Serial: An engaging way to develop student skills? [*spoiler alert]

* if you have never listened to Serial you may want to look away now…

Anyone who knows me will know that I (and a million other people) am obsessed with the podcast Serial. It is a thought provoking, engaging and thoroughly addictive real life, murder mystery and an arguably pretty dark form of “entertainment”. But, could podcasts like this actually help students to develop their academic and digital literacy skills?

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1. Critical thinking

There is no known answer. From the start it is pretty clear that Sarah Koenig the reporter of this real life “murder mystery” is not going to come to any definitive conclusions about the case. It is left to the listener to weigh up the evidence, listen and re-listen for clues and formulate their own theories. The listener also needs to be aware of possible bias: are certain “characters” purposefully portrayed more favorably than others? Does the host present the facts or is she trying to sway you to think in a certain way? Is there a focus on particular issues because of their relevance or to create a more engaging narrative?

2.  Social networking, online participation and crowdsourcing

Serial has become a phenomena and Reddit has even dedicated a forum for people to discuss it. You can actively participate in the sharing of theories and ideas, discuss what you think about episodes, share new information researched independantly and discover new information from other people.

3. Online research and synthesis

This is a true story and therefore much of the information discussed in the podcast is of public record. Listeners can search for court documents and transcripts, use Google Maps to trace the steps that the main witness in the case shared, search for the social media accounts of friends and relatives, read the blog of Rabia Chaudry who brought the case to Sarah Koenig originally. You can then start to sythesise and evaluate this information, building your own version of events or intepretation of what might have really happened.

4. Ethics

Although information about the case is publicly available this sharing of information, digging around social media profiles and speculating about people’s involvment in the crime could be considered unethical and even illegal if you are found to be libelling someone. It is easy to forget in the drama of the podcast that this is a real and tragic story and the friends and family involved are real and trying to live their life.

I currently have no idea how I can make use of this in my teaching but it was just some thoughts I had while listening to the podcast over the holidays. It struck me as something that could not only be really engaging but encapsulates so many of the skills we want to develop in our students.

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