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How to teach — and learn — about journalism during a global pandemic

Concordia faculty adapt a practical discipline to online learning
April 8, 2020
By J. Cohen

Aphrodite Salas: “With classes having ended in such a dramatic way, we come to realize how much we appreciate having a learning community.” Aphrodite Salas: “We've come to realize how much we appreciate having a learning community.”

“We pride ourselves on our hands-on training, where daily fieldwork is usually done. An emphasis is always put on original footage and in-person interviews,” says David Secko, chair of Concordia’s Department of Journalism.

“It is an enormous challenge to do journalism during a pandemic, let alone train students to do it robustly.” Nevertheless, beginning March 21, the department launched a collective effort to get their courses online.

Technical transitions

Aphrodite Salas, assistant professor of journalism, lauds the fast, collegial work that enabled faculty and students to quickly adapt to the evolving situation.

“The department has been really cohesive and supportive,” she says. “Our media and digital instructors have organized daily meetings online. They put together a very detailed document that lists free, virtual technical tools available to students to help with their ongoing work.”

Journalism student Ora Bar says she has felt supported throughout the transition.

“I find that Concordia dealt really well with the situation,” she says. “By and large, professors have been very communicative. We received regular messages to keep us informed and up to date. It was reassuring. It was clear that teachers were going to do their part.”

Salas points out some of the particular pedagogical challenges. “Journalism is all about interviewing people, talking to people, seeing and recording. It’s about experience,” she says.

“Now we have to think about how we can enable students to tell this story while respecting health guidelines and keeping them safe.”

Living-room journalism

Andrea Hunter, undergraduate program director and associate professor of journalism, conveys a similar experience.

“I’m teaching a graduate-level podcasting course. Before all this happened, the students were planning to explore diversity in Montreal by going into the community and recording interviews,” she says.

The COVID-19 crisis has instead provided an opportunity for Hunter and her students to adapt to the situation and react on their feet.

“We had to majorly rethink what they can do from home. We had to consider what kinds of tools and technology they had at their disposal.”

The class decided they would tell their own stories about isolation, from within their homes and from their own perspectives, Hunter explains. She takes inspiration from the meagre knowledge we now have about the quotidian lives of people of certain eras.

“For posterity, we should be telling our stories right now, from whatever our vantage point is,” she says. “Despite the change of circumstances, students will still be able to use all the storytelling skills they’ve acquired throughout the term.”

Salas echoes this sentiment. “Usually, we use the city, we use the world as our classroom. This particular situation has really highlighted how important it is to make sure that our students are living and breathing history as it’s happening in order to become the strongest journalists they can be,” she says.

In her class, too, students will chronicle social distancing through a whole series of photos, video and audio snippets, and through research of other news sources. Each of them will create a website and tell their own story about the pandemic experience.

Bar, who is a student in Salas’s class, addresses these changes to her learning experience.

“The plan before had been to work in groups and do our field research. Each member of the group would have been in charge of a part of the project — the writing, editing, filming, recording. Now we each have to do this work ourselves,” she explains.

“It’s an added challenge, but I find working on these multimedia journals really interesting and pertinent. It’s been a bit sad not to be able to use the equipment and software that we’ve been learning about, because some of it is only available at the university. But continuing classes this way has allowed us to develop other skills.”

Hunter, in turn, speaks about her students with admiration. “I’m just so proud of how they’re coming together and deciding to tell these stories. I’m proud of their resiliency and how they’re adapting.”

From digital to personal connection

Hunter’s students will report on what is happening in the community and elsewhere during the crisis, but they will also report on how interpersonal experiences are being sustained during global quarantine and isolation. “They’re going to tell their stories of connection.”

Indeed, professors and students alike indicate a heightened awareness of the importance of day-to-day, interpersonal relations in their work and study.

“Paradoxically, working online allowed me to connect individually with each student beyond the way I normally would,” Salas says. “I’ve gotten to know all of my students really well through this because I find myself messaging them very, very often just to see how they’re doing and whether they need any additional help from the university.”

This point about connection also rings true for Bar. “Even though we’re working from home, you get closer to your classmates because you’re all in this together. We keep in touch through messages and social media. We help each other out a lot more than we might have before.”

Salas has noticed this social change among her students.

“They have come away telling me how much they appreciate seeing their classmates in the online classroom, seeing each other’s faces,” she says. “You don’t necessarily think about that all the time during a normal term. But with classes having ended in such a dramatic way, we come to realize how much we appreciate having a learning community.”

Ongoing challenges

Despite the successful transition to online classes, Bar discusses the difficulty of separating and integrating school and home life.

“When you’re at home, it can be difficult to switch your mentality from ‘home mode’ to ‘school mode.’ During a normal term, you wake up in the morning, you leave and go to school, to a place where everyone comes specifically to study,” she says.

“Those physical routines are important for maintaining good study habits. Self-isolating at home leaves you in a funny situation. It can be difficult to sustain motivation and carve out the mental space needed to study.”

Bar adds that she is concerned about what the immediate future holds. As a Co-op student, she has yet to hear from employers about summer work opportunities. She is also worried she may no longer be able to do a study abroad program next year.

Despite this, Bar does her best to remain positive.

“The beauty of the situation is that it has shown that quite a bit of flexibility is possible,” she says. “Some of the lessons we learn from this experience could help develop better distance education options for people whose situation doesn’t permit them to study at a university in person.”

Follow @JournalismCU for department-related updates and student resources from the Department of Journalism during the crisis.

Concordia’s campuses and libraries are currently closed, and courses have moved online as of Monday, March 23. Follow along with updates and info on COVID-19.

Check out online resources from Concordia’s Centre for Teaching Learning, developed to help professors move their courses online. And consult the schedule of live information sessions.


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