05 June 2008

Practical guide to podcasting for education

E-learning and podcasting seem to go hand and hand these days, and as a designer of elearning you may be asked to launch a podcast or two. There are resources out there, but the job of initiating your podcast can still be confusing, and you'll likely face mysteries that are time consuming to unlock. However, once it's set up, the podcast is easy to maintain - so save yourself time and take a look at this practical guide to getting a podcast off the ground, from the elearning designer's perspective.

You might already be a devoted listener of many a podcast, or you may have yet to dive into this rich and exciting world of free on-demand content. Generally speaking, as human beings, we like to know stuff. Especially if it's "easy-to-learn" stuff, presented in a tasty nutshell. So the podcast fills the crevices of our otherwise "wasted" time by feeding us knowledge or keeping us up to date on things we should know. While running in the gym or waiting in traffic you can switch on "Art History" lesson of the day, or follow the U.S. election with a summary from the New York Times. Personally, I admit to enjoying more than a few, from the National Public Radio regulars like the chart-topping "Writer's Almanac" or the hour long "Radio Lab", to the quick and dirty nuggets like "60-second Science" from Scientific American or the popular, if nerdy, "Grammar Girl".

Then of course there are the contributions made, not by the news institutions and radio stations, but by the education world. Everything from an Oxford lecture on anglo-saxon history to yoga lessons is available via a browse in a podcast directory. You can learn languages, take pilates classes or audit classes at Harvard and Yale. And it's all free! Pretty impressive.

So what happens when its time for your posse to do its own podcast? What should you know and how do you go about it?
  • Stage 1: Define your podcast and make your first episode

  • Stage 2: Publish and syndicate

  • Stage 3: Distribute widely

Stage 1: Define your podcast and make your first episode

According to the standard definition, a podcast is not a podcast unless it's "syndicated". It has to be a repeated broadcast that people can subscribe to. So one video or a collection of audio files by themselves don't make a podcast. The first step is to make some strategic decisions about what your podcast will cover, keeping in mind the audience you want to attract, the expertise you have available and how it can be sustainable. If it's something like a lecture series that you are audio recording, then the topic, presenter, and dates are clear cut from the start. If however, you plan to broadcast regular episodes on a particular topic -- more like a radio show or mini video program -- then you'll have to think a lot more carefully about what's going to be worthwhile for you, worthwhile for your audience and sustainable over time. What will the payback be for your efforts? Why will people want to listen/view/subscribe? Are there a lot of similar podcasts already out there?

If you're doing the standard audio podcast, it's just a matter of recording your audio (possibly doing some editing) and then saving it as an mp3 file. This is very comfortably done with GarageBand on a Mac or any other audio recording software available. If you're taking it a step further and doing a video podcast (or vodcast) then you'll need to record and edit your video (using iMovie, Windows Movie maker, Adobe Premiere or Final Cut Pro, etc. ), and then you'll probably want to save it in a format amenable to iTunes distribution and viewing on an iPod, such as .m4v.

For more advice on how to make your podcast successful, check out one of the books or online resources on the subject.

Stage 2: Publish and syndicate

Now for the technical bit. Actually, the podcast concept is simple. You have a folder that contains your podcast episodes (a series of mp3's or other media files) and one RSS file, a.k.a. your feed, which is a short xml document that contains all the metadata information about your podcast and tells the world when a new episode is released. In other words, it's the RSS file that allows people to "subscribe" to your podcast.

Each time you publish a new episode, you also need to update your RSS file, by adding info on the new episode, including the link to where it can be downloaded. Then when subscriber software checks the file, it picks up the new info, and announces the new episode in your user's rss reader so they can download it if they want.

Where to host your files.

So where do you put this series of podcast files? Probably on your website or maybe your blog. Many blogs have automatic functions that make it easy for you to add and automatically syndicate new episodes. But you might also consider a free hosting service like YouTube if it's video or Odeo for Audio (which also offers built in web-based audio recording software and podcast services). We host our video podcast locally on our webserver (which is where subscribers download it when they subscribe from our website or the iTunes directory) but additionally, we put each episode up on youTube. This means, we have back-ups of our videos, and we increase our distribution and allow for comments and rating via youTube.

Make the cover art

The fun part! (for us designers anyway). You'll probably use an image here and there to represent your podcast wherever it's advertised, and if you submit your podcast to the iTunes directory, your cover art will be competing with all the other pretty pics in there that give each podcast a sense of identity and appeal. It's just a jpg or png file, 300x300, 72 dpi. But remember it has to scale down well. It will need to be recognizable at a mere 50x50 and will show up in your directory listing at 170 x 170 for iTunes or somewhere in between for other directories. Check out a podcast directory for more examples.
170x170: 50x50:

Feed me - Creating the RSS file
You can use Dreamweaver or just a plain text program to write your little xml file. The easiest is to copy and paste from another RSS file and then go in and change the info to your info.

If you're in Dreamweaver, you can validate your xml with: "File > Check page > Validate as xml" to make sure your file complies before you send it off. Mine didn't. I had to get rid of capitalization inconsistencies as XML (unlike html) is case sensitive. Do note that Dreamweaver doesn't recognise iTunes tags and will mark these as errors.

There are two parts to this file: Information at the channel level, and information about each episode at the item level. Each time you create a new episode, you add a new item to your file. Descriptions, keywords and other info can be added to your channel (your podcast as a whole) as well as to each of your individual items (episodes).

Let her loose - Add the subscribe button
If you your feed is complete, you've uploaded it to a reliable spot (along with your first episode) then you're ready to unleash the podcast officially.

The simplest approach is to add a link, like "Subscribe to this podcast" on your webpage, where the link is the url of the feed file (in other words, it will start with http and end in .rss). You may want to use the standard subscribe icon as part of your link. Now, when someone clicks on your subscribe link, it will either be recognized by their reader automatically, or they will be able to right click>copy link location and put it in their reader manually. If you want to add a link that opens in iTunes automatically, then add a "Subscribe in iTunes" link and start your url with "itpc://" rather than "http://".

One-click subscription
You may want more than just a basic subscribe button. Just as you can offer one click subscription to the iTunes user with itcp://, you can offer one click subscription to everyone else with the use of "chicklets" (eg. ). These are one-click subscription buttons and you can use a chicklet code generator like the RSS button maker to generate them easily.

An easy way out?
Feedburner is a free service that provides a subscribe page for your podcast with one-click links to the many popular rss readers (juice, podnova, bloglines, etc.). It also adds all the iTunes tags for you, and adds Yahoo Media Rss tags while it's at it. You get to fill the information into an easy to use form instead of having to write in valid xml, and you can go back there to change it any time. Feedburner also tracks subscriptions and offers statistics on your blog usage. The compromise is that your subscribe page is then Feedburner branded and you can't customize it much (this may or may not matter in your case). Also, if you've already put any iTunes tags in yourself, then the Feedburner xml validator will reject your RSS file. You need to let Feedburner do it which removes a bit of control.

Stage 3: Better distribution

Being native to the iPod, the podcast namesake, you'll probably want to make sure your podcast plays nicely with this popular software (available for PC as well as Mac). There are two facets to this: a) Optimize your podcast for iTunes by adding iTunes specific tags to your rss file, and b) consider submitting your podcast to the iTunes directory. The main iTunes specific tags are already included in the RSS file example above. An excellent list with explanations is available at FeedForAll.com. Information can also be found at the iTunes podcast page.

: To submit to the iTunes directory you need an iTunes account. To get an account you need to enter a credit card (even though you will not be charged and directory listing is free). Since I was doing a podcast on behalf of my organization, this became a hassle. I wasn't going to use my personal credit card after all. I tried to open a PayPal account instead, to circumvent this, but this failed because, while PayPal doesn't require credit card info, iTunes does, and returned a "no verified credit card with this PayPal account". I finally had to use a corporate credit card for the job.

Podcast Directories

iTunes isn't the only directory out there, and it's only visible to iTunes software users. So make sure to submit to other directories as well, like PodcastAlley, Podcast.net, Yahoo audio search or Odeo.

Blog your podcast

A blog dedicated to your podcast or vodcast can be an easy way to add information about each episode, and have space for comments and discussion. Some blogs make the syndication process automatic. As I mentioned, each episode of our organization' s podcast is hosted on youTube. Each youTube video is then embedded into a blog post. In this way we have multiple distribution channels and a way for people to interact and comment on the podcast.

Track your subscribers

A free service like Feedburner will not only create all sorts of things like iTunes tags for you, it will also track your subscribers and give you statistics about where they come from. YouTube offers some information about who's viewing your videos from their end and where they come from. Google Analytics is a very rich stats service, and can be added to your blog to learn more about your readers/listeners.

Check out Apple's video series on educational podcasting: