#Take5 #59 Building a Study Community through Podcasts at the University of Glasgow

This month’s #Take5 post is brought to you by Dr Micky Ross and Dr Julia Bohlmann at the University of Glasgow. We asked them to contribute because we were blown away by their ScotHELD session on the way they had used podcasting as part of their repertoire of responses to Covid-19 and the rapid change that we all went through adjusting to online delivery of our provision.

Who we are and why we embraced the pod

We are Dr Micky Ross and Dr Julia Bohlmann – the International Team at the University of Glasgow’s Learning Enhancement and Academic Development Service (LEADS). We work with international students from all subject areas, so there is always a lot to do. Until last year we never quite got around to expanding our online provision. But the enforced transition to remote learning, while initially a challenge, gave us an opportunity to try out new ways of teaching. We decided to embrace the challenge and created podcasts that ran alongside our academic writing classes.

First: Find your microphone

Why podcasts?

Maintaining a learning community

There are so many reasons to introduce podcasting to your teaching and learning practice. For us, the first reason was to maintain the learning community that we had established in the months before remote learning started due to lockdown in Scotland. A big concern for us was how we were going to keep our students engaged (Kahn et. al., 2017; Nordman et.al., 2020). We knew that the casual conversations that we had with students after lectures and workshops were important:

  • to get to know and keeping in touch with our students, and
  • informally provide solutions for students’ learning problems.

When we started podcasting, we did so with little idea about how it would go or what success we would have. It turned out to be a big success for us. And now that we have had a chance to reflect on the experience, we can see why. Podcasting as part of teaching and learning engages students because it brings a typically formal discourse into an informal setting. By doing this it brings a sense of authenticity to the content and this in turn works really well to reinforce key learning points after a week of provision.

Engaging with relevant pedagogy

We recorded our podcasts with a live and participating student audience. This meant that learners could bring questions and respond directly to the content. This participation allowed learners to direct the flow of the podcast, which, for us, spoke to so much of the fundamentals of what we are trying to achieve in terms of pedagogy. For example, our sessions are active and democratic (Dewey, 1916. 1939) and dialogic and problem-posing (Freire, 1993). Letting students take part in the podcasts was key as it underlined those principles.

To encourage students to take part, we created options to:

  • simply listen,
  • contribute by unmuting,
  • contribute by posting a question publicly in the chat, or
  • by contributing with a high level of anonymity by messaging us directly, during the live podcast.

Creating synchronous and asynchronous content

After the live podcast, we posted the recording of the session, with an audio-transcript, to our virtual learning environment, creating provision with synchronous and asynchronous content.

Enjoying our teaching practice

Another reason to start podcasting was that we really enjoyed it. In our experience, it was fun, informal, and collaborative. There were no slides dictating the direction of travel. The dialogue mirrored an academic debate and had the added benefit of decreasing the power distance between the students and us as teachers, something that is crucial in familiarising international students with the active and participatory academic culture in the UK.

The podcasts were not standalone events, but closely embedded into our provision in that they rounded up a week’s classes. As our provision typically lasts for 5 consecutive weeks at a time, we created a series of five podcasts. They aired on Zoom once a week on Thursdays and were 50-60 minutes long. We then posted the recording as audio or video file onto the relevant Moodle course. The podcast format itself combined scripted with unscripted conversation. Aiming for a good flow was important to us because we wanted the podcast to be relatively informal. The podcasts worked best when we had a guest speaker as it added variety and brought the debate to life.

While we aimed for flow, we created a rough plan for each episode. For instance, we decided who would chair the episode. That person would keep an eye on time and decide what questions to ask and when. We would start each episode with a brief reminder of the themes we had covered during the week and planned to discuss in the podcast. We then introduced our guest speaker and invited students to post questions in the chat. As we moved through the themes, we would pick up on related student questions and integrate them into the debate. Towards the end the main speakers would be asked to provide take home messages, summing up what has been said and the chair would announce the classes for the upcoming week.

We would definitely recommend that you book a guest speaker early on, ideally before the semester starts. We all know how quickly our diaries fill up. Make sure to plan out the session, but not too much. Write a short intro script if you need it. Identify the key themes that should be talked about. Add some visuals to your plan such as screenshots of slides. Think about how you might transition from one theme to the next.

Could there be a natural way to connect two themes, for example, when discussing literature reviews? It’s quite common to look for literature first before moving on to think about how you might structure the review. Or when discussing methods there is probably some overlap between gathering and analysing data which can provide a bridge into the conversation.

Note down some questions that you might want to ask, just in case the conversation isn’t flowing as well as you had hoped. Share your plan with the podcast contributors so they know what to expect. They might want to add some questions or points they definitely want to address. See below for an example plan:

An extract from our podcast plan

The feedback we received from students was really encouraging and heart-warming:

  • ‘I wanted to personally say I value your hard work and personal effort to keep the academic community together while delivering the sessions.’
  • ‘Thank you so much for guiding and accompanying my journey.’
  • ‘I just wanted to drop a line to say hello and thank you and Micky for the workshops. I find them not only helpful but caring and providing good company in the way you address them.’
  • ‘Very enlightening stuff.’
  • ‘It [the podcast] is the best part of my day.’

What the comments express is what we aimed to achieve with the podcast: to give students the feeling that they still belonged to our learning community at the University of Glasgow and for us all to come out of our prescribed roles as teachers and students, instead coming together simply as people having an informal conversation about learning.

The feedback that we received from guest speakers was very positive and underscored how enjoyable the teaching experience had been.

  • “Doing the podcast with Micky and Julia was a really positive way of connecting with colleagues and sharing knowledge about a specific area we were interested in whilst, at the same time, passing on our shared knowledge to students. I didn’t know most of the participants before I started but, by the end, I felt like I had met new people in my field, learned from them and established connections which I feel I could maintain and develop.  I’d never done podcasting before, but I would really recommend it. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it.”
  • “The Podcasts are such a great way to revisit topics in an informal way.  The conversation-style lends itself to sharing organic stories about experiences with the topic instead of a prepared slide.  The students enjoy the banter and benefit from multiple perspectives about each topic and question.”

The comments may also give an indication of how important coming together was during the lockdowns and teaching completely online.

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Screenshot from one of our first podcasts

The podcasts were a great way to build and maintain a learning and teaching community online and as the student feedback suggests, it had its desired effect. It was also great for us as teachers as they brought something fresh to our teaching practice. They also helped us to engage with the relevant pedagogy in a new way and in doing so, bringing a fresh perspective to ‘old’ ideas.

Going forward we are going to reflect on how to hone their delivery. We also want to ensure the podcasts continuity beyond lockdown. So, we need to think about now, how we blend this new (for us) online format with face-to-face classes, so we are prepared to bring the podcasts into a future on and not just off campus.

References

Dewey, J. (1916). Democracy and education. New York: Macmillan.

Dewey, J. (1939). Freedom and culture. New York: Kappa Delta Pi.

Freire, P. (1993). Pedagogy of the oppressed (revised). New York: Continuum.

Kahn, P., Everington, L., Kelm, K., Reid, I. & Watkins, F. (2017). ‘Understanding student engagement in online learning environments: the role of reflexivity’, Educational technology research and development, vol. 65, no. 1, pp. 203-218.

Nordmann, E., Horlin, C., Hutchison, J., Murray, J., Robson, L., Seery, M.K. & MacKay, J.R.D. (2020). ‘Ten simple rules for supporting a temporary online pivot in higher education’, PLoS Computational Biology, vol. 16, no. 10, pp. e1008242-e1008242.

Bios

Micky Ross is a Learning Developer at the University of Glasgow where he teaches critical thinking, student academic citizenship, effective essay writing, effective reading and intercultural communication. He has a PhD in Education and is a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. He is committed to holistic approaches to learning and teaching, education for empowerment and social change, and innovative practice.

Julia Bohlmann is a Learning Developer at the University of Glasgow where she teaches effective reading and writing practices, exam techniques, plagiarism prevention, group work and intercultural communication. She has a PhD in Film Studies and is a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. Julia has presented her work at conferences and written about international student development in the Journal of Academic Writing: https://publications.coventry.ac.uk/index.php/joaw/article/view/618.

#Take5 #58 From ‘Text’ to ‘Teapot’ to ‘Tinkerbell’ – Supporting Students in their Subjects

This #Take5 post is brought to you from Kendall Richards and NIck Pilcher of Edinburgh Napier University – who presented on this topic at the fabulous ScotHELD Winter 2021 Conference.

Who we are – and why we wrote this blog

We are Kendall Richards and Nick Pilcher. We are lecturers at Edinburgh Napier University. Kendall is in the School of Computing and Nick is in the Business School. Kendall has worked in Australia and the UK in Academic Advice roles, Nick has worked in Scotland in EAP and support roles. We have a recent paper entitled ‘Study Skills: neoliberalism’s perfect Tinkerbell’ which we spoke about at a recent Scottish Higher Education Learning Developers event, and wanted to write a bit more about it here.

In this blog we critique ‘one size fits all’ models of ‘study skills’ support which are ‘embedded’ into the curriculum – you know the sort of thing: “Can you come and run a session on the essay?”. We argue that not only is this a reductive and overly ‘universaling’ approach, it serves to reinforce unhelpful neoliberal models of HE, of widening participation and of widening participation students.

As we wrestled with this model of ‘skills’ work in our own practice, we decided to work with discipline staff to uncover what ‘language work’ they felt was necessary in their subjects – and with their students. The answers that we got were surprising – and served to transform our approach to supporting students in the subject – and to the type of curriculum-based support that we offered. Below we describe how we got to where we are now in our approach to Learning Development – and suggest ways that others can do the same. But first – why ‘Tinkerbell’?

Tinkerbell

Study Skills as neoliberalism’s Tinkerbell

For us, ‘Study Skills’ is a Tinkerbell, a nostrum that people believe in as providing a magic cure for all ‘student ills’ (sic) but which only exists if people believe in it. Why do we argue this?

Firstly, we find a range of definitions of what this nebulous field of ‘study skills’ or Learning Development is: Academic Skills, Academic Advice, Study Support etc. The very range and subliminal quality making it universal: fit for everyone but specific to no one.

Secondly, we posit that each subject requires unique skills – they don’t transfer (see the excellent Hyland and Johnson noted below). In other words, the skills you need as a Nurse might not save you if you have to choose which wire to cut on a fuse box. What do you really need? You need subject knowledge.

Thirdly, ‘Study Skills’ can’t be embedded, whether it’s ‘generic’ or ‘specific’ it is still a magical Tinkerbell we argue. Why? Because where we read papers that say ‘embedded’ skills support works, it only does so with subject lecturers on hand to help – and the students say what they find the least helpful aspects of such support are the ‘Study Skills’ aspects. What they find the most helpful is – you can guess what we’ll write by now we think – subject content.

Fourthly, it’s not ‘Study Skills’ that enables you to present or write well – it’s subject knowledge. Essays are different for different subjects and lecturers – and so are reports (of which there are a vast range of types). If Nick talks about the Battle of Smolensk in the Second World War you may think to yourself – ‘Wow, he has great presentation skills!’, but if Nick talks about Game Theory’s application to HE decision-making you may think, ‘Oh my, he needs work on his presentation skills!’ And yet, the key factor in both cases is subject knowledge, not any ‘Study Skills’.

How on earth did we get here?

So who, or what, do we argue, does Study Skills serve? We argue it serves perfectly the goals of neoliberal ideology and political economy – it is universal, can be delivered by anyone, can be virtualised, represents a light touch ‘state’ delivered from a central source, and students are ‘responsibilised’ to go and find it for themselves.

It supports reductive arguments for massification: the help is there – so if you (lecturers and students) don’t go for it – then it is only your own fault – it’s not a problem of massification or large numbers you have to deal with – the help is there.

How did this system come about? We argue through a combination of what Giddens calls structuration (whereby structures exist already and are then reinforced by people following them) and what Lukes calls the third dimension of power: the power to get people to act (or to remain passive and not rebel) against their own best interests.

So that’s us describing our current thinking – we now want to describe how we arrived here, and suggest how others can adapt our strategies to their own contexts.

Text and Textual Analysis

As noted above – our backgrounds are from EAP and Academic Support. We’ve both taught English and then moved into Academic Advice and support. We were thus schooled in, and for many years operated in, a world of pure ‘Text’: Textual analytical techniques (genre analysis; corpus linguistics) will tell us what we need to know to help students.

And yet … on the back of seeing that different subjects seemed to focus on different criteria when they used the term ‘discuss’, Kendall had an idea for a project: of asking lecturers and students what they understood key assessment words to mean. This led us to question the solidity of any dictionary definitions.

We next went further to ask lecturers in a range of subjects the very base question of: ‘What ‘English’ do students need to succeed?’

They said some don’t need English; they said some needed Visual abilities; some needed Emotional abilities; some could express themselves using Mathematics.

We were confused – how do we help these students with ‘Text’ and with ‘Text-based’ techniques? The answer arrived at was simple: ‘we don’t’ and ‘we can’t’.

The frozen rock after the language had erupted

What we had found at the time, although we didn’t realise it, was what Wittgenstein notes as being ‘the language itself as the thought’ and ‘the language itself as the activity’ – and we had found it because we had seen it and asked about it in the context of the subject.

And yet – we hadn’t found actual examples of it – we’d only found statements of what Valentin Voloshinov describes as the key underpinning ‘psychological and ideological elements’ of the language beneath the ‘hard crust’ of frozen rock after the language had erupted.

We know we hadn’t realised ‘perfectly’, because we still felt we could ask about the language students needed using spoken ‘Text’ techniques – focus groups in our case.

We ran five very lengthy, very logistically challenging, and very demanding-to-transcribe focus groups with lecturers from different subjects. We had about five to six members in each, biscuits, coffee, tea, we asked them all about:

‘Did they agree there were these underlying elements in their subjects?’

‘Yes’ they all said.

And then we asked them:

‘Could they give us some examples of language students would use?’

‘No’, they said.

Well, we lie slightly, as out of a total of over seven hours of painstakingly transcribed focus group data, we gathered a total of ‘four words’. However, what we did gather was their confusion (‘I don’t know what the question is Nick?’) and the knowledge that if we wanted to access the language students needed in the subject, then this wasn’t the way.

From ‘Text’ to ‘Teapot’

We had reached an impasse. Then, it dawned on Kendall that when he had taken in a brightly coloured teapot to Design students they had very animatedly discussed it, passed it to one another and spoken of it in Design terms, critiquing its Design and describing its Design.

Our teapot

What would happen, Kendall wondered, if we took this teapot and gave it to lecturers and asked them to describe it and critique it from their own subject perspectives?

What happened was that in very short interviews we gained immediate access to the subject world and learned more about what students needed in those brief moments than we had in countless hours spent trying to see through the use of ‘Text’.

For Nurses the teapot was unhygienic, dangerous. For Designers it was Memphis school. For Engineers it was a porous non-mass producible item.

What we came to realise we had done was – we’d provided a context, we’d given lecturers a direct opportunity to provide what Wittgenstein describes as seeing ‘the language itself’ ‘as the thought’.

So what do we do now? In support classes where we have mixed subject groups we take in a physical object to describe the importance of writing in the subject context and talk about how different subjects would critique the object in their own ways – and in their own words. Nick uses a water bottle or a pen, anything can be used. What we don’t use though, is ‘Study Skills’.

What we suggest

It won’t surprise you to know that what we suggest is that students are supported in the subject. And yet we realise this isn’t easy. The systems as they are today are built to promote generic centralized support – collaboration in the disciplines is hard to do.

What we ultimately suggest is that we/you promote more the value of what Academic Advisors and those working in Study Skills units do. Big it up. Tell people through formal and informal channels what it is that we/you do – and what you can accomplish together. Where possible work with individual lecturers on particular small projects and interventions. If you can and are allowed to. (A big tip would then be to write up with that discipline academic a case study of what you achieved together and get it published.)

Draw on the arguments above (and below) to make the case for support in the subject. Ask the National Students Association (NSA) to make the case that it is this sort of help in the subject that students need. Make arguments with department heads that they need school based Academic Advice for their students, get the NSA to make these arguments.

We know this is easier said than done, and we fear that unless systemic change happens at a governmental level, that our situations and the systems that perpetuate them are unlikely to greatly change. However, we hope that the above and the below can be used to underline the value of what Academic Advisors and those working in Study Skills units do, so it is recognised and valued and accorded academic roles, and fundamentally, that student support is better delivered to, for and with students to give them what they need.

Papers referred or alluded to:

Richards, K., & Pilcher, N. (2020). Study Skills: neoliberalism’s perfect Tinkerbell. Teaching in Higher Education, 1-17.

Hyland, T., & Johnson, S. (1998). Of cabbages and key skills: Exploding the mythology of core transferable skills in post‐school education. Journal of Further and Higher Education22(2), 163-172.

Richards, K., & Pilcher, N. (2014). Contextualising higher education assessment task words with an ‘anti-glossary’approach. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education27(5), 604-625.

Pilcher, N., & Richards, K. (2016). The paradigmatic hearts of subjects which their ‘English’ flows through. Higher Education Research & Development35(5), 997-1010.

Richards, K., & Pilcher, N. (2020). Using physical objects as a portal to reveal academic subject identity and thought. The Qualitative Report25(1), 127-144.

Bios and Blurbs

Kendall Richards is a lecturer with the role of academic support adviser in the school of Computing supporting the schools of Engineering and the Built Environment and Creative Industries at Edinburgh Napier University (UK). His research interests include pedagogy, academic support, education as social justice and Neoliberalism’s impact on Higher Education. He has contributed to a number of journals including the International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, Higher Education Research and Development, Teaching in Higher Education, Maritime Business Review and Power and Education.

Nick Pilcher is a lecturer in The Business School at Edinburgh Napier University. He teaches a range of areas including supporting students with their academic work. His research interests centre around education, language and qualitative research methods. He has published and contributed to work published in journals such as Qualitative Research, Psychology of Music, the International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education and the International Journal of Shipping and Transport Logistics.

Twitter: We don’t have twitter ourselves but the journal has a twitter feed – it is @TeachinginHE