Pros and Cons: Podcasts in the ESL Classroom

Periodically, I will be posting some thoughts on teaching English as a Second Language in an urban setting.  This is one of those posts

One of my favourite things for the last few years has been podcasts.  They’re free, they’re entertaining, and they empower creative people in a way few other mediums do.  And as luck would have it, plenty of radio stations have been using the medium as a way to distribute their programming.  Now I can listen to Vinyl Cafe whenever I want!

So I know podcasts are a fantastic resource for keeping me entertained.  How are they as a resource in the ESL classroom?

Pro: Any topic you want, there’s probably a podcast for that

Podcasting requires little more than an internet connection and a computer capable of recording audio files, so it stands to reason that anyone sufficiently passionate about something can release a podcast.  Hooray!  Knowledge for everyone!  Except…

Con: Any topic you want, there’s probably a podcast for that

That low bar of “internet access and a microphone” also means it’s difficult to determine which are actually useful, well-done and worth actually using in the classroom.  Sure, you can make some safe assumptions, like CBC and NPR podcasts having (if nothing else) standard English usage and clear diction, but barring a great deal of research, there’s still a lot of vetting to do.

Pro: They’re downloadable audio files, not physical media or live broadcast

This is probably the most significant pro in my mind.  Gone are the days of hearing something on the radio that is lost to eternity unless you were taping it.  Scratched CD’s and worn out cassette tapes are a thing of the past.  As long as you have an iPod and some speakers, you’re good to go.  Right?

Con: They’re downloadable files.

As easy to use as iTunes and an iPod can be, they’re still not without their issues.  I’ve had a few times where an iPhone sync just didn’t take.  No matter if you’re willing to use your iPhone on the fly and download over 3G, but a smartphone with a healthy data plan is a new and fairly costly resource for any teacher.  A new textbook per month would cost less, and those never get corrupted or not work properly.  There’s obviously a lot of ways around this, but not all are simple or straightforward.  This con depends a lot on the patience of the teacher.

Pro: They can become a classroom activity unto themselves

Remember that bar of a microphone and internet access?  That remarkably low qualification to be a podcaster?  If you’re reading this, you qualify.  If all parties are willing, your class can have their own podcast.  Maybe as a long-term independent writing and speaking assignment, maybe as simply a means of sharing classroom techniques with the world, maybe something else entirely, but this is a possibility worth exploring.

Consider the possibility of a year-end project consisting of a class of 12 immigrants telling the story of how they came to Canada or discussing their story of settlement and integration.  These kinds of projects have always been possible, but creating one for an enormous audience is relatively new.

All in all, having used podcasts in the classroom, I’m convinced that they’re a worthwhile resource.  Not the resource, but a resource that, with a few hours of vetting, can be a reliable and convenient classroom resource for listening activities.  And as an activity itself, it opens up a lot of new possibilities.

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