As students return to the physical campus we’re being reminded that physical co-location can help build and maintain a sense of community. People like to be close to each other. As the Smiths’ lyrics go – ‘Take me out tonight, I want to see people and I want to see life’.

The COVID-19 experience robbed us of physical co-location for a time. We discovered that on-line work and on-line teaching were a good substitute – provided that, as well as losing physical connections, we didn’t also completely break synchronisation. Because temporal isolation can also challenge a community – that is, if people just opt in at different times (perhaps because they are in different time zones), asynchronously, it can be hard for communities to form and engage.

Synchronous human get-togethers are hugely important. Over the years as entertainment and news have gone on-line and been readily available anytime, anywhere, many aspects of life have changed. I remember as a child looking forward to Sunday evenings in order to watch a weekly dose of the latest British crime or historical drama on the ABC, a weekly episode of Dr Who, or some other serial that would then be talked about at school or university on Monday morning. Nowadays everything is available always on Netflix. One shies away from talking about narratives for fear of giving away ‘spoilers’. It is harder to engage in common culture.

Sport, politics, and world events continue to unfold in real time and shared discussions of the latest news and sports results can bring people together each week. But at least one other format seems to be emerging that may help synchronise communities and may turn out to be very useful on campuses and in teaching too – podcasts.

The first podcast I listened to in the car was the hugely popular Serial. It was a true crime podcast that “topped the charts.” I got to it late but now that I’m in the habit of listening to podcasts rather than the radio while driving to work – to my delight – I find I have to wait for each weekly instalment. Suddenly I’m synchronised with others who enjoy the same podcasts.

I feel like someone waiting for the next chapter of a Charles Dickens novel. I look forward to each new episode of my favourite podcasts. In the future they will all be available to all at any time, but for now the time required to produce each episode means that most of the ones I listen to come out just once a week or once a fortnight.

There is something very pleasing about the podcast format. It’s like listening to a story. I guess humans are well-adapted to learning by listening to story telling. Although I’m a bit of a visual learner and like to see names and words written down and if I test myself I’m not sure if I can recall all key points of the podcasts, I don’t mind listening a second time to my favourite podcast – David Runciman’s History of Ideas – it’s a summary of great philosophical books. It’s mesmerising.

I wonder how much we can adapt our own lectures to be like weekly podcasts. I wonder if we can all get it to work. I know several teachers who are doing this already and control their releases carefully in order to synchronise the class. I think it’s a great idea.

Can podcasts also be used to link together our staff communities more? I write these weekly or fortnightly columns/blog posts partly in an effort to help form a community. A colleague overseas has created a great podcast about labs – The Lonely Pipette – that seems to be linking together scientists from across the world. I see great promise here and again the weekly/fortnightly format is key to the success.

I’m sure others see the promise too and podcasts seem to be proliferating rapidly. Ultimately, we’ll again be drowning as we attempt to drink from the information firehose. But perhaps if we stick to the rule of keeping it local and keeping it real, and setting strict weekly release dates, each local community can benefit by harnessing its own podcast.

On the other hand, perhaps podcasts only work for me because of my daily commutes. If people really do start to work from home, I guess I’ll have to listen as I wash the dishes or potter about the house or garden. I’m still unsure how much I will end up working at home. I still want to go out and see people and to see life so my commutes will continue in the future. I also need to go into work since I’ve never managed to set up a recombinant DNA lab in my shed.

Professor Merlin Crossley

Deputy Vice-Chancellor Academic and Student Life




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