Podcasts as a Pedagogical Tool? Experiments from an Economist's Classroom

I consider myself extraordinarily fortunate to be able to wake up each morning and do what I love: create knowledge, and disseminate it through effective teaching. In my roles as a teacher and a researcher at the School of Foreign Service, I strive to think beyond the boundaries of my discipline (economics) and find new ways to think and communicate. As a participant of the ITEL cohort track this past spring, I had the amazing experience of learning about new ideas, new technologies and new systems of pedagogy. This project reflects some of these learnings and inspirations! I consider my project – the development of podcasts – to have been a success and I intend to scale up my activities in this area this summer as well as in the next academic school year. My course was GHDP 505: "The economics of poverty alleviation". This course aims to develop an understanding of the causes and consequences of poverty in the world today. The students were MA students in Georgetown's Masters Program in Global Human Development (School of Foreign Service). The class had a total of 24 students. My students were diverse: though they all shared an interest in international development, they had varied levels of prior economics training. My project goals were to supplement class learning with audio podcasts. Specifically, I interviewed authors of some of the material on our syllabus. I asked the authors a series of questions (some of which were sent in by the students in a prior homework assignment). I chose relaxed locations (their offices) and asked them to speak informally, as though they were next to a fireplace, just sharing thoughts and ideas freely. The authors talked at length, and I converted these relaxed conversations with my students via audio files. I recorded 2 podcasts over the spring semester. This summer, I plan to record 2 more and next fall I plan to record 3 more.

My overall goal in using podcasts was to deepen students' engagements with the course material. I had hoped that this would occur in several ways. First, I hoped that the conversations with the authors would give the students a better understanding of where the authors were coming from, why they chose the topic, what they believed was most important about their work, etc. This may help the students "situate" the book or paper within the broader context of a scholarly literature. Second, I hoped that the authors would share perspectives that were not always in their readings. Since scholars write for each other, and most academic literature is peer-reviewed, many opinions are omitted from scholarly works. These opinions are sometimes of great interest to students and I hoped that the authors would share them! Finally, I hoped that the audio recordings would stimulate greater discussions between students and professors at Georgetown. Since one of my podcasts was with a Georgetown professor, my students were able to learn about the views of someone they will interact with (and take classes from in the future) and have a greater understanding of their views. It was my hope that the podcast(s) could be used by other professors, could be a supplement to guest-lectures and also stimulate intellectual discussions between faculty at the school more generally! Podcasts could also be used by alumni.

I estimated the impact of my project in several ways:

  • In an online survey all the students said that they used the podcasts. Out of 24 students, 19 students said that they were "very helpful" and 5 students said they were "somewhat helpful" in learning the actual course material. 15 students said that they had heard the podcasts multiple times. 10 students said that they had discussed the podcasts with each other, and 12 students said they had talked about the podcasts to people outside the university. In one instance, a student even followed up at the office-hours of the professor who I interviewed, to have a deeper discussion.
  • I tracked the use of my audio files. They were downloaded 30—45 times (for each podcast). I tested the students on the knowledge that was buried within the podcasts. On a closed- book final exam, I asked questions that specifically related to both the pod-casts and from the answers, it appears that 22 of the 24 students did listen and understand what the author was saying!
  • In individual discussions with several students (about 8 in total), I asked for feedback about the technology and its impact on learning. In each instance, the students commented that they liked the technology because they felt like they could use it in places and settings where they could not easily take books or computers (like buses and cars)! They liked using the audio files to feel like they were studying when it was hard to use other technologies! They also liked hearing the author's voices. They compared the experience to "books on tape" and said that when they heard some of the author's opinions, they often went back to the readings to learn more about why the author had reached that conclusion.

I enjoyed this experience very much. I intend to do more podcasts and am gearing up with good equipment to be able to do this well. I struggled a little with the production side of things – like editing my files, improving sound quality with audio software, and finding a good location to store the files. But I think I now know how to get through the technical glitches. I am purchasing all the gear I need to record more podcasts this summer and also next fall. I eventually want to have a little library of podcasts that I can use in my future courses. I want to interview lots of Georgetown professors, some visiting speakers and people outside the university. I would like to see Georgetown do this more effectively, have a website for storing these podcasts and perhaps disseminate them to alumni, prospective students, and of course students at places like our Doha campus.