Building a Better Podcast Assignment

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I’m excited to share that my cryptography students and I will launch Season 3 of our class podcast, One-Time Pod, this fall. A few years ago, thanks to some work with a Center for Teaching learning community on teaching with podcasts, I decided to replace one of the paper assignments in my first-year writing seminar with an audio assignment. Students were asked to take a code or cipher from history and describe its origin, use, influence, and mechanics. The assignment has both a storytelling component, in which students use the audio format to construct a narrative about their chosen code or cipher, and a technical communication component, since they’re asked to explain their code or cipher’s encryption and decryption using nothing but sound.

The first batch of student-produced podcast episodes were really interesting, and I shared a few of the best here on the blog last year. The second set of episodes were even stronger, and I can point to two reasons. One is that I built a little more scaffolding into the assignment, so students received more feedback on their podcasts along the way. See below for details on the revised assignment. The other reason is that the second cohort of students had the chance to listen to the episodes produced by the first cohort of students. Not only did this provide the students more examples of the genre, but I believe some of my students thought to themselves, “I can do better than that.” The result were some really great episodes. Here are some of my favorites:

Since this fall’s cryptography course will feature the third version of my podcast assignment, I thought I would review some of the refinements I’ve made to the assignment, including my planned changes for this semester. As I mentioned in my post last year, the podcast assignment is based on one used by my Vanderbilt colleague Gilbert Gonzales, whom I interviewed about teaching with podcasts for the educational technology podcast I host, Leading Lines. Here’s the basic structure of the assignment as it looked back in the fall of 2017:

  • First, I asked my students to listen to a few professionally produced podcast episodes that dealt with the history of cryptography. We spent some class time discussing the episodes, identifying what we found most interesting about them and analyzing the audio storytelling techniques used by the podcast producers.
  • Next, during that same class session, I had students contribute to a draft rubric for the podcast assignment, using Google Sheets to solicit ideas for rubric components from students. This is something I’ve done before for novel assignment types, and it works well to create a shared understanding of the expectations for the assignment.
  • I was fairly confident my students didn’t have any audio production experience, so I asked Rhett McDaniel, the Center for Teaching’s educational technologist, to visit class and provide a crash course on collecting good audio and editing it using Audacity, a free and open source audio editing program.

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