FreshEd on FreshEd
Today we flip the script. Susan Robertson interviews me as part of her weekly Ideas Lab seminar at Cambridge University. We discuss the creation and evolution of FreshEd and what the podcast’s impact has been on higher education. We recorded this interview in front of a live Zoom audience.
Citation: Brehm, Will, interview with Susan Robertson. FreshEd 232, podcast audio, March 15, 2021. https://freshedpodcast.com/brehm/
Will Brehm 0:01
This is fresh shed, our weekly podcast that makes complex ideas and educational research easily understood. I’m your host Will Brehm. Today we flip the script, Susan Robertson interviews me, as part of her weekly Ideas Lab seminar series at Cambridge University. We discussed the creation and evolution of fresh Ed, and what the podcasts impact has been on higher education. We recorded this interview in front of a live zoom audience, and I thought I should share it with you. Let me turn it over to Susan.
Susan Robertson 0:35
This is quite an amazing occasion because essentially, Will’s going to be interviewed by the Ideas Lab located here in the Faculty of Education at the University of Cambridge, for his own show. But it’s such a great pleasure to be able to do this guest spot where we’re meeting the founder, the creator, and the ongoing editor of FreshEd. Now, FreshEd, if you don’t know it is a weekly podcast, and it’s focused on new educational research issues from all over the world. It’s an amazing program, it’s been downloaded. Well, not far off half a million times, which is quite something. A little bit about Will. He’s the lecturer. He’s a lecturer in education and international development at UC UCL at the Institute of Education in London, and also a member of the Center for Education and international development. And His research interests include comparative education, international relations, political economy, and so on. He’s got a book coming out soon called Cambodia for Sale. So, look out for this book, because it’ll be a really important contribution.
Welcome, Will. Welcome to the Ideas Lab, and welcome to your own show as the star.
Will Brehm 2:04
It’s a very strange feeling. It just feels very much flipped. But I’m happy to be here and thank you so much for inviting me.
Susan Robertson 2:12
It’s a great pleasure Will. Well, why start FreshEd? It starts in 2015 but what was your niggling suspicion of what was missing in the broadcasting world?
Will Brehm 2:25
Well, I can make it sound really fantastic, or I can give you the real answer. And the real answer is my wife. Jo Fahey had the idea when we moved to Japan. But when I think back on it now, I’m an American, I’ve lived this young academic careers life where you have to move around the world. And so, I did my master’s degree in America, and then I lived in Cambodia, I did my PhD in Hong Kong, I ended up getting a job in Japan, here, I am now sitting in London. And so, in many ways you lose your home and so you have to find ways of finding a place to live. And I think of Theodore Adorno, when he had to live in exile in the UK and he sort of found his place through writing. And I ended up finding my place in the world through podcasting, which is a very strange thing. I never thought that that would happen. But more or less, the idea was, I moved to Japan, I didn’t really know anyone, and I needed to maintain and build contacts. And I thought, creating a reason to have conversations with people on Skype -we used Skype back then before the pandemic when everyone moved to Zoom- and I basically figured this would be a great way to connect with people, talk to people, and then potentially have interesting conversations that other people might be interested in. I never would have imagined that this would turn out the way it did. I mean, originally, I was creating this in my room in Tokyo, doing the recordings, doing the editing all by myself trying to make it work, learning how to do web design. And now we have a team of 11 people working on it. We have five board members who sort of guide us, we’re an actual nonprofit organization registered in America. So, it’s sort of just exploded over the last five years to something I never imagined.
Susan Robertson 4:27
So, it’s quite the institution. I mean, I remember your early days, Will, when annually, you would do an interview with myself and my colleague, Roger Dale, “Round Up of the Year”, but 11 people and essentially an institution in its own right. Will, I’m wondering who is the audience and do you have a sense of how it’s expanded overtime?
Will Brehm 4:53
Yeah, so statistics on podcasts are actually notoriously hard to track. And the analogy here would be like the CD for those who used to listen to CDs. If you were to sell a CD, you have no idea how many times someone listens to that CD, or if they give the CD to someone else to listen to, or if they’re sitting in a room with multiple people listening to the CD. All we know is that you sold one CD. And podcasting is very similar. We know that the number of computers, or not even computers, the number of IP addresses that have downloaded the podcast one time. Now, do they listen to it multiple times? Do they listen to it with other people in the room? Do they send the file by email to other people? We don’t know. And so, it’s actually quite frustrating. Generally speaking, what we do know is that we get over 10,000 unique listens per month, we have IP addresses or “people” that are living in over 150 countries, we know roughly that about 40% of the people listening reside in America, in the United States. Now, are those Americans? I would say no. I think some of them are probably international students studying in America but their IP address is located in America. So, it’s notoriously hard to sort of unpack this. In terms of unique listeners -so, not just the number of downloads, but how many people are actually listening- my best estimate and I can go into how I’ve calculated this, but my best estimate is about 2,500 people, every month are downloading more than one show every month, basically. And we also know that we’re really used in universities quite a lot. So, I’ve seen different like Cambridge, Moodle, or UCL Moodle pages, or Harvard Moodle pages, we know we’ve counted about 30 universities from around the world connecting to FreshEd. But how they use it, we don’t know, but we know that they are connecting to us. So, in terms of the actual audience, if we were to sort of categorize them, I would say there’s three categories. One is students, I think that’s our biggest category. And so most people that listen to the show are either master students or PhD students. So, people that are very well read, in a sense in the field of education. Teachers, I should say, including professors. And then the last type is practitioners, or NGO workers, World Bank workers, UNESCO workers. Those are roughly the types of people we have. And then of course, there’s my parents. My parents are probably the biggest fan of the show and have listened to every single episode from beginning to end. And so, they don’t fall into any of those three categories, necessarily.
Susan Robertson 8:09
There’s a lovely bit of your audience that I think is really, really important. So, you talked about going from your room to 11 people. Talk to us about this model. I mean, how did you go from that to that? Are there financial challenges, who’s on your board, what does it mean to be a nonprofit in a world of pandemic and rapid expansion of the big knowledge distributors, and so on.
Will Brehm 8:43
So, it’s not easy. Institutionalizing, I really had to learn quite a lot about how to manage a team and what a team looks like, and sort of the legal aspects of what an institution is, and then all the budgeting aspects. I mean, we don’t have lawyers, we don’t have accountants, we’re basically doing this all by ourselves. And so, there’s a big steep learning curve on top of all the technology, on top of all this sort of academic work. But the team has been really great. Originally it was just people who were interested in the show that got in touch with me and said, “Can I help out?” And then we sort of expanded it a bit for some students I worked with in Tokyo who wanted to get involved. And then it just sort of grew from there. And now we do advertise for positions and people sort of apply, and we do interviews, and so it is much more formal in a way which has its pros and cons. There’s something really nice about working on a project together, and not really thinking of it as an organization. Because when you think of it as an organization, you have to actually think about, are you compensating people fairly? It’s not just simply all working together on a project. And this sort of project takes huge numbers of hours every week to pull off. We do about 40 shows per year. And so, it takes huge numbers of labor time, basically. And when you institutionalize, you now have to actually be very careful about, you know, you have to make sure people are compensated and paid, and not just simply exploited, which in the world of education and higher education, a lot of graduate students are exploited. And there’s movements in the US, I know, for trying to unionize a lot of graduate students where they do so much teaching, and they justify it in terms of you’re sort of getting experience and training that you can use in the future. And I thought, that’s not what we want to do. We don’t want to go down that road of sort of relying on exploited labor. And so, we were very clear that we were going to pay people for the work that they put in. And so, we now do that. And it does make it a bit more of a challenge, because now we have to account for hours, and we have to figure out monthly payments, but we can do it. And we have figured out how to do it.
The board is really supportive. I mean, we have a board that is comprised of – so for instance, the General Secretary of Education International, Dave Edwards is on our board, Keita Takayama, Yuto Kitamura, Arathi Sriprakash and Iveta Silova. So, we have a good mix of academics from different parts of the world plus David sort of representing both civil society and unions in a sense. And so, we have very good meetings where they help direct what we’re trying to do. And the big part now is really fundraising. And it is a challenge when we don’t take money for advertisements. We don’t do sponsored content. So, we don’t let say an organization come in and say we’ll give you money if we can dictate what content goes on the show. So, we refuse to do that. We want to be independent. But maintaining independence really is a challenge financially. Because if you say no to advertisers, which we do get offers. So, for instance, some e-cigarette companies have been in touch with me about advertising. And also, interestingly, Pearson has been in touch with me about using FreshEd content on some of their examinations for a fee, right? They’re willing to pay money. But we’ve just consistently said no. We do not want any of our material to be used in that way. We don’t want to advertise. But yet we want everything to be public, right? We want absolutely everything to be public and open access. And so, maintaining that balance is really, really tricky. And so, we’re working with some good funders. So, NORRAG funds us, which is an NGO based in Switzerland. They’ve been fantastic to basically guarantee us editorial independence. Open Society Foundations has been a great funder as well, and they also have allowed independence. And now we’re relying more and more on our own listenership asking for donations. But it is a struggle. And it’s sort of this up and down. It’s a struggle. It’s an interesting sort of realization that I’m -it’s new to me. Trying to think about philanthropy and donations on not an academic side or someone giving money but actually asking for it. It’s not an easy position to be in.
Susan Robertson 12:09
But for such a wonderful project, and I just urge anyone actually out there -there’s a donation campaign at the moment isn’t there Will?
Will Brehm 13:52
Susan Robertson 13:52
And if anyone was able to go on and even make a small contribution, it would keep this kind of public [outward?] open access initiative on the road. So, you’ve talked about some of the challenges but I wonder what the highlights for you have been? Maybe unexpected highlights?
Will Brehm 14:12
Well, Susan, it’s speaking to you every single year in December. That’s been fantastic. You and Roger. But it has been. I mean, there’s something so nice about the consistency and being able to reflect back on the year with two people. It’s just been so great. And we’ve obviously built a rapport over those years that built on top of a friendship that has lasted longer than that. And so that’s been really quite special to me. And I’ve always looked forward to those end of the year shows and in fact, those are some of the most listened to shows we have. So, I think even the audience really enjoys them. The other things I can say is that the field of education is so broad, and we’ve purposely sort of made this show not about anything in particular. I mean, of course, it’s about things I’m interested in, because I’m ultimately the one that chooses who gets to go on. So, there is a bit of a bias in that sense. But more or less, we do invite people that are far outside of the field of education that I work in specifically. And so, I’ve just had such a pleasure reading, and interviewing people so far outside of what I normally do. And it really has given me an appreciation for how broad and diverse this field really is. The other thing is that I’ve sort of had the liberty to go beyond the field, in a sense, right? So, instead of thinking about people in education proper, I was able to think, you know, what, in most of our writing, we use scholars far outside of education. Many scholars who would never consider themselves in the field of education. And so why not bring those people on the show. And so over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to talk to people like Saskia, Sassen, or Arjun Appadurai, or Jason Hickel, or David Harvey. And that has just been so amazing to be able to talk to them -people that I’ve used in my own writing- to talk to them face to face, and ask them questions about how they understand education. And so that’s just been really wonderful. Another big highlight for me was when CIES was held in San Francisco, we did a live event. And so, this was before the pandemic hit. And in fact, we actually planned to do a live event in Miami but then, because of the pandemic, and the Miami conference was canceled, we weren’t able to do it. But those live events were so special because coming together with a group of colleagues and researchers all sort of interested in the same thing. But being in a physical place together and sort of doing what we’re doing now, Susan, where we would talk in front of a live audience, even though the audience here is on Zoom, there’s something really nice about it, because it sort of creates this community that I don’t think I can necessarily feel when I’m just interviewing someone, one on one. And so, there’s something really special about that. And I’d like to sort of explore that in the future.
Susan Robertson 17:14
I’m reminded when you were talking about bringing interlocutors and people who are really important to the Social Sciences more generally into education conversations. It reminds me very much of what our colleague Roger Dale talks about as the kind of politics of education and I think that’s what’s incredibly important about FreshEd as a project. Just for any of our audience -Will’s interviewing me, typically at the end of the year, as an editor of Globalisation, Societies and Education. And most recently, we had a changeover of co-editor to now include Mario Novelli -Roger is now retired- but it’s always such a terrific…the year in round up. And Will always presents me with a question that I’m thinking, “Hmm. Oh, I need to think a bit more about that one”. But perhaps I want to ask you, is this something that surprised you, as well? Some insights or individuals or perhaps even the extent to which may be this project is kind of morphing off in different directions?
Will Brehm 18:28
It is surprising when you start a project and it sort of takes a life of its own, and it becomes more than one person. And that is surprising. And to be so intimately involved in every aspect of FreshEd. And as it grows you have to sort of let it go and let other people take it on and you realize the creativity of people on the team can sort of make things better. And it’s just so surprising and amazing in a way to realize what can be created and what can be produced by a group of people. And so that sort of recognizing that doing it alone is actually not a good idea, right? Bringing in people is really, really valuable. I am surprised often. I get emails from listeners quite regularly and I’m always surprised to hear from listeners. I guess I never -I always think about the listeners, but it’s always in the abstract because it’s statistics. It’s thinking of our listenership as students and as teachers and as practitioners. And because we don’t really do many things face-to-face. And even our team. I haven’t met all of our team members ever in-person, right? We do everything online. And so, to get emails from listeners just to say thank you, or to sort of just say how they’re using it. Some people tell me they like to listen to it when they’re going on a jog and they only like to go jogging for 30 minutes so if I could keep the shows to 30 minutes that would be really helpful for them. I mean, it’s just surprising in the best way possible. And so, I really cherish those, the feedback you get from people. Or I get emails from professors saying, “Hey, Will, I am doing a class on this topic? Do you have something on FreshEd that could be used and that’s always surprising too. That these professors that I’ve looked up to and have read, they’re now contacting me saying they want to use something that I’ve created, or help create, in their own classes. I mean, it’s just so -it’s surprising. And it’s humbling in many ways.
Susan Robertson 20:46
And I must say, there’s an amazing range of topics Will, that you’re covering and not just the kind of obvious ones. And so, I’d invite all of our Ideas Lab, and anyone out there that’s not been a regular FreshEd, there’s always something fantastically interesting around the corner. I’m wondering if there’s a thing that you’d quite like to change about the current programming? Are you kind of happy with the format? Or do you feel that you’re -I can see you’re playing with inviting people to identify their favorites. Where did that idea come from?
Will Brehm 21:24
So, the recommended feature. Yeah. So, that idea was created, basically by our team. I forget exactly who came up with it. So, we faced the dilemma of having over 200 episodes, and realizing that it’s quite hard for people to find past episodes. They might see what the new one is but how do you know what the old one is? And particularly if you’re someone who just started their master’s degree, and just started realizing or listening to FreshEd, how do you even begin to look back on these 200 plus episodes? I mean, now we have 230 episodes. And so, what we decided was, well, what if we just asked people to curate the episodes, right? And so, we thought a lot about how do you do searching for content online. So, you can categorize everything -and so we have. So, there’s tags on everything. So, you can search for country names, and topics, and we have a search bar, like you’re Googling FreshEd, and you can do that and search whatever you’d like. But some people are actually more interested in what sort of respected people or just anyone, someone that has put together different episodes of FreshEd in some sort of considered way, what we would call curation. And so, we decided to try that recommended feature. And I think so far, it’s going pretty well. We’re still trying to get more and more people to actually recommend for us. So, if anyone who’s listening or anyone on this call, right now, if you want to create a recommended list, we’d be very happy to work with you and include you in that in that project.
Susan Robertson 23:09
I think that curation job because otherwise, you’ll just hit the recency issue, isn’t it of just, what’s kind of visible and on the horizon but being able to connect back to issues and even to see how issues have changed. The discussion over education problems, and so on, clearly has to have changed over the last 12 months. Just let me remind you Will, actually, we were planning on a FreshEd event up in Cambridge before we went into lockdown. So, we’re still hoping that that emerges into the future? Can I just kind of reflect on this format of FreshEd? So, it’s a conversation, and yet, our worlds particularly in the academy, particularly in the academy, it’s very text-based. And you often reflect on why FreshEd has been so successful. That in fact, it’s a different kind of knowledge production and that there’s something very different about what you can learn and engage with using that kind of format.
Will Brehm 24:16
It’s a really good question. And I think, as I’ve done this more and more, it is something that I’ve been really sort of concerned about and thinking about, and thinking about knowledge production and dissemination and how that looks like in a podcast. And then how might a podcast actually sort of reimagine how universities create knowledge and disseminate knowledge. And I think there is a great opportunity for podcasting. And I don’t actually think it should be podcasting in terms of like -many universities like to do podcasting because of like PR. And so, it’s a PR thing. It’s for public relations. It’s to get more students to enroll in their universities. I don’t actually think that’s the valuable part. I think there something more about independent media or using podcasts in ways to explore ideas that might be slightly different than in a written article. To hear people’s voices, to layer sound, create soundscapes, to bring the listener into locations in ways that you couldn’t normally do in writing. I guess you could in writing but it’s a very different sort of experience, if you’re listening to a place rather than reading about a place. So, for instance, one new initiative we have with FreshEd is called FreshEd Flux and it’s our fellowship program. And so, we’ve offered four fellowships to graduate students last year, and we’ve been working with them very closely over the last -I guess it’s been about seven months now. And they’re developing narrative-based podcasts on their research that they’ve done in their masters or PhD work. And so, one fellow, Daniella, she’s working on a story about rural education in Colombia. And she did an ethnographic research for her master’s degree where she interviewed over 200 people in her research. And what she’s done for her podcast is create a composite character, which is actually a normal ethnographic methodology. But what she did is we hired a young boy in Colombia to read the script that she created based on her 200 interviews. And it’s just so powerful to listen to a young boy in Colombia talk about life in rural Colombia and schooling based on a year or two years of research. It’s just so incredibly powerful. I’m so excited to actually air it for listeners later this year.
And so, I think there is something really valuable that podcasts are doing in the academy, that I think we need to explore more. I mean, the other thing that I’ve worked on with Matthew Thomas out of University of Sydney, he and I started getting interested in podcasting as basically people are learning through podcasting in times that aren’t normally used for learning. So, for instance, the person who wrote to me about going for a jog, or the person who wrote to me about they like to listen to podcasts when they’re washing the dishes, or they like to listen to the podcast or FreshEd when they’re cleaning the house, or when they’re driving, commuting to work. Those are all pedagogical spaces that never really existed before. We never thought about a university getting access to that time period in someone’s life. But now with a podcast and sort of everyone has a cell phone and ear buds, it’s near ubiquitous. You can listen during those times. And I think the other aspect with the pandemic is people are so sick of looking at screens all day long that the podcast actually becomes a really nice alternative where you can listen but not have to look at something. Even reading something on your computer can be tiresome these days because your eyes just get fatigued from sitting at the computer all day long. So, I think there’s a lot of possibility and opportunity to explore what that might look like.
And the last thing I think I would say, is -and this is something that we’ve been struggling with and working on quite a lot is the issue of language. So, of course, FreshEd is an English language podcast and unfortunately we have only been able to get primarily people on the show who speak English as a first language. That’s not for lack of trying, we try very, very, very hard to get people from all over the world on but it’s -I wouldn’t be comfortable speaking in a foreign language on a recording. So, I would imagine many other people feel the same way. So, it is something that we’ve been struggling with, and how do you not just sort of reproduce the same sort of colonial legacies of English languages being the dominant form by which knowledge is produced and disseminated. And so, we’ve done a lot of translation. So, we’ve taken transcripts of episodes and translated them into different languages to make it more accessible. We’ve also started thinking about how do you actually just do shows in other languages. And so, what we’ve come up with and soon we will be launching. This is probably the first time I’ve ever told a public audience about this. But we are in the process of launching a Portuguese version of FreshEd and it’s in collaboration with the University of Porto, a researcher there, as well as the Brazilian Campaign for the Right to Education in Brazil. We are creating a new podcast that will be very much like FreshEd. It won’t feature me -I do not speak Portuguese- but it will be basically bringing Portuguese researchers on to talk about education broadly defined. So, it’s not going to just be about issues in Brazil, or issues in Portugal, or issues in Lusophone speaking African countries. No, it’s going to be about whatever education topic it is. It will just be in Portuguese. And then we’re going to translate everything back into English and disseminate it widely. And so, I think the future in many ways is thinking through different language groups and creating podcasts with different languages that then can sort of do similar things, but to different groups, and then creating those translations that can then sort of disseminate knowledge in multiple directions. And I think that’s what we’re aiming to do going forward.
Susan Robertson 31:16
They’re really exciting developments, I must say Will and I’m kind of thinking of colleagues here in our faculty who have been developing CRiCLE, which is a Latin American Initiative and I know, they will be super, super interested. Spanish and Portuguese are the two languages that that kind of group is working with. And I’m sure that they will be reaching out to you. I’m looking particularly and thinking of colleagues like Alex and others, to say, Can we get involved in that kind of initiative? And how might that work for the new networks that they’ve been setting up? So, Will I would just want to say, thank you so much for talking to us at the Ideas Lab. Thank you also for allowing us to interview you, for FreshEd. You’re such an inspiration as a creator, as a host, as a person that’s politically committed to education. And I could hear the kind of challenges you’re talking about as to keeping something incredibly successful on the road once it becomes institutionalized. But in any way that we can help in this education community, we’ll roll our sleeves up and hope to get there. So, Will on behalf of all of us thank you.
Will Brehm 32:38
Thank you, Susan. And thank you, everyone on the call today. It’s really great to talk to you and thank you for all the support.
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