choice at a time and place that is convenient. In that regard, it is not much different from the old idea of listening to books-on-tape on your Walkman.
But that is where the resemblance ends. Podcasting uses the same technology that syndicates the content of blogs and news sites, so subscribing to a site and having its content updates automatically fed to your computer is a matter of a few mouse clicks. The technology used to push the text content of a blog to your computer is RSS (Rich Site Summary or Really Simple Syndication). In podcasting, audio files are simply pushed out as attachments to RSS 2.0 feeds, just as documents are sent as attachments to e-mails.
First, you install an RSS feedreader (such as RSSreader or Amphetadesk, both free) on your computer, and nominate the sites whose content you want fed to you. There are tens of thousands of sites that publish their text content in RSS form. A feedreader is a simple tool that automatically finds and downloads content updates from the sites you have chosen to monitor. It will pull down the latest text entries, and can download enclosures embedded in those entries in the form of audio files. This saves you from having to go to each site, dig around to see what is new, and manually download each individual file. (To add my blog to your feed reader, simply drag the orange "XML" chiclet in the column to the right into your feedreader). I scan several dozen favorite sites a couple of times a day in a matter of minutes, a task that would take me hours without a feedreader.
You can be fed audio files by any up-to-date RSS 2.0 feedreader, but it won’t do the work of loading them into your iPod or Rio player. That’s where podcasting aggregators such as iPodder (also free) come in. iPodder will pull down audio files as they are posted to any sites that you have nominated. Further, it will automatically load the files to your mobile audio player, if you have one connected to your computer. Set your system to do a once-a-day scan at midnight, and you simply have to pick up your already-loaded audio player on the way out to your morning jog.
Podcasting allows anyone to record and broadcast anything, to an audience around the world. It’s like DIY global radio with TiVo built in, for a targetable audience. As a trainer, you can distribute content that is current and relevant. Some obvious applications are product or policy updates for your global salesforce, reinforcement for today’s classroom session, or daily micro-reminders from your online computer security course. Less obvious is the potential for capturing and sharing discussions among SMEs on hot issues, or sharing one learning group’s discussion with other groups.
All you need is a website or a blog, and recording software that converts your audio to MP3 format. Audacity (from Sourceforge.net) is good audio software, and it’s completely free. Install it, plug in a microphone, and record. When you are happy with the audio, export it as an MP3 at the push of a button, then upload it to your site as an enclosure to a blog posting. If your blog service does not support enclosures (Blogger, for example), you can still podcast by registering your blog with Feedburner.com’s SmartCast, a service that does all the conversions for you, for free. It is really that simple, though it may take a little practice to get file sizes down to reasonable sizes and audio quality just right.
Of course the downside of the ease of podcasting is that everyone who likes the sound of their own voice will be adding to the already crowded blogosphere. But the gems will stand out, and corporate podcasting should be subject to more stringent quality control.
Creative use of podcasting will accelerate the uptake of the training, marketing, and technical blogging that is becoming more common within corporations. Audio is often easier to create, easier to digest, and more appropriate than text. With a little vision and a willingness to experiment, I suspect that podcasting will rapidly find a valuable place in the already crowded chest of tools available to marketers and trainers.
TrainingZONE Parkin Space column of 19/11/04