Uncertainty Meets Resilience

May 11, 2021

Stories of How C&IS Met the Challenges Presented by COVID-19

Uncertainty filled the air as students left UA’s campus for spring break in March 2020. With other academic institutions already announcing a move to online learning, the announcement to halt classes, meetings and events seemed inevitable. In a University-wide email sent March 12, 2020, President Stuart Bell announced that classes would be suspended for an additional week to allow time for courses to be transitioned to alternative and remote learning methods for the remainder of the semester.

Within Bell’s email lay a hidden and hopeful charge to the entire University of Alabama extended family, “I call upon each of you—faculty, staff, students, parents, alumni and supporters—to model the creativity and strength of the campus community we have come to expect.” As the next several months would be some of the most challenging times many educators and staff had ever experienced, C&IS was determined to exceed the expectations of Dr. Bell’s challenge just as he requested—with creativity and strength.

Jackson Fuentes and Katherine Poedtke became superheroes to local school children through their efforts securing meals for local, food-insecure children during the pandemic.

CREATIVE SUPERHEROES

Each semester, students in C&IS instructor Susan Daria’s class are split into groups of 5-7 students to organize an event or initiative to raise funds and awareness for local childhood food insecurity. Since 2011, this class has raised more than $213,000 for Secret Meals For Hungry Children (SMHC) which secures discreet, non-perishable food packs to feed more than 1,700 under-nourished and food-insecure children over the weekends during the school year.

Assignments in Daria’s class, APR 419: Public Relations Concepting and Implementation, include drafting communication plans and media releases, seeking out partnerships and sponsorships with community organizations, and creating an original visual look to support the students’ efforts with advertising and promotion. The project culminates in a short video documentary of the project and a client presentation at the semester’s end. This process ensures a comprehensive learning experience for all the students involved.

“At the beginning of a typical semester, students go out and find a venue and community partners—people who want to contribute by donating items for a silent auction or contributing sponsorships,” said Daria. “But it’s all pretty much based on physical interactions.”

In-person gatherings have been an essential component of the APR 419 projects for SMHC over the years, including events such as percentage nights at local venues and restaurants. As the news of a campus-wide moratorium on events broke last spring, the SMHC fundraisers were in jeopardy for the first time in 18 semesters. Had the announcement come earlier, Daria’s students could have adjusted their plans with time to spare, but halfway through the semester the project groups were putting the finishing touches on their events logistics, advertising artwork and promotion plans.

“I sent an email to my students asking them to look into ways of doing their projects online,” said Daria. “One group was doing a pool tournament. You can’t really do something like that online…but this class didn’t let it stop them; they came together and they kept going.”

Perhaps given the extenuating circumstances, Daria could have lessened the class requirements for a semester and allowed her students to turn in a campaign without the required implementation. But crisis situations happen and preparing students to handle crises with poise and determination is essential to the quality of their education—even if it is not listed as a learning outcome in a particular course. Furthermore, Secret Meals For Hungry Children is not a hypothetical situation, or a project dreamed up as a prompt for theoretical instruction; it’s a real program with real children who rely on it to make it through the weekend well-fed. Daria understood this and so did her students.

APR 419 students created a variety of personalized advertising campaigns to spread the word about their SMHC initiatives.

“Outside factors always have the ability to change a PR plan drastically,” said PR student Katherine Poedtke (Naperville, Illinois). “You have to get the work done one way or the other. We were trying to help feed children during the pandemic, and that was all the motivation we needed to work as hard as we could to pull together as a team and as a class.”

The students had less than a week to shift their in-person fundraising and awareness events into suitable online alternatives. For most groups this meant new ideas, new graphics and new promotional tactics. One group held an online bingo game called “Backpack Bingo,” as another group launched a superhero social media campaign—complete with capes—titled, “Be a Hero.” One student even used her birthday fundraiser on Facebook to help raise money.

“Actually, moving online ended up being a positive because we were able to reach out to a lot more people that aren’t in the Tuscaloosa area,” said PR student Jackson Fuentes (Peachtree City, Georgia). “The previous events were going to be confined to the Tuscaloosa community and not as much to the online spheres. When we transitioned, the target audience grew substantially.”

Collecting funds however they could, the students became the true heroes. They rose to the challenge with creativity and determination, raising more than $8,000 to feed hungry children in a few short weeks.

“I was extremely proud of these seniors,” said Daria. “These remarkable students used their professional skills to better the lives of others—even in the face of a global crisis. Being there to witness it and to guide them has been my proudest achievement in 18 years of collegiate instruction.”

As the pandemic continued into the Fall 2020 semester, so did the efforts of advertising and public relations students to creatively raise funds and awareness to benefit Secret Meals For Hungry Children. Daria’s fall class hosted an online ‘Backpack Bingo’ event, a ‘Paw-Parazzi’ pet photo contest, an online auction titled ‘Auctions for Action,’ and a ‘Taste of T-Town’ online cookbook sale. Through all these creative ideas, these students raised another $8,000 for the community. With perseverance and resolve, Daria’s students overcame countless challenges to provide much-needed meals for dozens of West Alabama children.

Dr. Jennifer Becker (right) teaches online while students implement hands-on learning in a virtual learning environment.

PROGRESSIVE CURIOSITY

Online courses in higher education existed for decades prior to the global COVID-19 outbreak, but never before had the demand for remote access to online education been so high and so immediate. Seemingly overnight, students all across the world were unable to gather on their respective campuses for face-to-face instruction. As faculty made course transitions to asynchronous online or A/V interactive instructional methods, it was a challenge to implement interactive elements of a course or experiential learning practices.

C&IS faculty and researchers Dr. Jennifer Becker and Dr. Anneliese Bolland are working hard to improve the overall effectiveness of online education by incorporating experiential learning in their online teaching methodology and by leading conversations about effective online teaching methods for instructors and faculty across the United States.

“We are promoting a culture of excellence in online pedagogy. Exemplary online courses and instructors facilitate engaged and meaningful student learning that is deep and sustained,” said Becker. “This is possible, and one of the most powerful ways to do this is through high-impact practices.”

High-impact practices (HIPS) are teaching and learning methods such as experiential learning, internships, collaborative assignments and undergraduate research, that have been widely tested and have been shown to be beneficial for college students from many backgrounds. Experiential learning requires direct, hands-on experience in real-world contexts, focused reflection, and drawing connections to academic work, life experience and future applications.

“Experiential learning is often challenging to do inside the classroom, although there can certainly be fruitful discussions within the classroom about experiences had outside the classroom,” said Bolland. “In some ways, remote learning has opened doors to faculty thinking about additional ways to use experiential learning as a means of meeting learning objectives. Especially because some students may be living in different cities, states, perhaps even different countries right now, asking students to leave Zoom and have an intentional academic experience where they apply course material is possible.”

In Bolland’s course COM 550: Qualitative Research Methods in Communication, she utilizes various experiential learning activities as a way to bring key concepts home. For example, one assignment calls for students to observe something—interactions at the DMV, the dog park, the farmer’s market, etc.—as both a participant and a non-participant. While students observe, they are thinking through a qualitative research study and applying concepts such as ethics of observing, objectivity in observation or positionality in a study. Then, they proceed to analyze their fieldnotes and write up a mini-study. The experience is the lesson, and these learning practices have been shown to increase student engagement and retention.

C&IS professors aren’t just applying these practices to their own online courses, they’re impacting virtual campuses all across the country by leading new conversations in online education. In October 2020, Becker, Bolland and Dr. Coral Bender of LSU hosted a 60-minute session titled “Integrating Experiential Learning into Online Education” and moderated an interactive workshop at the national HIPS in the States 2020 Conference, an informal community of college and university educators working to improve the applications, tracking, and assessments of high-impact educational practices at public and private institutions.

“Our conference session was designed to spark creative applications of experiential learning in online courses,” said Becker. “When participants left the session, they left with some concrete ideas about what they could take away and apply in multiple courses of their own.”

This conversation has never been more essential for the future of higher education. Even before the pandemic, universities were seeing dramatic increases in online and distance education opportunities and decreases in main-campus enrollment. If the future of education is trending toward the online environment, it’s imperative that educators understand how to enhance their courses with high-impact practices to ensure a quality education for those enrolled. For Becker, this is a question of access.

“Everyone deserves excellent education,” said Becker. “There are so many working adults who, whether it’s a master’s degree or a bachelor’s degree, can further their education only through a distance learning program. And they deserve to have the same excellent experience
as a student who attends an on-campus class.” At C&IS, our faculty aren’t just implementing these practices, they are teaching and leading the way across the nation.

Dr. Thomas Weida behind the scenes for “Health Matters” with WVUA 23’s Steve Diorio and Mike Royer.

INFORMATIVE DETERMINATION

During the early days of the quarantine period, confusion and misinformation were rampant throughout the country, so breaking news was more important than ever. While many operations at The University of Alabama went fully remote in the middle of March 2020, WVUA 23—the University-owned commercial news station based in the Digital Media Center (DMC)—continued its operations.

The WVUA 23 team pressed forward through the spring semester, during the summer and into the fall, providing available, much-needed information to residents of West Alabama. They knew that, despite losing two-thirds of the news staff as their 40 undergraduate student interns returned home after spring break, they had a duty to their viewers and to their community. The news team kept running. The remaining 18 full-time staff members of WVUA 23 and four part-time master’s students shifted and took on various new roles in the newsroom.

We adjusted and filled in areas where we heavily rely on students,” said Steve Diorio, general manager for WVUA 23. “During a newscast, we would typically have seven people in the newsroom, and suddenly we had three. Anybody and everybody had to step up.”

Thanks to Zoom, story production actually increased last summer. New resources and efficient means of interviewing sources led to an ability for the shortened staff to put out more information to the community, especially in a partnership with the University Medical Center (UMC).

The staff understood the duty they had to inform their viewers on the latest developments with the virus, not to mention the other unprecedented news stories that broke over the summer. Every Friday afternoon, WVUA 23 shoots a virtual town hall, which is shared via Facebook Live on the UMC’s Facebook page. Topics range from timely Center for Disease Control reports to testing concerns in rural Alabama.

“We are working to keep our patients and the West Alabama community informed with the most up-to-date, factual and relevant information about ways to stay healthy and safe during this COVID-19 pandemic,” said Dr. Richard Friend, Dean of the College of Community Health Sciences. “WVUA has been an important and vital partner in this endeavor.”

The partnership between WVUA 23 and the UMC extends beyond the Facebook Live town halls. Another tool WVUA 23 used is a long-running weekly segment called “Health Matters,” featuring staff from the UMC. Dr. Thomas Weida, the Chief Medical Officer for the UMC, became affectionately nicknamed “Captain Covid” because of his appearances on the UMC town halls and his regular segments on “Health Matters.”

In the past, these segments would hit on topics like diet, heart health and hygiene, but after the COVID-19 outbreak, the segments shifted to the various effects of the virus. WVUA 23 and the UMC recognized the importance of topics like mental health, sleep health and stress relief in a time when many people are dealing with anxiety in a way they have never experienced before.

In addition to addressing the sometimes-unrecognized side effects of the virus outbreak, useful information like preventative measures that parents could take as their children return to school and food preparation tips to avoid COVID-19 exposure were also covered. These segments continue to run every Wednesday with re-runs airing on Sunday nights. The full-length interviews, usually around eight minutes, are immediately available on WVUA 23’s website.

Now, the WVUA 23 students are back in action and are a large part of the continued mission to keep the West Alabama community informed during these uncertain times. Student interns are learning a great deal about the ever-changing nature of a functioning newsroom and will carry the unique lessons of the last year into their future careers.

LOOKING AHEAD

Challenges provide unique opportunities to find strengths in hidden places and let them shine, because people committed to doing their best are strengthened by adversity, and so they press on. The dedicated work of faculty, staff and students during the COVID-19 outbreak proves that even during difficult circumstances, C&IS strives to develop global leaders who do the extraordinary across the full communication, media and information spectrum. We see this in the creative resilience of APR 419 students fundraising to provide meals for hungry children after their plans and events were no longer operational. We see this in the progressive curiosity of C&IS faculty challenging the status quo of online learning and teaching the nation their tactics. And we see this in the informative determination of a campus news station putting in the extra hours to guard their community with truth. Looking ahead, we know that challenges will continue to abound and, as an academic community who is persevering during difficulties such as the COVID-19 pandemic, we expect to meet these challenges with the same strength and creativity.


COMMUNICATOR, ISSUE 41

Communicator is published by the Capstone Communication Society and The University of Alabama’s College of Communication and Information Sciences. Its purpose is to keep alumni and supporters informed about the programs, services and activities of the College, as well as developments in the fields of communication and information. To read the latest issue of Communicator, click here