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5 tips from my first week teaching online from home during coronavirus closures

Two days after I published “8 tips for setting up and teaching online classes during coronavirus closures,” my campus transitioned online. Here are some of the lessons I learned from the first week to give those of you about to begin an idea of what to expect.

Two days after I published “8 tips for setting up and teaching online classes during coronavirus closures,” my campus made the decision to transition online due to COVID-19 for the remainder of the semester. After two days of canceled classes and a weekend to prepare (not great, but better than some peer institutions in our state), our first week of online instruction just concluded. Here are some of the lessons I learned to supplement my original tips and give those of you about to begin an idea of what to expect.

1. Explain what’s changing

Students need to know how your course is going to work moving forward. In my original article, I suggested:

It might also be helpful to draft a temporary syllabus, explaining how existing class policies, schedules, and assignments will change during the period of online instruction. In everything, clarity will help.

After making one and talking to students about their other courses, I’d strongly encourage this as something worth the time investment, even as our time is limited. Not only is the syllabus useful to students, but it may also help with grade disputes that arise from any changes you institute.

I created an “Online Transition Update” syllabus, highlighting (literally, in yellow) parts that were changing (e.g., attendance requirements, scheduling of exams), and removing some of the unchanged boilerplate stuff that makes syllabi eight pages long and unreadable.

I did the same for instruction sheets and rubrics for major assignments that changed, such as a service learning project that can no longer include an in-person pitch to our community partner (☹).

In line with Original Tip #1 (“Make it easy to navigate”), I put all of these new documents in an “Online Transition Info” folder and put it right at the top of our online content so it’d be the first thing students see when they log on. In line with Original Tip #2 (“Make it accessible”), that folder also included a video walkthrough of the Blackboard course and links to all the different ways students could contact me and each other.

2. Communicate early and often

The morning my classes went live, I posted an announcement to my course page on Blackboard, which was also emailed to all students. Four quick points:

1. Here’s how to use the course (direct to the “Online Transition Info” folder)

2. Here’s what we’re learning about this week (direct to the week’s learning module)

3. Here’s what’s due this week (direct to the week’s assignment folder)

4. Here are the opportunities to join us live this week if you’re able (include links to live sessions)

Continue reading “5 tips from my first week teaching online from home during coronavirus closures”

8 tips for setting up and teaching online classes during coronavirus closures

Suddenly teaching online because of COVID-19? Learn from me, a Blackboard certified online instructor – or perhaps more relevant – a guy who suddenly got thrown into online teaching with no idea what to do.

Update: Since this post, I’ve transitioned my classes for online delivery, and shared 5 more tips from the first week of working from home.

Universities are closing campuses and moving classes online to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus, or COVID-19. Positive cases are on the rise, both because of spread and increased availability of testing.

On that trajectory, it’s likely that many of us will be doing some online teaching in the very near future. And while universities act like this is the simplest transition in the world, it’s not. Online instruction is an entirely different animal, and throwing professors who haven’t done it before into the fire is not going to work.

My first job after completing my doctorate was as a full-time online lecturer, something I had never done before. It was a ton of work, but in the end I found a groove of teaching courses that students enjoyed and I felt like were meeting the course objectives I would have set in a traditional classroom.

So, learn from me, a Blackboard certified online instructor… or, if you prefer… learn from me, a guy who suddenly got thrown into online teaching with no idea what to do. Continue reading “8 tips for setting up and teaching online classes during coronavirus closures”

Dangerous and disturbed: Media misportrayals of mental illness

How is mental illness depicted in entertainment? In news? What about the healthcare professionals who treat mental illness? And most importantly, do those media depictions influence public perceptions and behaviors?

I synthesized decades of research on the topic from diverse academic disciplines for a chapter in the book, Communicating Mental Health: History, Contexts, and Perspectives (Lexington Books). The findings were troubling: Continue reading “Dangerous and disturbed: Media misportrayals of mental illness”

White nationalists tricked media about school shooter… and fooled me too

What went wrong, and how it fits into the new age of misinformation.

A few hours after a gunman opened fire on his fellow students in Parkland, Florida, alt-right websites like Infowars were already trying to blame Muslims, Communists, Trump opponents, democrats… anyone and everyone on their enemies list.

The problem isn’t “waiting to politicize” — that ship has long since sailed — it’s creating downright false narratives to affirm one’s own “side.”

One Twitter user who goes by “Respectable Lawyer” had a viral moment debunking the Infowars conspiracy (not even addressing the typical Alex Jones line that the shooting was a “false flag” carried out by actors).

The following afternoon, the Anti-Defamation League reported that it had spoken to the leader of a white nationalist group called Republic of Florida who claimed the shooter was a member. Reporters began trying to confirm. The AP, ABC, and the Daily Beast all spoke to the group leader and found corroborating sources on social media.

They ran the story. Others picked up on it. I, having read versions published by the AP, LA Times, BuzzFeed, and the Daily Beast, shared the latter to my Twitter followers.

It was all an orchestrated hoax.

Continue reading “White nationalists tricked media about school shooter… and fooled me too”

The Media and the Death Penalty in Arkansas

The world watched as Arkansas attempted a rapid series of executions. University of Central Arkansas Communication students spoke to media witnesses. Here’s what they learned…

The State of Arkansas attempted to execute eight men in an 11-day span in April 2017. The rapid pace, brought on by the imminent expiration of the lethal injection drugs, drew national and international attention to a correctional facility along a rural highway near a town of 523 people.

This semester, beginning four months later, I taught a special topic course on public relations, the press and public affairs at the University of Central Arkansas. We chose the executions as our local issue to examine, looking at the relationship between journalists, government institutions, and advocacy groups in framing and disseminating information to the public.

One of our goals was to communicate what we learned to the larger campus community. As I began to schedule possible guests, they were requesting the same dates. And so we decided to bring four broadcast journalists on the same day and hold a public forum. To my knowledge, it marks the first time since the executions that those witnessing and reporting on them have come together to speak about those experiences.

On Wednesday, November 15, we welcomed three witnesses – one from each of the TV news groups in Little Rock – and one public radio reporter who reported heavily on open-information struggles between media and the Arkansas Department of Corrections.

The event was entirely prepared and implemented by students in the class. Their PR know-how secured a location and resources for the event, as well as promoted it on campus and to the surrounding community (here’s their news release; you’ll see some of the other materials below). Meanwhile, they used their journalistic skills to research the executions and the major players involved.

On the day of the forum, students handled everything from seating and administering extra credit to streaming, facilitating media covering the event, and moderating our panel.

It’s a proud day for a professor when all I have to do is invite the crowd to give them a hearty round of applause at the end of a job well done.

You can watch the archive of our Facebook Live stream here:

Thanks to some dedicated live tweeters, we have quite a collection of highlights from the event. Enjoy… Continue reading “The Media and the Death Penalty in Arkansas”

The grad student tax is an attack on higher education. Let’s try to stop it.

Grad student tax burdens could quadruple. What that means, why it’s happening, and what we can do about it.

The tax plan being debated in the halls of Congress is going to greatly limit access to graduate education. The version passed by the House counts as income the tuition waivers received by grad students on fellowships or assistantships (that’s just about everyone not in law or med school). The result is a huge tax increase for students making next-to-nothing.

Here’s how it works: most graduate students teach and/or do research for the university in exchange for a small living stipend and not having to pay tuition. While some in the hard sciences get more, those stipends typically hover just above the poverty line for a full-time workload (ask anyone who works in these alleged “20-hour a week” positions that are exempt from the Fair Labor Standards Act). Tuition waivers are far more valuable, wiping away an expense that would be double to triple the income earned from the stipend. That’s not income grad students ever see, nor is it a tax deduction they have to claim; it’s just an expense they don’t have to pay. But taxing that as income can take a potentially catastrophic chunk out of the actual stipend money a student has to live on.

I ran the numbers on my graduate education. Here’s how the changes in the House tax bill would’ve increased my tax burden by counting my tuition waiver as income (pre-deductions for simplicity):

Master’s: Tax rate increases from 10% to 32% of actual income
Doctorate: Tax rate increases from 12% to 50% (!) of actual income

I was fortunate. I got a Master’s degree in-state and lived rent-free with family. With those discounts and a few part-time jobs, I made it work. And maybe, under the new plan, I could still float that.

But a Ph.D. with 50% of my actual income going to taxes? I literally couldn’t have afforded rent in a dirt cheap college town.

I could not have become an educator.

And lots of other would-be graduate students in lots of other fields would not be able to reach their aspirations because Uncle Sam priced them out of it.

Many graduate programs are the purest remaining pursuits of knowledge & creativity. They don’t end in high-paying jobs that make shouldering years of debt feasible.

Arts, humanities & social sciences, particularly, are going to get crushed by this.

Of course, STEM folks are saying it’s going to kill STEM too. And, honestly, that’s a more compelling argument to Washington, because it more directly threatens economic growth.

I think these programmatic statements have a lot to do with the silos we live in as graduate students and the precision with which we learn to make claims. We talk about our disciplines because they are the ones we know and have experienced.

Let’s be clear: This threatens all of us.

Let’s be clear again: Our fate rests in the hands of Senate Republicans.

Continue reading “The grad student tax is an attack on higher education. Let’s try to stop it.”

Trust in a fake news world

“Fake news” defined an election, and continues to play a prominent role in the presidency of the candidate that most benefited from all of its forms. Gather a bunch of journalism educators together, and it’s no surprise we’re going to want to talk about it. That’s what happened in Chicago at the 2017 annual conference of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC). Continue reading “Trust in a fake news world”