VIRTUAL SUCCESS: Podcasting in Design Education

The RGD's new series Virtual Success captures Design Educator wins in virtual learning & teaching. In this debut edition, Diana Varma RGD, graphic communications lecturer at Ryerson University, shares how podcasting enhanced her students' virtual learning experience.  


Call for participation!
Teaching in a virtual environment has been a necessary shift for students and teachers alike. As Design Educators, we’ve had the additional challenge of teaching subject matter that often involves in-lab and experiential learning opportunities. But for all of the ways that the last year has been challenging, there’s no denying the incredible burst of creative teaching strategies and the opportunity to reinvent design education as we know it. 
Design Educators have no shortage of inventive solutions and it’s our goal to capture them here. 
Even when we go back to class, all signs point to virtual teaching remaining in our lives, whether in small or significant ways. This interview series 'Virtual Success', helps educators re-invigorate their teaching by learning of others’ successes in a virtual space. Design Educators (and those in related fields) are invited to share their most successful virtual teaching strategies from which others can draw inspiration. 
We want to feature your Virtual Success! Please fill out this Google Form to share your most successful virtual teaching strategy. Entries will be accepted on an ongoing basis and shared through the RGD’s email newsletter and website.   


Podcasting in Design Education

by Diana Varma RGD (She/her)
What is your most successful virtual teaching strategy?
While I’ve tried a number of new teaching strategies this past year, my most successful has been podcasting. What started as a passion project in late 2019 turned into a key virtual teaching tool, specifically in an introductory typography class as a way to deliver content in lieu of formal lectures. The class was made up of about 200 students who were primarily in the second year of their Graphic Communications Management undergraduate degree. For context, I was co-teaching this course and responsible only for the lecture portion of the class.
The podcast is called Talk Paper Scissors and my goal was to create lecture material rooted in storytelling, while providing flexible and accessible learning that got students out from behind their computer screens. I did my best to transform technical content into a digestible and entertaining narrative audio format. 
I wrote, recorded and edited the majority of the 20 episodes in the summer leading up to the Fall 2020 semester. These episodes include a mix of type history lessons (022: Epic Ampersand), a discussion of current topical issues (024: Saving the World, One Typeface at a Time), interviews with experts (020: Iconic Toronto Typography with Christopher Rouleau) and test prep/review sessions (012: Talk Paper Quizzers - The History of Type, Font Files and Letterforms). Most of the episodes have detailed show notes containing links that I made available to students along with the audio. This allowed me to inject visuals into an audio-only format. Also, for any students who are primarily visual learners, they had the opportunity to read the episode’s content (either independent of the audio or along with it) to improve their understanding and retention of concepts.
What was your inspiration for the podcasting idea?
My inspiration for this strategy came when I was trying to anticipate student needs and put myself in students’ shoes during this challenging semester. I really wanted to think about how they might be feeling (stressed, lots of unknowns, overwhelmed by lots of weekly virtual meetings, tired eyes due to staring at a screen all day, etc.) and then rethink the way that I provide content to proactively tackle some of these issues. While podcasting as a format doesn’t solve all of these problems, I found that it helped in a number of ways. For example, I encouraged students to get up from behind their computers and walk while they listen. The asynchronous and on-demand nature of listening to podcast episodes meant that students weren’t tied to a specific lecture date and time. They could build it into their busy schedules, often being able to multitask while listening. Finally, the narrative, dynamic story-like format of podcasts make them inherently more interesting to listen to versus more static information I might build into a traditional PowerPoint presentation.
Why do you think podcasting was so successful?
I think it was successful for the reasons mentioned above, as well as the fact that it was just one piece of the larger course offering. In addition to the podcast episodes, students had access to a freely-available digital textbook that acted as the theoretical backbone of the course and students were also asked to watch video tutorials and put into action their typographic skills in Adobe InDesign. The audio format worked well paired with written and video-based content.
Furthermore, I think this podcasting pilot project was a success due to the control it offered students. Students felt a sense of control over when, where and how they listened during a time that felt so out of control in many ways. One of the most interesting points of feedback I received (from more than one student) was that they described their listening experience as “calming”. I think having complete control over how and when they consume the content played a big role in this.
How could you see your podcasting efforts expanded or adapted to future design-focused courses you’re teaching?
I’ve already begun to expand my use of podcasting into other courses I teach. For example, in the Winter 2021 semester in a graphic communications processes course, I created a series of three episodes about digital publishing: past, present and future. Students were asked to listen to these episodes and then conduct secondary research on a related topic of interest and write an article for a trade magazine. There were so many great submissions that I asked 12 students to collaborate with me to create three new podcast episodes about digital publishing, interweaving their original work and in their own voices.
I’ve also incorporated podcasting into a magazine production and publishing course I’m currently teaching, capturing conversations with guest speakers to share with students in a podcast format, accessible beyond the end of the course (having received permission from the speakers, of course). 
It’s been a fun and exciting adventure trying to figure out how I can create audio content for a number of very visual courses and topics. As you can tell, I’m a little bit obsessed. While it has been time-consuming to develop, research, record, edit and release these episodes, the positive student feedback, along with the opportunity to have interesting conversations with interesting people and developing a growing collection of resources I can pull from in the future, makes this a hugely valuable project for me. Under the umbrella of “creativity in graphic communications”, Talk Paper Scissors allows me to create valuable, multi-disciplinary content that I can grow and add to over time.
Can you recommend any tips or resources to help educators who want to incorporate podcasting into their teaching?
Yes! Invest in a good microphone and check out some podcasting start-up resources (here are two I’ve found very helpful): Buzzsprout’s How to Start a Podcast Guide & Make Noise: A Creator's Guide to Podcasting and Great Audio Storytelling by Eric Nuzum.
As with anything new, there is a learning curve to producing podcast episodes, but creating audio content for your students doesn’t have to be overly complicated. Simply recording your voice using an app on your phone and then uploading the mp3 for students to listen to is a good option, too.
What role do you see virtual platforms playing in the future of post-secondary design and creative education and why?
I think that virtual teaching and learning is here to stay. Why wouldn’t we want to create more geographically inclusive and flexible learning options for our students? While there are many good reasons to head right back to class and back to the way things have always been, I think that’s missing a huge opportunity to make use of incredible virtual learning tools.
I see the future of design education in post secondary institutions as thriving in a hybrid model of in-class and virtual; the best of hands-on, experiential education focused around a community of learners, while remaining flexible and agile in a virtual setting. 
I don’t think there’s been a better time in our educational system’s modern history to rethink why and how students learn and adapt our offerings to better serve the needs of our students. No two students have the same needs, wants or goals, so differentiating the way we teach to include offering multiple modes of delivery will help serve a diverse community of learners. Also, now that educators and students both have an idea of what’s possible with virtual education, there is no reason not to explore a digital strategy, whatever that may look like in each individual institution.
Diana is an award-winning university lecturer and columnist by day and an avid podcaster by night, where she helps students connect their technical left brains, creative right brains and entrepreneurial hearts for fulfilling careers in creative industries. Specifically, she teaches in the areas of design, typography, print management, book publishing and interdisciplinary innovation. 
The thoughts and opinions contained within this article do not necessarily reflect the affiliated institution.