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Climbing the Online Learning Curve II: What, besides a lecture, can a ‘lecture’ be?


Peter Coffman

As the pandemic wore on and it became clear that online delivery was not going away anytime soon, I began to think about what else an online ‘lecture’ could be. And that’s when my thinking began to shift from just translating what I’d always done into a digital format, to a consideration of the many communication tools that multimedia puts at our fingertips.

‘Multimedia’ doesn’t just mean video lectures. It means a multiplicity of media that can be combined in any way we wish – videos, images, text, audio. Anything is possible. Which is scary. But there’s already one alternative to the video lecture that is familiar to audiences and relatively easy to create: the podcast. If step one of re-thinking the lecture was to understand it as a form of visual communication as well as verbal, step two was to think of it as a form of aural communication.

For my survey of medieval architecture and art in the winter term of 2021, I decided to bring in the virtual equivalent of guest speakers on specialized topics by recording Zoom conversations with them, and editing those conversations into audio podcasts. The results were integrated into weekly modules with video lectures that gave them broader, course-specific context, but the podcasts were also intended to stand alone as a form of outreach – scholarly content made available to anyone curious about the topic. You can have a listen to my conversation with Dr. John Goodall about castles here; if you love medieval history as much as I do, you may want to check out my two-part podcast on the life, death and cult of Saint Thomas Becket with Dr. John Jenkins here. The fact that they’re pre-recorded podcasts rather than in-person talks not only made them financially viable (I don’t have the budget to fly overseas speakers into Canada), but also gives them a long shelf-life.

Apart from enabling students to acquire some of the course content without having to stare at a screen (a welcome break, they told me), the podcast opens up a new world of possibilities. I spoke to the two scholars linked above because they had in-depth knowledge that I lacked on topics relevant to the course. Imagine the potential for using podcasts to introduce new voices and perspectives into a course; indigenous, non-western, previously marginalized voices and insights could become integral course content, year after year. And one of the strengths of the podcast is that you don’t just get information from people. You hear their actual voices, their accents, their inflections, their investment in the topic, their passion. What I’ve done so far barely scratches the surface of what this medium has to offer.

There is one elephant in the room, and its name is Production Values. At the simplest level, making an audio podcast or a video lecture is relatively easy. But making a good one is hard. I won’t lie: the podcasts linked above, and the video linked in Part 1 of this blog, were hard work. They required a bit of hardware, a bit of software, and a skill set that simply weren’t on our radars before March of 2020. And it takes work. A lot of it. Unless you have experience editing unscripted audio dialogue, you have no idea how much effort is required to make a conversation sound effortless. It takes time. And practice; you can learn the mechanics of an audio editing program fairly quickly, but actually becoming a good editor takes a lot longer.

Full disclosure: I have audiovisual production experience from a previous (professional) life, before I decided to go to graduate school. Most of my colleagues don’t. Had I not had that experience, the podcasts and videos I made over the last two years wouldn’t have been impossible, but I wouldn’t have been able to do them by myself. If we’re serious about offering quality online education, our institutions need to invest in the equipment and expertise needed to give instructors the support they need (mine has), and the instructors need to be willing to seek that support and work collaboratively. It takes a lot of ingredients to unlock the potential of online education.

To be clear, I am not advocating a switch to online learning. I’ve learned (sometimes the hard way) that there are many teaching situations to which it is very poorly suited. But I’ve become convinced that it can make a valuable contribution to the curriculum of my program (History & Theory of Architecture), and probably to many others. And that it can and should be part of my teaching even when public health no longer requires it to be. If there’s a silver lining to the two-year crucible of teaching under the extreme duress of the pandemic, it’s that it has opened my eyes to how much bigger my teaching toolkit can be.