March 26, 2020

Editor’s note: Welcome to Alma Matters, a regularly updated feature starting today on Poynter.org. These posts are designed to assist educators with online teaching and help student journalists and student media organizations with resources during the COVID-19 shutdown.

Struggling and need advice? Have a tip or tool you want to share with others? Email me at ballen@poynter.org

Reminder: All News University self-directed courses and webinars are free until May 31. Use the discount code 20college100 

Price alert

Adobe has dropped the price of its Creative Cloud to $19.99 a month for students and teachers.

No thanks, I’ll pass

Has your school made a decision on implementing some kind of pass/fail grades yet? Decisions have come down all over the United States, including places like UC-Berkeley, at three of Florida’s largest universities and at the University of Pennsylvania. Here’s a compelling editorial from The Harvard Crimson in favor of universal pass/fail.

Assignment help for professors

So your students need assignments, but they can’t leave the house. Here are some story ideas they can do from their kitchen tables:

  • See above — localize your school’s pass/fail policies. Are they universal or class by class? Is it up to the students or the professors? Who makes that call, and what’s the progress on it? Get reactions from students and professors.
  • Speaking of canceled class … find out if you’ll be getting any student fees back, like at Texas A&M, the University of Tennessee and the University of Maine. When can students expect those refunds? Crunch the numbers — about how much might the average student get?
  • What services are available to help your community? Some places have long lists, like The Seattle Times, while The (Batavia, New York) Daily News/Livingston County News (Geneseo, New York) used a layered Google map to show people where to get food, seek medical help, take shelter from domestic violence, and give blood, among other things.
  • Ain’t no party like a school’s out party … as we saw in the University of Dayton’s Flyer News. Conduct a social media poll aimed at students: Have you been to a gathering in the last week in which there were more than 10 people? Publish the results and get reactions (guaranteed outrage clicks if published).
  • Find and publish your school’s emergency plan. Does it address pandemics? Was protocol followed? Are there any plans for follow-ups or revisions?

And for student media organizations …

  • Speaking of fishing for story ideas, check out this compilation in The Lead newsletter, produced by former Poynter fellow and current Seattle Times reporter Taylor Blatchford (sign up for that newsletter here).
  • Check out this Google spreadsheet compiled by professor Michele Day at Northern Kentucky University that showcases student coronavirus work at schools across the country.
  • And if you’re just trying to get through the week, student editors should consider attending a Zoom meeting with their counterparts from across the country, coordinated by Pepperdine University student media adviser and professor Elizabeth R. Smith. The Student Editors vs. COVID-19 Meeting will be Friday, March 27 at 3 p.m. Eastern. Fill out this Google form to join.

We’re getting engaged

One of the top challenges for professors we’re hearing from? Engagement in online classes. Technology just doesn’t make it easy for free-flowing discussion. What are your best tips and tricks to get students engaged and talkative in an online realm? Email me at ballen@poynter.org or find me on Twitter, @barbara_allen_.

How are you going to teach THAT remotely?

For many professors, it’s the skills courses that require the most creativity, as concept courses can be mostly managed with assignments, readings and class discussion. For those of you professors trapped in the dystopian hell of trying to make hay out of skills courses, here are a few resources. (I’ll be keeping an eye out for more, so let me know if you see any!)

Behind the scenes, at home

Iowa State University professor Mickey Bugeja writes for Poynter what this online migration has been like for him and his wife. And their kids. And their pets.

Vanya Tsvetkova, an interactive learning producer for News University at Poynter and adjunct at the University of Tampa, had this advice for professors suddenly thrust into the online teaching realm.

Keep the government pressure up

I reached out to Frank LoMonte, director of the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information at the University of Florida and the former director of the Student Press Law Center, about how local governments were functioning and how students could cover them as they make important COVID-19-related proclamations. Here’s what he had to say:

  • How diligent do reporters need to be? “This is very much of a moving target, as governors everywhere are issuing executive orders that relieve government bodies from strict compliance with open-government laws. I don’t think we can be extreme literalists and insist on business-as-usual when nothing is usual.”
  • How has reporting on government changed? “In a growing number of states, it’s now legal for public bodies to meet by audio or video, and there’s nothing inherently evil about that as long as all the same formalities required for in-person meetings are observed. The public should get meaningful advance notice of what’s being considered and how to attend, the meeting should be viewable in real time, and it should be immediately archived in a readily accessible place.”
  • What’s the government’s obligation? “A meeting is a meeting whether it is face-to-face or virtual. Just as public bodies can’t close their in-person meetings, except for a handful of statutory grounds for going into closed session, they can’t hold Zoom conferences or telephone conferences without making sure the public has a way to listen. It’s more important than ever, frankly, that government agencies make sure there’s meaningful media access, because we can’t assume interested members of the public will be watching. Technologies like Zoom are foreign to the vast majority of the public. Interested people may not have the computing power or the technical know-how to take part in video conferences.”
  • What can reporters do about it? “The Brechner Center and National Freedom of Information Coalition came up with this statement, co-signed by 130 other organizations, that sets out some guiding principles for moving government business into the virtual world temporarily, while people can’t travel or assemble in crowds.”
  • What’s the message? “Basically, we’re urging agencies to forego any decision that’s not time-urgent, just as people are being told not to schedule non-emergency surgery or take non-emergency plane trips. Government agencies shouldn’t be taking advantage of the quarantine to rush through decisions on which the public deserves input.”
  • What’s the bottom line? “I do think that agencies owe the public something back in exchange for relief from compliance with open-government requirements. The understanding should be that government bodies at all levels will do their dead-level best to put meetings, documents and data online, without being asked, as an essential part of their everyday duties.”

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press also published guidelines for government transparency.

Remember, send me your questions, ideas, solutions, tips, recipes, video game shortcuts and Harrison Ford movie Easter eggs … I’ll try to help as much as I can in a future column! Hit me up at ballen@poynter.org or on Twitter, @barbara_allen_.

Until then, stay away!

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Barbara Allen is the director of college programming for Poynter. Prior to that, she served as managing editor of Poynter.org. She spent two decades in…
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