Classroom Technology

What Podcasts Did for Student Engagement in These Schools

By Arianna Prothero — July 10, 2023 6 min read
Photo of students using laptops and headphones.
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Podcasts aren’t just for indulging in true crime mysteries while commuting or cleaning, they’re also a powerful teaching tool: They can be used in project-based learning, to spice up lectures, and even improve school climate, say educators who incorporate podcasts into their instruction.

But the biggest benefit, said Daniel Nemerow, an instructional technology coach for Gainesville high school in Virginia’s Prince William County, is that podcasts help students find their voice.

“You have quiet kids who don’t speak in class, and they come in and they sit down in front of the mic and they just talk,” he said during a presentation on the topic at the International Society for Technology in Education’s annual conference in Philadelphia late last month. “I have found they have so many things to say, and they are gifted and smart and eloquent and articulate and so many other things that you wouldn’t see if you asked them to stand in front of the class doing a PowerPoint presentation. There’s a safety in being behind the microphone.”

There are many ways for teachers, administrators, and support staff to use podcasting in their schools, said several educators presenting on the topic at ISTE. On one end, schools can build an audio studio for students and faculty alike to create podcasts for the entire school to hear.

But for teachers who find the idea of having students create their own podcasts daunting, simply incorporating existing podcasts into instruction is an effective way to increase student engagement, said Donnie Piercey, a 5th grade teacher in the Fayette County school district in Lexington, Ky.

Listening to a podcast as a whole class provides variety in the routine. Piercey, who shares tips on using podcasts in the classroom on his website, said he has students shut down their devices and plays podcasts on YouTube so that students can read the closed captioning provided if they need to.

Lisa Highfill is a technology integration specialist for a new virtual academy in the Pleasanton Unified district in California. She uses the podcast “Iowa Chapman and the Last Dog” in her classes. It’s a story about a dystopian future that embeds lessons on a range of subjects in each podcast episode, such as sustainable farming, how dams work, and the history of dogs, said Highfill. Every episode ends with an interview with an expert on the topic.

That podcast is produced by the media company Gen-Z Media, which also provides companion instructional materials for each podcast, several of which have been created by Highfill.

Piercey and Highfill, who presented together at the ISTE conference, also have their students make their own podcasts. They say it helps students develop a range of important skills such as problem solving, creative thinking, working collaboratively, communication, and public speaking. And it helps get students engaged in school. Highfill started having students produce their own fan fiction podcasts, where they write stories about their favorite characters from books, TV shows, and movies.

“My students are really into fan fiction,” said Highfill. “I work with a lot of high school students, and I said, ‘Any of you write fan fiction? Well you could release it every other week in a podcast form.’ And they were like, ‘I could!?’ It was really exciting for them.”

There are plenty of podcasting tools for teachers and students to use, such as freesounds.org to create free sound effects; Online Voice Recorder for recording; Descript, Soundtrap, GarageBand, or Audacity to edit audio; and Spotify for Podcasters to distribute the final product, to name several used by presenters at ISTE.

Teachers can go as high or low tech as they want, said Piercey.

“What do you need to record a podcast? My answer to that question is whatever you have,” he said. “If you have five iPads in your whole school, use those. If you have 30 Chromebooks in your class, they all have mics, use those.”

He said it’s often best to stick with technology that students already know how to use.

‘It’s like an on-demand library for families’

The adults in a school building can also produce podcasts. There are benefits to teachers, support staff, and administrators taking a turn at the mic, said William Watts, the instructional technology coach at Charles J. Colgan High School in Prince William County, Va. Those podcasts can help improve school-family communication, he said.

For example, recording a podcast series where each episode is dedicated to a different school staff member telling their personal story and talking about their interests gives families an opportunity to learn about the people educating their children in a way that wouldn’t otherwise be feasible.

“One of the big benefits for administrators that we’ve seen with podcasting is that those episodes don’t have to be heard at the moment that you publish them. It’s like an on-demand library for families,” Watts said. “And that was really big, our principal noticed that he would be at the grocery store and somebody would come up to him—he loves cruise ships—and have this deep conversation with him about cruise ships, and he would be like, ‘do we know each other?’ It was because he told his story on the podcast and that family felt like they could connect.”

Clair Handville is a counselor in the same school Watts works in, and she helps students produce podcasts as well as hosting her own. In one, she interviewed a group of juniors about research they presented at a medical conference—what the experience was like and what they hoped to do with that experience. She was surprised to hear from a parent.

“One mom reached out and said ‘I’m really grateful you did that, not because they got to talk about this accomplishment, but because I learned things about my son that he has never shared with me,’” Handville said. “We’re extending that partnership with families and helping them communicate as well.”

Handville and Watts said they always get parental permission before broadcasting a podcast outside of class or beyond the group of students who created it.

Podcasts can help make a school feel like more of a community to students and teachers as well, improving school climate, said Nemerow from Gainesville high school in Virginia.

He started a podcast with a counselor, teacher, and student at his school where they bring on guests to discuss different topics related to their campus—whether it be school meals, a recent concert, or an upcoming lacrosse game, he said. While podcasts can be used as class projects or to replace traditional assessments, that’s only tapping part of their potential, he said.

“We’re also going to impact the culture of our building—the area that our students live in and that our families send their kids to—by podcasting about the art projects that kids are working on and ‘did you see them in the hallway?’” he said. “That sounds like a silly little thing, but it changes how people feel, like they belong to a school community as opposed to just sending kids to a building.”

Nemerow said that about 95 percent of the podcasts he records with his students don’t get published anywhere. But, in the end, that’s not really the point.

“It’s the process of creating the thing where the learning happens,” he said.

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