Category Archives: content

Podcast ponderings

Rebecca Costello from the Oxplore team reflects on the use of audio content on Oxplore and the production process the team undertake.

One of the many things that makes Oxplore so innovative is our purpose-made audio content. Podcasts are commonly used as vehicles to impart engaging, accessible information to wide-reaching audiences, serving as a broad gateway into a topic, or offering the chance to delve that little bit deeper into a specific area.

In developing content for Oxplore, we were excited about harnessing the potential of this creative medium, and our podcasts offer a bespoke, focused perspective on many of our Big Questions. Often recorded in academics’ own offices, these resources can lift the lid on the wealth of cutting-edge research being carried out across the University of Oxford, providing fresh, contemporary perspectives and academic expertise.

Most recently, we’ve worked with Dr Alpa Parmar and Dr Julia Viebach from the Centre for Criminology; Dr Stephen Harris from Plant Sciences; Dr Ian Thompson, from the Department of Education, as well as loads more university staff and students. It is great to include some students’ perspectives as they aren’t already represented in the University’s extensive podcast library, and we feel it makes the resources appealing to young people too.

Podcasts work very well on Oxplore because they can break up text resources, and appeal to students who prefer to learn aurally or visually. Real voices also bring the subject to life; hearing the speakers’ tone, intonation and vocal inflection can bring dynamism to the recording and convey a sense of passion that may be lost in a written resource.

We choose our contributors based on the end goal of the podcast. If we are looking for specific and detailed knowledge, such as someone to speak about legal truth in the courtroom, then we search for an appropriate expert and invite them to contribute. However, if the recording requires a simple word or sentence from a selection of staff and students, such as our Chat up lines from across the world resource then we issue a wider general invitation for people to share their insights.

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A podcast in the Oxplore Big Question ‘Is it OK to judge other people?’

All of our recordings are created, edited and added to the website by the Oxplore team. Once an academic has agreed to be part of a podcast, we arrange to meet them in a convenient place, and ask them to complete a permission form giving us the go-ahead to use their content under a Creative Commons license. We use a portable Roland R-26 recorder to capture their thoughts and then edit the audio using Audacity when we’re back in the office. Audacity is a free editing programme that allows users to trim, fade, and apply effects to audio material and IT Services here at Oxford run training courses that the team have made the most of!

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Editing an Oxplore podcast in Audacity

One of the important things for us to keep in mind when creating podcasts is their length; they need to be long enough to offer a comprehensive perspective on the topic, deep enough to offer something new, but short enough to capture the attention of busy school students. While we do try to re-use existing University content wherever possible, often recorded lectures or academic papers are simply too complex and too long. We aim therefore to keep Oxplore podcasts roughly between 3 and 5 minutes long, though of course we wouldn’t delete anything that is crucial to the trajectory of the narrative.

Once we’ve edited the audio down so that it’s smooth and polished, we make any accompanying images either using a slide show, or by uploading an Oxplore background directly to YouTube with the accompanying MP3 file via Tunes to Tube. Tunes to Tube is a website that facilitates the quick and simple uploading of MP3 files to YouTube, allowing images to be uploaded with the audio in one go – and we’ve found it a very useful resource.

There are many ways to include audio on websites, but given our bespoke CMS, YouTube is the simplest option for us. It also gives the added bonus of our content being discoverable on the second largest search engine – a site we know young people love using. It also gives us the benefit of including closed captions – which not only help those with hearing difficulties but also those who aren’t using sound while browsing the site. We check captions for accuracy – and this is especially important when creating multilingual resources – as we want to give everyone access to the same quality experience when using the Oxplore website.

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Set adrift from the Big Questions they are a part of on the Oxplore, our podcast playlist on YouTube is a bit of a quirky mix! We really enjoy this variety in our work though, and we’re always developing new recordings so do keep an eye on the site or subscribe to our YouTube channel to hear our next creations.


Learning to Oxplore…

Danielle Lloyd, who is with the Oxplore team on a five-month placement, reflects on working in the Oxplore team.

I joined the team in June as a trainee on the Ambitious Futures Graduate scheme. The scheme aims to provide graduates with ‘diverse and challenging opportunities’ – and Oxplore has definitely done this for me! Every day with the team is different from the last, here’s a taster of the things I’ve been up to…

Researching the weird and wonderful… from the history of football and the inner workings of the brain to the biology of race and robots taking over peoples’ jobs, there’s no shortage of fascinating content creation tasks here at Oxplore. I was also able to build my own Big Question from scratch, which provided an incredible opportunity to see a mini-project through from idea to finished product.

Is it OK to judge other people? Big Question on Oxplore

Creating over 200 avatars… plus infographics and social media images using open source image editor software, GIMP. I’ve never had much of an opportunity to use design software before, but I’ve found GIMP surprisingly easy to pick up and use. It’s been great for creating fun infographics for upcoming questions, something we wanted to do to make ‘big data’ accessible for our young target audience.

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Designing an engaging workshop… for our upcoming national launch event. I’ve always enjoyed planning activities for young people, you can really let your imagination run wild! We’ve been creating a workshop based upon research from the Oxford Martin School, and it’s great to be able to share real academic research with young people in a format they can easily understand and engage with.

Chasing Oxford students… for reading recommendations. During school visits earlier in the year, some older students expressed an interest in reading materials that took them beyond the site. To address this, I reached out to a long list of Oxford undergraduate students who had previously expressed an interest in the University’s widening participation work. As part of this, they were asked to suggest which materials (books, podcasts, videos and articles) inspired them to choose their university subjects. We’ve had some fantastic responses, highlights include The Pig That Wants to Be Eaten by Julian Baggini and Follow Your Gut by Rob Knight with Brendan Buhler. Watch out for their arrival on the site soon!

So, it’s been a busy couple of months juggling content writing and marketing activities with work on other outreach projects like the UNIQ summer schools and a Lauriston Lights summer camp, but managing this complex and diverse workload is a skill I will take with me to all my future roles – whatever they may be!


So what makes a big question big?

Since the beginning of the project, the team has been keen to pinpoint what exactly makes a question big and truly engaging to our target audience. Discussions with our original user consultation group combined with findings from the most recent pilot and data analytics have contributed to our understanding of this. Likewise, entries to our Big Question competition have given us a flavour of the range of topics which appeal to young people. Here’s a whistle-stop tour of what we’ve found…

Topics which are not traditionally covered in the classroom generally tended to attract longer visits from students on the site (e.g. do guns hurt more people than they protect?). Interestingly, this supports Oxplore’s aim to go beyond what’s learnt in school and engage students with subjects and debates they might not have ever considered before.

The weird and the wonderful – which included time travel, aliens and ghosts-  cropped up time and time again in the competition entries, and in the top rated and viewed lists suggesting that teens are intrigued by some of the world’s big mysteries which test human understanding. No pressure for our academics and content developers then :)!



The morbidly curious topics such as ‘is the death penalty ok?’ seemed popular with the age group. Perhaps again because this is not likely to covered by their teachers. A couple of competition entries also indicated an interest in what happens after death with a particularly interesting entry being: ‘what happens after we die, do we wake up?’

Topics linked to power and truth fared well (e.g. can we live without laws? Should under 18’s be allowed to vote? Should you believe the history books?) Perhaps this relates to how young people are often presented with little choice but at the same time overwhelmed with vast amounts of information from those around them (teachers, parents, their peers, the Internet etc.). In light of this, it may be difficult for them to decipher what is true and what is useful. Maybe envisioning a world where there could be more freedom is an exciting prospect?

The future was a hot topic (e.g. ‘would you want to live forever?’) and a repeated theme in the competition entries (e.g. ‘Should we colonise other planets in the future?’). This was not altogether surprising considering the young age of the target audience and how at school they are likely asked to consider what they want to do post-exams and beyond. Also with all the unrest shown in local and global news, the world must seem like a pretty unpredictable place right now – to your average teenager- who can see a host of upcoming unknowns.


So there it is- what makes an Oxplore question big and thought-provoking to an 11-18 year old? One which covers a topic that moves away from what’s learnt at school, one that’s mysterious and slightly unusual in nature, one which challenges the information they’re already exposed to, and one that allows them to dig deeper into future unknowns.

We now look towards our next pilot study which’ll focus on the user journey and try to extrapolate what it is that keeps a student engaged as they navigate through a big question. This will be incredibly useful to us as we continually try to develop our materials to make them relevant, informative and interesting for young people to venture through.

Recognise someone/somewhere?

If you’ve visited our homepage at, one of the first things you will have noticed is our imagery. You can’t fail to miss it – it flies in!

If you are an Oxford local or know much about the city, you might recognise familiar objects, places or faces. Each of the headline images for our big questions has a subtle link to the city and University that Oxplore calls home.

Some of these are iconic. For ‘Does a god exist?’ we’ve used the famous domed roof of the Radcliffe Camera. In ‘Do aliens exist?’ we’ve used the striking new Blavatnik School of Government building (which does look a bit out of this world). The Mini Cooper for the ‘Should you have to be British to live in Britain?’ question is similarly iconic – and manufactured at the Mini Plant in Oxford.

Not all of our images are so easily recognisable, but we appreciate the link nonetheless. For the ‘Can war be a good thing?’ question for example, the war grave might look like one of the thousands across the world, but it is in fact from Botley Cemetery. Those buried there were treated at the University’s Examination Schools which were requisitioned as a hospital. And, the people we’ve included are all current or former Oxford students – made into robots, super heroes and more.

Pooling our ideas for these images and for the future content we’re working on at the moment has been one of the team’s favourite tasks. We feel we’re bringing a new angle to some of Oxford’s heritage as well as bringing some of the city’s hidden gems to the fore.

Bringing the threads together

Oxplore is getting ready to hit the roads of the North East as part of a pilot of the portal. From late February to late March we’ll be promoting Oxplore to schools and young people from Hartlepool to Hexham.

Our plan is to run workshops with schools which encourage them to think about our big questions in a broad and curious way. We’ll also be attending one of the massive Oxford and Cambridge Student Conference at St James’ Park in Newcastle, running a competition, distributing posters for classroom display and running a social media campaign targeting interested young people in the region. Probably the most exciting aspect of all of this activity is unveiling the Oxplore portal for the first time to our potential users – and meeting some of them.

We have only one more technical development sprint before we’re ready for that stage – so our front and back end coders will be whipping through the ‘tickets’ for our features and hopefully crushing any last minute bugs. Our content writers, reviewers and uploaders will have a similarly busy month to have articles, videos, podcasts and quizzes lined up and ready. While everyone else is doing this, I’ll be preparing all the marketing and learning materials we’ll need to distribute throughout the pilot both digitally and face-to-face.

So, while we have been progressing many different things concurrently but largely independently for a few months, we are now at the stage to bring them all together for our pilot. The clock is ticking down.

Image by olarte.ollie (Flickr) CC BY-SA 2.0

Harnessing brilliance

A key part of our mission is to ‘harness the wealth of brilliance at the University of Oxford’. What we mean by that is that we want to use the expertise of the University in Oxplore. As one of the world’s top research universities and a historic centre of ideas this is an exciting prospect. We hope this will make our content vibrant – reflective of the latest research trends and revealing some lesser known angles on subjects.

With over 5,000 research and support staff and around 6,000 graduate research students Oxford is a very fruitful place to seek input! It does present some challenges… some say it has taken Oxford 800 years to get to quite such a complex organisational structure. Finding the exact researcher who can help with some of our specific ideas is not an easy task in every case. It requires a lot of online detective work and the good will of support staff in the different faculties and divisions.

That said, we’ve already had some early success stories. Medievalists are biting our hands off to give their ‘best’ battles (including one featuring meat products battling fish products). And it is reassuring to find that world-leading experts on the psychology of friendship and the impact of wars on economics are keen to share their insights with young people through new podcasts.

There is plenty of brilliance out there – we just need to ensure we can ‘harness’ it appropriately for launch and in the long term.