Why Should Podcasts be Used in Learning?

Podcasts are everywhere – except, oddly, in learning. That’s not quite true as some are using them as informal doors into a subject or topic. Others are deep dives into learning theory for learning professionals. So should they be used more as learning experiences? 

No one saw the meteoric rise of the podcast. It surprised everyone. Just as we thought it was all about video, consumers surprised us all by listening to image-free podcasts in their hundreds of millions. Podcasters have become stars and every imaginable subject is being covered from trivia to quantum physics. So, why the fuss and can they be used in learning?

First notice how, as a medium, they tend to be long form, the very opposite of micro-learning – another surprise. Their strength seems to be in diving deep into a subject, with discussion, often presenting multiple perspectives. It is not unusual for them to be an hour, even two or three hours. My podcast with James Manion on Re-imagining education was well over three hours, yet still had a large audience.

My own favourites are the BBC’s In Our Time series with over 900 podcasts on history, politics, science, philosophy and art. Lex Friedman on AI and Talking Politics… and boy do I learn from these. They have serious experts talking about serious stuff. This, for me, really is lifelong learning.

But although they deal with heavy subjects, here’s the thing, the podcast hosts make it seem light. That’s the trick, a good anchor who keeps the experts on track and moves them forward, sometimes asking for clarification, sometimes stimulating a new area with a penetrating question. Note that they are not interviewing their guests, they are having a conversation.

Great Minds on Learning

John Helmer and I have been doing a Great Minds on Learning podcast series on groups of learning theorists. We take a theme, topic or school of psychology and go into detail about their ideas and the practical application of those ideas in learning. So far we’ve covered the Cognitivists, Behaviourists, Instructionalists, Pragmatists, Moralists, Assessors, Enlightenment, Online educators, Social, Affective, Informal learning, Workflow learning and Learning styles, with another 12 in the pipeline.

We’ll be doing one as a live podcast at Online Educa on The Extended Mind, delving into learning during sleep, Chalmer’s idea of cognition extending into the learning technologies we use, from the simple pen to smartphone, and also neurotechnology. Come along and hear about why we do these podcasts, the positive reaction we’ve had, their surprising use in formal learning, as well as how we plan and produce them.

We’ve also done one on VR and the Metaverse, in the Metaverse! Sitting with VR headsets, we discussed the history of VR from Jared Lanier onwards, the recent research on VR and learning from major researchers such as Makransky and the vision for learning in the Metaverse by Zuckernerg and others. I’ll also be giving a separate Spotlight session on this topic at the conference.

So, do any of these theorists explain why podcasts have been so successful?

This has been discussed in several episodes by John and me. Our first episode on the Cognitive scientists unpacked Working Memory and looked at Cognitive Load Theory from Sweller. We touched on why this matters in podcasts for learning. It turns out that NOT having images turns out to be an advantage, as it frees up working memory to listen, understand and more importantly, give you more room to reflect on the issues being discussed. It leaves room for your imagination to generate learning from the discussion. This deeper processing also results in deeper processing therefore better retention.

In another episode on Online Learning Theorists, we covered Richard Mayer, who has published over 500 scientific studies on online learning. In one famous study, he showed that text plus audio floods the brain and inhibits learning. By keeping the visual channel free you get no dissonance. Less is more!

What type of learning?

In my book, Learning Experience Design, I dealt with these issues and podcasts in some depth, exploring the learning theory behind their success, along with tips on producing them for learning. We have seen the rise of audio as an interface in personal assistants in our homes and cars and on our smartphones. Services such as Discord have also been on the ascendance. But learning is something specific, so what type of learning is most suitable for podcasts?

More abstract topics seem more suitable, those that do not require images, graphs and any form of visual presentation. We know that this works from the popularity of radio, where discussion, and debates on topics that have more to do with reason are common. More importantly, it seems to be led by the ‘voices’ of experts, who can be in any field. It is not so much the topic, as the status of the expert and the ability of the host to bring out the best in that expert.

Intimate conversations

I liken a good podcast to eavesdropping into an intimate conversation. It is as if you were sitting in that conversation, which is why I’m not a fan of monologue podcasts or those that are over-scripted and produced. They lose that informal intimacy. John and I’s podcasts are almost single takes. We don’t edit out the mistakes or tangential bits, as that’s all part of the discussion. You have to keep it real.

Interview techniques work well. It is fine one-on-one but 2-3 others being interviewed is also good, especially if you want to get multiple perspectives. Different voices can bring variety.

How long?

There is no real rule on length but most are long-form. Some are short, at 15 or 20 minutes but an hour is normal, some longer. James Manion does learning podcasts called Rethinking Education (which I highly recommend) that are sometimes over 3 hours. He interviewed me for 3 hrs 6 minutes!

An excellent trick used by Joe Rogan and most famous podcasters is to record then split them up into five-minute sections on specific questions or topics. They do this for YouTube consumption. So ‘chapterise’ your podcasts.

What speed?

Fascinatingly, many like to listen at x1.5, even x2 speed and the evidence has recently emerged that this has little effect on what you learn and retain. This is also true of video. Although, when you get above x2 speed that advantage seems to be lost.

Inclusive experience

It is obvious really but I think another reason for the success of podcasts is the that we don’t have to learn how to speak and listen. We do have to learn how to read and write and they are difficult skills to acquire. As grammatical geniuses at age 3, we start to speak pretty fluently. Audio’s useful for people who rarely read, perhaps have low levels of literacy or may just prefer to listen. It is inclusive and humanises the learning experience.

On top of all that, they’re quick, cheap and relatively easy to produce and distribute. are clearly enjoyed by many and seem to be effective in learning. It is not that they should be used as full courses, but as part of a blend, used appropriately to give some depth to the learning experience and bounce leaning out of seeming like a chore.

Remember also, that they can be listened to hands-free, for note taking or while you’re cooking, walking the dog or driving. We’ve had feedback that learners appreciate this more than anything.

So take a moment and think, why not take a little bit of time and budget, take a topic and try a podcast? If you want to hear more about our experience in doing this, come along to John Helmer’s session on X at Y time.


Written for OEB Global 2022 by Donald Clark.

One Response

  1. Vesa Paajanen

    I’ve been using podcast in my teaching since 2015 (way before making my first video lectures). Some students have said, podcasts were the key element they needed to pass the lecture course for which I have extended their use for all my teaching. A great and inexpensive way to deliver information – also in education!


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