Jason Puckett With great power comes great bibliography.

20Jan/09Off

An open letter to educational podcasters

Dear Educational Podcaster,

First, let me say I'm obviously a big fan of what you're doing.  I listen to lots of podcasts regularly, both for entertainment and to keep up with professional issues.  Please keep up the good work, and please take this as constructive criticism.

Producing a podcast and not providing an RSS feed wastes a lot of your effort and cuts off a lot of listeners.  This is true even if you provide an iTunes subscription link.  That's not enough.

Here's the thing: iTunes is huge.  I get that.  A lot of people are very happy purchasing music in the iTunes Music Store -- even though their much-lauded DRM-free offerings still embed personally identifying information to track users' files in case they ever get shared on the interwebs -- and a lot of people use iTunes as their podcatching software as well.  And a lot of universities, my current and previous places of employment included, are signing on to the iTunes U program, which is really a cool idea.

I was looking for instructional technology podcasts the other day, and I found Teach with Tech, which looks like something I'd really be interested in and would probably listen to regularly.  They have an RSS feed for the blog....  but the blog entries don't contain the podcast episodes as enclosures.  They do offer a link to subscribe via iTunes, and a link to download episodes on a separate page.  (I don't mean to pick on Teach with Tech, which looks like a great program.  It's just the most recent example I've come across of this common problem.)

Here's the problem.  Not everyone uses iTunes.  Not everyone uses an iPod as their portable media player, believe it or not.  And if you only offer your podcast in the iTunes Music Store, you're cutting yourself off from listeners who sync their media with other devices, because we can't use iTunes.  (I have a Creative Zen, and use Juice as my podcatcher software.  I use a combination of MediaMonkey and Winamp to manage my media library and sync with my Zen, since I like the way MediaMonkey does some things and Winamp does others.)

I could indeed subscribe to the program's blog via RSS in Google Reader and get notifications when they publish a new episode.  And then I could click through and go to their download page and save the most recent episode, then save it to my media library and sync it to my Zen to listen to on the train later.  But frankly that's too big a convenience hurdle for me to step over on a regular basis, when there are plenty of other podcasts that follow standards and work no matter what podcatcher and sync software I'm using, and automatically download episodes without my intervention.  (Those podcasts also work with the iTunes's podcast directory and iTunes U, since RSS -- as a standard format -- imports easily into iTunes.  It just doesn't work in the other direction.)

Lately one of my hobby horses has been what I've heard called "microcontent" and what I've tentatively taken to calling "portable content": digital objects that we can use and reuse in as many different online contexts as possible because its format allows us to easily embed it, copy it, and move it to suit our needs.  As more education goes online, educators have got to be savvy about formats so that we can take advantage of this portability.

Over the next few years our students are going to be reading, viewing and listening to our online materials on a wider variety of computers, browsers, handheld devices, podcatchers, media software, and operating systems than we can envision right now.  It's not enough to produce good materials.  We have to produce them in formats that will work with the widest possible variety of devices and user environments.  In libraries we talk a lot about "meeting the users where they are" -- this is just the latest example of that principle.

Love,
Jason

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  1. I wonder if part of the reason they don’t provide a direct RSS feed is to drive traffic to their site?

  2. Well, I really don’t mean to pick on this particular podcast. I would suggest, though, that a better means of acquiring regular traffic is by making it as easy as possible for the maximum number of people to subscribe to one’s content.


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