In March 2020 the Educational Technology Team (ETT), which is part of Learning Enhancement and Development (LEaD) at City, University of London (City) was asked a simple question:
Can you create an online version of a week-long module for the Department of Journalism’s Master’s (MA) students that involves high profile guests answering questions from students live? The guests would include Laura Kuenssberg, Gary Gibbon, Lord Falconer, Chris Mason, Professor Anand Menon, Nigel Evans MP, Michael Cockerell, Paddy O’Connell, Esme Wren and more. “I need to know today”. Our answer was “yes”.
This blog post describes how we resisted “just putting it online” and instead helped to reshape the components and delivery of a taught module in order to give students a rich learning experience by using a combination of appropriate asynchronous and synchronous activities. This included producing some content-rich live question and answer (Q and A) sessions for students.
Professor Barney Jones is a visiting lecturer at City who delivers the ‘Political Headlines’ module for the Department of Journalism twice a year. Barney worked at the BBC for many years and produced ‘Breakfast with Frost’ and ‘The Marr Show’. Barney knows a lot of people in politics and journalism, and as part of the module, he normally invites a selection of the ‘stars’ to speak to MA students at taught sessions at City. In January 2020, students had a tour of Parliament by the then Speaker, John Bercow, and guest Q and As from Nick Robinson amongst others.
We had several online meetings with Barney in which we discussed the learning outcomes of the module and how these could be achieved in the new world of online in which we found ourselves. Our focus was very much on what would be best for the students. A day of guest speakers at City is very different to a day of online live activity, and together we devised a plan that would work, bearing in mind the module learning outcomes, the key activities and the resources available. A key pedagogic aspect of this module is the idea of authentic learning with the students having the opportunity to take on the role of journalists themselves and put their questions directly to the guest speakers.
The aims of the module
‘Political Headlines’ gives City’s MA Journalism students the opportunity to interact, question and learn from top journalists and politicians. It’s a high-density, week-long module (in this case, a Sunday to Friday week). Most taught modules at City run over ten weeks. The module is assessed by the writing of a political pitch for a news story. Typically, over 80 students take the module. This year, another 70 Journalism students were given the opportunity to ‘audit’ the module.
We discussed at length with Barney the benefits of making content available to students asynchronously via City’s virtual learning environment (VLE). There were several reasons for this: students would be able to access content in their own time and time zones (they may now be far from Northampton Square because of Covid-19); they could pace their learning and they could learn more about the work of our guest speakers.
From the outset, Barney was clear that he wanted to keep the live events with the guests so that students could benefit from the Q and A sessions that have been the main events of previous modules.
We agreed that the module should have the following contents:
- Narrated presentations (instead of live lectures by Barney)
- Guest interviews via Microsoft Teams with Barney (where possible) lasting ten minutes which were recorded and posted on the VLE
- Additional video content provided by the guests such as documentaries and showreels
- Fora on the VLE for each guest so students could post questions to the guests ahead of the live sessions
- Live sessions via webinar with Barney hosting, students asking questions live in-person (having posted them on the VLE fora or in the webinar chat) and us managing the guests’ access, the questions, and the audience.
A significant amount of training was needed for the narrated presentations and guest interviews. Similarly, the live events, which would involve more than one guest and around 100 students, needed a lot of practising in order to ensure they ran as smoothly as possible.
By the end of the module, there were four narrated presentations, nine ten-minute interviews and 11 live events involving 22 guests. Between 80 and 105 students took part in each of the live events
We sent emails to the students with the live events schedule for the week. These included details on how to access the events and the etiquette expected. Calendar items for each of the 11 live sessions were sent which included the event hyperlink. Daily announcements were made by Barney via the VLE reminding students which resources to look at in advance and what to notice in the media that day. Guests and hosts were sent separate calendar items with corresponding hyperlinks to shield their email addresses from a wider audience.
Although our focus has always been much more on pedagogy than the tools we use, we are now more reliant on these tools than we had been before Covid-19. Pedagogy is still the dog, but perhaps with a heavier tail. Just before ‘lock-down’, we had completed a review of City’s webinar tool and found it not fit for purpose. At that point, we had been piloting a different webinar tool and it had only just been opened to student use. So this became the tool of (not much) choice.
We spent a large amount of time testing Microsoft Teams and working out which of its functions best served our needs. Barney was clear that he wanted students to be able to ask guests questions live in-person. Q and A using chat function would not be enough on its own, although could be used to collect student questions. After some testing with the ‘live event’ function of the new webinar tool, we realised that it did not tick this box. So, instead, we decided to use the ‘meeting’ function. We would give students ‘attendee’ roles so they could not (accidentally or otherwise) share their screens, mute others or expel others. They would be able to open their cameras and microphones as they wished, so we were reliant on them only doing this when we asked them too.
In order to give Barney a clear and clean stream of questions from students – gathered from the VLE fora and the webinar chat function – we decided to create a closed social media chat group with Barney where we would post only the questions and urgent messages during the live events. The desktop version of this social media chat group helped this process, and Barney was able to use this as his feed from us.
We did extensive testing for the live events including a dry-run with over 80 students and a real guest. It went pretty well and we were confident that the plan would work.
Lights, cameras, action
The live sessions followed a similar pattern: we would open the meeting and share a welcome slide with the name of the guest on it. Barney would introduce the session with some background to the guest and associated themes. He would check with us that all was well. We would start recording. This was followed by Barney chatting to the guests and then selecting questions from students (streamed by us via the private online group chat). He would ask the questioners to put them directly to the guests by turning on their microphones and cameras. These sessions varied in length from 30 to 90 minutes according to guest availability and other parameters. Some guests were on their own, others in pairs or threes and others joined while another left.
At the time of writing (17th May 2020) we are still collecting feedback from students. We will ask for feedback from Barney by online interview) and we may ask for feedback from guests. This section may be added to at a later date.
The Political Headlines module went very well. The level of student engagement was high for both the asynchronous and synchronous items. Between 85 and 110 students accessed the eleven live events and many questions were written for guests with a large proportion of them being asked live. The early signs is that student feedback is very positive. Barney and colleagues from the Department of Journalism have been very positive about the module as shown in this news item.
What did we learn?
Lots. We knew that creating high-quality online content is time-consuming, and switching from face-to-face delivery requires time, patience and a willingness to understand that it is not a switch-flicking exercise. Training academics to use new tools – narrated presentations, online meeting tools – via online tools has significant challenges compared with face-to-face training. The key challenge was and is time, and we have learnt valuable lessons in terms of estimating how much of this will be required to help staff with their preparations for online delivery in the forthcoming months. The process also requires well thought out strategies and practice as everything – including the training and the delivery – is partially delivered asynchronously. It would not be possible for us to assist all academics to the extent we have in this project.
We shared the students’ enthusiasm for the guests Barney lined up. We enjoyed the students’ questions and Barney’s intros and round-ups. It would be hard to imagine a richer pool of content for budding journalists. The guests were both generous with their time and their advice. Students received advice, empathy and encouragement in abundance, and this is could have a significant impact on their careers ahead. At a time when journalists are being criticised for being critical and not adopting a ‘supportive tone’ during a time of crisis, it was striking that the guest journalists are very much interested in reporting the facts, questioning the inaccuracies and making sure that their personal feelings are not apparent.
There were a couple of technical issues. A couple of user errors such as guests not being able to access the events via the hyperlink (we would phone and help them); on one occasion Barney could not access the event (we resisted the chance to stage a coup) and a guest entered twice which caused some feedback and a bit of head-scratching before we fixed it. We had a late request to line up half a dozen videos to play which did not run perfectly as we had not practised this (it is not that straight forward) and the number and selection of videos to play changed while we were live. Overall, the glitches were noticeable because most things ran very well.
This was a lot of fun and work. Barney said that it would not have happened without us. Maybe not. It would definitely not have happened without him, and we would like to thank him for the opportunity to get involved and to ‘meet’ so many interesting people from the worlds of journalism and politics and be involved with the journalists of tomorrow.
If you are a City academic in either the School of Arts and Social Sciences or the School of Health Sciences and would like to discuss online asynchronous and synchronous teaching, feel free to get in touch – firstname.lastname@example.org