Educating During the Pandemic: The Fall 2020 Idea Generator for Instructors in Higher Education

With colleges and universities compelled by COVID-19  to continue remote and virtual instructional methods, best practices are in high demand. This quick-read resource guide delivers a list of takeaways from The Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations’ recent digital panel, Educating During the Pandemic.”

1. Increase student agency.

  • Adapt course content to offer students several options for the same assignment, all laddering up to the same learning objective. Creating options gives students greater agency in their own learning and an ability to discover how they best learn.
  • As part of expanding the range of options, look beyond the traditional text, or simply augmenting with the occasional video. Force the use of digital content, case studies and expert viewpoints, assigned or which students find on their own.

2. Duration. Duration. Duration.

  • Adjust your teaching and instruction to the remote environment.
  • Research shows students’ attention spans run about 15 minutes for a virtual lecture. Instructors must intentionally segment content and envision class sessions in chunks or bursts, and design sessions to be shorter than face-to-face teaching.

3. Maintain professional standards.

  • Treat digital instruction as a training ground for the way the world of work has adapted. Even before the virus, Zoom, Google Hangouts and Cisco WebEx were standard in any global business or agency of any size. Make your classes mirror the standards of the contemporary workplace – in style, participation, dress and expectations.
  • Engage the class in creating a class “code” they will uphold, again increasing their agency over their instruction and driving buy-in for the standards and expectations for the semester.

4. This is no time for the status-quo.

  • Remote instruction places a new premium on variety to maintain attention and engagement. Merely doing the same lectures and slide decks via video ignores the situation of the student – many of whom are enduring multiple hours of consecutive video classes.
  • With high-quality engagement as the objective, research suggests three types of virtual interactions lead to improved outcomes:
    • Student-Instructor interaction (class discussion/one-on-one meetings)
    • Student-Student interaction (breakout rooms/discussion boards)
    • Student-Content interaction (meaningful, independent engagement with class content)

5. Embed social platforms.

  • Business is being done and discussed on social media every day, a direction that is accelerating in an age of remote work, especially on Twitter and LinkedIn.
  • Assign tasks to complete on social media, such as using Twitter to monitor media sources and posting to their personal accounts on topical content relevant to the class topic each week.
  • Make it a goal for each student to have 500+ LinkedIn connections by the end of their time in your PR program, with emphasis on industry professionals.

6. Exploit the environment for learning outcomes.

  • Connect the core competencies of public relations to the new student realities of increased isolation or learning from home, especially in introductory courses.
    • As an example, create a small-group team assignment (groups of three work best) that requires students to explain to their parents, caregivers or roommates what public relations is.
    • Teams conduct primary research into their parents’ level of knowledge about PR and Communications, coming up with goals and objectives, and developing one tactic to help them explain the role and impact of public relations.
    • Similarly, have students create and present a persuasive point of view on a current issue, or profile a noteworthy leader.

7. Make student well-being part of your pedagogy.

  • In these abnormal conditions, human first isn’t one way — it’s the only way. Remind students that you know their lives have been disrupted, and you’re there for them.
  • Of course, it’s harder to make personal connections with students in a 100% virtual environment, so educators must be purposeful about making those connections happen.
    • One suggestion: Sign in to your virtual class session 15 minutes early and remain connected 15 minutes after the session ends. Use these as “Open Mic Time” to get to know your students, build rapport, and discuss whatever is on their minds – course-related, or not.
  • Be available, responsive, and make the extraordinary effort to maintain normalcy in abnormal times. Office hours – even via video — might matter now more than ever before.

8. Grant greater grace and understanding.

  • Life can interfere when students are at home in ways it might not when they are in a formal classroom setting.
  • Give students a virtual “Oops card” at the start of the semester. This Oops card can be used once for a missed assignment, a “do-over” assignment or a missed class. This will help relieve stress and makes a visible demonstration of empathy.  

9. Embrace the (issues of) the day.

  • A silver lining of virtual courses is that they allow for a greater variety of content than a typical, highly prescribed, in-person course might.
    • Pick recent news, articles or blog posts as reading assignments. Have students listen to a podcast series throughout the semester. The reason for inviting guest speakers has never been stronger, or easier to deliver in a virtualized classroom.
  • Leverage current events and the shifting attitudes of the country to teach applicable public relations lessons. The current Covid-19 pandemic and continuing national dialogue on racial and social justice issues offer plenty of live examples of PR strategies, tactics and leadership.

10. Convert distance to an advantage, rather than a barrier.

  • At home, or any situation where some significant portion of the content is being delivered remotely, students have greater flexibility to consume course content outside the scheduled class time.
  • Send out your class notes or slide decks in advance; in fact, send them as far in advance as possible. This will provide students with an earlier and more flexible opportunity to digest the content and might enable them to be more actively engaged during class if they are freed from taking their own notes.
  • Build in required office hours, either formally or informally, to help gauge the well-being of students. This can be an individual meeting or a virtual “coffee hour.”

These ideas were offered as part of the “Summer Sessions” webinar series hosted by The Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations on Facebook Live and moderated by Mark Harris, member of the Board of Advisors and global communications advisor for Xero. This webinar featured:

  • Ron Culp, director of the graduate program in public relations and advertising at DePaul University.
  • Dr. Denise Hill, assistant professor in strategic communications at Elon University
  • Dr. Diana Martinelli, dean of the Reed College of Media and Widmeyer Professor in Public Relations at West Virginia University.