SOJC instructors pivot to make remote learning a success

Kathryn Kuttis types on her grey laptop with an Oregon sticker in front of a record shelf.

Heading into the fall term, senior journalism and public relations major Carly Ebisuya already felt the effects of Zoom fatigue. She missed being able to drop in on her professor during office hours or lean over to the person next to her and ask for help.

“I think the hardest thing is just to not get burned out by it all,” she said. “There’s so much to do, and when you’re just sitting there all day really takes a toll on your motivation.”

She credits her professors at the UO School of Journalism and Communication (SOJC) for understanding her struggles and designing online courses that put students’ needs front and center.

From weekly Zoom check-ins to project-based courses conducted entirely on students’ own time, SOJC instructors are experimenting with various online teaching styles to support students through remote learning while offsetting emerging challenges such as Zoom fatigue.

“All of my teachers in the J-school asked, ‘How do you want this term to go? What do you want to get from me? How you want to run this class?’ It’s cool to see students have an influence on how teachers teach them,” Ebisuya said.

Students’ needs have always been front and center for Mark Blaine, associate director of the Center for Science Communication Research. But with some of his students spread out all over the world, the equation has become more complicated. Teaching Writing for Communicators asynchronously – pre-recording lectures for students to watch at their leisure – has pushed him to rethink everything from the content of his lectures to how he delivers them.

It’s critical to clearly connect the dots between assignments and the learning objectives in an asynchronous learning environment, so students understand why they’re performing each task, he said. It’s also essential for instructors to design their courses within the context of other courses students may be taking.

“Is everybody’s stuff due on Friday? Are students getting 30 emails a day related to Canvas announcements? Remote learning has surfaced a lot of challenges for students,” Blaine said. “What we’re doing now is questioning how students engage with our material. We’ve been forced out of the traditional structure of academia, and that’s a disruption. I hope this actually changes the way we think about students’ needs going forward.”

Anticipating that time management and understanding expectations would be key struggles for remote students, public relations instructor Kathryn Kuttis drew upon her master’s degree in landscape architecture to design her asynchronous course on Strategic Public Relations Communication last spring.

She applied the design concept of wayfinding to her course structure, organizing modules on Canvas to provide a clear trail of breadcrumbs guiding students through the material.

“I was trying to figure out, how can I help students feel like they are connected to a live person, even though we're in this remote environment?” said Kuttis, who was honored with the UO’s Excellence in Remote Teaching Award for her creative problem-solving. “So many students are worried about getting things done or what's going to be expected of them. One of the biggest first things I did was lay things out in a really clear way so they would kind of breathe a sigh of relief, like, ‘OK, this is what we're doing.’”

For Ebisuya, a fervent planner who keeps track of her assignments on a color-coded calendar, Kuttis’s carefully outlined course helped her stay organized and on task.

“Every week she put up a module of everything we had to do for that week,” Ebisuya said. “It was really easy to navigate. You could click on a section and everything was there – all the tasks, due dates and assignments.”

New to the SOJC this year, assistant professor of immersive media psychology Danny Pimentel had the luxury of designing his User Experience & Design course from scratch with remote learning in mind. He chose a synchronous learning format for his students in the strategic communication master’s program.

“When you’re face to face, even though it’s through Zoom, you can get immediate feedback where ideas are thrown against the wall to see what sticks,” he said. “The spontaneous experience of ideation is hard to duplicate on email, where it’s easy to talk yourself out of posing a question or idea.”

Meeting on Zoom for three hours every Monday evening has made Pimentel more aware of his students’ cognitive limitations, especially after they’ve been in classes all day or just finished a long shift at work.

To combat Zoom fatigue, he divides his lectures into 30-minute segments interspersed with breaks so students can stretch and “free their minds a bit.” He also injects energy and variety into the class by featuring a guest speaker each week to provide examples of how concepts from the lecture apply in the real world.

“From a holistic standpoint, I try to understand the human experience around the classroom,” he said. “You’re entering this space and you’re dedicating yourself for X amount of time to this experience of digesting knowledge and thinking critically. But everyone’s in a different environment, so how do you cultivate a unified ambience?”

With music playing in the background as students trickle in, Pimentel gives students a 10-minute “lounge” time at the beginning of each class to take a breath, chat informally and make the mental transition necessary to focus on the impending lecture.

As SOJC students and professors continue to navigate remote learning realities together, understanding and flexibility will remain key to meeting students’ needs, Pimentel added. The big challenge for instructors is to figure out how to embed more flexibility into their courses without compromising the content’s integrity.

“Understanding and flexibility is the name of the game,” he said. “Potential inequities are not as visible in a pandemic. Students may have lost jobs or be working double jobs. How do we incorporate flexibility and ensure there are multiple ways to do an assignment?”

From Ebisuya’s point of view, the SOJC faculty are off to a good start.

“All of the professors have been very, very understanding,” she said. “We are all living and learning in the world of media, and they totally understand the things their students are going through.”

—By Nicole Krueger '99

Nicole Krueger ’99 is a copywriter and former newspaper reporter whose work has appeared in publications such as The Tennessean, the Statesman Journal and Empowered Learner magazine.