Amplifying student voices on employability with audio podcast interviews
Duncan Hull a lecturer in the Department of Computer Science, director of business engagement and academic lead for our industrial experience program, one of the largest placement schemes in the University (after medicine).
How can we get better at listening to student voices to improve teaching and learning in our Universities?
This post summarises a talk I gave at the inaugural ITL Teaching & Learning conference at the Pendulum Hotel in Manchester on July 6th 2023 tackling this question. It describes recording and publishing twelve interviews with undergraduate Computer Science students shown in figure 1 on their personal journey from student to professional. The interviews are available as an audio podcast called Hearing your Future.
According to Stephen Fry, “education is the sum of what students teach each other between lectures and seminars”. A more teacher-centric view of education would claim the opposite to be true, that education is primarily about what teachers teach their students, not what students teach other. Here’s how this old-school, chalk-and-talk view of education works: In lectures, seminars, labs and tutorials, teachers share their knowledge and expertise with students. While the Professors profess their monologues, the lecturers lecture, the educators educate, the teachers teach and the students study. Learners learn by watching, listening, reading and acting on the voices of their educators. Students are then examined, grades are given and that, in a nutshell, should be what the sum of education is. No?
The reality of course, is that education should be much more of a dialogue, a two-way conversation between students and teachers, rather than an expert-driven monologue to a passive audience. Both sides of this conversation need to be heard and in some cases, the student voices in these conversations can make valuable contributions, by co-creating curricula.
All too often the student voice gets drowned out in the busy noise of pedagogy. The demands of teaching in higher education mean that staff don’t always sufficient time and resources to listen, especially when teaching classes of hundreds of students with many ongoing conversations. In this blog post, I’ll explain how you can amplify some important student voices in these conversations using audio podcasting. I’ll describe some of the costs and benefits of recording and publishing these conversations so that more people can hear and learn from these voices, not just students but their employers and their educators too.
Student voices on employability
Student voices are particularly important when it comes to employability: enabling undergraduates to develop the professional skills that are essential to the workplace. I’ve been teaching professional skills and employability to Computer Science students for the last ten years at the University of Manchester. During this time, I’ve learned that there are many different voices and opinions that need to be heard. Which of these voices, written or spoken, do students pay attention to most? Is it:
- ❌ The voices of their employability tutors?
- ❌ The voices of their Professors and lecturers?
- ❌ The voices of their careers service consultants and advisors?
- ❌ The voices of employers and alumni?
- ❌ The voices of their friends and family?
These voices all have their own influence, but in my experience, there’s one voice that is listened to above all others when it comes to employability and that is:
- ✅ The voices of their fellow students
So, one way to improve teaching and learning, is to maximise opportunities for students to learn from each other through peer learning and peer instruction. To do this, educators need to create more and better spaces for students to talk about their learning with each other and then amplify their voices.
There are lots of different ways to do this, but one of the most important is through Peer Assisted Study Sessions (PASS) at peersupport.manchester.ac.uk. These sessions allow more experienced students to pass on their knowledge to their less experienced, usually younger, peers. For example, the PASS scheme in Computer Science shown in figure 2, is run by my colleague Thomas Carroll. There is a focus on passing exams, but PASS is about much more than just improving students grades. It’s about students learning from and teaching each other as part of a student-led community.
As well as helping students to pass academic exams, our PASS scheme also helps students to pass employers “exams”. This includes written exams such as job applications and oral exams such as interviews. This is a significant part of PASS2, where students returning from placements and internships share what they have learned with first and second year students.
Students are encouraged to take part in PASS, either as leaders, facilitators or participants, but the kinds of conversations that take place during these sessions often need to be amplified for those that aren’t in the room where it happens.
Over the last 12 months, I’ve been experimenting with using audio podcasts to record and publish some of these conversations as stories so they can heard by a wider audience. I’m calling them audio podcasts here to distinguish them from the video podcasts (lecture capture and catchup) you will find at mypodcasts.manchester.ac.uk. You can subscribe and listen to audio podcasts wherever you get your podcasts, details at the end of this post.
Essential podcast ingredients
Channelling my inner Lauren Laverne and Jim Al-Khalili, the podcast is a cross between the BBC shows Desert Island Discs and The Life Scientific. The resulting show is called Hearing your Future, shown in figure 3, because it is part of an undergraduate course and guidebook called Coding your Future aimed at all students of computing.
The essential ingredients of this podcast are:
- Students: both graduands ready to graduate and recent graduates at the start of their career. Twelve students have been interviewed so far, with more episodes planned for the future.
- A decent microphone, see figure 4.
- Audio editing software, I’m using a free application called GarageBand apple.com/mac/garageband
- An audio podcast host, I’m using one called liberated syndication at libsyn.com
- Some open ended questions for students to answer
The open-ended questions are key because I need to let students do most of the talking, acting as much more of a listener than a speaker. Think less Professor Monologue, the egocentric “sage-on-the-stage” who loves the sound of their own voice and more Professor Dialogue, the “guide-on-the-side” who facilitates discussion.  It sometimes takes effort for academics to suppress their public speaking instincts by talking less and listening more to what students have to say. Students are given five questions before the interview, with questions designed to encourage difficult conversations being optional. The five basic questions are:
- 🎸 What’s your story, (coding glory)?
- ✊🏽 Minority report (optional)
- 👑 You are the next vice chancellor (optional)
- 🍿 One tune, one book, one podast, one film
- ⏱ Time traveller, advice to your former self
Question one asks students to tell their story from why they studied computer science in the first place to where they are now. What obstacles have they faced in finding work and how did they overcome them? What has been their journey from student in year one to professional in year three or four? Every student has a different story to tell.
Question two asks students to reflect on their experience if they identify as a member of a minority group. What can employers and universities do to make campuses and workplaces more welcoming to members of their minority group? What has been their experience of being female, black, disabled or otherwise marginalised in computing? What can we do to make campuses more equal, diverse and inclusive spaces?
Question three asks students to imagine they are the next vice chancellor of the University of Manchester. Now that they are responsible for over 10,000 staff, 40,000 students and half a million alumni, what would they do to improve teaching and learning?
Question four is a personal one: students recommend a tune, a book, a podcast and a film and outline why these are important to them. Why do they recommend other students should watch, listen to or read them? This is the Desert Island Discs part, except we don’t cast students away to a remote island afterwards. It adds a personal touch to the stories students tell.
Finally, question five is another hypothetical one: given a time machine, if they could travel back to meet themselves in first year, what advice would they offer their former selves and fellow students about getting the most out of all the time and money they’ve invested in their University education?
I ask these simple, open-ended questions, sit back and enjoy listening to students answer them.
Everything I had to know, I heard it on my radio
As with radio broadcasting, there are costs and benefits of podcasting. The main cost is the time it takes to record, transcribe and edit each episode. Each interview takes an hour to record, more than an hour to transcribe and less than an hour to edit. These costs are relatively small, when you compare them to the cost of preparing a lecture (video lecture or live lecture), delivering a seminar, running a lab or facilitating a tutorial.
There are many benefits that this investment in podcasting buys. From a teaching point of view, I’ve learnt more about the harsh realities of job hunting faced by Generation Z. It also gives me seriously useful content in the form of case studies. So when I’m talking to students about the need for resilience in their job search I can tell Brian’s story, about finding a placement very late in the year (August) on LinkedIn. Don’t give up, it worked for Brian, maybe it will work for you too.
When discussing the importance of starting early, in first year, I can tell Alice’s story about how spring insights in her first year gave her some valuable experience to help her subsequent job applications stand out in second year and beyond. Start early, it worked for Alice, maybe it will work for you.
When discussing the inevitable rejection that comes with job applications, I can tell Amish’s story about being rejected by all five big tech companies (Microsoft, Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon) before landing a role he enjoyed with Bloomberg. Learn to live with rejection, it’s a normal part of job hunting but it will most likely work out for you in the end.
When talking about not overlooking smaller employers, I can tell Raluca’s story about how she worked for a local company called Koder.ly in Oldham at the end of her first year, then moved onto CERN for her placement year and subsequent graduate role. You can start small, think big and remember that experience matters.
When discussing the importance of networking, I can tell Jonathan’s story about how he grew his professional network and found hidden vacancies by attending local tech meetups in Manchester. It’s not just what you know, it’s who you know.
These are just five short stories, from the twelve longer stories that students have shared with me. Recording them as podcasts has enabled me to amplify the student voice for more people to hear.
Another benefit of the podcast is, it has strengthened our community of students, alumni and employers. With permission, students have shared their LinkedIn profiles to facilitate digital networking. This means that students can find out about and connect with peers they might never otherwise have spoken to. It has also helped staff and employers understand better what challenges students face in an increasingly competitive job market.
So, what started as an experimental side project, has now become a key part of my teaching toolkit. It’s also has been rewarding to listen to and record students stories in an audio podcast format.
Conclusions: a good face for radio?
Podcasting is a low cost tool with many benefits for teachers and learners alike. Audio is fantastic medium for recording conversations and stories, especially if (like me), you have a “good face for radio”.  Most students are much more comfortable talking to a microphone than a video camera, because having a natter over a brew is a very natural format. Podcasting forces me to spend more time thinking about dialogue and less time making flashy animations and graphically-driven PowerPoint monologues. In this case, it’s enabled me to focus on what students are teaching other, rather than what I think they need to learn, so I can improve the Intended Learning Outcomes (ILOs) for my courses.
The student voices I’ve chosen to amplify have been deliberately “cherry picked” so I can’t pretend that their voices are representative of the entire study body. However, recording a few key voices documents how students learn professional skills for the workplace in a way that other students can learn from. A lot of higher education focuses on a narrow set of academic and technical skills, alongside fundamental knowledge. These are important, but a rounded education should develop a much broader set of softer personal and social skills that are just as important to talk about and recognise as the hard technical skills. Education is the sum of all these skills and knowledge, students play as important a role in teaching each other as their teachers do, shown in figure 5.
As Stephen Fry points out, students play a crucial and often overlooked role in the education of their peers. Their voices need to be heard by a wider audience, not just their fellow students but their employers and educators too. Audio podcasting is a good way to amplify their voices. If you are a former student of Computer Science at the University of Manchester and would like to amplify your story about your personal journey from student to professional (and beyond), get in touch.
- King, Alison (1993) From Sage on the Stage to Guide on the Side, College Teaching, Vol. 41, No. 1 , pp. 30-35, DOI: 10.1080/87567555.1993.9926781
- Mair, Eddie (2017) A Good Face for Radio: Confessions of a Radio Head Little Brown publishing , ISBN:9781408710678
- Fry, Stephen (2010) The Fry Chronicles Penguin books, ISBN:0718157915
- A video of the presentation given at the #ITLConf23 conference in Manchester at the Pendulum Hotel, 6th July 2023, see doi.org/kk47 (Please excuse the audio errors and background noise in this recording, artefacts created by the software and microphone which I’m still learning to configure properly) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Bntb9xzLaA
Thanks to all the students shown in figure 1 who took the time to tell me their stories: Raluca Cruceru, Jason Ozuzu, Brian Yim Tam, Carmen Faura Práxedes, Sneha Kandane, Alice Păcuraru, Jonathan Cowling, Ivo Iliev, Ingy Abdelhalim, Nadine Abdelhalim, Amish Shah & Pedro Sousa.
Thanks also to all the employers who’ve hosted these students as interns, placement students and graduates where they’ve learned professional skills that would be impossible to develop in a purely academic environment. These include Amazon Web Services aws.com, arm.com, home.barclays, home.cern, disney.com, disneyplus.com, equalexperts.com, Google, imago.cs.manchester.ac.uk (our student software company led by Suzanne Embury), infinityworks.com (part of Accenture), koder.ly, matillion.com, moneysupermarket.com, morganstanley.com, nomura.com, palantir.com, publicissapient.com, recursiveai.co.jp, thg.com and wise.com.
Thanks Judy Williams, Jennie Blake, Hannah Cobb, Holly Dewsnip-Lloyd, Lisa McDonagh, Freya Corrywright, Beth Rotherham, Emma Sanders, Patricia Clift Martin and everyone at the Institute for Teaching and Learning (ITL) for organising the conference where this talk was first presented.
I look forward to an even bigger and better ITL conference in 2024!