Engaging students beyond the classroom: The experience of a
This paper explores one attempt to integrate podcasts into the teaching of US
Foreign Policy. As per the theme of the special issue it highlights how this
initiative provided new and stimulating opportunities for learning, it also
presented a number of challenges. There are three main elements that run
through the whole paper. The first is the outline of the project, its pedagogic
background and what we did. Examples of a social bookmarking site, student
podcasts and lecturer podcasts can be accessed via a blog. The second
element, utilising student surveys and student focus groups, outlines the
positive and negative experiences of the students who took part in this pilot
project. The third element of the paper discusses the practical problems
encountered in putting this pilot into practice and how these were overcome.
podcasting, pedagogic research, Politics and International Relations
This research project explored the use of podcasts in the learning and
teaching of Politics and International Relations (PIR) in a UK HE institution.
The primary research question was the following: within a strategy of blended
learning on campus, what added-value can the consumption and production
of podcasts bring to the learning process within PIR? Podcasts are said to
appeal to the ‘iPod generation’ or ‘digital natives’ and offer a means of
stimulating new interest in material that might otherwise fail to capture student
imagination (see Lane, 2006; Lee et al, 2008; Swain, 2006).
During the period of the grant, a research assistant was employed whose role
was to help survey student opinion, to collect relevant podcasts for the
students to ‘consume’ and to help the students produce their own podcasts.
Overall the project team assisted students and teachers in the consumption of
podcasts by creating a website and ‘listening list’ of relevant material; we
surveyed student attitudes on the use of podcasts in higher education; we
worked with staff and students to produce podcasts. This paper identifies the
key findings of the project, demonstrates both staff produced and student
produced podcasts, and provides an overview of some of the practical and
technical issues associated with the use of podcasts in teaching and learning
in Higher Education.
We would like to thank John Craig, Gabriela Pleschova, Rebecca Enyon and an anonymous
referee for their comments on earlier drafts. An earlier version was presented at the 4th HEA
Academy Annual Conference Harrogate 2008. This project was funded by the subject centre
for Politics, C-SAP Tranche 7 Funding. Their generous support is acknowledged with thanks.
Thanks also go to Esther Jubb, Simon Davis and Melissa Highton for their much appreciated
assistance with the project.
This project was based at the University of Leeds in the UK. The initial
proposal was to engage PIR students and tutors at two UK universities,
although eventually the comparative element of the programme was dropped
due to problems at university two, an issue that will be explored later. One
module, PIED3402 American Foreign Policy at the University of Leeds, was
chosen to act as a pilot. We chose this module in part because the use of
podcasting as a medium for the conduct of politics is particularly pronounced
in the United States (Windham, 2007). Podcasts can also help students and
teachers overcome one of the challenges associated with studying Politics
and International Relations; that of currency. As a discipline we are forced to
confront the problem that our subject changes more quickly than many other
subjects. The recent change of administration in the USA provides an
excellent example. Barack Obama has now been President for over one
hundred days and in that time made some radical changes to the direction of
US Foreign Policy. The nature of academic publishing means that these
changes will not yet be being analysed in books or journal articles, a gap that
can partially be filled by podcasts that are produced by US think tanks,
academics or politicians themselves. There is also a wide range of material
produced that students and teachers alike can utilise. A brief look at the range
of material on the itunes-u site shows that as a discipline we have an
amazing amount of material to tap into. Despite this, the use of podcasts on
undergraduate modules is a relatively new phenomenon, especially in the
field of International Relations (see Roberts, 2008 as a notable, but US based,
exception). Dr. Ralph had been using podcasts from major American
universities, think–tanks and other research institutes to inform his research
for a number of years. It was his attempt to link this method of research to his
teaching that inspired the project.
We set out to ensure that the technological innovations were used to enhance
rather than replace good standard practice. To do this, we carefully
considered the use of podcasts in light of the pedagogic research, student
focus groups, and perhaps most importantly, the overall module aims and
objectives.2 The module is structured around the key ideas that shape the
American national identity (e.g. exceptionalism, republicanism, liberalism) and
its foreign policy (e.g. internationalism, isolationism, realism,
neoconservatism) and many of the podcasts discussed above cover these
topics and give UK based students an excellent insight into the debates these
types of topics stimulate in the USA. Actually hearing the debates rather than
reading them online say, can really show the controversies these issue raise
to students who may not be familiar with the political context.
The initial plan was to create a web-based library of audio material that had
been podcasted. The difficulty with this was that copyright laws prevented us
from uploading material that had already been downloaded from another
source. Our solution was to use a social bookmarking site grazr.3 Social
See the following link to see module aims and objectives:
bookmarking allows those interested in a particular topic to create a link to a
relevant site that like-minded individuals can follow. Our podlibrary, in other
words, is a collection of links to websites that host podcasts rather than a
collection of files that have been downloaded and then uploaded again. In
addition, the social bookmarking site potentially allows us to create a
‘community of practice’ whereby we can share information with other users,
which includes other users posting relevant files. Unfortunately, we had a
particular problem with grazr and we did not find it to be very user friendly. It
was not clear how users could upload information without going through the
project team, which defeated the object of this element of the project. Unless
this issue can be resolved then we would recommend using other social
bookmarking sites. Nevertheless, the links to podcasts were integrated into
the module by embedding the links within the reading lists and lecture slides
and also via a blog. Evidence of student uptake of this resource was
available in student essays, particularly on the subject of the “Israel Lobby”
and US foreign policy – a debate that has in part been conducted through
audio programmes that have been podcasted.4 One student noted that ‘the
blog had a lot of useful material in it, much of which I ended up
using for my dissertation and essays’. Further research needs to be carried
out as to what impact, if any, using podcasts has on student performance as
neither this study nor previous studies can provide conclusive evidence either
way as to their effect, although students often attribute good performance to
podcasts (see Deal, 2007).
One pedagogic benefit of podcasts is that it encourages students to critically
assess digital media in the same way we encourage students to assess
printed material and it reaffirms what the student has heard from the lecturer
and read in the literature, but it does so through a different medium, thereby
enhancing the teaching and learning experience for the student.
As well as the consumption of material that had already been podcasted, the
project aimed to assist students to produce their own podcasts. We were
interested to examine the pedagogical benefits for the students of producing
their own podcasts-did it assist them to achieve the module aims and
objectives? Did it contribute to the knowledge of the subject area? To discover
student attitudes to our plan, we conducted a survey of all POLIS students
studying Politics and International Relations. It was managed via the Bristol
online survey tool using questions already asked of medical students and
professionals (see Sandars & Schroter, 2007). An incentive was offered to
take part in the survey, with one student winning £50 worth of Amazon
vouchers. The overall response rate was approx 17% (87/500) which we feel
is relatively good for this an online survey.5 There is, of course, the suspicion
that this 17% are the ‘digital natives’ who engage with technology (Prensky,
Those interested may wish to listen to the debate: http://sabbah.biz/mt/archives/2007/04/23/podcast-
To see the results of the survey in full visit
(Note to editor: Need to check this is not open to tampering)
2001), although obtaining high response rates in student surveys is hard-just
look at some NSS response rates!
Our survey concurred with existing studies (Gribbins, 2007; Lane, 2006;
Sandars & Schroter, 2007) that showed despite having MP3 players or
phones, the majority of students listened to podcasts on their personal
computers. Our survey findings also showed that the overwhelming majority
of students rejected the idea that pre-recorded lectures should be used in
place of the traditional lecture that required attendance (see IMPALA project;
Clark, Westcott and Taylor, 2007; Draper & Maguire, 2007 for similar
findings). As Table One shows, there is a clear indication that students would
prefer to use downloadable audio files as a way of reinforcing, reviewing or
revising what had been discussed in the lectures. Only one respondent said
they would not use the downloadable material.
If downloadable audio files (MP3 files and podcasts) were available to support your studies, when
would you most likely use these educational materials? Please only choose one option.
In place of attending
As a way to reinforce or
review what has been 60.9% 53
discussed in a lecture:
As a revision aid before
Not at all: 1.1% 1
As a result of this survey, we abandoned plans to replace a lecture with a
podcast, although we did uploaded one full-length lecture. Students were
more receptive of what became known as “podules”. These are small files
(which had technical advantages mentioned below) that were 5 to 10 minutes
listening duration and produced by the lecturer to summarise the key point of
the lecture, highlight a particular issue or act as a guide to further reading or
listening. Our use follows the models trialled by the IMPALA project
(Edirisingha &Salmon, 2007) and the University of Sydney (see Clark, Taylor
& Westcott, 2007). The podules were set up for an RSS feed. It is this RSS
feed, essentially a URL that can be inserted into an aggregator (e.g. iTunes)
that enables subscribers to receive automatic downloads, is seen to be what
makes a podcast a podcast.
The podules acted as a means for the lecturer to do several things such as
relate the lecture to the reading material, relate the student podcast which
summarised the classroom discussion back to the lecture on that topic and
link it to the forthcoming lecture - the idea here was to try to enhance the
sense of continuity across the module - and, where necessary, correct the
students on points of fact. This was an important function as a decision was
taken not to edit the student produced podcasts for accuracy-the aim was that
it was their work warts and all. However, one student told us that they ‘brought
more to the table in terms of their research and insight because they were
aware that their peers would be using the material for revision in the run up to
The next aspect of the project was the fact that we asked groups of students
on the module to produce their own podcast summaries of the seminar
discussion. They would decide how they wished their podcasts to be
constructed (some chose interviews or three way discussions) to best present
the material. The session was recorded by the project research assistant;
using software called Audacity and then given an RSS feed. This system of
producing the podcasts was created mainly because of the difficulty students
would have had using Audacity on the student machines. We felt that had the
technology been readily available it would have been easy for the students to
use the package on their own. 6Alternatively, digital recorders could be used
to record the discussions. To a large extent it is not the ability to use the
technology that is a concern; it is getting student access to the technology
easily on campus that is the main problem.
The resulting podcast was placed upon a module blog only accessible to
students registered upon the module. These student produced podcasts
demonstrated excellent group working skills, initiative, self-organisation and
Here we provide examples of two staff podules and two student recordings to
show the above points in action. To provide some background podule one is
the response by Author A to the student podcasts on the US constitutional
and Foreign Policy which was examined in week 2. In particular, it examines
the role of Congress and the Courts. Alex, Faye, Jamie and Jeremy
summarised the discussions that took place in their respective seminar
groups (and included some singing!). The students were asked to examine
the following questions in their respective seminar groups:
• Why were the founding fathers so keen on the ‘separation of powers
doctrine’? How does the constitution separate foreign policy powers?
• What structural problems prevent Congress from taking the lead in
• How has the “Israel lobby” ‘managed to divert US foreign policy … from
what the American national interest would otherwise suggest’
(Mearsheimer and Walt, 2006a, p.1)?’
The two student produced podcasts above show the level of engagement and
intellectual insight the students brought to the task. These series of podule
Audacity is set up like a simple tape recorder. You simply press record, speak into a mic
that is connected to the relevant socket of the PC and the software records your voice.
illustrate not only the revision function of the podules but also how they allow
the tutor to expand upon debates raised in the lecture and to link this module
to previous modules. If you look at the blog you can see Dr. Ralph’s
responses to the comments raised by the students in their podcast,
developing some of them and guiding the student to further reading.
The same format was used when the module covered the views of the
Realists in week 4, who examine the role of America as ‘a normal state’. The
seminar questions were as follows:
• We have come across Hamilton before as Pacificus. In week 2 we find
him arguing that in relation to the Constitution the president should be
allowed to take the lead in foreign policy. This is a key realist principle.
Further on in his writings as Pacificus he gives advice on how the
President should act in relation to other states (in this case France).
What are the realist principles on display here?
• What does Walter Russell Mead mean by ‘continental’ Realism? How
does it differ from what he calls ‘Hamiltonian’ or ‘American’ Realism?
• One group was asked to summarise the ideas of one of the following
Realists: George Kennan, Hans Morgenthau. Henry Kissinger.
The student podcasts here provide an excellent example of how the podcasts
enabled students to engage with question one in particular in a novel way.
Being able to listen again to the student debates and the lecturer’s podule
from week two would not have been possible without the podcast and their
existence brings clear value added here. Whilst all the student podcasts are
available on the blog, we chose the examples from weeks two and four
precisely because, to our mind, they illustrate nicely how podcasts can help
students re-visit material throughout the module.
What these student podcasts also show is the how the same format is used in
different ways by the four students. If you listen to both podcasts you can
really appreciate the advantage of using verbal summaries as a teaching and
learning tool. They also highlight how in seminars the students pick up on
different aspects of the question. As one student noted ‘whilst their primary
reading was the same as our own, the secondary readings and discussions
often differed from our own, and thus offered additional insight into the topics’.
Other formats were also utilised throughout the module including a question
and answer format.
Asking students to summarise seminars can be seen as them participating in
their own learning or active learning (see Powner & Allendoerfer, 2008).
Indeed Lee et al. argue that the true potential of podcasting technology lies in
its knowledge-creation value, and its use as a vehicle for disseminating
learner-generated content (Lee et al., 2008: 504). On a more practical level it
allows students to gain an insight into the seminar discussions in other
To corroborate our findings and impressions were undertook focus-groups of
final year students7. The main points from these groups were that having the
podules was useful. One student stated that ‘listening to the Podcasts was
useful as a kind of consolidation of some of the more complex issues which
arose in the module’. Another argued that directing students to a ‘wide variety
of sources [is] helping us to deepen our understanding of the discourses
surrounding American foreign policy’.
Of particular interest is the student produced podcasts 8 as they provided an
innovative and interesting way for students to demonstrate achievement of the
module aims, especially develop a reasoned argument, synthesise relevant
information, exercise critical judgement, communicate effectively and fluently.
According to one student these podcasts ‘made learning the subject more of a
proactive and engaging process, rather than simply absorbing designated
information for analysis, by forcing us to discuss and decide what was worth
focusing on, what wasn't and what else we could find that had been
overlooked etc’. Another argued that the process ‘not only deepened my
understanding of American foreign policy but bolstered my ability to
articulate the arguments involved’. It could be argued that these comments
could have as easily been said about presentations or reporting back to a
seminar group. However, there was something about producing a podcast
that would be listened to by both staff and students (and that could be listened
to again) that really focused the minds of those students who produced the
podcasts. This is one of the main advantages of using podcasts-that the
process of recording student presentations for consumption changes attitudes
to the process.
In relation to attendance, we found some interesting comments. Students like
going to lectures and therefore do not want them to be replaced by podcasts.
‘University One is not a virtual university’ as one said. Another said that ‘I
quite like going to lectures. I like listening to people. I like going to seminars
as well. I like talking to people and interacting with people. Actually, I like
getting a broad range of resources. It makes it more interesting if you’ve got a
range of stuff to go to’. One anecdote at a conference was that it was like
going to the cinema versus watching a dvd at home. You see the same film
but sometime the collective cinema experience adds a new dimension
Two focus groups were convened at the start of the semester two trials and two at the end.
See the blog for all the student and staff produced podcasts.
One of the perceived advantages of podcasts is that they appeal to students
with different learning styles and they also overcome the issue associated
with traditional lectures is that you only get one chance to hear it (Campbell,
2005; Knight, 2006). If you learn best via listening rather than reading this
creates problems. You can re-read a text until you understand it. That option
is not open to auditory learners. Podcasting lectures or seminars gives these
students a choice about where and when to access digital material and how
many times they wish to repeat it: ‘I think it [a podcast] would be good
because sometimes if the lecture goes too fast you can’t actually take down
the main point, so if you can pause it and play it whenever you want to then
you can kind of note down the points at your own pace’. ‘I found week 8 so
helpful for recapping and filling in which bits I missed in the lecture’. It also
appeared to stimulate discussion outside the classroom: ‘We also found that
because of the ease of access to the audio files on the blog many more
students had been through a large percent of the material which led to
discussions in the bar and outside of classes’.
Podcasting lectures or seminars gives these students a choice about where
and when to access digital material and how many times they wish to repeat it
Student opinion was summarised by these statements: ‘I think I would listen to
it for example on the way into uni or into town... so I can kill two birds with one
stone’; or ‘there is plenty of time to kill on the bus... time’s not an excuse not
to listen particularly to a 5 minute summary’ (Campbell, 2005 also notes this
advantage of podcasts). One interesting comment was that producing
podcasts helped one student consider how the spoken word can differ from
written text in putting across meaning appropriately for academia.
The seminars on this module encourage students to examine the issues
surrounding US foreign policy. However, students only get to hear the views
of students in their own seminar group. Asking students to summarise
seminars can be seen as them participating in their own learning or active
learning. Indeed the literature suggests that the true potential of podcasting
technology lies in its knowledge-creation value, and its use as a vehicle for
disseminating learner-generated content. As one student noted, podcasts
allowed for ‘a deepening and widening of debate and discussion beyond
confines of seminar’. Another noted that the student podcast would be
‘something different, to see what other opinions are in other seminar groups’.
Students expressed a preference for a podcast using an RSS feed and
thought this would make it easier and therefore more likely that they would
use the additional material. “It would be easier if it came to you on iTunes
rather than having to seek it out every week” or ‘it’s nice to have it delivered to
you, to use when you want”. It was interesting that most students listened to
podcasts on computers. One said that ‘I set up an RSS feed, and then
listened on my laptop. I don’t own an MP3 player, and I think it is important to
remember that not all students do, though I appreciate the majority probably
do!’ However, another interesting issue arose with some students stating that
they did not want their private and university lives to mix. Their MP3 players
were therefore for fun and entertainment, not for politics and international
Students thought podcasts could be made part of a structured learning
process. Some asked for podules to be available prior to the lecture “...it’s the
habit you could get into, just listening to the summary before you walk into the
seminar or walking on your way to the lecture. If you listen to the summary
first you know what he is going to talk about and then you could maybe take it
in a bit better’.
The project was affected by a number of technical problems. Whilst the
creation of the pod library was a success, it did not, as noted above, work
quite how we intended it. In part, this was due to technological problems that
limited uploading rights to the member of the project team that had created
the site. This meant that the social networking site did not function as ‘the
community of practice’ as we intended. The other issue was how to handle
large audio files. We created a blog to try to overcome space issues. The size
of the files in MP3 format, even for the short time span of the podule, was too
large to be handled by the University’s Portal, which had an upload limit of 1
MB! We would also “tag” these files so that they would be picked up by the
student’s aggregator (for instance iTunes) and automatically downloaded for
the student when they subscribe to the module blog using the RSS feed.
This meant we could combine the storage elements of the blog with the
interactivity a blog provides. This was created successfully but the fact that
students had to go to a separate site for powerpoint slides (the University
‘Portal’), the blog for produced audio files as well as the social bookmarking
site to consume podcasts was not necessarily user friendly. The introduction
of a new Virtual Learning Environment (Blackboard) at Leeds should in future
allow all elements to be in one place and for better monitoring of usage to be
There were a number of issues that prevented our partner institution
progressing at the same speed as University One. These included the fact
that the module we identified as most appropriate ended up not being taught
by the proposed lecturer due to her taking on a major administrative role at
University Two. The person who taught the course did not share the
enthusiasm of the project team and failed to promote the survey or encourage
students to produce podcasts. We hoped that the proposed would be in
position to facilitate focus groups at University Two as students had been
exposed to the use of podcasts in previous modules, but her departure from
the university meant that this was unable to happen.
These problems with our partner institution highlight a classic problem
associated with the use of IT in teaching and learning generally – encouraging
staff to engage with its use and not be frightened of the technology. Some
staff also see the start up costs, such as training and obtaining recording
equipment, associated with the use of e-learning tools as too high. Perhaps
more of an issue is that there often needs to be a staff time commitment. This
is often “additional work” for colleagues that often goes unseen in work-load
models and the like, which can act as a disincentive for staff to become
involved (see Gribbins, 2007).
Our podcasting experience has met with a variety of reactions among
students and staff, overall, it must be said, positive reactions. We have
identified genuine benefits and concerns as voiced by students relating to the
addition of podcasting to the range of methods currently used in academic
teaching. These need to be taken seriously, but they do not rule out its further
use as learning and teaching tool. We are conscious of the fact, however, that
the present project has only actively engaged a minority of students. The
majority overall seemed rather apathetic and did not (despite the reminders)
really engage with the project. To some extent this was associated with the
module running in the final semester of year three. The lack of a formal mark
associated with participation lead some students, who view their degree
rather instrumentally, to believe that the “extra” work involved was not worth
the effort. Therefore, our project could be accused of allowing the majority to
free ride on the work of the minority However, there is nothing unique about
the use of podcasts in this regard. Whether we are discussing group work or
participating in a seminar, there are long standing issues regarding ‘free
riding’ by students (see Maranto and Gresham, 1998).
Our view is that either the module needs to be totally restructured around the
use of podcasting to increase the uptake of the additional material provided or
that it needs to be utilised in a more systematic fashion throughout all levels in
the School. Our study has shown that the technology has clearly worked and
it has revealed the potential for, in particular, directly integrating student
podcasts into the structure of the module. There is, it seems, no obstacle to
either replacing or supplementing the traditional student presentation with a
student podcast. Making this compulsory and assessing it would obviously
increase student engagement with this practice. These trials have clearly
demonstrated that the technology can be used to assess presentation skills,
although it may raise ethical issues that need further exploration.
Furthermore, the technology provides a record of presentations that can be
consulted by external examiners in ways traditional classroom presentations
Our project also contributes to the debate about learning styles. There is
considerable research (see Kolb and Kolb, 2005; see also Ramsden, 2003)
that highlights that students have different learning styles and that some of
these learning styles are not normally favoured by traditional teaching
methods in higher education. Although they do not focus on the above styles,
Fox and Ronkowski (1997) have demonstrated that students in political
science courses use a variety of learning styles and they suggested that
instructors expand their teaching methods to address a broader number of
learning styles. This finding is supported by Sims and Sims who argue that
course design needs to accommodate this diversity of styles (Sims and Sims,
Podcasts clearly appeal to auditory learners, those who learn best through
hearing things (Meng, 2005). An issue here is whether podcasting would
change the balance between auditory learning and reading. In the traditional
PIR) course the emphasis tends be on the latter and there is perhaps a
danger that the use of podcasting may raise the false expectation that a
student can do well in a module without doing the necessary reading. Indeed
some are now arguing that e-technologies appear to be leading many
students to use ‘‘lowest common denominator’’ information, with some
arguing that e-technologies are more damaging to the undergraduate
research and learning processes than they are worth (see Dolowitz, 2007).
We feel that to place the blame solely on the shoulders of e-technologies is a
bit like shooting the messenger. We do accept that e-technologies must be
used appropriately hence the fact that our project carefully considered the
pedagogic research, student focus groups, and perhaps most importantly,
how podcasts would help the overall module aims and objectives. As we have
argued before ‘Podcasting is merely a means of delivering teaching material,
it does not dictate the nature of that material or its educational value’ (Authors,
There is also evidence to suggest that the traditional 50 minute lecture is far
from the most effective way of making use of the average student’s attention
span (Read, 2005). Lecturers support these findings with anecdotal evidence
of ‘losing’ the students in the second half of the lecture. Providing podcasts
allows students with a means of ‘re-attending’ the lecture in their own time, or
at least having the capacity to revise those points that may have been
delivered at a point beyond their attention span (see Kumar, 2003).
The pedagogic issues associated with podcasting include the fact that not all
students will have access to or be familiar with the technology, students with
some disabilities will have difficulty using podcasts, and listening to podcasts
could be a passive learning activity (see SDDU, 2007). This paper is not the
place to engage in a full debate about whether or not current students are
digital natives. However, it is clear that being familiar with certain aspects of
technology such as video games, mobile phones or Facebook does not
always equate to familiarity with the types of technology used in universities.
There is also the question of attendance at lectures. The availability of full
lecture podcasts could contribute to a decline in class attendance, resulting in
students failing to build up relations with their tutors or peers. They could also
fail to learn crucial skills such as note taking. Supporters of podcasts argue
that ‘students are more likely to go to class and participate in the conversation
because they are not worried about writing everything down’ (in Knight, 2006).
Indeed, studies have shown that student supplement their lecture attendance
with podcasts (Copley, 2007, Malan, 2007, Roberts, 2008).
What we have discovered, however, is that it is both possible and desirable to
take the next step and think of ways of integrating the practice of producing
podcasts into the learning methods and objectives of PIR modules. Lee et al
argue that podcasting allows ‘students to articulate their understanding of
ideas and concepts, and to share the outcomes with an audience they value,
such as their peers’ (Lee et al, 2008, p. 518). We concur with this argument,
believing that the student act of producing podcasts can concentrate student
minds on refining presentation and broader academic skills as well as
enhancing their general learning experience
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