As I wrote about previously, this summer I realized I wanted to use a set of “threshold concepts” as tools to allow my students to compare religious traditions. This posed a specific problem. I needed to inform my students about these concepts in an effective and condensed fashion which still hit upon several important aspects. After eliminating encyclopedia entries and Wikipedia entries, I decided I would write short introductions – I called them “briefs” – to each of the concepts and then audio record them. Funny enough, it was only in conversation with my students that I realized they referred to the briefs as “podcasts.” Ha! (After reading some on the subject, scholarly literature tends to refer to projects like these as “complementary podcasts.”)
Originally, my idea was much grander. I wanted to make short videos for each concept. As is customary, I was spending the summer teaching for the Woodenfish program and I wanted to use the backdrop of the Buddhist monastery for my recorded conversations. This quickly was abandoned when teaching duties piled on and I was simply too exhausted to scout filming locations, write scripts, and film the twenty briefings I wanted to cover.
When I returned home and began preparing for my class in earnest I decided to simply do audio recordings and I think this worked out for the best. I certainly fumbled through the first through scripts. I was unsure of the conventions for the genre. I was lucky enough to naturally stumble upon a few guidelines that are recommended for doing education podcasts.
Time Length: This is perhaps the most crucial aspect. I did not want to impose too much information on my students, I wanted to give them just enough basic facts that they could immediately begin applying the concept to the readings and then develop a better understanding of it through their own investigation. The first threshold concept I scripted and recorded was “material culture,” and it ended up being four minutes and twenty seconds long. I had not set a time limit, this was just naturally how long it took me to write and then say the things I though needed to be introduced. Overall, my shortest podcast was just less than 3 minutes and my longest was just over 5 minutes. One study (by Cheung On Tam) tabulated this chart for student preferred podcast lengths:
Clearly, going over the 5 minute mark was not problematic, though much of what I’ve read suggests keeping the length to about 10 minutes, if not even shorter at 6-8 minutes. Clearly, script writing ability will determine if listeners pay attention for longer.
Tone: I knew immediately from my extensive use of audio commentary on papers that I wanted the tone to be informal, but still driven by information. In the first few recordings I captured many of my “verbal ticks” (“so now…,” “right”), and even though these were weeded out in later recordings as I became comfortable with the format, I never just plainly read my script. I wanted those verbal cues which suggest conversation.
Conventions: The conventions for my podcast briefs took me a while to figure out, and they are still in flux. Ideally, I like to start off with a leading question, historical anecdote, or even a joke (well, only once – I started my brief on “humor” with a joke). When I’m less inspired, I’ll start off with a definition, especially for terms with clear Greek roots (soteriology, ontology, epistemology). For the basic content I would always try to segment the concept in some fashion, providing “different looks” so students could more effectively see the concept in culturally diverse religions. For example, I described bloodless and blood sacrifices for the concept of sacrifice, and elaborated on the here/now, here/then, there/now, and there/then models of utopia. Sometimes I would just give several broad examples. I would also try to end the podcast with some verbal clue (“in closing,” “I leave on this,” etc.) and restate the most important points or types of questions I would want the students to ask of the readings with the threshold concept in mind.
Transcriptions: Originally I just posted the audio recording to our course website, but then later started posting my script as well. I had already done the work, so there was no additional work.
Technology: I recorded everything on my iPhone, no special equipment. I was honestly surprised how crisp the recordings turned out (no hissing, background noise).
Outcome: After soliciting feedback from my students several said they enjoyed the podcasts. About halfway through the term I switched to uploading just my scripts because a non-native speaker in my class complained about needing to re-listen several times to the recordings. (I would quiz students on the content of the podcast, so note taking was necessary.) I was unsure if this was a widespread problem and students were simply afraid to notify me. After asking about this switch, however, a handful of students noted they would prefer to go back to the audio recordings, which was a peasant surprise. From that point onward I tried to provide both the audio and script.
It was only afterwards that I realized the trove of literature on the effectiveness of podcasts. I am already thinking about ways to incorporate podcasts into my writing course this fall term.