By Johannes Schmidt
When in late 2005 I started to explore podcasts I soon recognized the high number of German podcasts already available. Certainly, it was only a logistical matter for some of the established news providers and other organizations to move their audio-on-demand content from their website to iTunes or other podcast distribution channels. But what most surprised me was that early on many of these German podcasts were directly aimed at language learners. So, in addition to daily news programs, students learning German could also find "The word of the day" and "My daily phrase" (vocabulary trainers), "Slowly spoken news" (a news program for beginning German students), "Kalenderblatt" ["Today in (German) History"], "Sprachbar" (a language course), and much more.
The ease of use and portability of podcasts convinced me to expose my students to this new technology. And they eagerly adopted it. Here was an assignment that confronted them with authentic, in most cases, unedited language material that put language learning in context. They became used to different speakers of German, with different accents and dialects, different style and pace of speaking, new topics and interests; in short, students became aware of the varieties and differences in German culture. And all this with the push of a button, or better with a few clicks.
But what I most liked and still like about this technology is its concentrated approach. Audio podcasts provide very little distractions and the focus is on language and delivering content. Even with the addition of video podcasts, this has changed only a little. This has always been important for me when using technology in and outside the classroom. Technology has a tendency to divert from the content or objective, especially in language learning; flashy websites, colorful and picturesque lab content, silly language videos ("Guten Tag, das ist meine Katze"), and expensive textbook supplementals are geared toward entertainment: language learning should be "fun." But we need to take our students seriously; they are adults with specific learning objectives. Being able to communicate in the target language with a native speaker and to function in a different culture is all that counts in the end. Podcasts provide a simple way to experience German culture first hand here in the US.
In 2006, I began to use podcast assignments as homework. Students have to listen to specific episodes or to subscribe to a podcast program. This leads to writing exercises or discussions in the classroom. I soon found out that many students "get hooked" on a specific program and listen to podcasts on a regular basis.
The next step was consistent with the new technology: to create your own podcasts. All of our students have laptops, many of these computers have built-in microphones, and free audio-editing software is available (e.g. Audacity). In the beginning, I asked students to write, produce, record and edit their own short podcast episodes. These were made available to the rest of the class. Instead of in-class reports (often the cause of anxiety), students now have much better control over their presentation. This also frees up class time for discussion. I agree that it is important for students to learn how to speak with confidence in public. But in the foreign language environment, this is even more difficult. Podcast presentations can serve as a first step to become a good speaker in the target language.
Creating podcasts can be a time-consuming undertaking, especially the creation of video podcasts. This was why I started a creative inquiry group to establish German Cast, a podcast program at Clemson University. We are distributing these German podcasts via iTunes U. A number of German podcasts are now available, varying in topics, style and length. Here are a few samples:
In the Spring of 2008, I successfully applied for a grant to acquire equipment for high-end video editing, and the group is now under way to produce a film about German at Clemson. We hope to use this film as an advertising tool for our program.
My engagement with podcasts and podcasting has resulted in research on the pedagogical aspect for foreign language teaching. I conducted several workshops in South Carolina and the US, and published an article sharing my approach to podcasts. And I continue to explore new ways to use podcasts.
More and more students use mobile devices that are capable of playing mp3 files; many can play videos as well. The number of German podcasts continue to grow. And the variety is astounding. But this growth also presents challenges, and the use of technology in and outside of the classroom can be more demanding and time-consuming than one might expect beforehand. Being a teacher in the 21st century means providing the highest standard in instruction and meeting these new challenges at the same time. If we can get the students involved in both aspects of learning, they will be able to succeed in a more and more globalized world.
For more information, please see the following:
Johannes Schmidt, "Podcasting as a Learning Tool: German Language and Culture Every Day," UP/Teaching German vol. 41 (Fall 2008): 186-194.
German Cast at Clemson University https://deimos.apple.com/WebObjects/Core.woa/BrowsePrivately/clemson.edu.1368362500
More on German podcasts http://virtual.clemson.edu/caah/languages/German/Pages/podcasts.htmJohannes Schmidt is associate professor of German in the Department of Languages at Clemson University.