Using podcasts to build foundational relationships between students

February 7, 2022

This post is republished from Into Practicea biweekly communication of Harvard’s Office of the Vice Provost for Advances in Learning

Matthew Potts, Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and the Pusey Minister in the Memorial ChurchMatthew Potts, Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and the Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church, teaches Introduction to Ministry Studies, a cohort introductory course designed for graduate students who intend to go into the interreligious ministry broadly. His course offers an introduction that spans a variety of religions and simultaneously cultivates a sense of community amongst students. While the course was traditionally conducted in a lecture format with some section discussions, Potts had to rethink the course’s structure completely when it shifted online amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. “I wanted to get people off screen,” he explains. Rather than sitting through a live lecture, students listened to podcasts of Potts and the teaching team conversing about the readings prior to each class. To ensure students would also engage with him directly, Potts also organized Oxford-style tutorials, with students meeting in groups of two or three and with a different member of the teaching team to discuss the course material. Students would write a one-page memo reflecting on the readings and present it to get the conversation going. “I wanted a place for students to come and continue the conversation and feel invested in what they had read or what they had listened to, but not in any burdensome way.”

The benefits: Podcasts gave students a more engaging way into these exciting discussions without adding to Zoom fatigue. “One of the things we’re trying to cultivate is this kind of capacity for conversation and listening and to let others see things that you can’t see because of where you are,” Potts noted. “There is this kind of intimacy when you just have something in your ear, offering a sense of close conversation that video does not provide. We also try to have a teaching staff that mirrors the diversity of our incoming class. So, the conversations get really interesting.” Additionally, students enjoyed that the small group tutorials allowed for deeper connections and conversations that were deeper and more candid than in a larger section class.

“There is this kind of intimacy when you just have something in your ear, offering a sense of close conversation that video does not provide.”

The challenges: The tutorials proved especially challenging to organize due to the class size. “It ended up being four teachers and sixteen tutorials, just trying to coordinate schedules.” For the podcasts, simply recording conversations without editing worked well to maintain the casual style and to make sure that editing did not become an all-consuming activity. “Once you’re editing anything, you’re editing everything,” he laughs. “One thing I would want to learn more about is software that might allow for easy ways to edit.”

Takeaways and best practices

  • Determine if a traditional lecture is the best approach. The pandemic caused Potts to rethink how he delivers material in ways that heighten student engagement. “What I’m taking away is, if I’m in a lecture course, I’m going to think about whether I actually want to lecture in this course, or how do I want to deliver course content.” He emphasizes that podcasting worked well for this course online because it gave students a reprieve from the constant screen time.
  • Allow for spontaneity but be mindful about the material. Potts opened each podcast recording with a rough outline of what the team should speak to, allowing ample room for insights and connections. “I didn’t want to say too much because I wanted it to feel a little spontaneous, like a real podcast,” he describes. His co-podcasters would know what’s coming so they can start to develop an idea but had the freedom to figure it out in a conversation. Still, Potts teaches another lecture course on forgiveness for which he doesn’t recommend using the podcast format. “The intimacy of the podcast space might need something slightly more formal,” he notes.
  • Assess your approach based on your teaching modality. Potts attempted to podcast this fall when classes resumed in-person, but he encountered some new issues. The number of hours demanded of his TFs to develop the podcast became too great. “I think, were I to try this again, I would more carefully manage and monitor my TFs time.”

Bottom line: For those considering experimenting with this style, he underscores the importance of strong relationships. “We were able to have conversations at the right pitch to make it sound like something you want to listen to,” Potts explains. “A lot of what makes podcasts work is that you enjoy listening to people talk to each other because they enjoy talking to each other. The most important thing is building out a team that you want to be in conversation with.” he adds. “It should be a team of folks you really admire and respect and want to have fun conversations with.”