Reflection on 2020: Shifting experiential learning opportunities online

Greg Hall classroom with caution tape
Facilities & Services employees prepare Room 100 in Gregory Hall for safe in-person instruction. (Photo by Charles “Stretch” Ledford, associate professor of journalism.) 


Like many faculty members, the COVID-19 pandemic left Jonathan Knipp wondering how he was going to teach his MACS 464: Film Festivals class virtually. 

Normally, the class puts together an in-person film festival on campus. But instead, the class worked together to provide a virtual film festival of student work, including showcasing their experiences in quarantine.

“It was a really intense moment for me in which I had to kind of think on my feet all the time,” said Knipp, lecturer in media and cinema studies.

Knipp said his students stepped up to make the film festival happen, even though it was different than expected. Some of his students even created a website to livestream all of the content. The website also allowed students to vote for their favorite films. 

“Without the participation of everyone, then it would have been unmanageable,” Knipp said.

Knipp wasn’t the only one who had to change lesson plans. Alison Davis, lecturer in journalism who taught JOUR 199: Intro to Documentary Production in the spring, also had to make a quick turnaround. Fortunately, her students were able to take home all of their camera equipment. For their final assignment, which is a short video documentary, she encouraged her students to focus on their experience during the pandemic.

She said she received some amazing creations from her students. One of her students is from Spain and made a film about what it was like living with her family in their apartment during quarantine. Her grandparents had contracted COVID-19 and the video ended with them getting out of the hospital, Davis said. (Watch “Quarantine” by Maria Brotons Almandoz.)

Davis added that her students have been very engaged in class and have handled the transition into remote learning well.

“I’ve had excellent attendance to my classes,” Davis said. “I’ve had excellent participation. I just think it really says a lot about the quality of students that we have.”

Since the pandemic didn’t end during the spring semester, faculty had to continue changing their lesson plans into the fall. Marisa Peacock, lecturer in advertising, teaches ADV 350: Writing for Public Relations, which entails an assignment that is usually done in person. 

For the assignment, students have to create press materials for a fictional organization. But beforehand, they use physical messaging cards that allow them to sort and organize their company’s communication goals. For a virtual replacement, Peacock decided to use Trello, a free app and web-based platform, that allowed groups to visually organize their projects through virtual cards.

“By using tools that were easy to access and worked well with the tools I was already using, it was a great way to make learning engaging, while giving students hands-on experience,” Peacock wrote in a blog, which is part of a series on remote instruction resources compiled by the Center for Innovation in Teaching and Learning at Illinois.

Christopher Ball, assistant professor in journalism who taught JOUR 460: Extended Realities and Immersive Technologies in the spring, created virtual reality presentations for his students. He experimented with different virtual lecture formats, which were rated highly by his students, so he decided to continue experimenting with different virtual formats in the fall.

He said using emerging technology like VR provides students with a hands-on learning opportunity that motivates them to be more involved.

“Students are learning with the new technologies that they are learning about,” Ball said. “I also think that these new virtual formats can add an invaluable component to online education—intrinsic motivation. In other words, I try to make my class content fun, and I try to have fun making it.”

This semester, Ball is also experimenting with creating a virtual lecture hall where students can interact in real time. In this virtual environment, he would be able to meet with students and have discussions within the virtual lecture hall.

These virtual learning experiences have extended even outside the classroom. Under normal circumstances, students would be able to go to the basement computer labs in Gregory Hall to work on projects and receive tech guidance from “Adobe helpers.” But the College of Media has created a “Virtual Basement” where students can have this same experience online through Microsoft Teams.

The Virtual Basement will be staffed in the afternoons and evenings, and students will be able to interact with each other 24/7, as well as ask for help when needed, said Meghan Burnett, director of information technology and operations.

“The goal of the space is to have a place where our students can interact with each other like they may have in the basement computer labs before COVID-19,” Burnett said. “The concept behind the Virtual Basement is to narrow the gap created by being unable to offer lab space this fall.”

Marissa Plescia, Communications and Marketing Intern