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The pandemic has had more and more of us reaching for news, stories, and music that we can listen to on-demand, making podcasts more popular than ever before. But podcasts aren’t just a source for news and entertainment—they can also play a useful role in teaching.
A “podcast” is a digital audio file made available for download on either a computer or a mobile device. It is a portmanteau of “iPod” and “broadcast,” from the days when Apple’s portable digital audio players were popular. An experiment at Duke University is often considered the first major introduction of podcasts into higher education teaching. In the Fall of 2004, Duke distributed free iPods to all 1,650 incoming first-year students for both educational and personal use. A year later, a study found that seventy-five percent of this incoming class used their iPods for at least one course, either for in-class activities or for independent work at home. Nearly 50 courses across the university integrated the devices into their course design, with both student- and faculty-produced podcasts as an element of these courses (Read, 2005).
I decided that for both of my Fall courses...I was going to incorporate podcasts into every single week of the syllabus. I did it because I realized that there was now a way to insert a degree of humanity into my courses where I could acknowledge the pandemic for the students. I could encourage them to get outside and walk while they listen to their podcast. I encouraged them to use this as a time to rejuvenate themselves as they continue learning and engaging with the material at a different kind of register than just reading.
-Nancy Khalek (Religious Studies)
Now, seventeen years later, many instructors at Brown and elsewhere have found that podcasts have become a significant part of their daily lives. A 2020 Edison Research study suggests that seventy-five percent of people ages 12+ in the United States are familiar with podcasts, up five percent from the previous year (Edison Research, 2020). Many instructors at Brown and elsewhere have found podcasts to be a useful tool for teaching and learning. Course-integrated podcasts have been shown to have benefits to equity and inclusion, student collaboration, student motivation, and content retention (e.g. Lonn & Teasley, 2009; Stoltenkamp et al, 2011; Widodo & Gunawan, 2019). Not only are students familiar consumers of podcasts, many already have the basic technological skills required to produce podcasts (Campbell, 2005). Some instructors are also experienced producers of podcasts, having already used this medium to discuss their research with audiences beyond the academy.
This newsletter will explore two ways to teach with podcasts: through instructor-produced podcasts and through student-produced podcasts. It will discuss a number of ways to use podcasts as a way of increasing student equity in the classroom, and as a way to enhance learning outcomes. It will also offer a number of campus resources for instructors who want to use podcasts in their courses.
Using instructor-produced podcasts in your course
One way to teach with podcasts is to use instructor-produced podcasts. For example, an instructor might record brief explanations of course content for later review by students (more ideas are listed below). This method of teaching with podcasts has been shown to carry a number of benefits. Not only can podcasts free up time for discussion, collaborative work, and other active learning activities during synchronous meetings, they also provide students with additional ways to review course material on their own time. In the early 2000s, some faculty worried that students might stop attending lectures when recordings are made available (Campbell, 2005; Fernandez, 2007); however, a number of studies have suggested that when this material is made available online, students use the recordings primarily to review concepts covered in lectures that they have already attended (Brittain et al., 2006; Evans, 2008; McKinney, Dyck, & Luber, 2009; Lonn & Teasley, 2009). In another study, dentistry students reported that podcasts helped them revise their notes more effectively than both the course textbook and video-recorded lectures (Brittain et al., 2006).
In addition to providing students with an additional opportunity to review course material on their own time, instructor-produced podcasts have proven benefits related to equity and inclusion in the classroom. Listening to podcasts as an adjunct to synchronous instruction has been shown to reduce anxiety and address preconceptions about large lecture environments (Chan & Lee, 2005). Podcasts also have particular benefits for students who are learning English, as they allow for additional exposure to authentic anglophone content and allow students to pause, rewind, and review spoken content at their own pace (Rosell-Aguilar, 2007; al Qasim & al Fadda, 2013; Widodo & Gunawan, 2019).
In addition to their pedagogical benefits, students may also find podcasts more engaging than traditional course materials (such as textbooks). In her study on the use of narrative podcasts in training medical residents and fellows, Professor Julie Roth (Neurology and Medical Science, Alpert Medical School) found that these students found podcasts more engaging and enjoyable than written course materials (Roth et al., 2020).
Instructor-produced podcast episodes should ideally be kept to 15-20 minutes in order to maximize students’ attention span (MacManaway, 1970; Cosmini et al., 2017). To increase accessibility, we recommend providing a transcript of each episode. Ways to use instructor-produced podcasts in your course include:
- Recording brief lectures to allow students to engage with new material or review concepts covered in synchronous lectures.
- Recording brief “geek out” episodes to allow students to explore specific issues more deeply.
- Record regular or sporadic “scholarly diary” episodes. In these episodes, the instructor could discuss what they are reading or thinking about at a given moment. This approach can help build student-faculty relationships and show the instructor’s enthusiasm for the material.
Using student-produced podcasts in your course
In addition to providing another way for students to review course material, podcasts can also invite students to collaborate with each other and to construct knowledge. Integrating student-produced podcasts into your course can have a number of pedagogical advantages. Podcasts can be one way to build community in your course—a feature that is particularly beneficial in a remote or hybrid learning environment. Some studies have found that listening to classmates’ podcasts promoted a sense of collaboration and shared dialogue (Stoltenkamp et al., 2011; al Qasim & al Fadda, 2013).
Recording a podcast gave students an opportunity to experiment with voice, audience, and structure in communicating about their research. Most of them commented on how little experience they had at Brown talking about their academic work in this way, and they really had fun with the assignment. Best of all, it helped us continue to build community in the seminar. Many of them chose to share their podcasts with each other, and I think they enjoyed hearing about others' work.
-Tara Nummedal (History)
Additionally, podcast assignments can help encourage students’ intrinsic motivation (O’Bryan & Hegelheimer, 2007), which can be achieved when a task is “interesting and challenging [and] the reward is enjoyment of the activity itself” (Ehrman et al., 2003, p. 320). Additionally, students tend to increase time and effort put into a class project, such as a podcast, when they anticipate the project being accessed by their peers and external audiences (Chan, Lee, & McLoughlin, 2007; McMinn, 2008).
Like instructor-produced podcasts, student-produced podcasts should ideally be kept to 15-20 minute episodes and should be accompanied by a transcript. Some ideas for incorporating student-produced podcasts into your course include:
- Assign small groups of students (ideally, no more than 5 per group) to introduce weekly readings.
- Assign individuals or groups of students to present on a text or topic not already covered in the course.
- Design a student-produced podcast series as the major project of your course. For an example of this, see the podcasting addendum designed by Laura Garbes (PhD candidate, Sociology) for her Africana Studies course.
- Offer a podcast episode or podcast series as an alternative to writing response papers or a term paper in your course.
There are a number of resources at Brown to support instructors and students who are interested in podcasting. The following were drawn from Maggie Unverzagt Goddard's work as a graduate proctor for the 21st Century PhD series at the Cogut Institute for the Humanities:
- Multimedia Labs (MML) has developed a Podcasting Resource Guide, which offers an extensive overview of the production process. MML also hires undergraduate students as Creative Technology Assistants (CTAs), who are available for one-on-one help sessions.
- Nic John Ramos (former Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Slavery and Justice at Brown, now assistant professor of history at Drexel University) and Laura Garbes (PhD candidate, Sociology) offer a curriculum guide based on their course, AFRI 0550: “African American Health Activism from Colonialism to AIDS,” which featured a significant podcasting assignment.
- Melissa Kane (Associate Director for Instructional Design, Sheridan Center) has constructed a series of rubrics and other assessment resources for digital storytelling, which can be accessed here and here.
- Megan Hall (Host of Possibly and adjunct at IBES) teaches “ENVS 1421: Podcasting for the Common Good,” an undergraduate seminar on podcasting.
Instructors may find inspiration in Brown colleagues who are already producing podcasts or podcast-like series. These include:
- Professor Adrienne Keene (American Studies/Ethnic Studies, All My Relations)
- CareerLAB (CareerLAB the Podcast)
- Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America (CSREA) (The Tight Rope)
- Choices Program (Inside the Writers’ Room)
- Cogut Institute for the Humanities (Meeting Street)
- Professor Finnian M.M. Gerety (Center for Contemporary South Asia, Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, Sensing the Sacred)
- Professor Gita Pensa (Alpert Medical School, Doctors and Litigation: The L Word)
- Institute at Brown for Environment and Society (Possibly)
- Professor Lynne Joyrich and doctoral alumni Hunter Hargraves and Brandy Monk-Payton (Modern Culture and Media, Talking Television)
- Professor Julie Roth (Alpert Medical School, Neurostories)
- Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs (Trending Globally, Brazil Unfiltered, Rhodes Center Podcast, Mark & Carrie)
A number of Brown students have also produced their own podcast series, including:
- Angela Zhang (medical student, Alpert Medical School, Not Built for Us)
- Nasir Marumo (PhD student, Africana Studies, The Rap Scholars)
- Viknesh Kasthuri and Alexander Homer (undergraduate students, Back of the Chart)
- Undergraduate students regularly create audio stories through WBRU and Now Here This.
Integrating podcasts into your course
Integrating instructor-based podcasts into your course can be as simple as offering episodes on your course’s Canvas site. However, students should be made aware that these podcasts are more (and, in some cases, only) effective as a learning tool when students take notes on the episodes and listen to the episodes more than once (McKinney, Dyck, & Luber 2009). A study by Chan et al. (2011) reveals two additional considerations to keep in mind when using instructor-produced podcasts in your course. First, podcasts are more effective as learning tools when instructors explicitly describe them as such (as opposed to pure entertainment). Second, podcasts tend to be more effective when the instructor regularly reminds students that they are available and that they can be downloaded to their mobile devices.
The student-produced podcasting project was cooperative, it was intimate, and it was collaborative. The quality and the ease with which students spoke to one another was really striking to me. There was nothing stilted about these conversations. The thing I was really struck by was the depth to which these conversations went. They went beyond the specifics of their papers that they were writing to explore topics and to link the papers and their research projects back to other elements of the course.
-Scott Frickel (Sociology and IBES)
Integrating student-produced podcasts can require closer attention to course design. First, as with any kind of educational technology, it is important to ensure that student-produced podcasts support one or more of your course’s learning objectives. As educational developer Derek Bruff has said, “Our teaching and learning goals should drive our technology use, not the other way around” (Bruff, 2019). As mentioned above, course-integrated podcasts can support learning objectives such as peer collaboration and community formation as well as understanding course content. Podcasts can also be an effective way for students to convey complex ideas to a general audience, to communicate information using multiple modalities, and to engage with a scholarly community.
Second, consider adding activities into your course which help prepare students to write and produce podcasts. NPR offers a useful guide to building this scaffolding into your course. As this guide suggests, students may find it useful to discuss the podcast as a media genre as well as various podcast formats (such as scripted podcasts and Q&A podcasts). It may also be helpful to provide models of different podcasts and debrief the structure, tone, and other features of these models. You may also wish to highlight podcasting resources available to students at Brown, such as the Multimedia Labs (in the Sheridan Center), which can be accessed here. Additionally, the Writing Center (also in the Sheridan Center) can be a valuable resource for students who are brainstorming or writing podcast scripts—students can request Writing Center appointments here.
Sheridan Center staff are available to support faculty who wish to integrate podcasts into their courses. Email the Sheridan Center ([email protected]) or see the Sheridan staff directory to schedule a consultation. Instructors who are interested in integrating audio production skills for student podcast assignments can reach out to Multimedia Labs at [email protected] for a consultation.
Thank you to Megan Hall (Adjunct Lecturer in Environment and Society, Institute at Brown for Environment and Society) and the Sheridan Center staff for their input on this newsletter article. Thanks also to Maggie Unverzagt Goddard (PhD candidate, American Studies and graduate proctor, Cogut Institute for the Humanities) for her input and for compiling a list of podcasting resources at Brown.
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