Lessons from online learning: How distance can bring the classroom closer | COMMENTARY
By Rona Kobell
For The Baltimore Sun|
Oct 26, 2020 at 7:56 AM
Last semester, when no one could go anywhere, I took my Journalism 201 students around the world. We headed to the Arctic to hunt for fossils, to Rio de Janeiro for the Olympics, to refugee camps in the mountains between Turkey and Iraq, and to Afghanistan, where we saw former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin tattooed on a gunnery sergeant’s derrière.
Through Zoom, I taught my students the class I’d always wanted to take. With more universities switching to online only every day, opportunities abound for this sort of broadened perspective. It may seem contrary, when no one can travel. But part of the advantage. Everyone’s home.
I’d sworn off packing my syllabus with guest speakers when I began my spring semester, my second at the University of Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalism, where I am an adjunct lecturer. I worried the students would leave without grasping crucial reporting concepts if we had too many guests. I wanted to make sure they left my class knowing the important things.
Then the virus hit, and the important things changed for all of us. Suddenly, on a Monday, I was thrust into hands-on learning, figuring out how to move the class online and helping frantic students get comfortable with the new format. Of 17 students, 15 showed up that day, all anxious. I scrapped the day’s lesson, and told them our final exam would now be an investigation of the biggest story of their lives so far — the pandemic. We began exploring how the university responded to the pandemic, how the media covered it, how restaurants were faring, what would happen to sports and a timeline of important milestones.
The next day, the campus closed.
A reporting course is much easier to move online than, say, a chemistry lab. I worked with fellow professors to share strategies and materials. We kept things going. But the faces I saw on that last day of in-person classes were terrified, and the ones I saw in their childhood bedrooms via computer looked forlorn. They needed a reminder of the profession’s possibilities, of why it was fun.
So I reached out to friends, colleagues, and interesting people I follow on social media. Before we knew it, the paleontologist Neil Shubin told us how he discovered a 375-million-year-old fish fossil in the Canadian Arctic. Longtime Olympic scribe Phil Hersh, retired from the Chicago Tribune, recounted his career of covering sports from Beijing to Sochi and his enduring friendship with figure skater Michelle Kwan. Richard Deitsch, formerly of Sports Illustrated and now of The Athletic, told of interviewing Jason Hehir, director of the documentary “The Last Dance" about NBA great Michael Jordan. Washington Post military reporter Dan Lamothe explained the give-and-take between reporters embedded in war zones; on one occasion, soldiers made sure he saw that Palin tattoo. (A photo ran with Lamothe’s article, and of course I showed it to the class.) Narrative writing coach Jacqui Banaszynski described how, nearly 30 years ago, she had her heart broken writing on deadline about refugee children.
I worried that the move online would mean less time with the students. But it meant more. I live an hour from campus. When I teach in College Park, I show up a few minutes before my class from my day job and leave immediately afterward to see my family. My office hours are by appointment, but almost no one makes one. With online teaching, I was always available — by Zoom, text, GroupMe, email, Twitter DMs or phone. I could offer more individual attention, and the students felt more comfortable taking me up on it. The distance brought us closer.
I’m not teaching this year, because I’m on the other side of the room — er, Zoom. I’m a graduate student, earning a master’s in journalism with focus on history. I hear a lot of my neighbors grousing about paying tuition for online classes. But for every student who is sad to miss the parties and the football games, there is one like me, who appreciates the convenience of online teaching. I never would have thought that distance made a classroom feel more personal, until I experienced it for myself.
Rona Kobell (email@example.com), a former Baltimore Sun reporter, is a science editor and writer for Maryland Sea Grant. She taught journalism at the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism, where she is now a graduate student.