Heard about podcasting? No, it's not a disease as some of your colleagues believe, says Harriet Swain, it is a lively way of broadcasting information to technologically savvy students
Broadcasting star or public intellectual? Prove a successful academic podcaster and anything is possible. First, what exactly is a podcast? And will using one mean that what you really are is a techie?
A podcast is an audio file that contains what you want to broadcast - like a kind of personal radio programme - and that you create in an MP3 format and upload to your website so that others, such as students, can download it onto an MP3 player and listen to it whenever they want.
As to whether you need to know your way around a computer - only a bit, according to Mike Marinetto, lecturer in public sector management at Cardiff University Business School, who used podcasting in his teaching last term. He says he taught himself how to do it in a weekend by using a tutorial on the net and downloading free software.
While he warns that you will struggle to find help from colleagues - "most of them probably think podcasting is some kind of disease" - he says it is worth consulting technicians at the university as a first step because some may know about special software and should be able to provide you with equipment such as microphones, or advise you where to get them.
Stephen O'Hear, a researcher in innovative ways of using digital technology to empower learners, says new software has made it much easier than it used to be to make podcasts and suggests checking out the latest developments.
He says the new range of video MP3 players means that students who have access to them can receive video as well as audio broadcasts, which is worth bearing in mind when you are developing a programme.
Geraint Johnes, professor of economics at Lancaster University, was one of the first to start using podcasts for university teaching in the UK. He says you need to remember that students' access to podcasts varies - not all have MP3 players and not all of them have broadband computers - so you have to make sure your podcasts are available on a website so that everyone can listen to them on university computers.
He says you also need to think about the teaching as well as technical aspects of podcasting. "When students have finished listening to the podcast they are going to listen to music," he says. "You cannot rely on them thinking afterwards." This means that you should leave gaps in the podcast to encourage them to think during it. He says you also have to make sure the podcast is integrated into the course, "Otherwise, why should they bother going to it?"
Richard Hollingsworth, who was Johnes's student last year, says the length of a podcast is crucial. "What works is if it's the length of a song," he says. Any more than three or four minutes and he would be tempted to listen to only sections at a time, he says.
Hollingsworth says it is also crucial to be very clear, especially if you are dealing with difficult words and theories, and to use it as a starting point rather than trying to cover everything. "It should be used in conjunction with a variety of other materials."
Marinetto says that a podcast should contain new information as well as just summaries of lectures and that you should tell this to students to encourage them to listen to it. Links to other websites, information about relevant research, technical details or summaries of up-to-date articles can all sound fresher and more interesting if delivered in a podcast rather than in a lecture because of the format, he says.
He advises treating a podcast like a broadcast rather than a lecture, although he warns that getting into this mindset will take a while and will entail trial and error. He suggests listening to good radio programmes to pick up tips about how to put together a package. "Make it lively," he says. This will mean being creative in how you put the podcast together, using vox pops, music and bits of interviews from other radio programmes to break up the commentary. But beware of copyright issues.
Murray Weston, director of the British Universities Film and Video Council, says that, technically, podcasting falls out of regulations allowing educational establishments to use broadcast material for teaching because it is treated as an "on demand" service rather than a broadcast. How the rules relate to podcasts has not yet been clarified so you may have to tread carefully. You may also need to get your university's approval if you want to record your lectures and make them publicly available, he says.
Richard Berry, a senior lecturer in radio at Sunderland Univer-sity who is researching podcasting, says you need to think about how public you want to go. You could use a podcast within the university's virtual learning environment, which would limit it to students who have access to that. Or you could make it available through a Really Simple Syndication file, through which students would receive automatic downloads of your latest podcast - or you could simply put it on a weblog available to everyone.
He warns that you should be particularly careful about using music. If you use commercial music you will need to pay a licence fee and that could get complicated and expensive. Otherwise, you need to investigate "podsafe"
music, which can be used freely, or negotiate with up-and-coming musicians who want the exposure. You will also need to be careful when using radio clips of the spoken word.
Finally, you need to think hard about your audience, rather than your own future stardom.
"The reason why podcasts are going to catch on in education is that students are much more savvy than we are," says Berry. "Finding out what they want is the key."
More information British Universities Film and Video Council: www.bufvc.ac.uk
Apple's new podcasting software: www.apple.com/uk/ilife/garageband
Find out about up-to-date software
Think of yourself as a broadcaster rather than a lecturer
Consider copyright issues, especially if using music