A critique, part 1

Sean Zdenek
Texas Tech University
Computers & Composition Online (Fall 2009)


  1. Introduction
  2. Limiting access in the Podcasting Bible
  3. A critique of “on the fly” podcasting (Part 1, 2)
  4. Podcasting 2.0: Towards an accessible Web (Part 1, 2)
  5. References
  6. About the author

One aspect of podcasting that makes it so attractive to proponents is how quickly podcasts can be recorded and made available to users. When applied to instructor-generated podcasts, this view might be summarized as follows: the more planning, writing, and time podcasting takes, the less attractive it becomes as a classroom supplement. Granted, this is probably true of just about everything; no instructor has the luxury of unlimited time to prepare for class. But podcasting seems particularly tailored to “on the fly” approaches that require little planning or editing. Services such as gabcast.com and hipcast.com, for example, allow members to record and upload podcasts over the telephone. The problem with “on the fly” podcasting is that it tends to exacerbate the problem of inaccessible new media for people who are deaf and hard of hearing because 1) instructors who create podcasts are not likely to recognize the need for transcripts or long text descriptions, regardless of how much time they spend recording and editing podcasts, 2) creating transcripts takes time, tools, and knowledge of transcription and speech recognition technologies, 3) creating transcripts seems to defeat the whole purpose of podcasting, and 4) some of the tools designed to facilitate the recording of podcasts, such as hipcast.com, do not allow for post-production editing. Even if the university’s disability services office had the resources to create a written transcript for every “on the fly” podcast, by the time a transcript is ready, the content, which was generated “just in time” by the instructor, is likely to be outdated.

Podcasting supports multiple pedagogies and approaches, some of which will undoubtedly involve significant planning, elaborate scripts, and major editing. I do not mean to suggest that every podcast is created and posted “on the fly.” I also recognize the pedagogical value of having students create their own podcasts, and these assignments will, if done well, consume a significant amount of our students’ time and energy. Nevertheless, I would argue that, regardless of time and energy spent, a typical podcaster is not going to be aware of the need or rationale for accessible podcasting. Moreover, instructors need to be more concerned about approaches to podcasting such as “on the fly” that are especially ill-suited to the needs of deaf and hard of hearing students. In this section, I explore the implications of “on the fly” podcasting for people with disabilities by looking closely at one podcasting article in the field of composition and rhetoric: Steven D. Krause’s (2006) “Broadcast Composition: Using Audio Files and Podcasts in an Online Writing Course.” Published in Fall 2006 as part of a special issue of Computers and Composition Online on “Sound in/as Compositional Space,” Krause’s essay helps teachers of writing understand and make use of an emerging medium. Krause reports on his experiences as an instructor creating podcasts for his students, as well as his students’ survey responses to those podcasts, as part of an upper-level online English course called “Writing, Style, and Technology.”

Krause is clearly attentive to the challenges of teaching a diverse student body. Yet the meaning he assigns to diversity, interestingly, does not extend to students with disabilities:

  • Krause identifies “a diverse group of students” in his English department, but only in terms of the diversity of their major fields (English education majors, and “students from our programs in professional writing, technical writing, creative writing, journalism, and public relations, along with students minoring in writing”).
  • When Krause describes the “basic demographics” of his online course, he distinguishes his students on the basis of gender and grade level only.
  • The meaning Krause assigns to “non-traditional students” does not include students with disabilities. Non-traditional students are defined as “first generation or otherwise non-traditional college students, often from working class backgrounds.” They “tend to have work and family commitments that make attending a full load of traditional courses on campus difficult.” While students with disabilities might also be defined as non-traditional, Krause defines non-traditional in terms of working class background, work and family obligations, and first-generation college students.
  • Krause privileges diversity in learning styles when he refers to the need to “us[e] different technologies (like audio) to facilitate different kinds of learning styles.” While he is skeptical of students’ “reasons for not listening to [his podcasts],” he notes that some of his students “said that didn’t listen to recordings because of their own learning styles and preferences.”
  • Krause distinguishes students on the basis of primary mode of instruction – i.e. online vs. “ their traditional counterparts” – and respects the differences between them. “I am not sure we want to erase those differences in the first place.”
  • Krause distinguishes students on the basis of how much experience they have had reading theory. “[F]ew have had experience reading and discussing texts that focus on writing in overt and theoretical ways.”
  • Krause acknowledges that there are diverse ways of creating and distributing podcasts. “I wouldn’t want to claim that I am describing the only way to record and publish audio files – or even the best way.” He also includes three external links to “different ways of accomplishing these tasks,” but none of the links contain information on accessible podcasting. One of the links, however, does include an external link to information on “hearing conservation” (i.e. protecting hearing from prolonged exposure to loud sounds).
  • Krause calls attention to the differences among faculty who teach the course. “Different faculty teaching the course emphasize different components of [the course].”

Krause’s essay shows a concern on multiple levels with diversity and difference: grade level, gender, class, labor, generation, online/traditional, learning style, major field, method of coursecasting, and method of teaching the course. Had it been included, disability might have complemented this list of differences nicely. But disability often does more than complement an existing system of differences (e.g. see Davis 2006: 233; Mitchell & Snyder 2006: 209). The inclusion of disability as an aspect of human diversity threatens to destabilize the value assigned to podcasting itself by calling attention to the ableist assumptions (Linton 2006) lurking in our pedagogies. The critical axis of disability/ability unsettles our ableist assumptions about students’ bodies and minds. To podcast with disability in mind is to be sensitive to how our approaches to podcasting can exclude some of our students, even when we explicitly foreground the importance of diversity, as Krause has done. The notion of accessible podcasting also opens the door to a broader understanding of new media as informed and supported by accessible alternatives (e.g. text transcripts) and embedded features (e.g. closed or open captions for video).

Like the Podcasting Bible, Krause’s essay seems at times to be on the verge of announcing the importance of extended written text for deaf and hard of hearing podcast subscribers. For example, when describing how to set up a podcast-friendly blog, Krause writes that “it’s probably a good idea to provide some text to explain what is contained in the audio file.” Elsewhere, Krause describes how one of his course pages on the eCollege website contains “some written notes and audio commentary.” But Krause’s view of written texts is constrained by a technocratic approach to accessibility. Like the authors of the Podcasting Bible, Krause is concerned with accessibility only as a technical problem. When describing the “unique challenges” facing his students, he notes that they may not have had “easy access to technology.” The “technical elements” of the course “put an additional strain on students who have no previous experience” with HTML. Interestingly, hearing is also viewed as a technical problem. Krause defines the mp3 format as “still the best format for basic audio files that can be heard by users with less than sophisticated computers.” In other words, the assumption here is that computers have hearing/audio problems, not users. Users are assumed to possess full hearing and seeing; problems with access are assumed to be either technical or the result of a lack of experience with computers. But by focusing on how “the typical level of ‘technological literacy’ of students in this class has certainly changed in recent years,” Kraus bypasses other changes in the academy, particularly the phenomenal increase of college students with disabilities, that may arguably be having as large effect on our pedagogies as changes in technological literacy. According to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (1999), “In 1978, 2.6 percent of full-time/first-time college freshmen reported a disability. In 1996, it increased to 9 percent (more than 140,000). This means the number of persons with disabilities going to college has more than tripled.” Foregrounding disability alongside technical know-how and computer access may result in a more nuanced and complex understanding of the “unique challenges” facing our students in the new media classroom.

Next: A critique of “on the fly” podcasting (Part 2)