Podcasts can lead us into the world of Supervision 2.0

The new decade offers exciting technological developments that can transform our learning environment and bring multiple benefits to all university students

December 29, 2009

New year celebrations offer a metaphoric mirror to re-view our universities and ourselves. The movement to a new decade, rather than the passing of another 12 months, intensifies this reflection.

The 2000s have become the decade of gadgets. Ten years ago, I made themed mix tapes that moved from my Sony Walkman to the car stereo of a crumbling Mitsubishi Magna. I finished the 2000s revelling in the iPodification of music. Podcasts punctuated train trips. I no longer owned a car. “There’s an app for that” was an Apple slogan that became a cliché and method to locate convenient solutions to organisational difficulties.

At the start of this decade, radio was a dying medium. In 2000, I dropped the radio topic from my first-year course, replacing it with a session on remixing and turntablism. At that time, students showed limited ability to manage sound-only platforms. The research literature was dry, abstract and dated. Currently, sonic media infiltrate all my courses. Students and staff are discovering new ways of linking listening and thinking.

We forget how recently the iPod and podcasts entered our lives. Robin Mason and Frank Rennie’s Elearning: The Key Concepts does not have an entry for podcasts. That is no surprise. The book was published in 2006, the year podcasts moved into popular culture. Early academic use of iPods continued the decades-long practice of recording lectures for students who missed a session. Quickly, sonic media were put to better use than medication for poor attendance.

For underconfident and inexperienced students, podcasts are an opportunity to connect theory and practice, thinking and doing. The advantages are clear: podcasts are inexpensive to produce. They build community and add emotion to education. Even social-networking sites that originally prioritised the visual now feature vocal widgets and online voice-recording services.

Through all this activity, sonic media and audio cultures are underrepresented in the teaching and learning literature. Gilly Salmon and Palitha Edirisingha published their fascinating guide, Podcasting for Learning in Universities in 2008, emerging from their Informal Mobile Podcasting and Learning Adaptation (IMPALA) project. Their book addresses how podcasts promote reflection, field-based learning and the incorporation of student voices in teaching materials.

Pod possibilities are expanding. Academics are developing podcasts to deliver audio feedback on assignments and I conduct course reviews through sound. Instead of ticking boxes, I ask students to comment on what they have learnt. I create a mix from their words and upload it to a centralised portal so they can monitor the thoughts of their colleagues as they write the final assignments. It is a sonic snapshot of their semester and helps me to improve future learning opportunities.

For undergraduate students to hear themselves talking about learning creates loops of reflection and builds connections between old and new knowledge. Intriguingly, the close-to-invisible area in the sonic media literature that is also not present in Salmon and Edirisingha’s book is the role of podcasting in doctoral education.

Supervising PhD students is the most important work of universities. It saddens me how often this value is not recognised. Disrespect for doctoral students may spring from jealousy, a lack of supervisory training, resentment or inexperience. For example, I was on a panel with a very senior and close-to-retiring academic developing questions for an admissions interview. I suggested asking the soon-to-be student about his expectations of supervision. I was dismissed with a swipe of the hand: “We will tell him what he can expect from us.” Similarly, my husband, Steve Redhead, in a recent admissions interview acknowledged a student’s expertise in multiple languages, being able to read Baudrillard and Poulantzas in the original. Silence – a morbid sonic vacuum – greeted his recognition of this young woman’s abilities.

I do not accept such negativity. It must be challenged. It crushes intellectual generosity and the hopes of postgraduates. I try – at every opportunity – to create an environment of excitement, optimism, learning and change. The goal is to find new ways to chart and validate student development through their supervisory journey. I use the potential of sonic media so that their voices and views are heard. Podcasts in doctoral education offer a wide array of potentials and advantages. They build confidence and motivation and provide a sonic diary of their ideas.

My five current PhD students add a Mediterranean inflection to my life, coming from Cyprus and Greece to work with me. They are an inspiration and a joy. In Australia, about a third of my PhD students were from overseas. Here, all my doctoral candidates have been “foreign”. With their energy and enthusiasm, they teach me at least as much as I teach them. They shine a bright Mediterranean sun into my life.

Three of these doctoral students enrolled at the same time. Besides all being Greek, all deploy social media as part of their projects. We decided to research these platforms and use them throughout the candidature. One student, Yanni Papaioannou, will probably be the next Henry Jenkins. He completed his undergraduate degree in computer science and his masters in creative media. His doctorate investigates the relationship between Google and popular culture. Yanni originally thought he would maintain a blog to track his doctorate. Instead, we decided – at least in the early stages – to use a non-textual platform to sketch his ideas each week before writing them into chapters. Podcasting offered an evocative method for talking through intellectual options. Our podcasts have – so far – included his rationale for starting a PhD:


Yanni questioned my views on what makes a successful doctoral student:


I probed his perspective on time management:


He also started to realise how his research project is developing and changing:


His two colleagues have also created podcasts, but with different aims. Makrina Dionyssopoulou is constructing a fascinating project on how citizens in small European Union nations are using Web 2.0 platforms to “answer back” to Brussels. This research will propel an outstanding career but also offers much to media policy studies and understandings of European identity. For her, these podcasts are a way to align technical skill and research trajectory:


My third new student, Spiridoula Trivizaki, has so much personality that it hardly fits into her body. Spiridoula is tracking the transformations to the digital divide through the arrival of the read-write web, investigating how older citizens gain social awareness and new friendships through 2.0 platforms. Fascinating results are already emerging in how older men and women are using YouTube and podcasts for not only digital storytelling, but also digital remembering:


As their supervisor, I am incredibly proud of these doctoral candidates. All are English-as-second-language students. However – as I joke with them – I am an English-as-second-language supervisor. I speak Australian English and spend daily life translating into English English. The first time I heard undergraduates talk about “routing”, I heard “rooting”, which has different connotations in Australia. Their description of “routing around the corner” was a memorable image. I have also refrained from using the phrase “two-bagger” after I realised that I have to explain what it means. The word “bugger” is used (too) literally in the UK. Everyone can be a silly bugger in Australia, particularly after falling over, spilling a drink or wearing mismatching socks. It is a term of endearment. Here it locks into sexual behaviour. The first – and only – time I called someone a “silly bugger”, she replied that she “doesn’t like it that way”.

For students translating much more complex shifts in vocabulary, the key is to find ways for them to relax in and with English. They must feel free to say a Greek word when they do not know the English translation. They must not feel worried about making a mistake, but should test and stretch their vocabulary. When students feel judged or sense a hint of xenophobia, I have seen confidence in English leak from their body.

Podcasts have great value in this context. Experience and confidence in English is crucial in the British doctoral system. For most students – including those who speak English as a first language – preparation for an oral examination begins too late. A week or month before the scheduled defence a mock viva is held. For all postgraduates, it is important that speaking about their research is a naturalised part of their entire candidature. Instead, the British supervisory system focuses for three, four or five years on the written thesis, but only a few hours preparing for a viva that often determines the difference between a pass and a resubmission, or a resubmission and a failure. For all doctoral candidates, a mock rehearsal in the third year is too late. From the first month of the first year, they must become accustomed to speaking about their doctorate in a relaxed and confident way. Sonic media offer a range of options to prepare candidates for an oral examination that recognises strengths and improves on weaknesses.

Our current cohort comprises the first post-podcasting postgraduates to enter doctoral programmes. Creating a customised podcasting strategy for PhD students generates incremental, supportive and relaxed spaces to talk about research from the start of their enrolment. The sonic strategies can include a dynamic and robust question-and-answer session. However, a more gentle and ongoing recording of their ideas and results is often a better map of the supervisory process.

The podcasts created with my new doctoral students have generated unexpected but extraordinary outcomes. The three students have become role models for other international students. Yanni, Spiridoula and Makrina – and their projects – are known to my first-years and they are mentoring the MA students. Indeed, they recorded a podcast to help the masters-level scholars construct their dissertation:


Listening to their voices now, I hear confidence and pride, and a desire to help others. As we move towards the new semester and year, it feels like a family of postgraduate students is forming. New doctoral candidates gain confidence by disseminating the expertise they have acquired to MA students.

There is also a wider function for doctoral podcasts in the British academy. The circulation of student accents and alternative patterns of communication translates sonic literacies into multiliteracies. Too often in meetings with doctoral students, xenophobia hangs in the air. European Union and international students are valued for the fees that they bring. Otherwise, they are an inconvenience, slowing completion rates, requiring “remedial” assistance and submitting PhDs that require major corrections.

In one of her most moving podcasts, Spiridoula addressed how it felt to be an English-as-second-language speaker in a British university system:


It does not have to be this way. It must not be this way. Assumptions about “foreign” students are wrong and damaging. Such assumptions/biases/prejudices allow us as doctoral supervisors to summon excuses and relinquish responsibilities, to stop thinking about new ways of improving learning, supervision and the outcomes for our students.

I have found UK universities to be multicultural, welcoming and open to difference. Yet there are many people inside and outside our institutions that hear an accent and drop 20 IQ points from the speaker. This is a great advantage of postgraduate podcasts: they naturalise a diversity of accents and voices, broadening ways of speaking about research.

Through 2010, I will continue these experiments with my podding postgraduates. We are also probing how Google Wave can frame a media-rich environment for synchronous and asynchronous undergraduate teaching and postgraduate supervision. Importantly, Google Wave has a translation function. When a student knows a word in French or Greek, then Google Wave will interpret the term for the group – in real time – during a live conversation. While podcasting trails behind the speed of such a translation, its results may be greater in the long term. First, there must be recognition of how sonic media are not only changing learning, but may also inspire better supervision.

Gilly Salmon and Ming Nie argued that “listening is easier than reading”. While I respect both scholars and their work, I am not sure if they are right. The literature on auditory cultures and sonic media is revealing complex, intricate and dynamic oscillations between hearing, listening and learning. In such a context, Nick Mount and Claire Chambers have provided us with a challenge. They realised that “more complex questions are being asked about how media should be used to influence learning for particular students, tasks and situations”. Our job through the 2010s is to keep asking questions, but also to find some answers.

Tara Brabazon is professor of media studies, University of Brighton.

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