After Hours Learning — With a Podcast
A class podcast connects students and alumni on their own time
What if you could pop in your headphones, go for a jog, and do your homework at the same time?
This may sound like a student’s dream, but, realizing that their students were facing a full year of online learning where they would be trapped in front of computer screens, dealing in isolation with the pressures of overlapping social crises, Professor Monica Higgins and Lecturer Uche Amaechi, Ed.M.’10, Ed.D.’16, decided to make this dream a reality.
They did this by augmenting the weekly course readings for their class, A608: Leadership, Entrepreneurship, and Learning, with an original podcast. The podcast, which has nearly 20 episodes and counting, features interviews with successful A608 course alumni across the education and business sectors. Each Friday afternoon starting this past fall, Higgins and Amaechi recorded, produced, and “dropped” an episode relevant to their upcoming course meeting. Students were able to listen to the episodes on their own time, posting on a class discussion board in response.
For Amaechi, who has a background in performing arts education, a podcast seemed like the perfect way to keep students engaged in the course material in this remote semester.
For Higgins, the podcast had even greater potential. Beyond the pedagogical benefits, it could work as a way to authentically address the overlapping crises impacting her students, in the United States and globally. By putting a spotlight on alumni who were out in the “real world,” handling the pandemic and the United States’ racial reckoning in diverse roles, Higgins and Amaechi could connect the class’ content to the pressing issues in their students’ lives. They could take the learning off the page and bring it to life.
“To bring these issues directly into the classroom, you have to talk to people who are presently working on those issues in the field. With a podcast, we have the freedom to ask people pointed questions about their work, as well as direct questions about their backgrounds and identities, and how those factors play into the work they are doing,” explains Higgins. “People are living through these crises now, and this is a powerful way to bring their voices into the conversation.”
Although Higgins and Amaechi first discussed the idea of making a podcast as a joke, the A608 After Hours podcast has quickly grown from an experiment to a force for learning and change. This became clear to Higgins in mid-October, when she and Amaechi produced an episode featuring A608 alum Mariel Novas, Ed.L.D.’20, assistant director of partnerships and engagement for Massachusetts at Education Trust.
“In her episode, Mariel talks about how her own upbringing in Jamaica Plain fed into her current work in the community,” says Higgins, recounting the episode. “She also talks about some of the course’s case studies directly, which she can do because she’s taken the course. She brings up concepts we teach, for example, the concept of psychological safety, and grapples with them in relation to her own work and community. Rather than only learning about a concept in one case example, students can see how that concept has a ‘real world’ impact. When students learn the concepts this way, the concepts stick.”
Amaeche too is impressed with the success the podcast has had so far, specifically as it manifests in his students’ work and conversations.
“Students normally reference course readings or case materials during exams, but this year, the podcast popped up everywhere,” says Amaechi. “In all my meetings with students, they’ve said the podcasts have been useful and enjoyable for them.”
For some students, the podcast has been beyond helpful — it has been inspiring. “One student started considering social finance after hearing women in that field speak on the podcast,” explains Amaechi. “This was a field that excited her that she previously hadn’t even been aware of.”
This is no accident. Although both Amaechi and Higgins are new to the world of podcasting, since its inception, every aspect of the A608 After Hours has been intentional. At the beginning of the semester, Higgins had to navigate scheduling constraints, contacting course alumni, and figuring out who should speak when, based on the progression of the syllabus. Amaechi learned to handle the back end of podcast production, honing his skills so that he could sustainably finalize one episode every weekend. Higgins and Amaechi also committed themselves to studying other podcasts, noting how an episode arcs from narration to conversation to interview. A multitude of decisions underlie every weekly production.
“When I think about the guest line-up, I think about featuring a diversity of perspectives — identity group differences and parts of the sector differences,” says Higgins. “There are so many dimensions: you want international perspectives, you want rural, you want urban, you want higher education, you want nonprofits, you want people in social finance as well as venture. It’s a complicated maze. I’ve got lots and lots of different spreadsheets,” Higgins adds with a laugh.
Thankfully, the podcast is a team production, from top to bottom. Both Amaechi and Higgins attribute its continued success to the compatibility of their partnership.
“We work together,” says Amaechi, walking through the podcasting process. “Monica and I trade off with the introduction, and we both ask questions. Someone will take the lead one week, someone the next.”
Says Higgins, “We are really good partners. We complement in terms of our backgrounds, identities, and orientation to the work.”
Looking forward to the podcast’s continued production this spring, both Higgins and Amaechi are excited about the its potential to grow their class’ impact. Beyond serving the needs of students in the course, the podcast helps bring the course’s content to a wider audience. Whereas traditional course materials tend to languish on students’ desks or hard drives, explains Amaechi, the A608 podcast has made sharing learning easy. “There is an internal board where students respond to the podcast, but we also have an external link that the students can share out as they chose,” he says. “This gives people who aren’t enrolled in the class a sense of what’s going on in our discussions.” As a result, students can extend the conversation from A608 into their networks and communities.
“A wider audience means we spread the learning,” notes Higgins.
This, ultimately, is Higgins' hope for the podcast — and her class. “I hope the listeners are inspired,” she says. “The featured voices are all alumni, some who are fresh out of school and some who have been out for a few years. I want listeners to see the possibility that they have for impacting change in the world of education, just as the mission of our school suggests we all aspire to do …. So many times in class, we are so much in our head. But in the podcast, by virtue of the medium, you can hear the emotion associated with the words. You can get drawn into it, and you see your possible self.”
Gianna Cacciatore, Ed.M.’18, is a former teacher and Harvard Teacher Fellows member currently working on her master’s degree at the Harvard Divinity School. Recently, she wrote stories about Malika Ali, Ed.M.’19 and Zachary Clark, Ed.M.’12.