Building a Better Podcast Assignment

I’m excited to share that my cryptography students and I will launch the third season 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.
  • Students then went to work selecting topics for their podcasts. I pointed them to resources the course and its students had generated over the years, including a Diigo group that (as of this writing) features over 700 cryptography bookmarks, a timeline of the history of cryptography built collaboratively by two cohorts of students, and a series of essays on historical ciphers two other cohorts of students wrote for the blog Wonders & Marvels.
  • After getting their topic selections approved, students got to work planning their podcast episodes. They had about a week to do so before we spent a class session workshopping their podcast outlines. Then they had another week to produce and edit the audio for their episodes.
  • The students submitted their 10-to-15-minute episodes via Brightspace, along with show notes for their episodes and producer’s statements, in which they reflected on the choices they made in creating their podcast episodes.
  • I graded the podcast episodes and gave the students feedback. A few of the student submissions had serious problems. In one case, the student had explained an element of his cipher backwards, so I suggested he edit that portion of his episode. He did, and so I published it with the other finished episodes. In two other cases, the episodes would have required a lot of work to meet my publication standards, and the students opted out of doing that.
  • In the end, I posted a dozen student-produced episodes on SoundCloud during the last couple of weeks of the semester. I had hoped to post them sooner, since they were done in October, but grading took some time, as did getting the show notes formatted well. Regardless, I was excited to share my students’ work, and at least some of my students were proud to have their class projects go public. One student mentioned that he shared his episode with his grandmother!

For the second version of the assignment in 2018, I made a couple of changes to the process, based on feedback from the first cohort of students and my own assessment of the assignment.

  • I added a week to the assignment. The first version took place over just two weeks, which was a very tight timeline for the students, especially since most of them were new to audio production. The second time out, I lengthened the assignment period to three weeks, and added another in-class session to workshop episodes.
  • After talking again with my colleague Gilbert Gonzales, I followed his advice to have students submit not just an outline for their podcast episode, but a full script. He said that he gave his students the option between submitting an outline and submitting a script, and that the students who submitted scripts for feedback had much stronger episodes, in general. So I asked for both.
  • That meant three in-class sessions: one to discuss sample podcasts, one to workshop student outlines, and one to workshop student scripts. And another twenty minutes of a class session for the Audacity crash course, so really three-and-a-half class sessions were devoted to the podcast assignment.

I made one other big change to the podcast, although this didn’t really affect the student experience. I was hitting the storage limit for my free SoundCloud account, and I didn’t really want to find the money for a paid option, not when I was already paying for hosting for my various WordPress blogs. I found the Podlove Podcast Publisher plugin for WordPress and, after maybe two hours of installation and configuration, got the class podcast up and running on my course blog. I’ve been really happy with Podlove… it’s free, it’s got tons of options, and it provides useful analytics. My only regret is that I can’t combine the SoundCloud listening statistics from the first year of the podcast with the Podlove stats. I was, however, able to point the SoundCloud RSS feed to the new Podlove-generated feed, so anyone who had subscribed to the podcast before the switch should have automatically received the second-season episodes.

As I mentioned above, I felt the second seasons of One-Time Pod was, in general, stronger than the first season. Giving the students extra time and extra feedback certainly helped, and pointing students to student-produced episodes from the first season provided some useful motivation. In fact, having those examples of student work meant that when I ran out of time for that collaborative rubric activity (the one using Google sheets), I don’t think it hurt the quality of the second season episodes.

This brings us to the current semester and the third iteration of this assignment. I’ve made a few more changes, and I hope they’re helpful ones.

  • After interviewing my Vanderbilt colleague, anthropology professor Sophie Bjork-James, about her audio assignments, I’m asking my students not only for an outline of their podcast but also an annotated bibliography. Some of the second-season episodes had pretty weak selections of sources, and I want to build in some feedback about source selection to the process. I’m asking for at least four credible sources in the students’ annotated bibliographies, due next week.
  • Now that the podcast is running on the course blog, I’m going to ask students to prepare their own show notes in WordPress. They’re blogging regularly during the course, so they know WordPress basics. I spent a lot of time reformatting show notes last year, and I’d rather have the students just create their show notes in the format they’ll be shared.
  • I’m also going to ask students to find an image for their podcast episodes, one that’s licensed appropriately for use in this way. While I enjoy looking through Wikimedia Commons for relevant public-domain images, I think I should give students the opportunity to learn a bit about intellectual property.
  • I’m going to run all the student scripts through Turnitin as soon as I get them. I had one student last year who didn’t understand that he needed not just original voice work for his podcast, but an original script. The first version of the podcast episode he submitted consisted mostly of him reading aloud a Wired magazine article. Had I caught that when he submitted his script, I could have saved him and me both a lot of time.
  • I’m adding a couple of categories to the assignment rubric. While listening to the second-season episodes, I realized that the best of them said something enduring about the field of cryptography. For instance, Episode 24 on the Panizzardi Telegram (embedded above) points out that when you don’t know how a message was encrypted, you can often select a decryption method to make the message say anything you want. This was used against poor Alfred Dreyfus, to make him look guilty, but this aspect of cryptography shows up in other ways, usually when amateur cryptanalysts think they’ve cracked some unsolved cryptographic mystery. Charlie Overton’s podcast episode reminded me of some of the professionally produced podcasts I listen to, like 99% Invisible, which use specific stories to convey larger messages about a field. So I’ve added a category to the assignment rubric I’m calling “enduring understandings” (after Wiggins and McTighe’s learning objective framework) that asks students to include these kinds of messages in their episodes. I’m hopeful this will lead to our best season yet.
  • The other rubric category I’ve added is called “working with sources.” Again, after a couple of run-ins last year with dramatically bad uses of sources, I wanted something on the rubric that drew students’ attention to copyright and originality.

You can view the current 2019 rubric, as well as the 2019 podcast assignment description. You might also be interested in the podcast episodes I recommended my students listen to as we launched the assignment, which include the audio introduction to Vanderbilt English major Anna Butrico’s senior honors thesis on the rhetoric of podcasting. It’s a very well-produced, 13-minute introduction to the medium of podcasting. I found out about it while gathering student audio work for VandyVox, a new podcast I launched this year with Vanderbilt Student Media, featuring the best of student-produced audio from around campus. If you’re interested in other examples of student audio work from a variety of disciplines, we now have 16 episodes of VandyVox available.

I’ll post an update here in a few weeks to share how the third season of One-Time Pod turned out. In the meantime, I’ll point readers to my new book, Intentional Tech, which includes a chapter on multimodal assignments like this podcast assignment. There’s a few pages on Gilbert Gonzales’ podcast assignment, which was the inspiration for my assignment. Intentional Tech is now available from West Virginia University Press and (as of this morning!) Amazon.

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