Skip to main content

UTEP Faculty Consider Podcasts to Engage Students

Last Updated on July 22, 2019 at 12:00 AM

Originally published July 22, 2019

By Daniel Perez

UTEP Communications

Sue Stanfield, Ph.D., has taught in higher education for almost 20 years - the past three at The University of Texas at El Paso - and one of her main concerns has been to keep students engaged, especially when she conducts lessons in one of UTEP's largest classrooms for more than 200 students at a time.

Sue Stanfield, Ph.D., assistant professor of history, left, interviewed Lowry Martin, Ph.D., associate professor of French, for her podcast. In the background is Adrian Meza, an instructional technologist, who produces the show. Photo: J.R. Hernandez / UTEP Communications
Sue Stanfield, Ph.D., assistant professor of history, left, interviewed Lowry Martin, Ph.D., associate professor of French, for her podcast. In the background is Adrian Meza, an instructional technologist, who produces the show. Photo: J.R. Hernandez / UTEP Communications

Stanfield, assistant professor of history, works as hard to maintain student interest in class as she does to prepare course material for her History 1301 course, which encompasses the period from before the colonization of the new world to the U.S. Civil War. In recent years, she has used PowerPoint slides, electronic class polling and mid-class mini-reading/writing assignments with different degrees of success. At one point, she asked the students to consider themselves American Revolutionary War soldiers and asked them to send a tweet to King George III.

She said she wanted to try a new blended learning instructional strategy where students familiarize themselves with new material via technology before class so she could use course time for more in-depth instruction. Instead of a lecture, Stanfield said she could use the time to lead class discussions or assign group projects. She shared her suggested solution with UTEP’s Teach Tech program, an arm of Academic Technologies (AT) that joins faculty members and technology experts for an academic year to strategize possible answers.

Stanfield worked with Adrian Meza, an instructional technologist with AT’s Creative Studios, and the two agreed that the best alternative was a podcast, a digital audio file that has become popular during the past 15 years or so. The term “podcast” is a portmanteau of iPod, a portable music-playing device, and broadcast.

Podcasters produce “episodes” that listeners download onto electronic devices and play at their convenience. Part of its beauty is that users can pause, reverse and re-listen as often as they want. Users often listen as they drive their cars, wash dishes, walk the dog, fold clothes, exercise and other similar activities.

“Sue’s a natural,” Meza said a few doors away from their makeshift studio in a third-floor conference room in UTEP’s Undergraduate Learning Center. He is a fan of several podcast genres and has produced his own Star Wars-themed podcast for years. “She’s a great host. She has a great voice. She’s a good conversationalist and she does her homework. I just make it sound as good as I can.”

Stanfield and Meza have produced seven episodes of “Pod-textualizing the Past,” where Stanfield interviewed UTEP colleagues and a graduate student about eclectic aspects of history such as the advancements in warfare, “Moby Dick” author Herman Melville’s writings about life in the 1800s, the Mexican-American War, and France’s help in the establishment of the United States. Each segment lasts about 30 minutes.

Stanfield made the episodes available on Blackboard, an electronic learning management tool, during the spring 2019 semester. Students could earn extra credit if they listened to the podcast by a certain date and filled out a survey that would help Stanfield evaluate the episode’s effectiveness. To her surprise, students requested more of her podcasts even after the extra credit period had ended.

Stanfield used four of the episodes during her Summer I 2019 course and asked her students to write 250-word essays to evaluate her podcasts, which usually end with her asking her guest to sum up with a historical social media hashtag.

“What I’ve learned through the process is that a lot of my students follow ‘Game of Thrones’ podcasts,” she said, and added that she was pleased that 90 percent of the students surveyed had a positive reaction to her audio files. “It made me feel really good. Podcasts are a way to learn.”

According to “2019 Podcast Stats & Facts” in Podcast Insights, an online podcasting resource center, there are more than 750,000 podcasts, and podcasters had produced over 30 million episodes as of early June 2019. Those numbers continue to grow daily. The article states that 51% of the U.S. population has heard a podcast, 71% of podcast listening is done at home or in a car, and education is the second most popular genre after comedy. A 2018 article on the MusicMPH website said that podcasts contained content in more than 100 languages and one out of five avid podcast fans are ages 18 to 24.

In “Why 2019 will be the year of the podcast in higher education – and what it means for the industry,” published Jan. 2, 2019, on the Discover Pods website, author Jenna Spinelle predicted that colleges and universities would embrace podcasts as an instructional tool and a method to promote research to audiences outside of academia.

Karla Carrillo, senior kinesiology major with a minor in biology, is a peer tutor to about 150 of Stanfield’s students and a fan of history and psychology podcasts. She said students she tutored told her that they found Stanfield’s podcast conversational and easy to follow. They especially enjoyed hearing the guest experts who added a different perspective to the history that Stanfield taught.

“I’ve listened to about three or four of the podcasts and I think they’re really amazing,” Carrillo said. “They are a different approach to the lecture and the students appreciate the variety. They definitely help with the learning.”

Stanfield’s initial success has spurred two other UTEP faculty members to want to try podcasts.

Lowry Martin, Ph.D., associate professor of French, said he loved his experience as a guest on Stanfield’s podcast. He called the informal interview style “very comfortable.” He said he might start his own podcast for his French Civilization course. His concept would be to interview El Paso residents who lived through the Nazi occupation of France as part of an oral history.

“That’s a good first bite of the apple,” he said.

P.J. Vierra, Ph.D., lecturer in the Department of English, was a member of Stanfield’s Teach Tech cohort and her success with podcasts as an academic tool intrigued him. He wanted to create podcasts for the students in his first-year composition course in the fall 2019 semester. His goal was to lecture less and interact more.

Vierra said he has listened to higher education material on the internet since the early 2000s. The lecturer, who has a background in audio recording, recently produced an episode of his podcast, “Fundamentals of Rhetoric,” in his home office using his own recording equipment. The 11-minute pilot show was part syllabus, part explanation and part history lesson. In a nod to fun and showmanship, he bookended the episode with classical music and canned applause as sound cues. He said he would add additional sound effects where appropriate. Like a trained orator, he used vocal cadence and inflections to connect with his audience. While he went solo for the first show, he promised some of his future episodes would have expert guests from anywhere in the world and last 10-to-15 minutes. He hoped his episodes made his students curious.

“I hope that by listening to the podcasts it will spark curiosity within (the student) to investigate something else, which is what makes education rewarding,” said Vierra, who stressed that the podcasts were in addition to the required reading and writing. “Hopefully the podcast will be that gel that will combine everything else you are learning in class.”

As for Stanfield, she plans to produce one podcast per week for her next survey class that she will offer during the spring 2020 term.