Jul 31 2008

Listen and Learn

This school's podcasting experiment helped a sick student keep up with her studies.

Oct. 1, 2007, is a day Ellie Graham won’t soon forget.

That’s the day the honors student at Danville (Ky.) High School was diagnosed with Burkitt’s lymphoma, a rare form of cancer. The following day, surgeons removed a tumor weighing more than 2 pounds from her abdomen. For the next several months, her days were consumed with doctor visits, tests, pills and week-long chemotherapy sessions at Kentucky Children’s Hospital in Lexington.

Early on, the school district assigned a homebound teacher to work with Graham. However, her chemotherapy sessions made her very weak, unable to be tutored or even complete homework assignments. So her teachers, along with the school’s administrators and board members, began exploring alternative ways for the high school freshman to keep up with her studies. Jean Crowley, school board chair at Danville Independent Schools, suggested that Graham’s teachers start podcasting their lectures.

“With homebound students like Ellie, I am excited that we are able to utilize the technology we have available to assist students in maintaining their performance in the classroom,” says Crowley, adding that podcasting can be an extended service for any school. “All schools need to capitalize on our students’ knowledge and expertise in using technology to keep them engaged in learning.”

Handling the Technology

At the time, the school wasn’t equipped for podcasting. But that would soon change. In January, the school purchased five digital audio players — one for each of Graham’s teachers. No training was required. Teachers simply pressed the “record” button on their player at the start of each lecture. At the end of each day, Ann Rightmyer, the school’s curriculum and technology resource teacher, collected the podcasts, then prepared to upload them to the school’s website.

However, the digital audio players saved the lectures as a WAV file, which were too large to upload. So Rightmyer used Audacity, free online software, to convert the digital content to MP3 files. Another technician at the school created an online template, separate from the school’s website. Using the free software, she then exported files to the web page, linked them to the school’s website, dated them and assigned a teacher’s name to each podcast.

“I had never done this before and didn’t know how difficult it would be to do,” says Rightmyer, adding that it is a fairly easy process for school technicians to learn. “Each day, it took me 10 to 15 minutes, at the most.”

Crash Course

Ellie’s mother first told her about the podcasting idea. “I thought it was pretty cool,” says Graham, explaining that she used her notebook computer to listen to the podcasts during her chemotherapy treatment.

As with anything new, there was a learning curve for teachers. After podcasting for several months, Marc Williams, Graham’s math teacher, offers these tips:

  • Explain to students in the class why you’re podcasting.
  • Establish a connection between students in the class and those listening. Ask the entire class to say hello or something special to the person listening.
  • Mention the title of any charts or graphs being discussed, handed out or projected onto a blackboard or whiteboard.
  • Reference page numbers and the title of the textbook when working on specific problems.
  • Don’t record every minute of your lecture. Only record key points that will help students better understand the information, offer perspective or provide insight as to how to solve a problem.
  • Ask students to speak one at a time. Then identify who’s speaking to avoid confusion for those listening.
  • Record conversations with individual students when trying to walk them through tough problems. Listeners may have difficulty with the same problems and may have similar questions. Also identify where the problem can be found, such as on a specific page of a textbook.

“The greatest value of podcasting was that it served as a connection for Ellie to her classmates,” says Williams. “For a lot of children with severe, long-term illnesses, they want so much to feel normal and connect with their peers. This enabled us to do that with her.”

Was It Effective?

From January through March, Graham logged on the school’s website and clicked on podcasting under the resource section. A menu of podcasts recorded by each of her teachers popped up on the screen. She then clicked on whichever podcast she wanted to listen to.

Williams says his podcasts proved successful partially because Graham’s father, who has a strong science and engineering background, reinforced them. He also listened to each math podcast, then explained the lessons to his daughter.

In mid-March, Graham returned to school, attending half-days only. But by early April, she was back full time. That same month, Williams gave students in his honors geometry class a test on the last chapter of their textbook. He says Graham took the test on time and earned one of the highest grades in the class.

“This was a life experience for me,” says Williams, adding that podcasting can also motivate students to keep pace with classroom instruction. “I was glad we could connect; help her keep up.”

From a listener’s perspective, Graham suggests that all podcasts be compatible with or easy to download on popular MP3 players. Another suggestion: Before recording any lecture, teachers need to remind students to refrain from talking to each other.

“It got kind of annoying,” Graham says, explaining that background chatter created confusion and made it more difficult to follow the lesson.

Still, Graham is grateful for the learning opportunity. “I think podcasting is a great idea,” says Graham, who is well on her way to a full recovery. “All schools should do it. It helped me out so much.”


Before purchasing podcasting equipment, consider these questions:

  • Does the digital audio player come with a cord so teachers can wear it around their neck while lecturing? Or, are they small enough to fit inside a shirt pocket?
  • Is the player easy to use? Do users simply press “record” or will teachers need training?
  • Does the player have a USB connection so the podcasts can be uploaded via computer to your school’s website?
  • What is the player’s storage capacity? Consider 2 gigabytes, which is roughly 12 hours of recording. Keep in mind that your school’s technicians may upload lectures on a weekly, not daily basis.


Total cost that Danville (Ky.) High School spent on podcasting. It purchased five digital audio players at $53 each.