Education by Podcast?

Given that some of the best material in that curated course I mentioned last time comes from podcasts, this opens up the question of whether something other than a formal or informal course (be it delivered via a traditional classroom, as a MOOC, or through a recorded lecture series) can be used as the basis of college-level learning.

Given my own learning trajectory before this Degree of Freedom project got started, I don’t think this is a ridiculous question to ask.  For my re-engagement with a subject normally associated with higher education (classical history) came not from taking a college or extension school classes, but from stumbling upon Mike Duncan’s legendary podcast: The History of Rome (known affectionately to we fans as THoR).

After binging on the dozens of THoR episodes that had already aired before I discovered the series, my Monday morning commutes for the next several years were dedicated to enjoying each week’s new show (occasionally interrupted by events like the Mike’s marriage – which was preceded by a THoR episode dedicated to Roman wedding customs).

But this left nine other commuting slots to fill, which I did with podcasts related to similar subjects (such as Lars Brownworth’s Twelve Byzantine Rulers) or successors and spin-offs to THoR (such as The Ancient World or the History of Byzantium).

Even before deciding to major in philosophy for my One Year BA, Peter Adamson’s History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps (an ambitious multi-year project to podcast the entire Western philosophical tradition) became an on-again/off-again commuting companion.  And that Saylor Existentialism class I discussed last time leverages two highly popular philosophy podcasts: Philosophy Bites and the Partially Examined Life (both of which have been supplying interesting interviews, discussions and philosophical dialogs for years).  So if you want to learn something about philosophy or any other academic subject, I suspect there are multiple podcasts that can be used to accomplish this goal.

But there are reasonable questions one could ask of anyone claiming that listening to a podcast was the equivalent of taking a college-level course.

First of all, most podcasts fit the format of a radio talk show rather than a college course, meaning they don’t necessarily follow a chronological or thematic trajectory.  And since most people don’t think about when their podcast will end when they start it, you rarely encounter series with a planned beginning, middle or end.

There are exceptions, of course.  For example, my Critical Voter podcast (also inspired by Mike Duncan’s THoR), which used the 2012 election to teach practical critical thinking skills, had an end date (the week after Election Day).  But most podcasts are not conceived as mini-courses with finite life-spans (which is why their hosts often go through such angst about ending them).

Critical Voter was also unusual in that it included pre-packaged assignments students could use to engage with the material they were listening to via the podcast.  This made it an exception to most podcasts which, like their cousins over at iTunes U, are rarely supplemented with syllabi, quizzes, or other materials you’d expect to find in a class (formal or informal).

Now I’ve already discussed a few times why I think it’s legitimate to include recorded lecture style classes (sparingly) into a One Year BA program built primarily on MOOCs, but also drawing on other forms of free learning.  But I’ve drawn the line against counting podcasts (which I still listen to when I’ve got the time) as the equivalent of college-level courses.

However, the ability of podcasts to deliver genuine teaching demonstrates that for an independent learner, there are many roads that can lead to Rome (so to speak).

Which brings up a couple of interesting questions, such  as whether MOOCs should be focusing on an audience fully equipped to get their free learning from elsewhere, or what’s so great (or sacred) about the organizational structure of a course (subjects I’d like to turn to next).

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