Students as (Podcast) Producers

One of the themes we build into much of our work at the Vanderbilt Center for Teaching is the notion of engaging students not only as consumers of information, but also as producers of knowledge. Often, when we say “Students as Producers,” we really mean students as researchers, scholars, designers, or problem solvers, but last fall, my students were quite literally producers. They produced a class podcast for my first-year writing seminar on cryptography.

The podcast is called One-Time Pod, a play on the term “one-time pad,” a cipher that’s used just once and is thus perfectly secure. The podcast explores the history of cryptography, with each episode considering a different code or cipher, how it works, and why it’s interesting. I’ve embedded a few of my favorite episodes below. You can listen to all the episodes on Soundcloud, or subscribe to the podcast in iTunes or your favorite podcast app. And here’s the RSS feed for those who know what that means.

I had been kicking around the idea of a podcast assignment for this course for a few years, but it wasn’t until I helped lead a learning community at the Center for Teaching in 2016-2017 on teaching with podcasts that I decided to make it happen. In previous offerings of this course, I asked students to write essays on codes and ciphers from history, and to submit those essays for publication on my colleague Holly Tucker’s blog, Wonders & Marvels, which features writing on the history of science and medicine. That assignment went great, because it provided my students a public venue and authentic audience for their writing. However, with all that student work made public, most of the good topics for the assignment were taken, so I needed a change. By moving to a different medium, those old topics became fair game again, and I could still leverage the audience effect to provide focus and motivation for my students.

I modeled my assignment on one used by another Vanderbilt colleague, Gilbert Gonzales, for his health policy class. Gilbert got the idea for his assignment while participating in our Course Design Institute, which had a “Students as Producers” theme, then shared his assignment with our podcasting learning community last spring. That’s how I learned about it, and I was so impressed that I interviewed him about it for the educational technology podcast I host, Leading Lines. His experience gave me what I needed to design my own podcasting assignment. I love when this kind of thing happens, when there’s a great conversation between our work at the center, our own teaching, and our colleagues’ teaching!

Here’s how I structured the assignment. First, I asked my students to listen to a few podcast episodes from two of my favorite podcasts, 99% Invisible and The Memory Palace. Each episode featured some bit of cryptography history, from civil war spies to World War Two cipher machines to mysterious radio stations that broadcast endless streams of numbers. My students blogged about the episodes, sharing what they found most interesting and analyzing the audio storytelling techniques used by the podcast producers. We discussed the podcasts during class (students had a lot to say), then worked together to draft a rubric for their podcast assignment, using what they observed about the professionally produced podcasts as a starting point. (Asking students to help write a rubric for a novel assignment is something I’ve done before with great success.) I also asked Rhett McDaniel, the Center for Teaching’s educational technologist and also the audio producer for Leading Lines, to give my students a quick tutorial on using Audacity, a free and open source audio editing program. After that, the students were off and running.

Over the next few days, I finalized the grading rubric for the assignment, and students started doing some research and proposing podcast topics. I wanted to make sure that students picked appropriate topics (both in terms of content and scope) and that the podcast as a whole wasn’t too repetitive. I decreed that two episodes on the same code or cipher would be fine, but not three. About a week later, I spent another class session on the assignment, having students workshop their podcast descriptions and outlines with each other through a peer review process. I had Rhett available to answer technical questions, but the students weren’t that far along yet. The next time I use a podcast assignment, I’ll be sure to build a third workshop day into the process, right before the podcast episodes are due, for some in-class audio editing. A lot of the students found the editing process more challenging than they expected, and another chance to get help would have been really useful.

However, the students’ episodes turned out really well. I didn’t post all of them to the class podcast, since a couple of them really didn’t meet the objectives well enough to represent the class well on a public website. And I had to ask a couple of students to edit their podcasts before I felt comfortable publishing them. In one case, a student had explained one aspect of their cipher precisely backwards, and I didn’t want that incorrect information out there. In another case, a student had a little fun inserting fake ads in his episode, but since we hadn’t actually gotten permission from Subway to use their jingles, I asked him to edit those out.

In the end, 12 of the 15 students produced episodes for One-Time Pod, and I think they’re really engaging. Some of the episodes show some real creativity. Although students were responsible for their own scripts, they were allowed to recruit friends and roommates as voice actors. I especially liked the creepy voice used to read the encrypted messages left by the Zodiac serial killer in one of the episodes. A few students used storytelling effectively to hook their audience, such as the episode on the pigpen cipher embedded above, and some built a nice narrative arc throughout their episodes. A lot of the students ended up using the same mysterious background music (since most used tracks from the same podsafe music source), but a few students used particular pieces of music for intentional storytelling purposes, as heard in the episode on James Joyce’s novel Finnegan’s Wake.

The students generally liked the assignment, too. Here are a few course evaluation comments about the podcast:

  • “The podcast was cool because I was able to share it with my family so they could see the type of work that I have been doing here at school.”
  • “The podcast assignment was very fun, and shows how the professor will make sure learning is made enjoyable in this course.”
  • “The podcast was quite fun. I like this form of assignment.”

To be fair, some students weren’t crazy about it. One of the students told me that in a two-week span he went from never having even listened to a podcast to producing his own episode. He and a few other students found the assignment pretty challenging. As I mentioned, the technical side of the assignment probably needed a little more breathing room, something I’ll keep in mind for next time.

Two other pieces to the assignment: I asked students to submit show notes for their episodes, which made it easier for me to get everything loaded and ready on SoundCloud, where I decided to host the podcast. The free account on SoundCloud as a total time limit across episodes, but my students’ work was short enough to stay under that limit. Next time I teach the course, I might have to upgrade to one of their paid accounts, however. Also, I asked each student to turn in a 200-to-400-word producer’s statement in which they reflected on the choices they made in creating their episodes. These statements came in useful during the grading process, because they gave me insight into student learning and intentionality that wasn’t always audible in the podcasts themselves.

I’m really proud of my students and what they produced for One-Time Pod. Podcasts are having a moment, both in our culture and in higher education, and I’m glad I could explore this medium with my students. I’m looking forward to even more interesting episodes next fall, when I teach the cryptography seminar again and can point my new students to the first batch of episodes as inspiration.


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