This article was originally published at Ideas on Fire on September 19, 2017.
Teaching with podcasts can incredibly rewarding and fun. Just as bringing films, television shows, and digital projects into the classroom can improve student learning (and make grading more enjoyable), podcasts too can help your students engage with course themes in new and more complex ways. Below we offer some ways you can integrate podcasts into your classroom as both scholarship and production assignments, as well as tips on how to ensure a great learning experience for everyone in the process.
Podcasts as Scholarship
Podcasts can be scholarship in the same way films, digital humanities projects, albums, journal articles, and books are. Thus, you can assign podcasts as course texts in the same way you assign these other media. One easy way to do this is to look at the theme you’ve set for a particular week on your syllabus, and find a podcast and a particular episode from that podcast that illustrates or engages with that theme. Because you are probably not going to assign an entire podcast—all of the episodes—in a single week (any more than you’d assign an entire TV show), you’ll need to identify an episode that is self-contained enough that students can understand it and get the scholastic point you’re trying to make. Then your discussion in class can be about how that episode relates to the reading for that week and the themes from across the class—just like how you’d assign a film or TV show episode.
There are podcasts about almost every topic under the sun, so you have a great array to choose from. For a class about Indigenous activism or environmental justice, you might assign Imagine Otherwise’s episode on Pacific Islander mobilization against climate change and ongoing neocolonialism. For a class on race and law, you might assign Radio Lab’s episode “Null and Void” about the racial politics of jury nullification. For a class on science and technology studies, you might assign 99 Percent Invisible’s episode “The Stethoscope” that elaborates on Michel Foucault’s historical critique of medical power relations in The Birth of the Clinic. For a class unit on boycott activism, you might assign Ben Franklin’s World’s episode about Julie Holcomb’s book Moral Commerce: The Transatlantic Boycott of the Slave Labor Economy. And given that more and more scholars are engaging in public intellectual work by appearing on or producing podcasts themselves, you can always include any episodes featuring the authors you’re assigning.
Just as you would foreground accessibility when assigning any other type of text, you should consider how students can and will engage with assigned podcast episodes. Where will they listen to the episodes? Choose episodes that are available in a wide variety of locations to ensure maximum accessibility—episodes that are free and can be downloaded from or listened to on public websites, a variety of podcast players (Apple Podcasts, I Heart Radio, RadioPublic, Soundcloud), and devices (phones, tablets, laptops, desktops; both iOS and Android) are much more accessible than ones hidden behind paywalls or only available on a single platform or device. Don’t assume students have their own devices or regular internet access, so make sure any episodes you assign are accessible by campus computers (this is the equivalent of putting books or articles on course reserve at the campus library).
Similarly, make sure you choose episodes that have full transcripts to ensure the assignment is accessible to deaf and hard-of-hearing students, as well as students who learn better from or just prefer written texts. Episodes with extensive show notes are also a better choice (but show notes don’t substitute for transcripts), as show notes often provide links to the projects discussed on the show, guest bios, key takeaways and quotes, and links to the show’s and guests’ social media accounts so students (and you!) can keep in touch with them if something piques your interest.
Teaching Students How to Listen
Just as you have to set aside class time to teach students how to read/watch, take notes on, and engage with the written or visual texts you assign, you should also teach students how to listen to, take notes on, and engage with any podcast episodes you assign. Some students will be completely unfamiliar with podcasts, while others might listen to their favorite shows for fun but have never engaged with them in a classroom setting. It is your job to show them how to do this.
To begin, set aside class time early on in the semester to explain what podcasts are and why you are assigning them. Arrange an activity where you all listen to a podcast episode together during class, and show students how and what to take notes on. What names, themes, formal elements, and quotes should they jot down while listening? What questions should they be asking of those things? What connections should they be making between the episode content and the other texts from the class? Showing students how you takes notes on an episode and providing clear, specific instructions for how you expect them to do so ensures the assignment is fair and accessible.
Then post those instructions on your course website or course management system so they are always available and students can refer to them whenever they need to.
(One advantage that assigned podcasts episodes that students listen to at home have over films you watch together in class is that students can pause a podcast episode to jot something down or rewind to catch something they missed.)
Podcasts as Production Assignments
Another way to use podcasts in the classroom is to have students make their own. This isn’t just relevant for media production classes. Podcasts are a great assignment medium alongside research papers, group presentations, Twitter or Slack discussion questions, and blog posts. You might have students create a short 5-minute podcast episode alongside a research paper—you can have students think critically about how the different forms allow for different kinds of questions and engagement with themes from the course. Perhaps you have them use the research paper to elaborate on issues raised in the episode, or perhaps you have them use the podcast episode to manifest the ideas addressed in the research paper.
When employing a podcast-production assignment, you of course need to teach students how to actually produce a podcast episode (and if you’ve never done so before, this is a great opportunity to learn). Just as you set aside class time to explain how to write a research paper, and provide super clear instructions on the paper’s formatting/content requirements as well as evaluation criteria, you will do this for podcast production assignments as well. Show students what tools they’ll need to create their episode, how to record it, how to interview people (if that is part of the assignment), how to find any music or other sound you require (this is a good opportunity to teach about copyright as well), how to edit the pieces together, how to export the audio file in the format you’re requiring, and how to submit the audio file to you for grading.
Many students will not already be familiar with the digital and analog tools necessary to create podcasts, so showing them examples and providing resources and training is part of your job as an instructor. If you are requiring students to use a particular set of tools, make sure you provide time and access to those tools both on campus and off. And if you are allowing students to choose their own tools, make sure you provide a range of options that are free, accessible to diverse bodies, available on multiple operating systems and devices, and can be used both on and off campus.
All in all, teaching with podcasts can be a great way to help your students think critically about the topics your course engages and the world in which they live. And as a multimedia form, they can also help reach students with diverse learning styles (and teachers with diverse pedagogical styles). As podcasting continues to grow, and the public intellectual work podcasts provide continues to expand, scholars and teachers of various types can harness this form to create great learning experiences for their students and for themselves.