Talk It Out, Assign a Podcast

by Kristina Wilson

Overview

If you had asked me in 2008 if podcasts would be this popular in 2021, I would have guessed not. iTunes U, which began as an audio lecture series offered for free on iTunes in 2007, is winding down, but podcasts on the whole have experienced a renaissance in the last few years. 

Last Sunday, I opened the New York Times to find a special section smack in the middle of Arts&Leisure called “The Revolution In Your Ears.” There, on pages 10-15, were a series of articles on podcasts, including “The State of the Podcast,” “What We Are Hearing When a Host Speaks,” and “These Young Podcasters Are Growing Up on Mic.” Podcasts are becoming a part of our daily lives, and a part of coursework in higher education.

Podcasts exist in every shape and form, from news to entertainment to opinion, and even lectures. For years, the Distance Learning team has coached faculty to create audio recordings–short podcasts–for their asynchronous online classes. These have taken many forms, from weekly overviews (connecting the week’s goals, resources, and activities) to interviews with industry professionals, and make their way into course sites as embedded audio with transcripts. There’s a bit of extra connection with the instructor–a human with a voice!–and more flexibility than a video. Students have the option to listen to them on the go, such as in a car, while cooking a meal, or working remotely, or can read the text equivalent. (As you can with this blog post!)

So, we thought, why not have students podcast as well? Two School of Professional Studies faculty members recently tackled this question and developed podcasting assignments in their courses. 

MCW 411: Poetry Workshop

In Rebecca Morgan Frank’s course, MCW 411: Poetry Workshop, she drew on the long history of poets recording readings of their work and instituted a Listening Booth assignment.

In the final week of the course, students revise their work and share a recording of one of their poems. Asking poetry students to record themselves reading prepares them for the work of being a poet today: recording for digital publications, conducting virtual book tours, and participating in interviews. 

In order to prepare them for this final recording, students select one week of the course to edit a Listening Booth page in Canvas, share links to recordings of other poets, and record a short audio commentary of their observations. Students exercise agency in selecting and sharing the work that is most meaningful to them. They are expected to review their peers’ contributions to the Listening Booth as they approach the activities for each week, which ensures they are reading and listening widely, as well as encountering poets they may not have sought out themselves. Contributing to each others’ generative processes will help establish interpersonal connections and build community online.

We developed a Guide to Recording Audio to support development of technical skills, but ultimately students were allowed to identify the recording and hosting process they were most comfortable with, including recording on their phone or directly within the Canvas Rich Content Editor. 

We also worked with English and Digital Humanities Librarian Josh Honn to create a poetry resources guide that links to archived poetry recordings.

Additionally, Morgan recorded a sample Listening Booth of her own, and three guest poets created another Listening Booth in the second week of the course.

Learn more about the Master of Arts in Writing program.

LIT 492: Literature of Plague and Pandemic

In Dr. Kasey Evans’ course, LIT 492: Literature of Plague and Pandemic, she drew on the many popular contemporary history and literature podcasts to create a multi-episode course podcast.

In weeks 3, 5, 7, and 9, around key deliverables for the final project in the course, small groups of students (2 to 4, depending on enrollment) create and share a 20-30 minute podcast episode, exploring additional readings on the weekly topic. 

Knowing that the students taking the course will be studying creative writing and digital humanities as well as literature, the assignment directions describe a variety of approaches:

You might choose to interview classmates (or people outside of the class, if you can find willing victims subjects!) about their experiences during the current pandemic; you might complete the assigned readings in advance and record an informal conversation about your responses to those readings; you might locate and describe news stories that echo some theme from the readings. 

If you are more fictionally than journalistically inclined, you might choose to write and perform a short radio skit, or dramatic dialogue, or comedic parody about the absurdities of life during a pandemic. You can score your podcast with appropriate musical selections. You can make fun of Ira Glass.

Students are scored both on their podcast recording and their contributions to the discussion that emerges. At the end of the course, students will have created a four-episode podcast, and, with permission, these may be shared with future students in the course.

A detailed Student Podcast Guide directs students to record audio using Panopto and use the transcription features to edit the automatic captions.

Learn more about the Master of Arts in Liberal Studies and Master of Arts in Literature program.

So, Why Podcast?

At this point, you might be wondering: Is a podcast right for my course? What are the benefits for students and instructors? And how do I structure the assignment to fit my needs?

First, start with alignment.

What are your course learning objectives? Could students demonstrate their skills in those areas through a podcast assignment? Many written assignments could also be delivered verbally, such as research projects, peer reviews, and reflections.

Additionally, would assigning a podcast assignment add learning objectives to your course? If professional speaking and presentation are important skills in your field of study, you can magnify and cultivate them by developing a podcast assignment. 

Podcasting can help humanize an asynchronous online course. 

We are always chasing engagement in asynchronous online courses. How can we ensure that students connect with each other and with the instructor, building a community? Simply hearing each others’ voices can help, which is something that podcasting can offer above all of the written assignments in a course.

Podcasting may appeal to students who do not want to appear on camera. 

As we have found in the last year, requiring students to have video turned on in Zoom calls is not an equitable move. Students may not be able to work in private spaces, or be reluctant to share their surroundings or appearance. Podcasting assignments allow students to maintain more privacy than video assignments may.

Podcasting requires less storage space and bandwidth than video. 

Students may be taking your online course from a desktop, laptop, tablet, or even smartphone. These will all have differing amounts of storage space and varying connections to the internet; some may find their configuration does not support recording and sharing video easily. You can still help cultivate technological literacy, but an audio file is one step down in file size, making it easier to store and send. 

Podcasting can help meet Universal Design for Learning (UDL) guidelines

UDL guidelines “offer a set of concrete suggestions that can be applied to any discipline or domain to ensure that all learners can access and participate in meaningful, challenging learning opportunities.”

Checkpoint 5.1: Use multiple media for communication and Checkpoint 5.2: Use multiple tools for construction and composition. 

The annotation notes that “it is important for all learners to learn composition, not just writing.” Some students may prefer to compose written text. Other students may prefer to compose verbally. Students in both groups should have the opportunity to try both approaches.

Checkpoint 7.1: Optimize individual choice and autonomy. 

For many assignments, you may consider giving students a choice between submitting writing, an audio recording, or a video recording. These additional options allow students to choose a particularly effective (or challenging!) method of composition.

Checkpoint 5.1: Build fluencies with graduated levels of support for practice and performance. 

If your students have not produced podcasts as part of other coursework (or as a hobby or profession), their first attempts will likely be unpolished. You can support their development by scaffolding low-stakes opportunities to practice and providing them with detailed feedback for improvement on their efforts.

Checkpoint 8.3: Foster collaboration and community. 

Depending on the learning objectives of the course, podcasts may be recorded individually or in small groups. Some activities, such as reflection, may be better-suited for an individual podcast. Others, such as reports or research, could be conducted in collaborative groups. Still another approach might involve students interviewing each other or professionals in their field.

Podcasting can be an opportunity for students to learn about accessibility. 

Whenever you develop an audio assignment for your course, the best practice is to ensure that students also produce a text equivalent. That may mean scripting their podcast and providing the script for peers to read, or using a tool like Panopto to generate automatic captions that can then be edited for accuracy. Although this adds another step to podcast development, it ensures that all students will be able to connect with their peers’ podcasts. Students who do not speak or who prefer not to record themselves speaking could use a text-to-speech tool to create an audio version of their written assignment.

Podcasting can be an authentic assessment with a public audience. 

Outside of coursework, podcasts are designed to be distributed. They are streamed online, shared on the radio, you name it. You can raise the stakes for your course podcast–and encourage students to develop them with a particular audience in mind–by sharing it in a public space. Keep in mind that some students may be eager for notoriety and others may be hesitant to share their work broadly, so respect the wishes of students who do not want to distribute their podcast outside of the course.

Resources

Are you thinking of incorporating a podcast assignment into your course? Reach out to distanceeducation@northwestern.edu

Podcasting and Pedagogy – CUNY Academic Commons

Creating a Podcast Assignment – Swarthmore College

Hear this! Podcasts as an assessment tool in higher education – McGill University

Rubric for Podcasts – University of Wisconsin – Stout

The UDL Guidelines – CAST



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