In this time of unprecedented changes in higher education due to the Covid-19 pandemic, faculty, teaching assistants and adjuncts are scrambling to move their face-to-face classes to distance learning experiences.
I asked Kevin Hull, assistant professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of South Carolina, to share some insights from his experience of moving his classes to online delivery.
Hull, who also is Sports Media Lead at U of SC, was recognized this year by the university as a Breakthrough Star for his accomplishments in research at U of SC and was named a Promising Professor by the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC) in 2018.
Prior to teaching at U of SC, Hull was a news reporter and sports reporter/sports anchor at WECT-TV in Wilmington, North Carolina, and a digital media teacher at Topsail High School in Hampstead, North Carolina.
Julie Dodd: How did you feel when you learned that you were going to be teaching your face-to-face class in a digital format?
Kevin Hull: My friend’s wife is in grad school at Boston University, and he said that she was told to be prepared for the class she was taking to be online after Spring Break. That was the first I had even thought of the possibility being a reality, but that turned out to be a big help as I started to mentally prepare myself that it might be coming for me, too. That got me starting to think about how I could alter assignments, how to do some lectures, and what would need dramatic changes. When the word came down at U of SC, I wasn’t caught completely flat-footed.
Since I had already taught online before, I wasn’t as concerned about the transition. However, it was all the other events of the world that suddenly caused a bigger panic. I’m teaching Sports Journalism, and now there are no sports. Students are not supposed to leave the house, which means my Introductory Reporting and Writing class couldn’t go interview people in-person. Even my backup plans weren’t going to work now, and that caused some major concerns.
Julie Dodd: Tell me a little about your courses.
Kevin Hull: I’m teaching two classes this semester.
JOUR361: Introductory Reporting and Writing. It is the first hands-on class for our journalism students. There are 52 students in the lecture and then it is divided up into four hands-on labs of about 12-15 students each. I teach the lecture and supervise the lab instructors by providing the day’s assignment in the lab.
JOUR461: Sports Journalism. There are 19 students in this class, all juniors or seniors. The students are divided up into groups and are each assigned a University of South Carolina team to cover for the semester.
Julie Dodd: What decisions did you as an instructor make in moving a face-to-face class to a digital learning experience?
Kevin Hull: The first decision I made almost immediately was that I wasn’t going to make the first week of the online class very strenuous.
This was a huge transition, and I didn’t want to cause any additional panic, so I simply made some lecture videos for them to watch and had them respond to a discussion board post for what was essentially an effort-based grade.
It will ramp up as we move along, but I didn’t think immediately going back to “business as usual” was going to help anyone – including me. Plus, it gives me an opportunity to see who is doing the work and who isn’t. Then I can check on those who haven’t done the assignment to make sure they are ok.
Obviously, the classes are going to be different from face-to-face. But my goal is ultimately to make it as close as possible. It’s been hard in the Introductory Reporting and Writing class because I normally do several video lectures and then they do them in lab. But with no lab, they’re just watching. That’s been a challenge.
Julie Dodd: Which digital/electronic tools did you decide to use and why?
Kevin Hull: I already use Blackboard (U of SC’s course management system) quite a bit for my face-to-face classes, so keeping that as the hub for course information and lessons was an easy decision.
For my “lectures,” I decided to record them and upload them directly to YouTube. That is a platform that my students are familiar with, and the videos show up easily enough in Blackboard. I record the video on an old camcorder that I had and use a Yeti microphone to record the audio. I then edit it together in Adobe Premiere.
I also know how to use YouTube myself since I’ve uploaded things there before and, to be frank, I know that it works. A lot of my colleagues were talking about Zoom, Blackboard Connect, and all these other platforms they were going to try out. For me, I didn’t want any additional learning curves in this time. I figured I’d use what I knew, and I’d use what I knew would work.
Obviously, a ton of people have used Zoom since (including me), so that was probably something I could have used rather easily. So, I probably could have been a little more adventurous in retrospect (if you consider using Zoom adventurous).
Julie Dodd: Why did you decide to have your class be asynchronous and not synchronous?
Kevin Hull: The first reason was that it was what I was familiar with. All of my online courses that I took as a graduate student myself were asynchronous and so is the class I teach in the summer is. So, to stick with a common theme for how I organized this, I decided to go with what I knew.
Additionally, I got feedback almost immediately after the announcement that we were moving to online classes from students was that they were worried about having class at our normal meeting time. One said that she was going to have to get a job and so she wasn’t sure when she’d be home. Others said they had to take care of younger siblings or older family members, so being in front of a computer at a set time might be difficult. Another said she was moving back home to her family’s house out west, so our 9:40 am start time would be 6:40 am for her.
It seemed to me like getting everyone in the same place at the same time would be challenging. I wanted to make it the least amount of challenging as possible.
Julie Dodd: What decisions did you make about modifying your course assignments?
Kevin Hull: Both of my classes are very discussion based. I love showing a story and then asking, “what did you think of that?” and we all go back-and-forth on each video. I obviously can’t do that now, so implementing the discussion board into the class felt like a necessity. That’s an effort-based grade, so if they just show that they are learning from the video lectures and trying, then they’ll get full credit.
I’ve had to eliminate the video assignments in both classes because, while our students were given access to Adobe products for free, not everyone has the same level of computer or a device in which they can shoot quality video. It’s a huge disappointment (both for me and the students), but it’s really the only dramatic change I’ve had to make. I’ve replaced them with written assignments, which are obviously still journalism, but not what my video-centric students were hoping for.
Julie Dodd: One of your first activities when your course moved to digital delivery was to have your students complete a survey. What kind of questions did you ask and how did you use their answers to guide you in your teaching?
Kevin Hull: I thought it was important to see what exactly my students had access to so I could plan ahead. My first two questions were “how are you?” and “do you have a place to live and access to food?” It was important to make sure they were doing okay. I’m happy to report that they all seemed to be doing okay.
Then I asked several generic questions:
- Do you have a computer?
- Can you get online?
- Can you watch YouTube videos?
- Do you have a word processing program like Word?
- Do you have a program that allows you to make a PowerPoint?
- Can you take and email a picture on your phone?
- Their answers to those questions allowed me to start to think about what assignments I can do and how I can put my lectures together.
Finally, I asked the students an open-ended question: “What concerns or questions do you have?”
That was really where I gathered the best information because they were not shy about telling me how they felt. It was really eye-opening and many mentioned things that I hadn’t even thought about.
So, I gathered all those responses and made a video in order to help ease their anxiety. I figured I was going to be making a ton of videos and they were about to watch a bunch of videos, so I put together a “Q&A” and “C&R” video (concern and response) so that we could all get used to my videos.
I put their questions on index cards and answered them on camera. It was just me sitting there in a short video in which I did my best to reassure them that everything was going to be okay. Some concerns were mentioned a lot, some by only one person, but I made sure to address all of them, so no student felt neglected. I even managed to get my dog in there (who was part of a photo lesson earlier in the semester, so they all have seen her before) for some comic relief.
I got several emails back from students after that video, thanking me for making it and saying how it really did make them feel better. It’s probably the best and most important video I’ll do this entire semester – and it was ultimately the simplest.
Julie Dodd: What other tips would you offer to instructors who are making the big move from face-to-face to digital teaching?
Kevin Hull: If you’re doing it for a full semester, just be prepared that creating a class for online is a lot more work than you expect. When I first did my online class in the summer (Principles of Journalism), I dramatically underestimated how much work it would be, and I barely made it to the first day of school.
If you’re doing it with one week’s notice (as we pretty much all did earlier this month), then I think the goal is simply to show the students that you’re doing your best to make it as close to the original as possible. The students get it – they recognize that this hasn’t been easy for professors. I think no one is expecting magic, they’re just expecting you to try your best. They’ll know who is mailing it in and who is working hard to do this right.
I think being really organized is key no matter how much time you have. Organize what you’d like to do each week, write it out, and just slowly cross them off your list. If you look at it as one big thing (because it is a lot), it can easily become very overwhelming. But breaking it down into smaller goals has helped me tremendously.
Julie Dodd: How did your own experience in previously developing an online course and as a broadcaster assist you in the quick move to digital learning caused by Covid-19?
Kevin Hull: Being a former broadcaster is such a huge advantage. Lecture videos are basically me anchoring a show and editing it together into a long story. It lines up almost perfectly with my skill set. In fact, I think sometimes I try to do too much because of my background. I have to remember to keep it simpler at times.
Certainly, teaching an online class already helped, too. I didn’t have to start from scratch because I knew how to put all my materials online and use videos to give lessons. Had I not had that experience, this would have been much more nerve-wracking.