Was listening to the latest episode of Scientific American’s ScienceTalk podcast (for Januray 3, 2007). As is often the case with some of my favourite podcasts, I wanted to blog about specific issues mentioned in this episode.
Here’s the complete “show notes” for this episode (22:31 running time).
In this episode, journalist Chip Walter, author of Thumbs, Toes and Tears, takes us on a tour of the physical traits that are unique to humans, with special attention to crying, the subject of his article in the current issue of Scientific American MIND. The University of Cambridge’s Gordon Smith discusses the alarming lack of any randomized, controlled trials to determine the efficacy of parachutes. Plus we’ll test your knowledge about some recent science in the news. Websites mentioned on this episode include http://www.sciammind.com; http://www.chipwalter.com; http://www.bmj.com.
AFAICT, there’s a direct link to the relevant MP3 file (which may be downloaded with a default name of “podcast.mp3” through a browser’s “save link as” feature), an embedded media player to listen to the episode, some links to subscribe to podcast through RSS, My Yahoo, or iTunes, and a menu to browse for episodes by month. Kind of neat.
But what’s wrong with this picture?
In my mind, a few things. And these are pretty common for podcasts.
First, there are no clickable links in the show notes. Sure, anybody can copy/paste the URLs in a browser but there’s something just slightly frustrating about having to do that instead of just clicking on a link directly. In fact, these links are quite generic and would still require that people look for information themselves, instead of pinpointing exactly which scientific articles were featured in the podcast. What’s worse, the Chip Walter article discussed in the podcast isn’t currently found on the main page for the current issue of Scientific American’s Mind. To add insult to injury, the URL for that article is the mnemo-friendly:
These are common issues with show notes and are easily solved. I should just write SciAm to comment on this. But there are deeper issues.
One reason blogging caught on so well is that it’s very easy to link and quote from one blog to another. In fact, most blogging platforms have bookmarklets and other tools to make it easy to create a blog entry by selecting text and/or images from any web page, clicking on the bookmarklet, adding a few comments, and pressing the “Publish” button. In a matter of seconds, you can have your blog entry ready. If the URL to the original text is static, readers of your blog are able to click on a link accompanying the quote to put it in context. In effect, those blog entries are merely tagging web content. But the implications are deeper. You’re associating something of yourself with that content. You’re applying some basic rules of attribution by providing enough information to identify the source of an idea. You’re making it easy for readers to follow streams of thought. If the original is a trackback-/ping-enabled blog system, you’re telling the original author that you’re refering to her piece. You’re creating new content that can, in itself, serve as the basis for something new. You might even create a pseudo-community of like-minded people. All with a few clicks and types.
Compare with the typical (audio) podcast episode. You listen to it while commuting or while doing some other low-attention activity. You suddenly want to talk about what you heard. Go out and reach someone. You do have a few options. You can go and look at the show notes if they exist and use the same bookmarklet procedure to create a blog entry. Or you can simply tell someone “hey, check out the latest ScienceTalk, from SciAm, it’s got some neat things about common sense and human choking.” If the podcast has a forum, you can go in the forum and post something to listeners of that podcast. If the show notes are in blog form, you may post comments for those who read the show notes. And you could do all sorts of things with the audio recording that you have, including bookmark it (depending on the device you use to listen to audio files). But all of these are quite limited.
You can’t copy/paste an excerpt from the episode. You can’t link to a specific segment of that episode. You can’t realistically expect most of your blog readers to access the whole podcast just to get the original tidbit. Blog readers may not easily process the original information further. In short, podcasts aren’t easily bloggable.
Podcast episodes are often big enough that it’s not convenient to keep them on your computer or media device. Though it is possible to bookmark audio and video files, there’s no standard method to keep and categorize these bookmarks. Many podcasts make it very hard to find a specific episode. Some podcasts in fact make all but the most recent episodes unavailable for download. Few devices make it convenient to just skim over a podcast. Though speed listening seems to be very effective (like speed reading) at making informative content stick in someone’s head, few solutions exist for speed listening to podcasts. A podcast’s RSS entry may contain a useful summary but there’s no way to scale up or down the amount of information we get about different podcast segments like we can do with text-based RSS feeds in, say, Safari 2.0 and up. Audio files can’t easily be indexed, searched, or automatically summarized. Most data mining procedures don’t work with audio files. Few formats allow for direct linking from the audio file to other online content and those formats that do allow for such linking aren’t ubiquitous. Responding to a podcast with a podcast (or audio/video comment) is doable but is more time-consuming than written reactions to written content. Editing audio/video content is more involving than, say, proofreading a forum comment before sending it. Relatively few people respond in writing to blogs and forums and it’s quite likely that the proportion of people who would feel comfortable responding to podcasts with audio/video recordings is much smaller than blog/forum commenters.
And, of course, video podcasts (a big trend in podcasting) aren’t better than audio podcasts on any of these fronts.
Speech recognition technology and podcast-transcription services like podzinger may make some of these issues moot but they’re all far from perfect, often quite costly, and are certainly not in widespread use. A few podcasts (well, at least one) with very dedicated listeners have listeners effectively transcribe the complete verbal content of every podcast episode and this content can work as blog-ammo. But chances that such a practice may become common are slim to none.
Altogether, podcasting is more about passive watching/listening than about active engagement in widespread dialogue. Similar to our good old friend (and compatriot) McLuhan described as “hot,” instead of “cool” media. (Always found the distinction counter-intuitive myself, but it fits, to a degree…)
Having said all of this, I recently embarked in my first real podcasting endeavor, having my lectures be distributed in podcast form, within the Moodle course management system. Lecturecasts have been on my mind for a while. So this is an opportunity for me to see, as a limited experiment, whether it can appropriately be integrated in my teaching.
As it turns out, I don’t have much to do to make the lecturecasts possible. Concordia University has a service to set it all up for me. They give me a wireless lapel microphone, record that signal, put the MP3 file on one of their servers, and add that file in Moodle as a tagged podcast episode (Moodle handles the RSS and other technical issues). Neat!
Moodle itself makes most of the process quite easy. And because the podcasts are integrated within the broader course management structure, it might be possible to alleviate some of the previously-mentioned issues. In this case, the podcast is a complementary/supplementary component of the complete course. It might help students revise the content, spark discussions, invite reflections about the necessity of note-taking, enable neat montages, etc. Or it might have negative impacts on classroom attendance, send the message that note-taking isn’t important, put too much of the spotlight on my performance (or lack thereof) as a speaker, etc.
Still, I like the fact that I can try this out in the limited context of my own classes.