It's well-known that podcasting is huge these days. But you might not realize how many educational podcasts are out there.
By educational, we mean shows that focus on some super-focused topic, like a specific period of history or an academic discipline. For instance, there are at least 15 or 20 active podcasts about linguistics, and there are several podcasts out there about conversational Latin (and we were pretty sure that was a “dead” language that was no longer spoken).
For this week’s EdSurge Podcast, we’re digging into this growing subculture of educational podcasting, and at how educators are using these podcasts in classes.
Listen to this week’s podcast on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Play Music or wherever you listen, or in the player below.
“Right now, educational audio feels extremely utopian, partly because there’s not really a market,” says Zachary Davis, creator and host of the educational podcast called Ministry of Ideas. “You’re not getting really wealthy or even famous through educational audio. You’re doing it because of this insane kind of love for your topic and for building a small, passionate community around your subject.”
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Two years ago Davis decided to put on a conference for people making these kinds of podcasts, called Sound Education. At the time, he was a student at Harvard University’s Divinity School, so he was able to use the space there and they had more than 500 attendees and 150 speakers.
It turns out that many of the most popular shows in this space are not done by professors, or even leading experts in the field. This is a world that’s decidedly alt-ac. In other words, a lot of the folks doing this are people who once aspired and planned to be professors but ended up taking other paths. Yet they still retain that passion for a niche topic and a desire to share it with as many people as they can.
Some of the podcasters got their start making educational videos or producing MOOCs, those free online classes that were all the rage a few years ago, but ended up not living up to the hype. That’s the case for Davis, who for several years was a producer of video classes for HarvardX, Harvard’s MOOC production wing.
“I realized that audio fits your life in a way that a video-based online course just doesn’t for a lot of people,” he says, “and one reason why completion rates [for MOOCs] are so low is that when you are a lifelong learner, it’s just very hard to sit down and have the time to kind of go through a course sequentially.”
But first, let’s meet a pair of academics who run a linguistics podcast called “The Endless Knot,” Mark Sundaram and Aven McMaster. They both teach at Thorneloe University at Laurentian, in Canada—one as a full professor and the other as an adjunct. They’re married, so it’s easy for them to head down to their basement studio anytime to make podcast episodes.
So how did these two decide to start The Endless Knot, which first started out as a video series on YouTube?
“It was me wanting to reach a larger audience,” says Sundaram. “I’m teaching sort of by the course, and so I wanted to have an output for all of these years of study and teach the kind of open-ended topics that I might not ordinarily get to do within the constraints of whatever a given program specifically needs and so forth. My training is in the area of philology and linguistics and looking at language. But I thought, ‘Well, I can use that as a jumping off point to talk about anything because language goes anywhere.’ And so I just thought, ‘Well, let’s look at how language connects everything in the world.’”
For McMaster, she says she prefers podcasts to video, and “we thought this was a way that we could do something together that we could kind of have equal stakes in.”
Among their favorite episodes is an interview they did with the Richard Thomas, a Harvard classics professor, exploring the scholar’s book about classical allusions in the lyrics of Bob Dylan.
Both podcasters attended that first Sound Education conference two years ago, and this year’s as well, which was held in October. And they are in touch with many educational podcasters on social media. They say history podcasting is one of the biggest groups—in part, perhaps, because history lends itself to stories, which also work well in audio. One in particular, Mike Duncan’s History of Rome, is what got both Sundaram and McMaster hooked on listening to podcasts.
Like many educational podcasters, the pair have also used podcasts in the courses they teach.
“Teaching about language mainly through text is very limiting because language is a spoken thing,” says Sundaram. “So I’ve used podcasts, podcast episodes from various other linguistic podcasts to enrich that course. I’ve used an episode from The Vocal Fries. I use an episode from Talk the Talk podcast.”
McMaster says she uses one of those conversational Latin podcasts—Quomodo Dicitur—when she teaches Latin courses.
“Sometimes I play it in class and we listen to it, and then I talk the students through a few pieces of it and what they can understand,” she says. “I’ve given it as a bonus assignment, transcribed a couple of minutes of it and asked them to tell me what they’re saying. I’ve also just suggested it as listening for people.”
And she’s used episodes from her own podcast. “Yes, of course I can give lots of articles and reading. But the good thing about a podcast is it’s pitched at a level that my students can absorb when it’s that kind of discussion issue,” she says. “Anyone can absorb it more easily, I think, than an academic article, and so I found that the students reacted well to that and that was useful.”
Zachary Davis, who runs that annual conference for educational podcasters, agrees.
“I don’t think there’s anything that sparks conversation quite like a good podcast episode,” Davis says. “There’s something about hearing voices, hearing archival tape, and it’s different than video because something stirs the mind to be thinking even a little bit more. So I think you are seeing podcasts enter classrooms in all sorts of new ways.”
Davis now works at a company building a platform for these podcasters. It’s going to be called Lyceum, and it’s scheduled to be released in January. One of his hopes is to make it a kind of central place to find educational podcasts in the way YouTube has become for educational videos.
“The one big challenge with podcasting is the classic discoverability problem,” he says. “There are 700,000 podcasts out there. I don’t know how many educational podcasts there are, but probably in the tens of thousands, so how do you find good shows? Because you only have so much time, you need help, and there aren’t really great curation tools out there.”
Davis also plans to build in tools so educators can have their students discuss podcast episodes in class, and ways for educational podcasters to charge to access their episodes.
“I’m really interested in working with adjuncts and people who are maybe not totally on the tenure track, but have such great teaching skills and maybe a great talent for lecturing,” he says. “I have a lot of adjunct friends, and I actually hate the way that adjuncts are treated by the current university system. So I really want Lyceum to be a place where teachers can find dignity and also potentially income for the knowledge that they’ve gained and their ability to teach that to people. I’m really excited about giving people a home for whom the academy has been a place of frustration and rejection.”
One challenge for the Lyceum project, Davis admits, will be convincing people to download a separate app to listen to educational podcasts, which is a key part of his business model, rather than using the app they currently use to listen to other podcasts.