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Improvise, Adapt, Overcome

In this post, Sarah Van Borek relates the key findings of her research conducted as a BCcampus Edtech Fellow and the ways in which keeping an open mind can prove to be beneficial, especially during a global pandemic. 

As this year draws to a close, I wrap up my EdTech Fellowship with BCcampus with a heightened awareness of how my research was both influenced by and able to contribute positively within the global pandemic situation. To explore the potential for podcasting to help create more diverse, equal, and inclusive online learning environments, I had initially established collaborations with two faculty members at the Emily Carr University of Art + Design (ECUAD), Aaron Peck and Jacqueline Turner. They were both teaching online writing courses at ECUAD in 2020.

Sarah Van Borek sits with one hand on the keyboard of her laptop, turning and smiling at the camera. A larger microphone sits between the viewer and Sarah, who sports large headphones.

As the world moved into lockdown, I found myself suddenly teaching an online fieldwork course at ECUAD in the summer 2020 term from my current home in Cape Town, South Africa. This presented an unexpected opportunity to bring what I was learning into my own teaching practice while building on it.

I designed and taught a course called Nature Speaking, in which the class collaboratively created a public-facing podcast exploring lockdown soundscapes — full of signs of nature thriving in places where human activity had slowed and quieted — and what we can learn from that. The student podcasts can be heard at Nature Speaking on SoundCloud (Project 1) and Nature Speaking in the ECUAD eCollections (Projects 1, 2 and 3).

I am currently co-authoring a manuscript for the open source Southern African Journal of Environmental Education’sspecial issue called Environmental Education in a Time of Crises, which includes my experience of teaching this course. I experimented with podcasting as part of the methodology for writing this paper by recording and editing Zoom conversations with my co-authors to generate part of our data, then by including hyperlinks to these podcasts to enhance the reader’s experience. My co-authors, Wilma van Staden and Robin Ferguson, are both South African environmental educators using EdTech in innovative ways, and I have been learning a lot from their experiences. Publication is expected in early 2021.

I also shared some experiences about my Nature Speaking course in a podcast and discussion as part of a panel called “Encouraging Student Voices Online with Podcasting” at Studio20, an online conference hosted by BCcampus November 17 to 19, 2020 (see Studio20 Panel Podcast: Sarah van Borek). With the global educational landscape suddenly engaged in online learning more than ever before, I have already seen tangible ways that this research has become more and more relevant across cultural contexts.

Staying Flexible

As an EdTech Fellow, I have learned that flexibility and adaptability are key, along with a focus on process rather than outcomes. The COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on post-secondary education environments was a major unexpected factor in this process, and this meant that some of my initial plans for the research design needed to be revisited one-third of the way into the process. One of my initial strategies was to also work with video, in addition to podcasting, and in a blended face-to-face/online learning environment, when I began work in that area in early 2020. However, due to changing conditions with the partner institution and collaborating faculty, it became impossible at a certain point to continue. Keeping the research goals as the focus, I had to reconfigure my research design to maximize on what would be possible in working entirely online and with podcasting.

Keeping an open mind to what opportunities can arise from unexpected changes can prove to be beneficial for the research. For example, due to the global pivot to online learning, my research became very relevant to both the B.C. context and the South African context where my PhD studies are based. Because of this, I led a seminar for Rhodes University graduate students featuring ECUAD students’ podcasts from my Nature Speaking course. This allowed me to record audience responses for ECUAD students to include in their projects, to get important input on the research, and to engage in creative research dissemination.

Key Findings

Before I officially sign off as an EdTech Fellow with BCcampus, I would like to share a few key findings from my research:

Student-made podcasts in online learning afford ways of expression, engagement, and connection that are not possible through reading/writing academic texts alone.

For the first step in my research, I collaborated with ECUAD faculty member Aaron Peck. For approximately ten years, he has been teaching a third-year course focused on the craft of writing criticism in the contemporary art world. For the past five years, he has been teaching it as an online, asynchronous course.

Peck integrated a podcast project into his course for two reasons. First, he wanted to offer a different approach to the subject matter because “that opens up the possibility for students who maybe struggle to some degree with writing, but it can give them an avenue to think, ‘Hey, what is this thing called criticism and how can I engage it in other ways?’” (listen to Aaron Peck’s quote about students who struggle with writing). Secondly, as Peck explained, the medium has become part of the writing criticism profession, where “a lot of art galleries and art magazines are in the process of adding more high-profile podcasts to their repertoires in a way that made it very topical at this moment for this class” (listen to Aaron Peck’s quote about the timeliness of podcasting in post-secondary education).

Applying an iterative pedagogical model, Peck tasked his students with adapting an academic paper they had written for a previous assignment that profiled an art criticism writer into a podcast as their final assignment. As part of data collection, I conducted interviews with Peck before and after the course, analyzed students’ podcasts, and had participating students submit an anonymous post-course survey.

Podcasting brought up feelings of self-consciousness from some students around their accents and grammar. Peck responded to this by saying how accents and “particular kinds of phrase formation” enrich our experiences of the diversity of the English language. A student described this as a “pretty empowering moment.” Peck shared how the podcast project allowed him to literally hear his students’ voices for the first time, revealing their personalities once they had another way in which to express themselves. This transformed the way Peck looked at his students’ writing:

Writing and speaking are just simply not the same thing. And it becomes very clear when you only encounter someone as a text, certain kinds of, let’s say, grammatical errors, which look like grammatical errors in standard written text, are simply not in living speech … that ability to hear the way students speak, as they presented their spoken language, as a recorded text, meant that I was then looking at the way they were writing differently. (Peck, 2020. Listen to Aaron Peck’s quote about hearing his students’ voices.)

One of Peck’s students shared a definition of inclusivity in online learning that I think speaks both literally and metaphorically to podcasting and beyond: ‘Inclusivity is presenting underrepresented voices to be heard at the same volume as everyone else.”

Want to listen to some of Peck’s students’ podcasts? Here is Sophia Joy’s Critical Tea, and Georgia Goto’s Everyone’s a Critic.

Students can reveal where diversity lies using podcasts as sites of collaboration.

For the second step in my research, I collaborated with ECUAD faculty member Jacqueline Turner. She is a poet and educator working out of ECUAD’s Writing Centre. For the past three years, she has been teaching a collaborative writing course at Emily Carr.

For this research intervention, she had students work in small groups to produce a podcast with the style and approach of their choosing. I conducted interviews with Turner before and after the course and had participating students submit an anonymous post-course survey. Turner created her own podcast about her class’s podcasting experience, which includes excerpts of her students’ podcasts and some of her key lessons learned (see Studio20 Panel Podcast: Jacqueline Turner).

What stands out for me is Turner’s observations around how podcasting can support diversity by placing the terms of diversity in learners’ hands. She states, “Taking this process-based (rather than a thematic based) approach was effective because we don’t necessarily know where the diversity lies, or the ways in which diversity might occur. So, creating space for diversity to emerge was really effective.”

A student reinforced this concept by pointing to how diversity can appear in the form — not just content — of expression. They stated, in the post-course survey, that the oral storytelling afforded through podcasting can be considered a practice of decolonization, because it is a method of knowledge-sharing that draws on traditions and that has not historically been accepted as an academic source.

It is possible for instructors with no prior podcasting or audio production experience to integrate student podcast projects effectively into their online courses.

Neither Peck nor Turner had any podcasting or audio production experience prior to our collaboration. In preparation for this research intervention, we had planning meetings to discuss how podcast projects might fit into their courses. I offered input on the project brief for students’ podcast projects and created a podcast-making toolkit customized to each of their courses. I also made myself available by email as technical support to faculty and students during courses. This proved sufficient for students to produce fairly high-quality podcasts. A more generic copy of the podcast making toolkit can be downloaded here: Podcast Making Toolkit [PDF].

Thank you to BCcampus for supporting me in this research. I am truly excited and inspired by the potential for podcasting in education and look forward to continuing to apply and expand on podcasting in my teaching and research.

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