Sarah Van Borek, 2019–2020 BCcampus Educational Technology Fellow, is disrupting the conventional approach of instruction in online and blended learning environments. Choose your own learning adventure by either reading this blog post, listening to the podcast, or doing both.
Academic language and text-based forms of knowledge sharing and assessing can be considered colonial building blocks in the institutional culture of conventional university settings. As with other “languages,” the use of this language establishes a dividing construct between those who are fluent and those who are not. This is further exacerbated by the academic language being centred around the English language. While the impacts this can have on learners for whom English is not a first language may be widely known, there is another subtle yet critical way this impacts all of us. English, academic text-based education confines us to prescribed ways of knowing and being, which, in turn, limit both our learning potential and our abilities to feel connected, included, and accepted for our whole selves. This becomes even more true in traditional online and blended learning environments, where face-to-face interaction, which may help somewhat to offset these divisive and restricting impacts, is limited.
For my Educational Technology Fellowship, I am disrupting the conventional approach of using English, academic text-based forms of instruction by applying an intervention using multilingual, technology-based forms for engaging students—specifically videos and podcasts—in online and blended learning environments. My research is based on the hypothesis that narrative-based videos and podcasts, as relational “texts” for teaching and learning through storytelling, provide opportunities for embodied ways of knowing (that encourage the expression of one’s whole self) and for supporting students and teachers in building relationships of trust and mutual respect. This approach, which aligns with principles of decolonization, can potentially support more diverse, equal, and inclusive learning environments. In this blog post, I will highlight some key characteristics of the podcast medium as it relates to relationality and storytelling and as I see it supporting more diverse, equal, and inclusive education. I will then outline my upcoming research project that will explore this in practice.
To help test my hypothesis, I have presented my ideas here in two forms: one as this written blog post (which, to some extent, breaks away from the limitations of a peer-reviewed academic text), and one as an audio-based podcast.
Cultural Diversity in the Classroom
Cultural diversity in the classroom is on the rise across post-secondary institutions in British Columbia. According to a report prepared by Joanne Heslop, as part of the Student Transitions Project, “The total number of international students enrolled in the B.C. public post-secondary system has nearly tripled over the last decade, increasing from 21,943 in 2007/08 to 58,591 in 2016/2017” (2018, p. 14). In terms of demographics joining Canada’s educational landscape, “the top five countries of origin [are]: China (35%), India (12%), France (8%), United States (5%) and Nigeria (4%)” (Heslop, 2018, p. 10). While international student migrations continue to expand the range of languages, cultures, knowledges, and worldviews in our post-secondary classrooms, the domestic enrolment trends show that we still have much work to do for First Nations, Métis, and Inuit students who wish to access and succeed in higher education (Ottman, 2017). Jacqueline Ottman, an Anishinaabe scholar, identifies a key part of the problem being “Systemic barriers (e.g., policies, programming, and curricula that do not authentically and respectfully include Indigenous peoples—their histories, knowledge, teachings) [that] are presented early and sustained in learning institutions causing long-term challenges for Indigenous students” (2017, p. 98). Through their study, Supporting Success: Aboriginal Students in Higher Education (2016), Cynthia Gallop and Nicole Bastien conclude that “the quality of the relationships developed during [these students’] academic program may be as important, if not more important, to their eventual academic success” (p. 218), therefore, “institutions need to better understand how to create positive and supportive relationships between Aboriginal students and their peers and instructors” (p. 206). How might post-secondary educators approach teaching in a way that can be more equal and inclusive for both Indigenous students and the increasing international student population?
Podcasts for Education and Research
In early 2018, I started making podcasts as part of my Ph.D. background research process, and since then, my understanding of the potential for podcasting in education and research has continued to grow. Podcasting is storytelling through sound, as a podcast (which can refer to one episode or a series) is experienced through listening. The “narrowcast” (McHugh, 2018, p. 4; James and Van Borek, 2019, p. 12) approach is both personal and social. In contrast to written articles that students may only skim over, Drew (2017) suggests that “podcasts are often listened to actively with intent, from start to finish, on personal headphones” (James and Van Borek, 2019, p. 12). Thanks to streaming and downloading options, this listening takes place on the listener’s own schedule and device. The options in a podcast creator’s palette, of a human voice, sound effects, and music, are applied in ways that draw listeners into the soundscapes created. Access to free and user-friendly tools for sound recording, editing, and publishing has made this a viable option for content producers, activists, and hobbyists. Podcast creation, much like essay writing, offers opportunities for reflection, critical and creative thinking, analysis and synthesis of learning, sharing, organizing and structuring one’s ideas, and choice of language and style. Podcasts can embrace multilingualism in innovative ways, for example, having multiple versions (representing multiple languages) of the same episode, or providing a verbal translation of content within an episode. The application of podcasting in academia is still in its early stages, partly because the medium only emerged less than two decades ago (Drew, 2017) and largely because it has grown primarily for entertainment through podcasts like Radiolab. While some of the technology, software, and creative thinking required for podcast creation could be carried over from my experiences as a documentary filmmaker, I discovered that podcasting can do things through audio storytelling that the visual storytelling of film cannot.
Podcasts as Relational Pedagogy
Relational pedagogical approaches, like podcasting, can shift power dynamics between students and instructors, between students and their peers (Perks and Turner, 2018, as cited in James and Van Borek, 2019), and between institutions and communities, which can, in turn, support learner confidence and engagement. Relationality in education places emphasis on building and maintaining relationships, inside which co-learning takes place, in contrast with mainstream educational approaches that place a focus on strengthening an individual’s mind and competencies. Ken Gergen effectively describes his relational vision of education as “a set of processes intended to enhance relationships [with] an emphasis on individuals as woven into contexts and knowledge as produced in relations, a view of knowledge as contextualised, and a view of knowledge and action as heterogeneous” (Wortham and Jackson, 2012, p. 164, as cited in James and Van Borek, 2019, p. 15). In relational education, measures of success differ from traditional institutional approaches that focus on “external measures and performance outcomes related to intellectual achievement” (Pidgeon, 2008a, p. 144, as cited in Gallop and Bastien, 2016, p. 207). Sound creates a sense of time and place, and therefore a context, inside which we can experience ourselves in relation to that place and others. There are two main characteristics of the podcast genre that support the notion of it being relational: (1) host/listener intimacy, and (2) affective power.
The sense of connection and intimacy that is often established between host and listener is an important distinction of podcasts (McHugh, 2018). This is made possible through the inviting nature of the human voice; the choice of language and tone (through both scripting and delivery) that is personal and conversational, such that it gives the impression of the host speaking directly to the listener; the ways this time-based medium unfolds inside the interaction of both voicing and listening; and the ways that listeners can listen in solitude and at home (or in their environment of choice) (McHugh, 2018). In this sense, like a trusted friend, a podcast can be there with and for you when you need it. When applied to the classroom, podcasting can build connections, a sense of shared human experience and trust between teachers and students or between students and their peers. When podcasts are created in class and shared beyond the classroom through online publishing platforms such as SoundCloud, this sense of connection and trust between the institution and the broader community can be extended.
The affective power of podcasts plays out in the way that its core elements of voice, music, and sound effects are constructed to convey emotion and influence listeners to engage in empathic feelings (McHugh, 2018). When we consider the human experience as one example and compare the differences between reading this text and listening to my podcast, we can start to unravel the ways that audio storytelling provides important information about context and background. For starters, my accent—a puzzling blend of Canadian English tinted with Quebec French, West African French, South African English, and Sesotho—hints at the digital nomad in me and some of the roads (and off-roads) I have traveled. The upbeat tone of my voice speaks to my desire to sound as friendly and approachable as I can so that listeners will keep listening. In wanting the language to be as conversational as possible, my podcast perpetually applies contractions, like “I’ve” instead of “I have.” I place emphasis on words that I want to draw attention to. Emotions, communicated through the aesthetics of podcasts, can play a role in education in terms of helping to engage students more in a given topic, but also to point at a shared human experience amongst teachers and students alike. As Dan Cohen, in his keynote Bridging the Academic–Public Divide Through Podcasts, at Harvard’s Sound Education Conference (2018), so succinctly points out, “The human voice can thus communicate one’s humanity to the listener in a way that most academic writing has enormous trouble with—and … was never really structured to do.” Shifting from a practice of writing-reading to one of voicing-listening helps us to move away from the dividing constructs of academic language and text-based modes of teaching and learning and towards experiencing classrooms as more interconnected learning communities.
Why Narrative and Storytelling Might Foster Inclusive Learning Communities
Narratives, which surface through stories (where something happens) and influence beliefs and behaviours (created from the reinforcement of particular stories), can be used in a classroom to build meaningful connections and greater understanding amongst teachers and students. Although relatives, narratives, and stories have important differences (Szurmak and Thuna, 2013). Szurmak and Thuna point to Abbott’s clarification of these two concepts, where “[a] story is a chronological sequence of events” while “a narrative is the representation of an event or series of events” (2013, p. 546). For example, a story might share the sequence of events in a student’s day at school, while the narrative could be about the student’s resilience in the face of bullying. Despite their linearity, there is no definitive way for stories to be told (Szurmak and Thuna, 2013). Narratives can also be personal (relating to one’s personal experiences) and public (relating to a social group’s perspective). When one public narrative gains prominence over others, it is referred to as a “dominant narrative.” The University of Michigan’s LSA Inclusive Teaching Initiative (2017) offers a succinct explanation of dominant narratives:
A dominant narrative is an explanation or story that is told in the service of the dominant social group’s interests and ideologies. It usually achieves dominance through repetition, the apparent authority of the speaker (often accorded to speakers who represent the dominant social groups), and the silencing of alternative accounts. Because dominant narratives are so normalized through their repetition and authority, they have the illusion of being objective and apolitical, when in fact they are neither.
Narrative (through storytelling) can be powerful as a pedagogical practice towards inclusivity for three main reasons: (1) relationality; (2) as a vessel for practicing and expressing varied ways of knowing and being; and (3) to demystify and engage critically with dominant narratives influencing our world. Todd (2018) outlines how storytelling is relational: “The creation, performance, re-narration, and sharing of stories provide opportunities for both researcher and participant to deconstruct and recalibrate experience and knowledge” (p. 161, as cited in James and Van Borek, 2019, p. 15). Storytelling, in its life cycle, requires the teller and the listener to dance in relation to one another as the telling and listening unfolds. In this process, storytelling allows for different ways of knowing and being in the classroom. Many Indigenous scholars who have activated our imaginations around decolonization, Indigenization, and reconciliation in education point to storytelling as a key form of knowledge sharing across Indigenous cultures. In her book Indigenous Storywork: Educating the Heart, Mind, Body, and Spirit (2008), Jo-ann Archibald (Q’um Q’um Xiiem) highlights “seven principles related to using First Nations stories and storytelling for educational purposes, what [she] term[s] storywork: respect, responsibility, reciprocity, reverence, holism, inter-relatedness, and synergy” (p. 9). Sandra Styres (Kanien’kehá:ka) points out how “traditional knowledges are based on storying and ancestral teachings grounded in Land, the ideologies of rational thought, and the principles embedded in our sacred stories” (2019, p. 28). The same can be said for other cultural contexts. For example, digital storytelling has been applied to teacher training in South Africa as a tool for fostering social cohesion (Condy, 2015). Narrative-based media tools offer multi-modal means for students to learn and express themselves, including their languages, worldviews, and ways of learning and understanding, which can support notions of student-centred learning, inclusivity, and access. Working with narratives can help to surface dominant public narratives (including those that perpetuate barriers to diversity in the classroom) in support of critical thinking skills. For example, in co-producing a podcast about the water crisis in South Africa in 2018, my colleague Anna James and I were able to surface contested narratives around the root of the crisis. The option to work with both dominant and personal narratives in tandem creates openings for us to deconstruct and reconstruct narratives, and thereby narrow the gap between the two. Podcasts, as a means of de- and reconstructing narratives through storytelling, can be a powerful option for enacting more diverse and inclusive teaching and learning practices.
Looking Forward to the Research Project
Thank you to BCcampus for supporting my undertaking of this research project as an Educational Technology Fellow. My action research project will apply videos and podcasts in a multi-purpose method as tools for co-teaching, learning-creation and research-creation.
Building on my relationship with the Emily Carr University of Art + Design (ECUAD), where I have been a sessional faculty member since 2012 and completed my undergrad (2003), I will conduct case studies in undergraduate courses (and course-like settings)—blended and online—at ECUAD. I will work with instructors to integrate participatory video and podcast creation into their classes/projects in a way that will enable us to provide evidence-based results while supporting the overall teaching and learning goals of each course. While this research will focus on diversity and inclusion in terms of cultural diversity, consideration will be given to the ways that other equity-seeking groups respond to the research intervention. These courses will be taught (and thus data will be gathered) in 2020. This research project aims to support a kind of student learning and success that goes beyond academic performance to develop essential life skills that can support students in becoming critical and creative agents in their own lives and communities.
From Reading-Writing to Voicing-Listening: In Conclusion
Now that I have written this blog post, I can reflect on my own writing about my research and ask whether or not, by writing, I am contradicting my own premise. I think it is more of a way to highlight the situation that I am aiming to bring attention to. I am not suggesting that we do away with academic reading and writing, as I do believe that it is one important way of developing and sharing the incredible amount of information available to our modern world. I do think that it is certainly not the only way, nor is it sufficient on its own, to nourish, document, and broadcast the extensive ecologies of knowledges that we can all benefit from acknowledging and valuing by truly seeing or hearing them. Suggesting that we simply replace one method for another repeats the cycle of dividing constructs I am seeking to overcome. The intertextuality in combining approaches is, I think, at least a step in the direction of bridging those divides.
Archibald, J. (2008). Indigenous Storywork: Educating the Heart, Mind, Body, and Spirit. Vancouver: UBC Press.
Cohen, D. (2018). Bridging the Academic–Public Divide Through Podcasts. Sound Education Conference. Cambridge: Harvard. Retrieved from https://dancohen.org/2018/11/04/bridging-the-academic-public-divide-through-podcasts/
Condy, J. (Ed.). (2015). Telling Stories Differently: Engaging 21st Century Students Through Digital Storytelling. Stellenbosch: Sun Press.
Drew, C. (2017). Educational Podcasts: A Genre Analysis. E-Learning and Digital Media 4(4): 201–11.
Gallop, C., and Bastien, N. (2016). Supporting Success: Aboriginal Students in Higher Education. Canadian Journal of Higher Education, 46(2), 206–224.
Heslop, J. (2018). International Students in BC’s Education Systems: Summary of Research from the Student Transitions Project. Retrieved from
James, A. and Van Borek, S. (2019). (Towards) Sound Research Practice: Podcast-Building as Modelling Relational Sensibilities at the Water-Climate Change Nexus in Cape Town. The International Journal of New Media, Technology and the Arts, 14(1): 9–27.
LSA Inclusive Teaching Initiative, University of Michigan. (2017). Retrieved from https://sites.lsa.umich.edu/inclusive-teaching/2017/08/24/dominant-narratives/
McHugh, S. (2018). Memoir for Your Ears: The Podcast Life. In B. Avieson, F. Giles and S. Joseph (Eds.), Mediating Memory: Tracing the Limits of Memoir (pp. 104–22). Oxford: Routledge.
Ottman, J. (2017). Canada’s Indigenous Peoples’ Access to Post-secondary Education: The Spirit of the ‘New Buffalo.’ In J. Frawley, S. Larkin & J.A. Smith (Eds.), Indigenous Pathways, Transitions and Participation in Higher Education, From Policy to Practice (pp. 95–117). Singapore: Springer Nature.
Styres, S. (2019). Literacies of Land: Decolonizing Narratives, Storying, and Literature. In L. Tuhiwai Smith, E. Tuck and K.W. Yang (Eds.), Indigenous and Decolonizing Studies in Education: Mapping the Long View (pp. 24–37). New York and London: Routledge.Szurmak, J. and Thuna, M. (2013). Tell Me a Story: The Use of Narrative as a Tool for Instruction. Association of College and Research Libraries Conference 2013: Imagine, Innovate, Inspire (pp. 546–552). Indianapolis, IN: Association of College and Research Libraries. Retrieved from http://www.ala.org/acrl/sites/ala.org.acrl/files/content/conferences/confsandpreconfs/2013/papers/SzurmakThuna_TellMe.pdf
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