The Podstars lessons

I mentioned a while back that I was running an internal project called 'Podstars'. This ties into the whole digital scholarship/new digital outputs agenda. The title is somewhat misleading since the aim of the project was not to create online broadcast celebrities, but rather to raise the profile of producing new kinds of stuff for academics.

In the project we asked for volunteers, and then gave Flip cams to 16 academics. We got them together for an initial meeting, showed them the basic video editing software, talked through what they wanted to do and showed some good examples of videos and tools they might use. We then had a mid-project meeting where we reviewed contributions and discussed any issues, and then a final meeting. In the mean time we had a wiki to share contributions and ad-hoc support as needed. 

The project has now ended and we've done some evaluation, so I thought I'd share some thoughts. You can see some of the outputs here.


The feedback was almost entirely positive. Of course, the group was made up of volunteers, but they all found the project useful and plan to take on aspects of it further. Below are a couple of representative quotes:

"It has been immensely useful to my teaching. I had created a great deal of AV and online content before, but this was all OU (or BBC) branded and I was simply not aware of all the free resources available now. The course really opened my eyes to the possibilities outside formal OU systems."

"Amazingly helpful. It gave me confidence to get on and try it"

"I'm now thinking about ways to extend use of video in my research and teaching"

"I learnt a lot about the options available for packaging and disseminating my research results. This was certainly a very useful project for me."

In general people favoured the open nature of the project (rather than giving them a set direction to film), found the wiki a mixed experience, didn't think a buddy project would work, the time required was more than expected, it was enjoyable and they felt that the number of meetings, and length of project, was about right.

Takeaway messages

Obviously with such a limited and self-selecting cohort this is not a representative sample, but I'd draw some tentative messages from this pilot study, or at least things to discuss.

  • The legitimisation of 'playing' – most participants had thought about creating video before, and kept blogs or had specific projects, but had never quite found the time to make that commitment. By signing up to the project this both legitimised it in their own minds (and that of colleagues/managers) and also provided a motivation to engage.
  • The switch to producer from consumer – this is small, but significant. We asked people to upload to YouTube, and although most had viewed lots of videos, none (I think) had produced their own. Once this switch has been made it will be interesting to see if it sticks.
  • Different formats – although we started the project around Flip cams, I also introduced people to Xtranormal, Slideshare and Animoto, with the challenge 'you can produce something in 15 minutes'. Some participants preferred these other tools, and all could see value in having a mix. Exposure to the variety of tools (and see below, their ease of use), was a significant gain for many of the volunteers.
  • An appreciation of how easy it has become – as you can see from a couple of the quotes above it was a mild revelation to many participants to realise how easy the tools are to use. This included the Flip cam and editing software (nearly all participants soon wanted to move beyond the limitations of the default Flip software for editing), and also the additional tools and services such as YouTube, Slideshare and Xtranormal. In fact the most cumbersome tool was probably the wetpaint wiki we used to share content. This is something I often stress in workshops – we've passed a threshold in the ease of use of multimedia but a lot of people don't know that yet. Seeing how easy it was to create content for themselves which can be used for dissemination, research or teaching was quite liberating.
  • Context and framing is important – when you have your own blog, it is easy to construct the academic context around an artefact, eg I can embed a slidecast and then write a commentary around what I was hoping to achieve with it. Although we could have done this with the wiki, it didn't work well for the participants and thus some reported that they felt their artifacts were rather left floating. This ties in with another point which is about having a recognised output route. In the next iteration I think I'll create a podstars blog where people can then construct text around each entry.
  • A non-project project – in my last post I proposed that the type of web 2.0/social media innovation organisations might want to explore doesn't fit easily into a conventional project structure, and yet projects are the means by which organisations conduct their business. The podstars project seems to be at about the right level for meeting both of these needs – it was identified as an internal project with people attached to it, there were some loose objectives associated with it, but it remained fairly lightweight and exploratory. A university may well have a higher level goal of finding efficient means of disseminating knowledge, which this would feed into, but it has to emerge out of work the academics feel is of value, rather than top-down directives. I can't guarantee these academics will continue using new tools, and scaling the project up will be an issue, but it does seem that if you repeated this often enough you would start to create an environment wherein the sort of frictionless outputs I have talked about elsewhere become a reality.
  • Being creative is fun – who knew?

If anyone is running, or runs a similar project in their place, I'd be interested to hear about it.

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