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Four Mistakes I Made When Assigning Podcasts

Opname van een hoorspel / Recording a Radio Play[This is a guest post by Evan Cordulack (@cordulack), a Web developer and graduate student in American Studies at the College of William & Mary. He writes regularly on the Academic Technology blog.--JBJ]

Several years ago I taught two upper-level American Studies seminars. Since these were the first classes I’d ever taught (aside from being a Teaching Assistant), perhaps I should have kept things simpler. Rather than assign a combination of papers and exams, I’d wanted to try something different. At the time, I was listening to a lot of podcasts and I thought that having students create podcasts would be a good idea.

At first, I saw all the benefits podcasting had to offer. Producing podcasts allowed students to collaborate and express themselves in creative ways, while still learning how to craft an argument and voice their opinions. I had that hoped students would analyze a text while at the same time have to make decisions about creating a text of their own.

The reality of my podcasting experiments was a series of realizations about how I hadn’t thought these assignments all the way through. My original ideas didn’t prove to be wrong, but my implementation of the assignments could have used some work. Some of my mistakes were certainly rooted in my inexperience as a teacher, while others stemmed from my inexperience with how to produce a podcast.

Mistake 1: I Didn’t Limit the Student’s Production Time

Going into these classes, I figured that students should have flexibility in how involved they wanted their podcasts to be. I left the topics of the podcasts fairly open-ended so students could choose a topic that would require an amount of production work that they were comfortable with. For example, it took fewer steps to include a song in a podcast than to use an audio clip from a television show. So, if a student wanted to spend less time on production, he or she could choose an “easier” topic.

This strategy didn’t work and if I were to do it again, I would have provided more guidance for the students. For the most part, students didn’t choose topics that would be easiest for them technically. Rather, they did what interested them the most – and I certainly can’t fault them for that. Some students spent far more time in the studio than I was anticipating. The assignments ended up being larger in scale than I thought was appropriate.

If I did it over again, I would not only limit the podcast to a single topic, but also limit the production time by providing students with a head start. I would like to put together a packet of primary sources (including all the audio elements students would need to create their podcasts) about a cultural text, and require all the students, perhaps in groups, to put together a podcast using these elements. I think this type of guidance early on in the semester would help students better understand the “close reading” process required in the humanities and it would also help them transfer this process to the podcast format. It would also help students not spend a disproportionate amount of time in front of their computers putting the podcast together.

Mistake 2: I Wasn’t Sure How to Grade Production

The final podcasts that students turned in varied a great deal in terms of production quality. Some were little more than the students reading a paper into a microphone. Other students spent more time editing, interspersing music and analysis in more sophisticated ways, and making sure they didn’t misspeak and that their recording equipment was set up properly. Is one of these better than the other? I’m not sure. I am not a radio producer and ultimately, I wanted to students to engage with the material they were analyzing. As a result, I ended up not really grading at all for production value. Even if I decided that I was going to grade more on production, because I didn’t have the technical skills, I don’t think I could have constructed a good rubric for grading the technical merit of the production. There must be a better way to do this.

Mistake 3: I Didn’t Provide Enough Technical Support

I started both classes with a trip to our school’s media center where we, as a group, had a how-to session about podcasting. However, almost all of the students said that they had a number of questions as they put their podcasts together and that while the first session had helped, they needed more continual support. I am not sure how to address this other than devoting more class time to production issues.

Mistake 4: I Had Weird Expectations

I suspect that a lot of academics interested in assigning podcasts also listen to NPR. At the time, I was on a radio/podcast binge, having just discovered This American Life (in podcast form), The Moth, and the Third Coast International Audio Festival. Listening to these podcasts influenced my expectations for what students were capable of producing. I didn’t hope for something that sounded like it was created by a veteran radio producer, but to be honest, I had hoped that it would sound more like that than like a student reading a traditional paper with some audio clips added in. If I had acknowledged this from the beginning and moved beyond it, I think I could have created more effective assignments.

Would I Use Podcasts Again?

After both of these classes, I asked students to do “Technology Evaluations” along with their normal course evaluations. It seemed like most of them enjoyed making the podcasts, but it ended up being far more work for them than I had anticipated. I would use them again as assignments, but I would definitely do some experimenting on my own. Producing several podcasts by myself would have given me a lot of the information that I ended up having to figure out “on the job.” If you have any questions about logistics (like what software we used) or anything else, feel free to leave a comment. Also, have you used podcasts in the classroom? How did it work? Any tips for a new teacher?

Photo “Opname van een hoorspel / Recording a Radio Play” by Flickr user Nationaal Archief / No known copyright restrictions

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