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Robertson School faculty and students find "silver linings" as spring semester moves online

Apr 10, 2020

Posted in: News

By Mario Sequeira Quesada, Communications Intern

Robertson School associate professor Scott Sherman adapted two courses to an online format during the spring semester due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

When students and faculty left campus for spring break, they had no idea they wouldn't return to the classroom for the semester. On March 11, VCU President Michael Rao announced that spring break would be extended an extra week and classes would be taught remotely for the foreseeable future using digital resources when the semester resumed on March 23.

Following federally recommended guidelines amid the COVID-19 outbreak, VCU transitioned to remote operations. The clock was ticking and the Robertson School faculty and staff put all hands on deck to make a smooth and efficient transition to online teaching.

"Please know that everyone here in the Robertson School will be doing their best, and that you are our top priority," wrote interim director Dr. Marcus Messner to the students during spring break. "It is our commitment to be flexible and to work with you to ensure the best learning experience possible given the circumstances. We are in this together!"

A couple of weeks later, faculty continue to teach classes, even discovering alternative platforms and strategies to keep students engaged. Online tools such as Blackboard, Zoom and Kaltura have been key in keeping classes going, but professors and students have kept the motivation and enthusiasm strong to finish the semester on a high note.

The additional spring break week helped Robertson School associate professor Scott Sherman prepare for a smooth transition. He adapted the two courses he teaches to an online format while keeping consistency in the topics and the students’ responsibilities.

Attendance is one detail Sherman had to adjust. His online lectures are held during normal class time, but he records the sessions for students who can’t make it due to timing or technological difficulties. Once students watch the recorded class, they can take a questionnaire to stay on top of their attendance grade.

“Those are the big changes which aren’t very big as far as the course design,” Sherman said. “The schedule worked out well, and I think the classes work out well.”

Despite not having much experience with online teaching, Mary Ann Owens, an instructor in the journalism sequence, rose to the challenge and followed the advice of fellow coworkers: “Keep it simple and just move forward.” Although she had adjustments in some of her classes to reschedule deadlines and help students accommodate, students keep turning in work and improving.

“All my classes have been producing, moving forward, and it's going okay,” Owens said. “I'm swamped with work.”

An Online Teaching Task Force provided Robertson School faculty with resources and tools via an internal Blackboard site. The group includes Professors Marcel Jennings, Joshua Smith, Jeff South, Dr. Jeanine Guidry, and Vivian Medina-Messner (above).

The Robertson School appointed an Online Teaching Task Force to provide faculty with resources and tools. This group includes interim associate director Marcel Jennings, public relations sequence coordinator Joshua Smith, associate professor Jeff South, assistant professor Dr. Jeanine Guidry, and journalism instructor Vivian Medina-Messner.

This group gathered a variety of platforms and strategies for faculty members unfamiliar with online teaching and created an internal site with resources via the Blackboard course platform.

“Members of the task force were then assigned individual faculty to guide and mentor through the transition,” Smith said. “We continue to provide support to these faculty, and will do so until those services are no longer required.”

Smith said the task force worked in coordination with the faculty to create online teaching plans, discuss those plans as a team and then act on them. The Robertson School provided Zoom and conference calls and countless email threads to provide a support system for faculty during the extended spring break while plans were put into action.

“Faculty have been amazing throughout this transition, and it's been truly inspiring to see the amount of inventiveness and positive thinking that's happened over the past few weeks,” Smith said. “If we hit a barrier where transitioning a project or assignment online seemed impossible, we talked our way through it, found a solution, and moved on to the next.”

Dr. Kaitlin Hanger took advantage of the resources provided by the Online Teaching Task Force when she moved her graphic design classes online and started teaching from her home.

Assistant professor Dr. Kaitlin Hanger said Smith has been instrumental in her transition to online classes. She said his availability and willingness to help gave her an opportunity to solve problems quickly and learn more about the tools she is using in her classes.

“That resource is great,” Hanger said. “I have checked on it a few times and found information in it that was very useful.”

Hanger said the online experience does not resemble the in-person lectures and the relationships built in the classroom. But she has found some silver linings during this transition.

“Because of the situation, we had to get our ideas together so quickly and launched them,” Hanger said. “But it has made me a little less fearful of how you can communicate verbally, without being in a classroom and expect students to get things done. They do rise to the occasion.”

Owens said she also found valuable lessons during this experience and enjoys seeing her students interact during the Zoom lessons.

Instructor Mary Ann Owens (second from left in top row) said that the experience helped her overcome her fear of teaching online and gives her alternatives for the future.

“Kids would get there early and they stay late,” Owens said. “They tell me ‘don't shut it down yet.’ The class was over, but they still wanted to talk among themselves.”

Sherman said his experience with students is similar. He said the experience of seeing his students after the extended break was neat and enjoyed the interaction with them and amongst them.

“They were happy to see their friends again, they were happy to be together and happy to be doing something as opposed to sort of nothing,” Sherman said. “I think it made us all appreciate the opportunities that we have, the friends we have and the people around. I think that's the silver lining to it.”

Sherman, Owens and Hanger said that this experience helped them overcome their fear of teaching online and gives them alternatives for the future. The three found new ways to expand the learning process and make it more dynamic with their students. Now they look forward to seeing their students succeed after the abrupt transition.

Senior print and online journalism student McKenzie Lambert said she enjoys virtual lectures. She is in Owen’s Advanced Reporting course, a capstone in the digital journalism sequence. Each session gives her an opportunity to share with classmates and friends she has had in the school over a few semesters.

Lambert said the faculty have used the resources in the best way to keep classes going. A sense of normalcy is hard to accomplish during times like this, but she said Robertson School faculty moved quickly to give students an opportunity to continue their education. For Lambert, she said this means she will be able to graduate after this semester -- what she called a silver lining in this experience.

“The Robertson School have been doing a good job of keeping the line of communication open,” said creative advertising student and junior Joseph Calabrese, who attends Sherman’s Story course, an advertising writing class. “During this time, I have been more concerned about future semesters more than the current one and the information and help that’s being offered has been helpful.”

The Robertson School is also currently running a new online course Digital Media Strategies for the COVID-19 Crisis until the end of the spring semester. This course, which was developed within one week and taught by Dr. Jeanine Guidry, also includes non-credit participants through VCU's Office of Continuing and Professional Education (OCPE). In addition, Dr. Karen McIntyre held a webinar on Solutions Journalism that can be viewed on the Robertson School YouTube channel.