Using Podcasts As Inspiration

Using Podcasts As Inspiration
Tero Vesalainen/
Summary: While podcasts are great for your daily commute, they can also be used as inspiration for great Instructional Design. This article will dissect a successful podcast as we look for those elements that keep listeners (learners) coming back for more.

Elements Of Great Podcasts As Instructional Design

I love listening to podcasts. Especially when I'm in my car on my hour-long commute to work. My current favorites are Science Rules with Bill Nye and The Sporkful with Dan Pashman.

As a designer, I can't help but dissect each episode to find the elements that make it really great. There's something in the way that they're geared toward adult audiences and have those elements which keep me coming back that really draw my attention to the construction and elements of design. Every episode is about the same ... the host interviews an expert on something related to the podcast theme, they usually have callers asking questions, and then a light-hearted game at the end.

These are all great elements and can quickly be converted into an online course. Let's break 3 of these elements down.

1. Interviewing The Experts

Experts on the topic make the show interesting because of their experience. I've seen so many courses designed with just raw information being given to the user. This method doesn't give any sort of context and learners often have very little to make a connection with. Ruth Clark, in her book Developing Technical Training, discusses the term "The Zoom Principal," where she states, "The novice needs to build a general mental framework on which to attach or 'hang' the lesson details [1]." It wouldn't be very good for a podcast to just present psychoanalysis without connecting it to something that is meaningful, something happening in our world today. And, that's what the expert does.

In my courses, I might throw in a sound bite for learners to click and listen to. Or I might even include a video showing an interview or some sort of line from the expert. This way, learners are sure to make a connection to their own lives in a meaningful way.

2. Interacting Through Questions

In almost every podcast episode I listen to, they take calls from people who ask questions or interact with the host and/or expert in some way. These callers ask questions that stimulate thought and conversation. Sometimes they even ask questions about something you may have wanted to know, but didn't even know it!

This is an important element of the podcast as these callers represent you and me—normal people who are interested in the topic but may not have a normal entry into the content.

This questioning is crucial to successful learning and is a must-have element of any great online course. Learners could reflect by asking questions and then present their questions again at the end to see what they've learned. Or there could be an online discussion forum of some type to allow learners to ask and get answers from experts (I'm thinking premium feature here).

3. Gaming

This is always my favorite part of the podcast. The guest(s) become participants in a light-hearted activity that results in laughter and maybe even something you didn't know before. Bill Nye always has the lightning round where the guest has to answer questions in just one sentence or less.

For decades, kids and adults alike have been attracted to games. But why do we put them in our eLearning courses? Focus Education suggests that game-based learning (GBL) boosts knowledge and has even played a hand in increasing knowledge retention. With this fact, it seems to me that it would be a no-brainer to include games in every online and Instructor-Led course.

There is much left to be said about gaming, however, as the right kind of game is what drives the interest. In the podcasts I listen to, the games are light-hearted and usually meant to break the mood and create a comical atmosphere. There certainly is a place for this in online learning, and games that are light-hearted and meaningful would go a long way in helping with learning. I always like to use quizzes with a silly answer. Or, perhaps, you could use a scenario that is pretty far-fetched.

There certainly is more to a podcast than just these 3 elements. From witty hosts to interesting topics, all of these elements can be brought over into Instructional Design to not only enhance course interaction but to improve the learning of the material as well. We should do well to get away from the monotonous slide-to-slide learning and move on to more exciting engagement that has the learner in mind.

The next time you listen to a podcast, ask yourself why you like it and use some of your own answers as inspiration for the next course you design.


[1] Clark, R. C. (2011). Developing Technical Training: a Structured Approach for Developing Classroom and Computer-based Instructional Materials. Hoboken: Wiley.

[2] Why You Should Use Game-Based Learning to Increase Student Success in the Online Learning Environment. (n.d.). Retrieved October 3, 2019, from