Podcasts and the Twenty-first Century College Classroom

By Rick Cole and Beth Kramer, Boston University

It is difficult to work in higher education without hearing the continued buzz around “flipping” the classroom. As Dan Berrett notes in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “flipping describes the inversion of expectations in the traditional college lecture. It takes many forms, including interactive engagement, just-in-time teaching (in which students respond to Web-based questions before class, and the professor uses this feedback to inform his or her teaching), and peer instruction.” As Berrett points out, “flipping” has become a label for a variety of activities that require students to take a more active, participatory role in their learning. He explains while many universities support these shifts for differing reasons, including economic and technological goals, one of the largest reasons is learning outcomes. Kathy Missildine, in her study of flipped classroom techniques, uses the term “hybrid” to explain this shift in which technology facilitates a more interactive learning environment (598). Instead of the passive learning environment of the traditional lecture, in a flipped classroom “students cannot passively receive material in class…instead they gather the information largely outside of class, by reading, watching recorded lectures, or listening to podcasts” (Berrett). Across the country, college classrooms from Humanities to STEM disciplines are undergoing drastic transformations as they experiment with these active new models and forms.

Podcasts are one of the newest pieces in this trend towards interactive engagement in the twenty-first century classroom. M’hammed Abdous, in collaboration with other pedagogical scholars, notes the increased effectiveness of professor-generated podcasts as stand-ins for lectures by measuring download frequency, and builds upon a range of studies that find these types of podcasts to be “a powerful tool that complements traditional course resources” (Abdous 17). However, while the lecture podcast has gained much attention for its role in allowing students to listen to lectures outside of class, there has been less exploration on using the incredibly rich library of popular podcasts as texts themselves in the “flipped” classroom. The goal of this article is to discuss our experience using the captivating podcast Serial as both content in our research composition course, and as a key component of changing our classrooms to a more learner-centered, “flipped” model.

Podcasts and Academic Curiosity

The popularity of podcasts as a genre has exploded in the last decade. Dino Grandoni of the New York Times simply describes podcasts as “audio stories that can be saved and played on a computer or smartphone.” Along with their rising popularity, he stresses how the long-format style of podcasts allows for a kind of in-depth journalism that gives many in the field optimism (Grandoni). They are also more than just audiobooks with a single narrator reading words off a page; rather, podcasts often integrate a variety of viewpoints, voices, scores, and sound effects to create a rounded and sensory narrative. In other words, by their very nature, podcasts are participatory, which is why they facilitate a learner-centered classroom. The Serial podcast in particular caught our attention because of the astounding critical and popular response. Serial is Sarah Koenig’s week by week telling of a murder case involving two high school seniors in 1999. Amanda Ong reveals from her interview with Serial podcast creators that the podcast skyrocketed in use and became “the fastest podcast to reach five million downloads in iTunes history. As of February 2016, Serial had been downloaded over 80 million times” (Ong). It also won the Peabody award in 2014, the only podcast to ever achieve this honor. The sheer volume of listeners and engagement that followed fueled our desire to integrate it into the curriculum of our research composition course.

Part of the popularity of Serial rests on the 18-year old case that Koenig studies, which is full of intrigue, suspense and controversy over the addictive 12 episodes. But for us, Serial also represents the draw of the podcast form itself—the ability to make a story come to life by hearing the voices of victims, their families, law enforcement professionals and of course Koenig’s smart narration. Much of the desire to “flip” the classroom stems from the notion that students today are both savvy and distracted. College students are used to a variety of electronic mediums that engage all of their senses and as a result they are less captivated by the traditional texts they read for the traditional lecture format. While many professors bemoan the changes to their students’ listening and reading habits over the years, research has been emerging that supports a direct link between internet use and evolving study habits. Mokhtari, Reichard, and Gardner’s 2009 study, “The Impact of Internet and Television Use on the Reading Habits and Practices of College Students,” finds that students are often multitasking when they perform academic reading, and they are spending and enjoying more time on the internet than they do on coursework (614). Many educators wonder how to get their students as excited about books and essays as the public was about following Koenig’s week by week narration. Given the tremendous popular appeal of and substantive intellectual discussion in the Serial podcast, we asked ourselves if integrating this podcast into the classroom directly might be a way to achieve high learning outcomes. Could we challenge our students with complex ideas at the same time that we appeal to the multifaceted way that they process information?

Serial Podcast, Student Engagement and Peer Instruction

Of course, educators using podcasts as the central “text” in the college classroom might have reservations about the lack of rigor in not assigning a traditional reading. Some might have concerns about the material not being as nuanced or academic, or that the podcast form might cause students to take the work less seriously. Yet, a variety of instructors have used podcasts in high school classrooms and note surprising results. Michael Godsey explains that while he was initially concerned to make Serial the central component of a unit in his high school English class, it led to an increase in reading and critical thinking, with students spending more time analyzing material like clues and maps, writing in journals, and reading transcripts, blogs and reports. He also cites research like Hogan’s 2014 study in the International Journal of Speech-Language Pathology that supports how listening comprehension skills are directly tied to reading comprehension skills (Hogan, as qtd in Godsey). Linda Flanagan, who looks at the trend of podcasts in the high school classroom confirms these findings, and further notes the advantages for ELL students. In a podcast, she explains, an unfamiliar word or two will not stop you—and podcasts often help students tune out other distractions because they are stimulated both mentally and aurally (Flanagan). Godsey connects this research to his own observations in the classroom: “A few students learning English as a second language wrote that they like how they can read the words and – as one student put it – promptly ‘hear how they’re supposed to sound.’” We were equally intrigued by the idea that the key antagonist to our students’ engagement with our assignments – their smartphones- might instead be flipped to facilitate more reading and more learning.

A link between podcasts and listener engagement has also been found. Emma Rodero, in her study published in the Journal of Communications Research, discusses how radio and all radio-related literature provides “the capacity to stimulate the creation of mental images in the listener’s mind” (458). She describes the active nature of listening, finding correlation between attention and the use of sound effects and other audio features that help listeners visualize and remember narrative (474-75). And our own experience using Serial in our research course reinforced these discoveries. Students scored the highest average grade on a compression quiz that Professor Kramer gave on the first 3 episodes of Serial (compared to 10 other quizzes that she gave that year on written texts); students in Professor Cole’s class asked to integrate more episodes into the curriculum and voluntarily researched well outside the parameters of the course. We noticed new voices entering discussion, as students who were less engaged by other units were suddenly vocal and vibrant members of the class.  They would remember specific details and minute information.  Students would send us links to recent stories and news on the case, even into the summer and next semester.  As one of our former students emailed almost a year after the course ended, “I am still following this closely because it certainly opened up a whole array of questions and ideas for me.” Thus on a primary level, the use of the podcast seemed to satisfy one of the basic requirements of the flipped classroom—increasing interactive engagement for the students.

In addition, it also provided rich opportunities for another tenet of the flipped classroom—peer instruction.  Professor Kramer found that the podcast worked on two levels in this way.  On one hand, the openness of the case that Koenig traces in Serial allows for several arguments that can all be supported with evidence that she slowly reveals.  By pairing students into in-class groups, and asking them to place evidence into categories for or against the defendant, they began to do sophisticated analytical work and back up their arguments with concrete details.  They were also truly engaged in this group work, passionately working together to make sense of how to analyze and interpret a piece of evidence.  On the other hand, the ability of the students to see how many different arguments could be sustained cautioned against reductionism and simple solutions for complex problems.  It led to a formal research project on an ethical issue of their choice, where they were encouraged to model Koenig’s method of exploring all facets of the issue before reaching a conclusion.  Many wrote in their end-of-the-year reflection that their approach to the formal research project was transformed by their work on Serial. 

In Professor Cole’s class, not only was an increase in peer instruction and collaboration evident, but so was an increase in opportunities for students to envision the connection between oration and rhetorical invention.  He divided the class into two groups, and created an active courtroom setup complete with one side working for the defendant and another for the prosecution.  Over the course of a few weeks, students had to collaborate to publicly present formal cases, refute testimony, and manage closing arguments based on the material they found in Serial and which they subsequently researched.  The work that they did in this process led to a formal research paper where they argued for or against the defendant citing evidence ranging from the emotional instability of memory, deception detection in law enforcement, and even the legal precedent for cell-phone tower testimony. When asked to describe why his writing was clearer in the Serial paper, one student replied, “I felt like a lawyer explaining things for a jury.”  Randy Bass and Heidi Elmendorf employ the term social pedagogies to explain how writing for an authentic audience transforms the classroom: “Social pedagogies build in iterative cycles of engagement with the most difficult material, and through a focus on authentic audience and representation of knowledge for others, help students deepen their understanding of core concepts by engaging in the ways of thinking, practicing and communicating in a field.”   By encouraging students to be producers of knowledge, this assignment transformed roles wherein the students were experts presenting research/ testimony and the professor was receptive civic servant.  In both of our experiences, incorporating Serial led to dynamic classroom environments where students were prepared, engaged, and using classroom time to build upon and interrogate assigned material—a true model of the “flipped” classroom.

Podcasts and the Future of the Flipped Classroom

With more and more research pointing to the benefits of broadening the use of podcasts in the college classroom, we are optimistic about the future possibilities beyond Serial itself.   Building upon our classroom successes to date, we look forward to experimenting with podcasts such as NPR’s RadioLab and Welcome to Nightvale as further “texts” in our courses.  Both of these works are explored in this issue, and reveal a similar level of production value underpinning them.  We are also encouraged by the increased attention that podcasts are receiving from our colleagues at Boston University and beyond.  In fact, the motivation for this essay stems from our recent NeMLA panel on podcasts and pedagogy. Our presenters’ flipped pedagogical strategies ranged from pairing podcasts and iconic texts to employing podcasts to encourage student assessment of their writing to empowering students to produce their own podcasts. We hope that this issue is just the beginning of work that helps future podcast pedagogues find and use quality podcasts in their courses, to meet the challenge of creating a truly interactive “flipped” classroom to engage twenty-first century college students.


Works Cited

Abdous, M’hammed, Betty Rose Facer, and Cherng-Jyh Yen. “Trends in Podcast Download Frequency Over Time, Podcast Use, and Digital Literacy in Foreign Language and Literature Courses.” International Journal of Distance Education Technologies vol. 13, no. 2, 2015, pp. 15-33.

Bass, Randy, and Heidi Elmendorf. “Designing for Difficulty: Social Pedagogies as a Framework for Course Design.” Teagle Foundation White Paper, 2011.  Retrieved from https://blogs.commons.georgetown.edu/bassr/social-pedagogies

Berrett, Dan. How ‘Flipping’ the Classroom Can Improve the Traditional Lecture.” Chronicle of Higher Education, 24 February 2012, http://www.chronicle.com/article/How-Flipping-the-Classroom/130857.

Flanagan, Linda, “What Teens Are Learning From ‘Serial’ and Other Podcasts.” KQED, 11 March 2015.

Godsey, Michael.  “The Value of Using Podcasts in Class.” The Atlantic March 17, 2016.

Grandoni, Dino. “Ads for Podcasts Test the Line Between Story and Sponsor.” The New York Times, 27 July 2015.

Hogan, Tiffany, Suzanne M. Adloff & Crystle N. Alonzo, “On the Importance of Listening Comprehension,” International Journal of Speech-Language Pathology, vol. 16, no. 3, 2014, pp. 199–207.

Koenig, Sarah.  Serial. WBEZ Chicago, 2014, https://serialpodcast.org/.  Accessed 1 April 2017.

Missildine, Kathy, PhD, R.N., C.N.E., et al. “Flipping the Classroom to Improve Student Performance and Satisfaction.” Journal of Nursing Education vol. 52, no. 10, 2013, pp. 597-9.

Mokhtari, Kouider, Carla A. Reichard, and Anne Gardner. “The Impact of Internet and Television Use on the Reading Habits and Practices of College Students.” Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy vol. 52, no. 7, 2009, pp. 609-19.

Ong, Amanda. “Backstage with the Creators of Serial.” University Wire, 10 March 2016.

Rodero, Emma. “See It on a Radio Story.” Communication Researchvol. 39, no. 4, 2010, pp. 458–479.