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A New Deal for Fireside Chats?

by Leonard Carmichael - November 03, 2005

This commentary discusses the use of podcasting in teaching a compulsory law unit wholly online. Although the technology is new, the interest and motivational potential of various forms of audio-updates is well understood. Indeed, the author had used earlier technology to deliver a series of "narrowcast" fireside chats to off-campus students in an introductory business law subject. Despite the greater range of technological options now available for online use to deliver courses to off-campus students, it is indicated that initial reaction to this pilot project encourages further research into the educational potential of podcasting.

At the time of writing (October 2005), podcasting—a process of using audio-blogs that can be downloaded automatically to an MP3 player—is little more than a year old (Podcasting, 2005).  Some writers have objected, however, to the “free rider” benefits this term gives Apple’s Ipod, the major MP3 player in use (Cook, 2005). To combat this, attempts have been made to “reverse engineer” the acronym to stand for "Personal Option Digital" casting (DIY RADIO). For our present purposes, however, I am content to leave aside issues of nomenclature to focus on the educational potential of podcasting.

When news of podcasting reached Australia, I was not only ready to embrace it, but, in a sense, had already "been there." In 1993 a long message from a colleague on my university’s new, digitally based Voicemail system alerted me to the possibilities of using Voicemail to deliver audio commentaries to students. At that time I was teaching a foundation course in Business Law in both the traditional on-campus delivery mode and by flexible delivery to off-campus students. The “flexible” in this title, though, was a misnomer. As with most subjects then taught in flexible mode, my contract law subject was still largely organized around an initial post-out of study materials, with students required to submit assignments at specified intervals.  In my unit the post-out consisted of a study guide, outline of references and assignment topics, and an inelegantly photocopied booklet of major cases and related readings. Understandably, many students referred to this mode of study, with disparaging connotations, as a “correspondence course.”

 It seemed unfair to expect off-campus students to undertake the same exam and other assessment tasks as on-campus students. The students I taught in class benefited from my enthusiasm, availability, and high level of commitment—not to mention ready access to the library!  To help to bridge this "equity gap" I recorded a series of audio-lecture overviews on cassettes that were sent to all the off-campus students.  Nevertheless this was still a case of a ‘one-off’ supplementary post-out, with no chance of interactivity or providing up-dates on emerging developments in the subject. This inflexibility also spilled back into on-campus teaching.  To delve too much in class into a compelling but "late-breaking" story about the "dodgy" contractual dealings between a prominent hamburger chain and one of its franchisees would have been unfair to off-campus students.

Thus, in 1993, it seemed that not much had changed from my first teaching career as a lecturer in Modern Chinese History at a Teachers’ College. As a young assistant professor in 1972, I was impressed by a book titled What’s the Use of Lectures? (Bligh, 1972). As I recall, its main premise was not encouraging, at least for promoting what was later to be called “deep” rather than surface learning (Ramsden, 1992). In his book, Bligh outlines inherent information processing difficulties in a long lecture presentation. In addition, younger students may have all the distractions of late adolescence—compounded by insufficient prereading or other preparation.

Although "under the influence" of Bligh’s book and his thesis of the futility of lecturing as the staple form of higher education, I decided to develop a more flexible alternative to fixed lecture times.  All the lecture content was recorded on a reel to reel tape recorder, and this master was used to provide students with a series of cassettes to allow them to proceed through the unit at their own pace and place. As no specialist recording studio was available, the space under my desk provided a substitute to minimize ambient "noise." Students also received a kit consisting of handwritten notes outlining difficult names, maps, and text summaries of major issues covered in the audio lecture.  Once students had completed the material appropriate to that class, formal lectures in the subject were cancelled, and small group tutorials were held. The experiment soon came to an end, however, when the College Director expressed his concern that no one would come to classes if this form of “disturbing flexibility” were to become the norm.

Twenty years and a new teaching career later, Voicemail arrived, and, with it, the opportunity to "narrowcast" a weekly series of lively updates and exhortations. I called these Fireside Chats. American readers need no explanation of the intentional tribute to President Franklin Roosevelt’s innovative use of the potential of radio to enter the homes of Americans in the dark times of the 1930s and 40s. Unlike the original Fireside Chats, however, which were broadcast simultaneously on all the then "wireless" networks, mine was very much an individual initiative.  

At weekends during the semester, callers to my office phone extension received, in lieu of a brief invitation to leave a message, an extended Fireside Chat of some 10 to 15 minutes duration. The chat covered the major points of that week’s topic, issues that had been raised in class (a sort of FAQ before that term had become familiar), and my comments on breaking news stories (e.g., the principles the court would apply in assessing damages in the hamburger chain saga and the likely amount of the damages). They normally concluded with an invitation for callers to leave a message indicating items for the next "narrowcast."

By modern standards this was all quite primitive.  Due to the memory limitations on a system devised for brief messages lamenting one’s current unavailability, I could only record my Fireside Chats after the close of business on Friday evenings. I had to remove them by 8:45 am the  following Monday.  This is because I was drawing on the unused pooled memory of the system which had spare capacity only at weekends. Needless to say, the time and technology pressures were considerable. The small "window" between the close of business and the advertised availability of the chats meant that recording my message did not always sit well with domestic duties. On one occasion I had to take refuge from a six year old’s birthday party and record my message into the fixed line telephone under a bed (that ambient noise problem again!). The recordings also had to be a straight run through, apart from the use of a pause button to allow for the occasional coughing fit. The task of recording in isolated settings, even comfortable ones, can be quite daunting even for those of us regarded as loquacious. Once recorded, students would ring my office number over the weekends and receive my Fireside Chat. Up to 12 students could access the message at any given time.

The response to this service was gratifying and, at times, rather surprising. One class member who lived in an isolated rural region rigged up a loudspeaker system to provide "entertainment" for a wider public than intended. My enthusiasm, concern, and interest in the subject and concern for students touched many. One student left a message to say she felt “loved”—not the most common response for teachers of contract law!  More generally this pilot project received prominent coverage in the Higher Education press in Australia and was featured in a major journal covering developments in distance education (Carmichael, 1994).

The advent of podcasting presents both familiar and new possibilities.  Its arrival finds me in another university, some 500 miles from my earlier venture into Fireside Chats but faced with similar concerns about maximizing student learning.  As my Law School’s Online Teaching and Learning Fellow, in 2005 I am responsible for introducing a mandatory, wholly online unit in Competition (Antitrust) Law. Since 2004, all undergraduates at Deakin University have been required to take at least a one semester subject wholly online as part of a strategy to equip them for the world of life-long learning. It was not until towards the end of the period of preparation for this subject that I became aware of podcasting technology.  Then, however, I immediately saw a chance to go "back to the future" by adding Fireside Chats in podcast format to the resources and approaches used in teaching this subject.

This involves a mixture of continuity and new departures. Where Voicemail simply required access to a telephone, podcasting has meant dependence on the advice, instruction, and assistance of a colleague (James Farmer of Deakin University’s Teaching and Learning Institute).  The technology, although more difficult than just speaking into a phone, offers more options and is more reliable.  The Voicemail version, for instance, could end abruptly anywhere after 10 to 15 minutes, often with the intended content not quite complete. The software used for the podcasts, (a program called Audacity) is both free and intuitive to use. With only modest technological aptitude, I have been able to combine three or four separately recorded segments into one podcast.  This is especially valuable when technical material needs to be carefully thought about and prepared with analogies and examples appropriate to the conversational tone of my "Fireside chat." On other occasions it has been possible to record the complete session in one run through (using experience gained from the Voicemail era!).

Despite the greater range of interactivity offered by modern technologies in comparison with earlier improvised use of Voicemail, these podcasts have aroused much interest and comment. This includes coverage in press articles (Cook, M., 2005b; Lane, 2005 ) and recognition as the first academic use of podcasting in Australia (Pandora). At the time of this writing, it is still too early to assess student perceptions of what, if any value, they add to the wholly online educational experience. What can be said, though, is that, as with the earlier Voicemail and the phone system, the major focus remains one of trying to encourage, to coach, and to supplement the prepackaged text based material (whether delivered via CD ROM or online). "Fireside chats" give topical references to the enduring concerns of competition law.  They range from legal issues involving popular sports players to a podcast entitled “Harry Potter Finds a Taxi” (a feat which can sometimes indeed border on the magical given the highly regulated character of the Australian taxi industry).

The original Fireside Chats of FDR made broadcasting history. Their impact is such that some 70 years later they continue to be a source of inspiration in the digital age as teachers in online units become less of a “sage on the stage” and more of a “guide at the side" (Wallace, 2002).


Bligh, D. A. (1972).  What's the use of lectures? Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Carmichael, J. (1994). Narrowcasting: The use of voicemail in legal education at a distance.  Journal of Distance Education, 16, 1–22.

Cook, B. (October 5, 2005a).TMO Reports - Analysts see iPod market share gains among teens.


Last accessed November 1, 2005.

Cook, M.  (2005b). Testing one, two. This is your lecturer. http://www.theage.com.au/news/education-news/testing-netwo/2005/10/09/1128796398213.html. Last accessed November 1, 2005.

DIY radio with PODcasting (Doc Searles). (2005). http://www.itgarage.com/node/462. Last accessed November 1, 2005.

Fireside chats. (2005). Wikopedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fireside_Chats. Last accessed November 1, 2005.

Lane, B. Podcaster lays down the law. (2005).  Higher Education Supplement. The Australian. http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/printpage/0,5942,16058431,00.html. Last accessed November 1, 2005

Pandora—Australia’s Web Archive. (2005). National Library of Australia. http://pandora.nla.gov.au/tep/51647. Last accessed November 1, 2005.

Podcasting, (2005). Wikopedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Podcasting. Last accessed November 1, 2005.

Ramsden, P. (1992). Learning to teach in higher education. London and New York : Routledge.

Wallace, M. (June 3, 2002). Guide on the Side Sampler. http://www.llrx.com/columns/guide64.htm. Last accessed October 22, 2005.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: November 03, 2005
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 12231, Date Accessed: 11/27/2021 10:33:28 PM

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About the Author
  • Leonard Carmichael
    Deakin University Law School
    E-mail Author
    JOHN CARMICHAEL is Senior Lecturer in Law at Deakin University Victoria, Australia. Hi major interests include Competition Law (anti-trust), Consumer Law and Legal Education.
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