Podcasting to build learning communities
Helping students to feel part of a community was been one of the main challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. As a Researcher Development Manager, I worked with postgraduate researchers (PGRs), who already experienced high levels of isolation as they are not part of a teaching cohort.
They do not have timetabled sessions with other PGRs and often start their studies at varying points in the academic year. Instead, PGRs meet each other and develop communities informally, whether over lunch at induction, making a cup of tea at a training event, working in shared offices, or through asking questions at research seminars. Through this they share their experience, their frustrations, their hopes and their fears – and they learn from each other. The pandemic derived PGRs of these moments of serendipity and informal conversation, leaving them even more isolated, a state of affairs that led to a negative impact on wellbeing, motivation, and progress. So how did we been working to combat this? We started a podcast. To be accurate, we started a second podcast.
Back in January 2020 we had started a monthly Doctoral College podcast called Beyond Your Research Degree, interviewing our doctoral graduates working beyond academia about how they moved from academia to industry, and what career opportunities outside academia are available to people with a research degree. The purpose of this podcast was not to build a community – instead, it was a to build a series of case studies for PGRs to access about the wealth of job roles and career opportunities available to them beyond academia. Similar podcasts existed across the sector, but we felt that they were too vague and did not get at the nitty-gritty of searching and applying for jobs outside of the academy. How do you format a CV for a non-academic job? How can you frame the skills developed during a research degree for a role where research may not be your main focus? These are important questions, and ones that we hoped to answer in a concrete way through our new podcast.
When COVID-19 hit, we were already in a good position as a team to move our provision online. Working across all campuses and with large numbers of distance students, we were already offering our training and development opportunities online. This meant that we swiftly found ourselves in demand to support academic and professional services colleagues as they moved their own content online, and gave us the breathing space to look for creative solutions to our online problems – specifically, how to build a PGR community and recreate that experience of sharing and peer learning online.
With a growing listenership (and growing confidence in audio recording and editing), I decided to start a second, fortnightly podcast: Researchers, Development and the In-Betweens. Like Beyond Your Research Degree, this aim of this podcast was to tell stories and share experiences – but on a much wider range of topics and themes, about being ‘in the thick of it’ as a researcher. On the podcast we talked about writing up your thesis in the time of coronavirus, the supervisory relationship, being a BAME researcher, working with an industry research partner, and – of course – having to adapt research projects due to COVID-19. But even though podcasts are a one-way format, R, D and the In-Betweens filled the space left by those chance meetings by sharing experiences, advice and learning, and has done so informally, openly, and honestly. Podcasts are a form of social media, are easily accessible, and are an ideal way to take a break from the screen. PGRs listen to our podcasts whilst doing the washing up, taking their daily walk of just relaxing on the sofa. They fit easily into people’s lives.
Now I have moved on – from the pandemic, and from leading the Researcher Development Programme – I have, of course, masterminded a brand new podcast, EduExe. The EduExe podcast is all about key trends, issues and debates in Higher Education – and how we are tackling that at the University of Exeter. You can listen to our first episode on The Impact of Generative AI on Higher Education now!
- We record all our podcasts over Zoom – online advice was clear that out of all videoconferencing tools it produces the highest quality audio recordings. We also record with cameras off to improve the audio quality.
- As the host I use a Blue Yeti Microphone and pop filter to ensure high-quality audio. This cost the department £130, but often my guests are using the in-ear headphones they got free with their mobile and the audio quality is still decent.
- I edit all the recording in Audacity, which is free, open-source, cross platform audio software. Zoom can produce an .mp4 file for each participant, which I convert online to a .mp3 to import into Audacity. I keep my editing as basic as I can. I cut out any notification sounds from Microsoft Teams, interventions from children or pets, or just the conversation going off on a tangent. We have a guide on our ELE page about basic editing in Audacity.
- All episodes are then uploaded to a podcast host – we have a pro subscription to Podbean, but there are many options out there. The podcast host will produce an RSS feed of your episodes which you can submit to different podcatchers. We have feeds to Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Podcasts and Amazon Music as the major platforms.
- Finally, I use Panopto to create captions for the podcast episode, which I add to the show notes. I use the automatic captions but go through and edit any inaccuracies. (Incidentally, Panopto is still convinced the podcast is called ‘Audi and the Inbetweeners’.)
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Kelly-Louise Preece (SFHEA) is the Head of Educator Development at the University of Exeter. During her 15-year career in Higher Education I have held roles as an academic, researcher and researcher developer. From 2015-2022 she led the Researcher Development Programme for PGRs at the University of Exeter, taking a holistic and inclusive approach to Researcher Development, designing training programmes and learning inventions that support the researcher as a person. In 2022 she was awarded a National Teaching Fellowship in recognition of her excellent and sector leading support for PGRs.