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Utilizing Interactive Podcasts to Build Community in Online Education

A bearded man wearing sunglasses using headphones to listen to a podcast on his phone.

The virtual world of online education can create a physical and emotional disconnect for instructors from both students and departments, impacting happiness, performance, and student learning. Tiffany LS Ferencz article, “Shared Perceptions Of Online Adjunct Faculty In The United States Who Have A High Sense Of Community” in the Journal of Educators Online highlights the importance of building community through administrative leadership faculty contacts and peer interaction. In association with International Podcast Day on September 30, this blog post will highlight how academic leadership can utilize podcasts to reduce instructor isolation, strengthen the relationship between online instructors and their university, and improve the student experience by providing them with discipline-specific guidance and greater insight into their instructor’s background.

Having been an online adjunct instructor for nearly a decade with multiple universities, I experienced this disconnect firsthand. Universities that maintained consistent contact with me and were available when I had questions made me feel as though I was an integral part of their institution, even if I was only one of hundreds of contracted adjuncts. When I became an online associate dean at Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU), I sought to create a similar experience for my adjunct instructors. While individual outreach and one-on-one support assist with reducing a sense of alienation, it did not necessarily demonstrate as a whole how important our adjuncts are to the department and university.

Our History department faculty lead, Rob Denning, and I developed a podcast initiative last year. The podcast was intended to serve multiple purposes, including providing career guidance for students. While the student experience is the core of our university mission, the instructor experience must also be a priority, as our instructors provide the professional experience and personal connection that motivates our students to learn. To improve the instructor experience, our podcast also aimed to affirm our dedication to these working professionals by demonstrating our recognition of their achievements and highlighting their scholarship.

We created Working Historians, a podcast that features two different series: Filibustering History and History Soundbites. The first series provides interviews with our adjunct instructors to discuss why they chose to pursue a History degree as well as how they use their degrees. The second series highlights the scholarship of our adjunct instructors, allowing them the opportunity to present their research. Both series benefit our students and provide them with greater insight into their instructors. The series also reinforce our dedication to these instructors by demonstrating our investment in their professional careers and personal experiences.

Over the past year, our instructors’ sense of connection to the department has increased by 4%, and more than 30 instructors have recently volunteered their time to record a podcast for one or both series. Instructor survey comments also demonstrate how the podcasts, as well as other departmental initiatives, have added to their sense of belonging to our History community. While these comments do not solely reflect the impact of the podcast series, the large number of instructors volunteering to participate suggests that they see the podcast as a worthwhile endeavor and are eager to participate in a series that primarily engages our university community.

Ferencz determined that faculty require university leadership to provide them with opportunities to “connect and dialogue to build community.” Podcasts can achieve both of these goals. While the podcasts themselves do not provide synchronous connections between peers, the recordings are shared with our History instructors and students to build a foundation for academic conversation. This conversation benefits the development of our academic community, important for both instructor professional growth and student intellectual growth.

The podcasts also highlight peer accomplishments and encourage others to become more involved in the department. Ferencz is not alone in highlighting how leadership support for faculty and development of a faculty community positively impacts the student experience and their success. When we feel connected to our departments and our students, we see ourselves as part of the larger university and are more invested in our courses and the success of our students.

Podcasts are an important and powerful tool that can help to develop a sense of community. As podcasts continue to grow in popularity, and educational podcasts in particular continue to expand their listenership, academic leadership should harness this tool to engage an audience and develop a sense of community. The comments from my own instructors and the enthusiasm that I have seen when they volunteer is enough evidence to convince me of the importance of our Working Historians podcast series to our History community.

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