Audio Postcards from the Pandemic
As an instructor, after the COVID-crisis disrupted the spring 2020 semester I often found myself wondering what impacts this global pandemic was having on the students I’d come to know in my classroom. To my surprise, an assignment innovation I first introduced in my Principles of Microeconomics course around ten years ago provided a unique window not only into my students’ understanding of microeconomics, but also into their experience of the economic fallout of COVID-19.
I’ve used podcasts to enhance students’ appreciation of the economics all around them for many years. This began by having students listen to engaging podcasts like Planet Money, Freakonomics, and Marketplace to illustrate economic ideas and explore interesting phenomena and questions. Students discussed the content and their thoughts in class or online, or sometimes wrote reflections or presented to the class analyzing what they learned. I found podcasts to be such an effective pedagogical tool that I published an article on using them to teach microeconomics and also created a website, audioecon.com, which is now used by more than 1700 instructors from across 120 countries around the world each year to assist in their teaching.
Beyond helping students to understand economic concepts, the core learning goals of the economics major at Emmanuel are to “demonstrate critical thinking using economic analysis” and to “communicate effectively” in both written and verbal formats. A few years ago, I realized that our students could demonstrate these skills by creating podcasts of their own. This innovative assignment was an effective way for students to learn – as reported in a 2016 article published in the Journal of Economic Education – and an engaging and enjoyable experience. One student noted, “I am not an economics person. However, I enjoyed how we were able to take what we learned in class and apply it to the real world through projects such as the podcast.” Another said that creating their own podcast “made the learning more enjoyable and showed how applicable what we were learning in class was to the real world.”
Toward the end of every semester I have looked forward to student-created podcasts on a variety of topics. Sometimes they’re on a global scale, such as the economic impact of a hurricane, or they explore a specific topic with a local impact, such as the impact of an avocado shortage on customer choice at the Fenway Chipotle, or they focus on topics happening on campus, including an economic analysis of the off-campus student’s decision whether to get a meal plan or not. These podcasts provide students a chance to dig into an event or phenomenon in the world around them using their newly developed economic lens.
But in March of 2020, as students dispersed for spring break and then didn’t return to campus because of the developing pandemic, they had already begun to work on their podcasts in teams. Now those project teams took on more value as students retained a small-group connection to their peers even as we shifted to remote learning. It was great to see students working together to create something meaningful and to meet the requirements of the course, despite the challenges all around us. And many of the applications students used to explore and apply economics provided an audio postcard of their lives in COVID.
I learned how one student’s father’s fishing business was able to adapt to changes in the supply chain due to a specialization many other fishermen didn’t have. I heard from a student whose small family business was facing the challenges of adapting and innovating in the face of changing consumer needs. I learned about the change in the factors impacting a student decision to work their part-time job when the risk of a working on a hospital floor in the Longwood Medical and Academic Area changed so dramatically. These audio postcards were personal, insightful, and educational explorations of all the ways that the pandemic was impacting our lives.
In the fall 2020 semester, with this experience in mind, I adapted the podcast assignment to get more audio “postcards from the pandemic” by assigning individual students to do a short version of what had previously been a longer group project. This time I learned from Aric about business decision making, increased costs, and new opportunities at the pizza restaurant where he worked. I listened to Ted’s well-researched exploration of what was happening in the gasoline market as a result of COVID. And Caroline suggested that, since wearing masks meant we had to set aside the lipstick indicator as a measure of consumer behavior in times of economic crisis, perhaps in 2020-2021 we should consider the “loungewear index” as we all spend more time indoors and on the couch!
As always, I was impressed with the quality and depth of analysis intro-level Emmanuel students demonstrated. But even more, at a time when we can each be feeling more disconnected and closed off, I felt connected and informed by these windows into the world around us. Much like the Federal Reserve’s Beige Book does, the students’ podcasts provided engaging anecdotes bringing life and the weight of personal experience to the current unprecedented moment. Students also listened to the podcasts of their peers and provided feedback, encouragement and further insights connecting to their own experience. You can listen to these and more of my favorite student created podcasts yourself by visiting the ‘Podlearning: Student podcasts” page of audioecon.com
2020 has brought much upheaval and change. But as the spring 2021 semester gets underway, I am looking forward to getting my next – and hopefully last! – set of audio postcards from the pandemic through these student-created podcasts.