By Emma Dessau and Willa Seidenberg
Podcasting is a dynamic tool for educators of every age and subject, and an innovative way for students to learn.
By Willa Seidenberg
Willa Seidenberg is a Professor of Professional Practice at Annenberg’s School of Journalism.
When I begin a new semester of my courses on podcasting and audio journalism, one of the first PowerPoint presentations I give is called “Why we love audio.” The very first slide says:
Anyone who has had a baby understands the power of our voices, as I discovered when I gave birth. There I was in the delivery room -- hooked up to heart monitors while riding out the waves of labor contractions. At one point, my son’s heart rate started racing, the beeping and waves of the heart monitor I viewed as symbols of his impatience to come into the world. My OB/GYN raced in and said the baby was pulling on the umbilical cord, and she warned that if he didn’t stop she would have to perform a C-Section. So, every time the monitor sped up, I spoke to him in a soothing voice, and sure enough the monitor returned to normal.
Newborn Samuel Short with father William Short minutes after birth in 1998.
At 4 am Sam finally made his entrance, and as the nurses whisked him to a nearby table to clean him up, my husband -- positioned between him and me -- uttered, “he’s beautiful.” At the sound of Bill’s voice our son stretched his head in his father’s direction because he knew, and already loved, that voice, having heard it everyday in the womb.
Hearing is one of the first senses we develop in utero. Bill Siemering, an audio evangelist and a founding member of NPR, summed it up best when he said, “Radio is the most personal medium we have, because the human voice is so expressive.” Scientific studies have shown that storytelling in all its forms evoke strong neurological responses. And audio stories combine the best of all worlds. Unlike a print story, we hear the emotion and power in a character’s voice and sounds that put us in the scene. Yet, unlike a video story, audio listening is active and the audience is a part of creating the scenes and imagery of the story. No wonder people describe it as a visual medium.
For educators, podcasting -- both listening and producing them -- presents an opportunity to engage students of all ages in 21st century modes of communication and it can help students reclaim a skill that has been waning in our distracted, modern world: active listening.
By Emma Dessau
Emma Dessau is a 2020 graduate of the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California.
In the fall of 2019, Emma enrolled in Willa’s podcasting class and caught the audio bug. She became producer of Match Volume, a podcast production of USC’s Annenberg Media.
I was a student who benefited from gaining podcast experience in the classroom. My senior year of college, I had the unique experience of learning podcasting skills in a college course dedicated to learning podcasting creation. By taking a course with instructors devoted to teaching me how to write, edit, and produce audio content, I left achieving these goals, but I also had an unexpected outcome. I really liked producing podcasts. Learning these skills, and experimenting with a new artistic medium has given me more than another bullet point in the skills section of my resumé. I’ve been able to adopt a new creative outlet, and create my own podcasts from a place of joy. While it may be difficult to imagine one podcasting assignment having this deep of impact, it’s not too wild for me to picture.
As a college student, I can think back to my K-12 experiences and throughout my time at University where these podcasting exposures would have been easy to incorporate, and beneficial to my educational and personal development. I think of the elementary school girl who was an auditory learner, and whose ADD made focusing on worksheets challenging. She would have been benefited by audio content in the classroom.
My fondest memories of middle school classes, and the only specific lessons I remember today of that season were in a history class in which our lessons and readings were brought to life with interactive acting experiences, fun movies, and class debates! I can imagine how today, that same teacher could have enhanced these activities with stellar podcasts and replaced some of the outdated, and historically inaccurate movies with relevant, accurate historical podcasts.
I think of the burnt-out high school junior who was struggling with motivation and navigating the academic rigor and social complexities of high school. After three years of research papers, a podcasting project would have offered a refreshing relief. As a young high school journalist on the school newspaper, learning about podcasts and how to create them would have opened an entire new sector of creativity and journalism for me.
From my vantage point, the skills I had the chance to cultivate, and the joy I was able to find in a semester-long course are not exclusive to that specific environment. Students of all ages and backgrounds can be given the experiences that were so meaningfully engaging, challenging, and refreshing for me. Audio exposure can yield new skills, empathy, passions, and variety to students of all ages, and there are endless possibilities to provide valuable learning opportunities through podcast content!
Benefits of Podcasting
Every new lesson, and teaching tool requires thought, research, planning, and ultimately, more work for educators. Adjusting a syllabus or replacing a paper with a project through an entirely new medium certainly demands time and energy. And as any lifestyle guru or motivational book is likely to tell you, it’s impossible to change anything without a solid “why.”
There is so much to be gained by students through audio experiences: from bringing in subject-specific audio content to exploring podcast creation, classrooms can be transformed.
Executing ideas: One of the benefits of projects in general is that students are forced to make decisions and execute a plan in order to produce a final product. Creating podcasts - even short features - requires students to make planning decisions, find the audio clips needed, record the audio, and piece it together in a seamless way.
Gaining Listening Skills: In a society where talking, participating, posting, and tweeting are valued, deep listening is becoming a rare skill. By engaging with podcasts, students learn how to listen actively, and as interviewers, develop questions as a response to the answers.
Improving communication skills: Oral communication forces students to think about how to convey information and concepts in a simple and direct manner. Listeners can’t go back and re-read the sentence, as they would do in a printed story, and are often unlikely to back up and listen again. The content should be clear and accessible on the first listen and that helps students learn to communicate effectively.
Understanding the oral tradition: Many of the classic books, plays and epics we ask students to read were passed down through the ages by way of oral tradition. Cultures and communities throughout the world understand and access their heritage through oral stories. Podcasts are one of the best ways to teach this material and enrich classrooms studying work rooted in the oral traditions.
Diversifying learning experiences: One of the most common grumbles heard in the halls of schools is the classic, lasting remark that “teachers forget that we have other classes.” When one class assigns a paper or end-of-year group project, more often than not, other classes are asking students to complete similar work. By offering audio experiences, teachers can create learning experiences and projects where students can demonstrate knowledge in fresh ways. It can offer relief for students who struggle in certain academic areas - whether writing or test-taking - and offer all students a new academic experience.
Leveling the playing field: An important conversation that persists in educational spaces regards how to level the playing field between students who have different socio-economic and educational backgrounds, and diverse learning styles. One of the benefits of hands-on podcasting is that very few students have done it before and everyone starts together and learns together. Students who are at a disadvantage because they don’t always have access to technology are armed with an empowering new skillset, and students who are aural learners get the chance to work in a format where they can display more proficiency,
Exposure to Podcasting: Podcasting is a growing industry. Our love of the human voice is one reason podcasting has become so popular, in addition to the fact that smartphones have made it so easy to listen to them. Some 104 million Americans aged 12 and over are listening to podcasts regularly, according to yearly podcast tracker, The Infinite Dial 2020, and the number of listeners -- and podcasts produced -- is expected to keep going up every year. The range of subjects and podcast formats are limitless, and the bar to entry is low.
Why Teachers Use Podcasting
Evyn Lê Espiritu Gandhi is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Asian American Studies at UCLA where she teaches a critical refugee studies course.
Gandhi: A big impetus for me was a question of accessibility, being able to articulate some of the complex concepts that we were learning about in class to a larger audience in order to sort of broaden the audience. But also a lot of my students come from refugee families themselves, and so I think for them the podcast format was something that they could share with those relatives in a way that maybe an academic final paper wouldn't allow them to do. Podcasting is a way to quite literally center the refugee’s voice, the way they tell their story, of course, is mediated by editing, by audio editing. But it was a way to center these refugee interviews as well as refugee poetry and music. Having that audio element where the refugees can really speak to the listener was something that the students found really important about the format of podcasting.
Jill Sohm is an Associate Professor of Environmental Science at the University of Southern California
Sohm: We assign a paper and that is always what has been done in that class. After I read them after the second year, I was like, well, we could keep doing this and they would keep producing really great papers, but I don’t know that they’re necessarily getting something super new out of doing that -- they know how to write a paper. I wanted to give them some other kind of assignment, and I really like podcasts… one of the learning objectives for our major is to be able to communicate to a lot of different kinds of audiences. Writing a paper is a good way to communicate to me, or maybe if they were at a job, it would be a good way to communicate within their job. But it’s not a great way to communicate to the public.
Lorene Delany Ullman is a lecturer in English in the Department of Humanities at UC Irvine
Delany: I think it's very beneficial in learning to communicate in a different mode. They know they have just written an academic essay, now they can apply some of that learning to a different genre and thinking about the ways in which we communicate and how those ways change and our approach changes are purpose and goals change based on the medium that we're using. That thinking about the medium is really important.
What Their Students Say about Doing a Podcast
Sohm: They were commenting about the idea that it was a really different way of thinking. They had to do a whole lot of research even to make a five minute podcast in order to be knowledgeable enough to know what to boil it down to make a story. And then they really seemed to like the aspect of thinking about the communication part of it. And they also really like to listen to each other’s podcasts and hear everybody’s different approach.
Gandhi: I think they really enjoyed the project. I think for the groups that were able to interview a relative, for example, and then to scaffold that relative's narrative within a larger conceptualization and theories of this class, that was a really empowering process. And I think they were really proud to have a collective public facing
Suggested Audio Assignments
There are a number of audio strategies you can use for your students’ podcasts, depending on the type of class you teach. Here are a few ideas:
Vox pops (Latin for vox populi, voice of the people) are used to gauge public opinion on current-day issues or to get a variety of non-expert opinion on a subject. They are not necessarily educated, researched answers, but presented as a snippet of diverse sentiment on a particular issue.
The secret to vox pops is getting a variety of answers, then choosing the best ones. The more raw interviews you have, the better your choices. Tell students to interview at least 10 people.
Each entry in the vox pop should be short and snappy. You want to keep it moving and not get dragged down by one long answer. Depending on what you are using them for, 1:30-2:00 is usually plenty long enough.
Click here for more details on vox pops.
Audio console at USC Annenberg Media. (Photo by: Willa Seidenberg)
There are many ways you can record interviews -- in person, over the phone or by computer with an internet connection. Interviews can be used as standalones or get specific clips that can be woven into a narrative.
The key to good interviews is being prepared by doing as much research on the subject and/or the person as possible and being a good listener.
See here for tips on interviewing for audio.
StoryCorps has been collecting personal stories that air on NPR and are housed in the Library of Congress. The premise behind StoryCorps is to have someone interview a family member, friend, teacher, colleague -- you name it -- and collect their personal story. This is a great way to get students of any age to delve into their family or community’s history. The website has a section on how to do your own StoryCorps interviews.
Podcasts can be short and targeted to a focused subject. Here are a few examples:
From Annenberg Media: Root Source
From Scientific American: 60-Second Science
BirdNote: Stories about birds and the environment in under 2 minutes
Numbers are difficult to convey in audio production. But if you teach a class that is based on data, you can challenge your students to challenge themselves and experiment with sound to convey data and tell stories with it. Below are some examples of presenting data through audio:
If you teach classes where keeping a personal journal or diary is part of your curriculum, consider having the students use audio to collect their thoughts and those of their family and friends. These can be collected using a smartphone or any other recording device.
Some of the best audio diaries have come from the Radio Diaries project led by Joe Richman. He created a handbook with everything you need to know: Radio Diaries DIY Handbook.
Transom: great website for all things audio
From The New York Times: Project Audio: Teaching Students How to Produce Their Own Podcasts
Annenberg Media: Resource site for students at University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism
AIR: organization of independent audio producers
Media College: Educational website for electronic media
Additional Resources Available for Download.