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Dec 07
Podcasts: changing the way students learn

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Joshua Lindenberger, listens to a podcast during a MPCC dual credit English class at North Platte High School on Tuesday afternoon. His teacher, Jami Allen, uses podcasts to make assignments more fun and relatable. 

Is listening to a podcast just as effective as reading from a book? 

English instructors at North Platte Community College believe it can be – depending on the situation. Jessie Allen, Jami Allen and Kristi Leibhart have all incorporated podcasts into their classrooms, and so far, it's paid off.  

"I've noticed that my students are more engaged," said Jami. "They become intrigued by what I'm trying to teach because they're being exposed to something new and different." 

Jessie and Leibhart have noticed similar reactions. 

"Most of my incoming students aren't familiar with audio stories such as, 'This American Life' and 'RadioLab,' and are surprised to learn that they exist," Jessie said. "Once I play some, they think, 'Wow. That's really cool'."

Jessie has incorporated audio stories into her classes for over a decade, ever since she began listening to those released by National Public Radio. The trick, she's learned, is to use the right kind of podcast.

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"I don't enjoy listening to podcasts that are just a teacher's lecture put into a podcast format," said Jessie. "That's boring, and students think so too. I see potential in the fun audio texts." 

It's something she believes in so strongly, that she recently conducted an extensive study on the subject and compiled her research into a dissertation, "Teaching with Narrative Nonfiction Podcasts."

Jessie coined the term, "narrative nonfiction podcast," in her dissertation to describe any podcast that features true stories told in artful, literary ways. That does not include a basic rundown of news headlines, talk shows, "how-to" programs, advice columns or comedy shows, but rather longer, in-depth stories, often with a personal aspect to them. 

She uses the audio stories in classroom activities, but has found them to be especially effective in online courses, which are primarily text-based. Adding a multimedia component adds variety. 

Jessie was the one who convinced Leibhart to start teaching with podcasts. It was the fall of 2014 and the first time Leibhart had taught full-time at a community college. 

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"I had one student who was blind and another who was almost blind, and I was supposed to teach reading to them," said Leibhart. "I left in the middle of class, went into Jessie's office and said, 'What do I do?' She said, 'Here's what you do. You use podcasts'." 

Armed with a sticky note Jessie had written the names of various podcasts on, Leibhart went back to class and began incorporating audio text. 

"It worked," said Leibhart. "The students loved it and caught on right away. The podcasts opened their minds, and I was suddenly able to reach this audience that I couldn't before. I was able to teach them how sentences worked even though they couldn't see the words." 

Leibhart now uses podcasts in almost all of her classes. The "Serial" podcast, which tells a true story by introducing a new chapter every week, has proven especially popular with her students. Leibhart uses it to sneak in exercises in her College Prep Writing class. 

"If I have students who struggle with writing or have a distaste for it, I use 'Serial' to grab their attention," said Leibhart. "I get them hooked on a story, and they want to come back and hear what happens next. All I use the audio for is content. Then, I have the students do compare and contrast writing, or another writing activity where we can pick apart the sentences." 

As a dual credit instructor based out of North Platte High School, Jami makes working with podcasts a biannual assignment for her students.

"One of the things I have my seniors do is write a narrative about themselves using a blog, video or podcast because narratives can occur in a lot of different ways," said Jami. "Before they do that, we talk about the various elements of narratives, and I share podcasts with them." 

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What's she's found by adding a multimedia component is that the assignment is not only more fun for students, but also easier for some of them to understand. 

"Some kids do better when they see or hear something as opposed to just reading about it," said Jami. "I also have students who read along with an audiobook. In those situations, they learn best through a combination of methods." 

All of the instructors recognize the importance of being able to read over and highlight complex text, so they're not using podcasts to replace books – just to supplement them. 

Jessie noted that reading and listening use similar skills such as summarization, critical thinking and paraphrasing. 

"However, I notice more affective engagement from audio learning," Jessie said. "Students are often able to grasp certain concepts deeper than through reading alone. When they hear a person tell a story in a way that makes them tear up or tense up in their seats– that sticks with them." 

She predicts that podcasts, as educators know them now, are only the beginning. 

"Right now, fiction podcasts are in their infancy," Jessie said. "There aren't a lot of good ones yet, but there will be. I really do think podcasts will be a genre of literature in the future. They're easy, they're portable and I don't see any end to them in sight." 

Heather Johnson
Area Communications Specialist

Heather produces and distributes press releases for the college. She began work at MPCC in 2014. Prior to that, she spent five years as the news director/web manager for Eagle Radio in North Platte. From 2009-2014 she worked as a reporter/photographer for The North Platte Telegraph. Heather has a bachelor's degree in journalism from Chadron State College.

Brent L. Cobb
McCook Community College News Bureau Coordinator​​​