Answering Your Questions About Moving College Online

Stan Bunger
June 04, 2020 - 2:13 pm

    As we continue to navigate these unprecedented times, KCBS Radio is getting the answers to your questions about the coronavirus pandemic. Every morning at 9:20 a.m. Monday-Friday we're doing an "Ask An Expert" segment with a focus on a different aspect of this situation each day.

    Today we’re looking at higher education and the move to online learning with Jeff Jacoby, professor and practitioner of sonic arts in the Department of Broadcast and Electronic Communication Arts at San Francisco State University.

    It's important that I disclose to the audience that this is the department from which I graduated several years ago. In fact, so long ago that it was not known as BECA, we had not added "Electronic." It was only broadcast communication arts, but this is the San Francisco State Department that has put so many people into this industry and others as well. It's been a pipeline for many years.

    It has, and we forgive you for being a student of BCA back in the day.

    (laughs) Let me ask you just to get the ball rolling. Personally, when everything hit the fan in early March and across America, including at SF State, everybody was told to go home - how'd that work?

    (laughs) Poorly, I would say. I think that it's fair to say that most of the professors at SF State simply locked their office door, took what they could in the last moments before we were told to leave and went home and then figured out what to do from there, just like the students tried to figure it out. There were no good solutions at that moment. We just simply put one foot in front of the other and did the best that we could.

    Well, we thought we'd reach out to somebody in your department - you specifically - because this is where people study communications, they study electronic and broadcast communications. Are you using Zoom like everybody else?

    We are. We're using Zoom, and there are some other programs that we're using as well. But Zoom seems to be the default position. And so I had to learn how to use Zoom in a day just like everybody else.

    It must hurt your ears to listen to the audio because you care about audio quality.

    The audio and the video. One of the things that I'm actually considering writing an article about is, how do you put yourself on camera on a Zoom call? Because people have themselves in the bottom of the frame or the right of the frame with no lighting, they're dressed badly. They need to fix that. We need to figure out how to use Zoom better.

    Well let's talk about that for a moment. What would some simple tips be for students trying to make an impression, family members hoping to do better or, more importantly these days, what we have right now is teacher candidates being hired for school districts in a virtual interview setting. They will not go to a real classroom. Imagine that.

    I can imagine that. That happened last year well before the pandemic. We already were conducting interviews of potential professors online, and I will tell you, quite frankly, that when a media professor, a professor being hired to teach video in this case puts himself on camera and looks terrible with an awful background and terrible lighting and terrible camera position, it has an impact on our hiring decision. This is what they're supposed to know how to do. And apparently some of them did not know how to do it.

    Okay, a few simple questions then. Where do you look? Because everybody is confused.

    Yeah, it's difficult because, of course, in Zoom you have yourself on camera as well, and so the temptation is to constantly check yourself. And remember that's not normal, that's not how we normally conduct conversations. You're not looking at yourself all the time, one hopes. So it's very difficult. I actually scan the group. I put as many as I can on the screen as if I were looking out at the classroom and I ignore my own picture, and I let the Zoom program bring up forward whoever is speaking so I can literally or figuratively look him in the eye when they're speaking.

    You dress for the Zoom session?

    Oh, absolutely. You have to dress at least from the waist up. This is something the newscasters know very well. (laughs)

    (laughs) Most of us.

    You have to dress properly. You have to check your lighting, check your background, make sure that the framing is correct, that what we call head room - which is the space between the top of your head and the top of frame - is not too much. If you saw Obama's speech yesterday, he was in the bottom half of the frame and I basically cursed at Zoom the entire time.

    If everybody had taken Herb Zettl's classes at SF State over the years they would have known all of this.

    (laughs) That's correct.

    And one more about that: virtual background, good or bad?

    I think virtual backgrounds are fine. I think that over time we're going to grow tired of that. I think what matters is that you're dealing with a person or people on the other end of that line, and over time we're going to realize that that's not as good as being in a room with somebody. It just isn't. And so what you want to do is maximize eye contact. You want to maximize the personal tenor of the conversation and minimize the gimmickry. And so the virtual backgrounds are fun. But it's a gimmick, and I think it'll grow old.

    Let's get some questions that have come in from listeners to askus@kcbsradio.com. First one here, part of what high school and college students are supposed to do for growth is to separate from their parents and become independent. How do parents support this happening when the kids and the parents - college kids at this point - are home together 24/7?

    Yeah, this, of course I'm hearing from my current students, is a major issue. And it's not just living with your parents, even living with roommates living in small apartments living across the state, you're constantly bombarded by distraction. So how do you focus on being in a class, even a virtual class, with all the distraction around you? And it's difficult. So a couple of things.

    Parents need to understand as do students - new students especially - that they all have to create a space both physically and emotionally for the new student to focus on what's going on on the screen. In other words, be in class. So parents have to back off. They have to find a place in the house where the kid can be by themselves. They have to leave them alone, they have to not interrupt, they have to make sure that pets and little brothers are not interrupting class time. So that's one thing is to create a space and make sure that you respect that zone. I like to think of it as a sacred zone, and the parents and the roommates need to understand that.

    But there's a bigger question here, and that is that one should not define their college experience by one semester. Whether it's online, badly done, poorly attended, whatever the issues are it's just one semester, we hope. Even if it's two semesters, your college career is probably four years, maybe even five years, and so don't define it by this one moment in history. And remember too, that because of this moment in history and being forced to improvise the way we all are, you're gonna get some things out of that that others won't. Every time there's been a tragedy, a war, a pandemic people have to improvise. And by doing that you learn a lot and so you're going to get some things out of this moment that other people won't.

    Yeah, that's an interesting point. Just let me ask you because there is so much despair, so much we hear about, "I didn't get to walk the stage at graduation." In fact SF State's own students should have gotten their diplomas wearing their caps and gowns here, what, last week?

    That's right. And they are planning an online graduation, but it's gonna be whatever it is.

    So how do you take that youthful sense of loss and, in the moment, convert it into something positive? Because you're right, 20 years from now, 10 years from now everybody'll probably say, "yeah that helped me become a better person or a bigger person." But in the moment?

    Right, you remind young people that we can do something. And you also behave in a truthful way. One of the things that I find disturbing from the administration at SF State and the CSUs across the board is the cheerleading. They're doing the best they can - goodness knows we all are - and they're providing enormous resources for us to make this possible. But the constant, "you're doing great, you're achieving excellence, you're still achieving student learning outcomes," as they're known, is a fallacy. We're not. It's not as good. It's not going to be as good. And so it's very important, from my point of view as a professor, as a mentor, to tell my students that I know this sucks. This is not gonna be as good as we hoped. But I can tell you that we're going to do the best we can, and we are all going to get something out of it.

    Next question I have here, somebody wanted to know of all the classes on a college campus these days, how many of them are canned classes and how often are people sitting in quote unquote "virtual lecture halls"? The comment goes on to say, "I can only imagine what a Zoom class from my original Chem 101 at UC Davis would have been like with 250 people in the room."

    I don't know which classes various campuses are running online and which they're running on campus. Remember, some of the CSU campuses will be having in person classes in some cases. So there are classes that can't be taught online. I can't, as you well know Stan, I can't provide the opportunity for a student of the experience of what it is to do a live radio show in an online class. That's not going to happen. So I'm not gonna try.

    In the radio class at SF State, we're gonna convert full on to podcasting, and we're going to discuss the differences between podcasting and radio and where the similarities are between podcasting and radio, which are far more than the differences. And so you can't teach some classes online, simply not gonna happen.

    Other classes that can be taught online, will be, and they're gonna have to be modified. They're gonna have to be thought through. This is what every professor is going to be doing all summer long, is researching and trying things out, seeing what works, failing, succeeding, trying to find ways to make online classes both viable and exciting and have learning outcomes that are meaningful. But it will not be easy. And I think honesty is key. And again, we'll do the best we can.

    What's the best advice you could give an incoming freshman as to how to adapt, given that the early years of college are often about getting used to college, getting those foundational classes in, prerequisites for later classes. Will they be missing out?

    They're gonna be missing out on some things. They're also gonna be gaining other things. And that's the balance that one needs to remain aware of as I stated previously. No, you're not going to get the classic college experience online only, and that's sad. And I acknowledge that. But you will be getting some things that a regular college experience will not provide. You're going to become resilient. You're going to learn online techniques that you might not have bothered to learn otherwise. You're going to get some things that others won't. So let's focus on what you are going to get.

    But it's critical that you prepare accordingly. One of the things that students do not do enough - ever - is stay in touch with their professors. And by the way, if you're a potential student and you're listening to this, we love it when students get in touch of us. That's what we want more than anything. So if you have questions, if you have issues, if you have problems setting up a private space in your home - and many students do - if you need a laptop, if you need support in any way, contact your professor. Clearly via email in these times, at least initially, and start a conversation. That's how you're gonna be able to access resources, that's how you're going to be accessing your mentors and that's how you're going to gain more of that college experience that we all want to have.

    Schools at all levels are making allowances for the difficulties associated with remote learning, but what impact will this have in subject areas where knowing the covered subject matter is mandatory in a future career such as engineering? Will this period of remote learning raise questions about how qualified candidates are for these kinds of jobs?

    It's a great question and of course we have that discussion on a daily basis in our department. What does this mean for seeking a job? What does this mean for going to grad school? What does this mean when somebody's looking at your transcript? Here's my answer: everybody in the world is going through the pandemic. You're not alone in this. Literally every country, every nationality, everybody's going to the pandemic. And we're going to look back at this and we're gonna say, "oh, look, you took a class in fall of 2020 when there were no actual college classes," and I think it's gonna be a "good for you" moment. I think they're gonna say, "wow, you navigated that during very difficult times. You must have learned a lot."

    And so again, while you're getting something different, you're also getting something extraordinary. And I think that employers, grad schools and teachers going forward are going to recognize that and honor that.

    How do you teach creative courses? In your case things like audio editing, video editing and production performance, but over there in the art department or in the industrial arts department where they made tables out of wood, you know, things like that require shoulder to shoulder or over the shoulder teaching.

    That's right. My first answer is, heck if I know! We're in the same boat here. We're trying. I think that, as I said earlier, there are some classes that you simply shouldn't do online. I can't teach the radio experience online. I don't think you can teach how to build a table and put your hands on the wood. I don't think that you can teach dance very well, although I know they're trying. Cinema and laboratory sciences. I don't know, how do you teach that? So I think there are some things we shouldn't try to teach online, and we should simply defer to when we are all back together.

    But there are some things that we can teach online. And we can provide the resources that make that possible. I'm teaching a sound design class in the fall, for example, which means how to put audio together for pictures, for movies or television. And I've figured out that I think I can do that online. It's not going to be the same experience as if we were in a room together doing critique, but I can provide students the resources, allow them to do projects on their own. We can check in with each other on Zoom on a regular basis. I can do critique online, that is possible. They can meet with each other online to share resources and ideas. And so we're gonna put one brave foot in front of another and see what happens. I think that there will be a robust experience. It won't be the same. I'm very sad about that, too. I get a knot in my stomach every time I think that I'm not gonna meet my students in the fall in person. But we're gonna do it anyway, and we're gonna do it to the best of our ability.

    I wanted to ask you that, and this is kind of amplifying on that. My brother-in-law happens to be a professor of mechanical engineering at a campus in Texas. And, of course, what they realized on day one was, "wait a minute, all of that high powered computing, the workstations, the fluid dynamic computations: you can't run those on your iPad at home. You can't run them on your home computer in most cases." They were dead in the water. Are you able to in some of the disciplines you just discussed, transition to where there might be software students can download and install at home and run at home? Is the university providing the hardware platforms and licenses for software? How's all that working out?

    Well, they're trying. This is a big debate that's happening right now between the CFA (the California Faculty Association), the CSU, the California State Universities. They're having a conversation about how to make it possible to teach some classes online and possible for students, but also possible for professors. How do we do that? And so we are doing the research right now. What software works? What's possible on a laptop? What's not possible to do? What experiences are they going to be missing that we're then going to have to integrate into our classes in the spring or the following fall when we're back together?

    Because some things you simply can't do online. In mechanical engineering you can't feel torque with a wrench and have a professor say it needs to feel like this. You can't do that online. So some things are gonna have to be deferred. But the university, or at least San Francisco State University, is working very hard to provide both hardware and software and peripherals to their students. I know that they're buying laptops that will be leant out for semesters long. I know that, for example, in the BECA department, the radio class, which I'm teaching in the fall, we just bought dozens and dozens of podcasting kits that we're going to give to our radio students for the entire semester. And that will provide them with what they need to actually create their own show. And so depend on the class, depends on the moment, depends on on the campus. But everybody's trying to make it possible.

    Area of personal interest: this all came at a time when that whole new Creative Arts building was going in (at SF State). Where does that stand?

    (laughs)

    Oh, I'm sorry to hear laughter.

    No, it's wrapped in a white sheet right now. There's actually an online camera, if you google literally "Creative Arts new building" or BECA building, as they call it, you'll actually find a live cam, and they show the construction in progress. Right now, it's all wrapped in a white something or other so you can't see what's going on.

    Construction has been resumed. That's a statewide order. So my assumption is that they are building the building. I have not heard that they've changed the expected opening, which is Spring '21. Frankly, I doubt it, but that's what they're saying. And if it's not Spring 21 it'll be Fall '21. I think it's in progress. I think we're gonna get a new building and when we're back on campus, it may well be that we're entering the new building. And I can tell you that there's a lot of very excited BECA professors out there.

    I'm sure. Okay, last question. Maybe I'm cynical, but is it possible that this whole situation will reveal that college was overpriced and over-touted in the first place?

    It's a conversation that people are having all around. Professors are having that conversation too. What do we do to maximize value for a college student? And there are myriad ways that that can happen. But I want to address the general tenor of the question because that's more important and more overarching.

    College is not only about finding a job. College is about becoming a better citizen. College is about growing up. College is about having the experience of a learning community, and that is a unique and rare and precious moment in your life when you're together with people - right now on Zoom, usually in person - but you're together with people that are all pursuing their best ability, their best selves. They're all pursuing a dream. And to do that together, to have that experience together, to share, to meet mentors, to meet colleagues that you will be working with in future is something that is never going to be overpriced and well worth experiencing. Maybe not for everybody, of course, but for most it really is. And that's why you will hear me touting why young people should go to college if they can.