As a journalist and technologist, I usually am ahead of the learning curve when it comes to online content. But this entire experience has been nerve-wracking. It is one thing going digital in an office, and another doing the same at home on short notice.
On March 11, Iowa State University announced via email that it was suspending face-to-face classes — it had only been a matter of time.
Time, in fact, continues to be a scarce commodity in the mass digital migration of journalism education. In some respects, I was prepared in advance, as all of my lectures had been posted previously online as a matter of good pedagogy.
And yet, despite the preparation, the past two weeks have been costly both in time spent during break working on the transition and in personal expenses, too.
No one at Iowa State offered to pay for new equipment and supplies to be used in a home office. We had several communiques about compassion and instruction. But no one said, “Oh, and we’ll pay for it, too.”
The university did provide resources. Our Center for Learning and Teaching and our Computer Support and School IT personnel worked continuously throughout most of this transition, answering questions at all hours, until they, too, were sent home. That meant working with IT via email. You know how that typically turns out.
Technology has its own agenda, and we had to deal with that before virtual classes began Monday.
Thankfully, we had spring break, March 16-20, to get ready.
It is one thing for administrators to announce that face-to-face classes are canceled and virtual classes will begin after break, and another thing for teachers to heed that command.
For starters, my photojournalism spouse Diane, an associate teaching professor, primarily used her office and school facilities for her classes. So we had to assemble a suitable setup in our house. My oldest son, Shane, an extension educator in Minnesota, came home to help his parents, both of us in our 60s. We also have a teenager with special needs, Mikayle, whose high school also has closed and who requires 24/7 observation.
We also have an aged 140-pound German shepherd and a cat with issues. So barks and caterwauls from animals and people are the norm at this moment in our cloistered household.
Nevertheless, Diane and I attended the various webinars about video conferencing. We viewed YouTube videos and read dozens of IT emails while setting up a suitable home office. We needed chairs and headsets with microphones, along with myriad supplies that we normally have access to in our offices.
Toilet paper probably is missing at your local Walmart. We found that certain office supplies were hoarded, too.
Case in point: Several websites, including this one, recommend MPow PC headsets for online teaching. They were sold out. I finally found a listing for a used one on Amazon and ordered it. I also ordered a Willful M91 headset, again from Amazon, for $38.99. By the evening of March 18, the used MPow had been sold to someone else and my payment refunded. So I ordered another Willful M91 for Diane. By then, the price had jumped by $7.
Meanwhile, we had mastered the “Conferences” tab on our educational software, Canvas. That took a few days. We not only had to learn how to use the video camera and functions to share screens and applications; we also had to write instructions for students — with screenshots, of course — to log on and participate.
Diane has a Mac and I, a PC; so instructions had to be learned and written twice.
My media ethics students were informed by email about how to interact with us via Conferences on Canvas. We were ahead of the game at this point. Diane was revising her photojournalism lectures for online delivery while I was assembling office chairs (two hours) and restocking our home office with three work stations for us and Shane.
Then we were informed that the Conferences function could not be used for virtual classes as it wasn’t designed for that purpose.
We were told to use WebEx or Zoom. So we had to learn those platforms. We chose Zoom because many students knew how to use it.
Diane and I practiced on this, and we were moderately confident. Diane teaches a two-hour class every Tuesday and Thursday, and you need a professional Zoom license for that kind of lengthy interaction.
Earlier in the semester I had taken out such a license on the university’s Zoom platform. But by the time Diane applied for the same license, they were sold out. We offered to buy our own Zoom license for her, but we were told no, because it wasn’t compatible with the university’s platform.
So she had to unlearn Zoom and learn WebEx.
Both video platforms are similar, but there are subtle differences requiring different instructions. Moreover, we were dealing with a Mac and PC with two video platforms in a shared home office with a professional extension agent, a special needs son, a 12-year-old attack dog, and a cat that scratches the doors during video recordings. Feline fun.
You can imagine the frustrations.
Here’s an example: Zoom provides MP4 recordings of virtual classes. WebEx recordings required a special media player, which students would have to download, an extra step that many students might ignore.
Initially, IT asked us to include the WebEx link through Canvas, which didn’t require a special download. However, when the video recording was viewed in that manner, the resolution somehow slightly blurred, distorting text and visuals. If you teach photojournalism, that alone undermines the lesson because students would not be able to tell if the image was blurry due to camera settings or the incompatible software.
These types of matters consumed us through the weekend of March 21-22. By now, however, our IT staff had been told to go home, too, because of COVID-19, so we couldn’t contact anyone about annoying issues, such as WebEx settings that didn’t allow the host to turn off participant videos. I could on my PC, Diane could not on her Mac.
Shane and I called her Mac “a toy,” and that sparked a spat.
By Monday, March 23, my classes proceeded without a hitch, as did Diane’s on March 24.
Thankfully, our university gave professors permission to revise syllabi because some exercises, especially in journalism —such as covering trials or photographing crowds — cannot easily be done anymore.
Many professors continue to work around the clock with students via email, not only about class, but about internships that have ended prematurely because businesses have shut down. And then there is the nightmare of advisees who took the spring semester abroad, including a few of mine in Italy, and how to serve them when their classes ended mid-semester in host countries.
As for Diane and me, despite our initial success, overcoming all manner of interpersonal and digital challenges, we miss our students terribly and hope to see them again, not at graduation, which also has been canceled at Iowa State, but most likely on LinkedIn.
It’s a virtual new world.
Mickey Bugeja is distinguished professor of journalism at Iowa State University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.