The Covid-19 crisis reshaped the landscape of education. While many schools and colleges are pushing for a return to in-person classes, online and hybrid teaching will remain part of the conversation for the foreseeable future. It’s hard to overstate the challenges this poses to creating an effective learning environment: many students don’t have access to reliable internet at home, or face precarious family or work situations that place additional demands on their time. While these are also concerns in face-to-face classes, they’re amplified greatly in online contexts where there isn’t a physical class grounding the experience.
In my online classroom, podcasting became a lifeline. Learning how to transfer their writing skills to podcasting helped my students remain connected and engaged while learning under lockdown.
In this article, I’ll share some ways of teaching podcasting that don’t require you or your students to use high-tech tools or be technological geniuses. This also serves as a continuation and extension of my 2018 article, “Podcasting in the Classroom,” about the way that podcasts can foster a series of important literacies for students. If you’ve considered making a podcasting project part of your class, now might be the best time to start.
For the past ten years, I taught rhetoric and composition classes that focused on developing university students’ writing abilities. Recently, I accepted a position as a Lecturer of Critical Skills at Maynooth University near Dublin, Ireland. Critical Skills is similar in many ways to the courses I previously taught — it focuses on written and oral communication skills, the research process, and reflective thinking.
On March 19, 2020, the Irish Higher Education system closed its campuses and moved to remote teaching in response to the spread of Covid-19. With six weeks left in the semester, students and teachers were suddenly placed in an unfamiliar situation with little time to adapt.
In normal times, students who are learning remotely understand the challenges associated with taking an online class, which often depend heavily on self-motivation and independent learning. But in this case, no one had been given the choice. It also quickly became apparent that reliable broadband internet wasn’t available to many of our students — or faculty, in some cases.
Educators across the world were facing a similar problem: How could we salvage the end of this year while accommodating students facing unpredictable hardships? For my classes, podcasts were the answer.
Podcasting to the Rescue
From the perspective of an educator, podcasts make a fantastic capstone project. Whether, like me, you’re focusing on the process of writing, or your class is more concerned with the analysis of information and theories within your field, podcasting breaks with student expectations in a useful way. Instead of relying upon rigid strategies of addressing a prompt (like the five-paragraph essay), students have to contend with a new medium and the challenge of sharing information in their own voice. It brings together familiar patterns of research with a less familiar medium.
At its core, the process of making an audio text isn’t that different from writing an essay. Sure, the tone and style differ, but in both cases you have to rely upon language to achieve your goal. Podcasts are also frequently rhetorical — they call upon their audience to accept some new piece of information or to take action.
However, transferring written content to a new medium isn’t always a straightforward process. For example, if a student recorded herself reading a school paper aloud, the end result wouldn’t be a podcast. Or at least, not a good podcast. (What this says about generic research papers is another discussion…)
Changing a text’s medium means that you’ve changed the resources at its disposal. Suddenly, students need to consider how writing sounds and whether it’s structured in a conversational way, or if it’s layered in arcane professional or academic jargon.
Simply put, podcasts are great for discussions of audience and working to appeal to an audience. If you already have students researching and writing about topics, then it’s not difficult to transition them into making a podcast on that same material.
So, what did this look like for me?
Podcasting in Critical Skills
Before Ireland’s lockdown, my students were working in teams to produce a White Paper — a professional, research-driven proposal intended for an audience of experts — connected to a social issue currently relevant to Irish society. They’d already done most of the challenging research, but now they had to pull everything together without the benefit of meeting one another in person.
Carrying this forward, the podcast project that I designed asked students to build upon their previous research and complete the following:
- Create a podcast on the topic of your White Paper
- Situate your podcast for a non-expert audience
- Build a simple website for your podcast using wix.com or Adobe Spark Pages
You can find the specific prompt for the assignment here: Critical Skills Podcast Assignment Prompt.
One of the most important elements was the translation for a new audience. Students had to consider their new audience and create an audio text that appealed to that group. They had to ensure they were providing enough context, like explanations of the terminology surrounding their topic. And they had to do this all without seeing one another in a physical space.
Podcasting is a complex and engaging medium, with a lot of moving pieces that work well distributed among a team. Especially when asking students to work in an unfamiliar medium, having groups of collaborators can ease some of the stress of a large project, and reducing the stress on students in the middle of the pandemic was a huge priority.
I also had to consider what technology my students had at their disposal. There wasn’t a guarantee that students had access to a personal computer at home or a reliable internet connection. Many were left with only a smartphone and patchy cellular data.
This meant we had to get creative at times with how individuals would contribute to their teams, all while balancing the anxiety of Covid-19 looming in the background. Again, the structure of podcasting was a strength in this new online mode. Each individual had a set of roles they could choose to fulfill. This separation of the work also eased much of the anxiety students brought with them regarding the podcast itself — the stages of the project provided a scaffolding for them to develop their skills over time.
Now we just had to give students the ability to connect with one another.
Finding a Platform for Discussion
One of the most common challenges associated with online learning is the formation of a peer group learning community, in which students see themselves as part of a social setting rather than just fulfilling a list of checkboxes. In the move to online pedagogy, it’s important to find alternative ways of getting students and faculty to interact, and the learning CMS ecosystem (platforms like Moodle, Blackboard, and Canvas) isn’t always the strongest set of tools to use.
In our case, Microsoft Teams became the program of choice largely due to university licensing — Maynooth is a Microsoft campus. The built-in file storage made it easy for students to organize their documents and meeting notes, while the audio and video calling options meant they could talk or chat in a variety of ways. This also had the benefit of making student collaboration more visible, and as an instructor, I appreciated the ability to spot questions and problems early in the assignment so that I could intervene before individuals reached a critical roadblock.
In the end, the specific tool doesn’t matter as much as how it’s taken up and used. Google Classroom, Slack, Trello, or even Discord can all foster interaction outside of the classroom. As long as you provide a space for interaction to occur, especially one that allows strong collaboration on mobile devices, you’ll be able to maintain the sense of connectedness, even while working remotely. It’s not a perfect substitution for in-person classes, but at least it gives some kind of support.
Once the platform for collaboration was set, students could then get to breaking down the task of creating a podcast.
Writing the Script
When students initially reacted with anxiety to the thought of composing an entire podcast, I pointed them back to the act of scripting. I let them know that they’d already done this kind of work throughout the year, and that a strong script can make the rest of the process so much more straightforward. Even students who didn’t have reliable access to broadband internet could still script content for the podcast, repurposing their previous White Paper for the new medium.
Even though a podcast is a trendy form of new media, it’s important to remember that it’s doing the same kind of rhetorical work as an essay. Start with the familiar and branch outward to the unfamiliar, and students will have a better chance of seeing how their prior knowledge overlaps with their new task.
Recording the Audio
The goal of the podcast assignment wasn’t to teach students professional audio engineering. The goal of the project was to demonstrate how students’ previous knowledge and practices could be used to approach an unfamiliar digital project.
As such, when it came to recording raw audio, we focused on low-cost entry points. Most students made use of their smartphones and built-in voice recorders to gain audio for their podcasts. Others used their computers and teleconferencing software like Zoom to record group audio. The importance, again, was ensuring as many students as possible could take part in this stage, regardless of their home technology situation.
Editing and Polishing the Audio
Mixing audio together is the most challenging part of the assignment, and this is where online resources can be an enormous help. In my previous article, “Podcasting in the Classroom,” I ran through a quick list of the kinds of software available. Not much has changed in the past two years — GarageBand, Audacity, and Anchor are still some of the most accessible tools for novice podcasters, and each of them has a lot of tutorials available on YouTube.
Instead of audio quality, this project emphasized organization. Students needed to think about how they presented information and how they would structure their podcasts. Would they take on a conversational interview-based approach like Armchair Expert with Dax Shepard? Or would they be using the narrative form of Heavyweight?
Building the Web Page
The web page wasn’t a heavily assessed component of the project, but it did provide a useful way for students to package and circulate their projects. Plus, the web page served as a visual space for students to present information that’s difficult to represent in audio, such as detailed graphs and charts, and as a space to highlight the sources of referenced information.
Tips and Tricks
If nothing else, teaching in a pandemic reminds us that pedagogy needs to be flexible and adaptive to the students we’re working with. No two classes are ever identical, which means that assignments grow and evolve alongside us. The project I’ve described so far is meant to be a scaffold that you can build upon for your own content and classes.
That said, here are the things that I’ve found most helpful in teaching podcasting.
Build Your Own Library
You don’t need to reinvent the wheel, nor do you need to be the de facto expert on podcasting to effectively use podcasts within your classroom. Gather your own set of materials over time, using tutorials from YouTube and other online resources. When working in an online setting, it’s important to position yourself as part of the learning community. You might consider making your own brief walkthroughs of the process of organizing the different tasks and actually recording and assembling a podcast using free tools like Screencast-o-Matic.
As an example of this, I’ll point you to what became the main resource for our assignment: an Adobe Sparks Page about Creating a Podcast that students could easily consult throughout the project. I added to this library over a period of six weeks, so it grew alongside the tasks that students were expected to complete. As I made videos, I took particular note of the places where I found myself struggling and spent additional time building resources to help others avoid those same pitfalls.
Demonstrate the Process
If possible, it’s incredibly helpful to demonstrate the process of making a podcast. In addition to video tutorials, I created a sample podcast to demonstrate the capabilities of freely available software and provided a copy of the script to emphasize the crucial role that writing plays in making a polished audio text. I was able to use this as part of one of the screen-recorded videos to highlight how the script grows and evolves as a podcast is developed. In the future, I also intend to use this resource as a way of demonstrating how to proceed from rough outlines to a finalized podcast episode.
While students will have to gain familiarity with a variety of tools to build a podcast, the kinds of revision and alteration that occur in an assignment like this one mirror the kinds of revision that happen in any kind of writing.
In other words…
Don’t Teach to a Specific Tool
I once took a course in Visual Design that turned into a semester of learning how to do very specific tasks in Adobe Fireworks with little attention to broader principles of design. Wait, you aren’t familiar with Fireworks? It’s probably because a year after I finished the course, Adobe discontinued its development. In other words, the verbatim content of the course became mostly useless because we never focused on overarching principles.
It’s important to remember that tools change and programs come in and out of vogue. While a student does need to know how to use certain tools or apps to create a digital text, it’s a mistake to focus only on the surface-level concerns of using a particular program.
A particularly useful source on this is Stuart Selber. In his 2004 book, Multiliteracies for a Digital Age, Selber develops a three-part framework for understanding the way we work with and master digital technology (and tools in general). He also warns us away from the mistake of emphasizing mastery of individual software over broader strategies and principles of communication.
Selber suggests that we look at three broad kinds of digital literacies: functional, critical, and rhetorical. We can view them as progressing from simple to complex, but that doesn’t do it full justice, as all three are intimately connected.
While Selber’s model is broadly targeted to all kinds of digital literacies, it’s incredibly relevant for podcasts. There are a lot of traps to avoid when it comes to teaching students how to write for a new medium, and getting them to see podcasting as more than learning a new piece of software is really important. Otherwise, podcasting will become a one-off experience that might seem disconnected from their education or their future professional goals.
My classes explicitly discussed the different stages of literacy that Selber spells out, and this went a long way toward helping students understand podcasting as a complex process that gives them skills that will be relevant long after the project is finished.
Functional literacy involves the literal ability to operate a specific tool. In other words, if you want to make a podcast, then you need to know how to open a new file in your audio recording program before you can actually get started editing. That’s why so many digital tutorials start by teaching how to open a new document and save the file.
Reaching functional literacy doesn’t mean an individual will be an expert on the program, just that they can negotiate its interface. The good news is that most tutorials emphasize functional literacy, so there’s no shortage of resources to draw upon.
Second on the ladder is critical literacy, and this is where things start to get meta. In relation to digital writing (or recording) tools, critical literacies involve a consideration of the kinds of texts created by a certain tool and how they position us as authors and audiences.
If we were looking to gain a critical understanding of Facebook, for example, this would entail understanding how their algorithm shapes the content that we see, as well as the kinds of posts that are most commonly shared. In light of the Covid-19 crisis, Facebook recently instituted a new “care” emoji alongside its other emotional “reactions.” However, some users are annoyed that despite demand, there isn’t an “eye roll” reaction available for use. This limits the options available to users and shapes how individuals can use Facebook reactions.
When it comes to producing podcasts, a critical understanding of GarageBand would go beyond opening a new file and more towards a consideration of how the built-in Loops library enables different kinds of audio cues for a podcast. Or it might involve an understanding of how the default vocal recording settings are or are not tailored to podcasting. For podcasts in general, a critical literacy would also involve understanding what kinds of organizational structures work for the most popular podcasts currently being produced.
The third and final literacy that Selber identifies is rhetorical literacy. If functional literacy provides an understanding of how to physically use a tool, and critical literacy focuses on what the tool specifically allows us to do, then rhetorical literacy is the most pragmatic. It helps to answer the question: How can I best use this tool to effectively communicate an idea and persuade my audience to buy into an idea or take action? In other words, rhetorical literacy involves understanding how to use a tool — or set of tools — to accomplish some kind of real-world action. It moves from the theoretical into the pragmatic.
In relation to technology, this means that when students pick up habits or technologies outside of school or formal situations, they might be effective in using them, but only within a very narrow context. To take up the previous example, a student might be perfectly comfortable creating a Facebook status update for their friends, but they may not be able to expand the reach of their posts based only upon their unconscious functional use of Facebook. However, if a student possesses a critical understanding of the Facebook algorithm and what “boosting” a post through advertisements allows, they can make active decisions that help them effectively promote their content to a broader audience.
The same goes for podcasts. While our students might know how to record audio, if they don’t understand the genre of the podcast they’re working within, then it’s unlikely that they will be able to meaningfully reach their audience. It’s not impossible — sometimes disruptions to expectations are powerful — but if they disrupt expectations without conscious attention, or if it’s just a side effect of a lack of understanding, then their success will be a matter of luck.
I fostered rhetorical literacy by inviting my students to reflect during the process of composing a podcast as well as analyzing why other model podcasts are successful. Critically examining one’s habits goes a long way to understanding why a text might be successful or unsuccessful, so build in these periods of reflection throughout the project.
Podcasting as a Synthesis
A podcast project like the one described here can be a great way of embracing each of these literacies. While the nature of teamwork means that some individuals might spend more time with one aspect of the project than another, meetings and recorded minutes help show everyone what each stage of the task looks like. This ensures that individuals can share and develop their expertise collaboratively.
Students need to employ a functional understanding of the tools at the beginning of the process for the purpose of creating a rough prototype. This ranges across word processing tools, to messaging platforms, to recording software, editing programs, and website platforms.
By listening to models of other podcasts and having conversations about how podcasts convey information, students become more aware of their critical positioning. They can critically listen to individual podcasts and take a critical look at the overall podcast ecosystem. For example, looking at the kind of content that the recently partnered Anchor and Spotify are promoting can help students see how massive platforms can shape the kind of content that gains popularity.
Finally, the act of making a podcast encourages students to consider how podcasts can serve as a crucial part of their rhetorical toolboxes. Students use their own voices to synthesize the research that they’ve conducted and share that information in a digestible manner with a broader group of individuals. This mimics the often complex task of taking very technical information and translating it for new purposes. The combination of literacies required to compose an effective podcast also ensure that they’re gaining rhetorical savvy in more than one medium.
As a whole, the podcast served as a really helpful capstone that brought together skills and literacies that our students had previously developed. By asking them to compose in a medium that is widely circulated in popular culture, we show that writing doesn’t have to yield a words-on-the-page article and highlight the use of writing skills for contexts beyond the classroom. This flexibility also means that a podcast assignment can accomplish a variety of process and content-oriented goals.
Dodging the Pitfalls
Although the podcast assignment was a success overall, our students certainly encountered a few pitfalls. One issue in particular is that while students were spending a good amount of time writing their scripts, the editing process was occasionally left by the wayside. On Anchor, this was the result of a not-always-intuitive process of cutting and splicing together different audio recordings. In other cases, it was the result of students making use of built-in recording options on platforms such as Zoom. While the texts they created were effective, they sidestepped editing almost completely in some instances. You can avoid this pitfall by creating and locating resources that make the editing process more easily accessible as well as critically examining podcast models that have less of an improvisational tone.
Together While Apart
Overall, the podcast project was an enormous success in the midst of an otherwise difficult semester. Students frequently cited the collaborative element as a benefit during the lockdown and signaled that they were excited to be able to compose a project that felt like something they might be called upon to do in the future. By developing their functional, critical, and rhetorical literacies surrounding the workflow of creating a podcast, students were able to take their academic research and circulate it in a way that otherwise would not have appeared available to them. It highlights the relevance and the vitality of research while also providing a space that brought individuals together while they were forced to remain physically apart.
In the end, we finished the semester without meeting as a class, but the podcasts allowed student voices to intermingle with one another and provided the space for a meaningful discourse community while we grappled with remote learning. I hope that the story of our journey through the pandemic is helpful and that, in the upcoming months, you might consider trying out a podcasting assignment in your own classrooms.