Learning by Doing: Podcasts

In the Graduate Multimedia Fellows seminar, co-sponsored by the Harvard Initiative for Learning and Teaching and the Bok Center, we’re generating best practices for designing, implementing, and evaluating multimedia assignments. Every week, we read scholarship, examine exemplary student and professional multimedia work, and discuss what kinds of assignments (multimedia and traditional) work best in various disciplinary and pedagogical contexts.

We also play with lots and lots of new toys, including cameras, big screen TVs, laptops, audio recorders, and software. Let me explain.

It’s not enough to read, think, and talk about multimedia assignments; we also have to do multimedia assignments. Every week, Fellows work in a different medium – sound, still images, video, presentation software, etc. – responding to a prompt and completing their own multimedia assignments. Working in the media we’re studying accomplishes two goals: Fellows gain technical production experience, and Fellows experience multimedia assignments from the perspective of students who often have no production experience, or who don’t quite see the point of a given exercise.

One example of a “learn by doing” exercise we did focused on the podcast genre. Podcasts are usually digital audio files released regularly for download to mobile or desktop devices. To get a sense for the potential of the genre, we listened to an episode of This American Life about break-ups and identified the different layers or registers of sound used by the producers.


We also talked about the different fields in which podcasts might work as assignments, and discussed what makes podcasts a form of communication distinct from writing, as well as what advantages podcasts offer in terms of what and how they communicate information.


Next, we sent Fellows off in pairs to brainstorm ideas for podcast assignments in their respective fields. After they had imagined the outline of an assignment, we asked them to complete their podcast-about-student-podcasts by recording and editing in some examples of the sound-based evidence they could imagine students gathering, curating, and presenting. Here’s the specific prompt, including a sample podcast I made:

With your partner, you should invent a hypothetical student podcast assignment. The assignment should be grounded in a specific field, discipline, or content area. Try to design something that measures the student’s ability to exploit the potential of the medium to create meaning and demonstrate what they’ve learned. Once you’ve designed the student podcast assignment, you should pitch the assignment in a podcast of your own that demonstrates the kinds of sound objects you expect your students to attend to.
Your podcast should be 1-3 minutes long. (1 minute is better. Brevity, wit, etc.) You might use Audacity, GarageBand, or any other audio production software to edit your podcast. When it’s done, please upload it to Soundcloud.com or some other audio-hosting website, then embed the Soundcloud player on the blog with a few sentences of reflection on the process of putting together the podcast and on the transferability of your assignment to other disciplines or courses. Please post your podcast on the blog before next week’s class.
Here’s the sample assignment pitch I put together in class today:
My assignment could be used in any class interested in public manifestations of cultural diversity (for example, courses in comp lit, anthropology, sociology).

Working from this prompt, Fellows Maria Stalford and Gerson Abesemis submitted the following podcast about interviews:

Here’s another from Fellow Sarah Rous focusing on podcasts as formative assessments, helping students develop tools that will facilitate further learning in a content area:

You might note that these aren’t ambitious projects requiring dozens of hours of recording and editing; they’re meant to be quick projects, through which students learn, and from which instructors can get a sense for how and how well students are learning.

While podcasts make for great formative assignments, they can also constitute summative assignments. Distinguished Professor of Humanities Cynthia Selfe of The Ohio State University has written about the importance of aural and visual literacies alongside traditional text-based literacy, arguing that “the history of writing in U.S. composition instruction, as well as its contemporary legacy, functions to limit our professional understanding of composing as a multimodal rhetorical activity and deprive students of valuable semiotic resources for making meaning.” (Cynthia Selfe, “The Movement of Air, the Breath of Meaning: Aurality and Multimodal Composing,” College Composition and Communication, Vol. 60 No. 4 (June 2009), 617.)

Selfe doesn’t just argue from a theoretical and historiographical standpoint. She also provides examples of her own students’ audio compositions and analyzes the intellectual and creative moves they make. Their excellent technical quality and clear demonstration of critical thinking skills make her students’ compositions excellent exemplars for any instructor wondering how successful podcasts can and should sound.

By creating their own podcasts, Jason Hammond discovered what happens when we perform Shakespeare rather than just writing about his plays; Bill O’Hara explored a new way of engaging critically with what we normally think of as commonplace, mundane sounds and human behavior; and we all learned about the potentials and limits of a medium currently underutilized in Harvard courses.

If you’re interested in implementing a podcast or other audio assignment in one of your sections or courses and you’re looking for resources, guidelines, or an experienced consultant, contact me at epstein [at] fas, and I’ll put you in touch with one of our Graduate Multimedia Fellows.

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