Teaching during a pandemic: A Q&A with Saleem Alhabash

Since March 2020, the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, learning and teaching have drastically changed. Many university courses moved fully online. Even though the MSU StratCom program has been an online program since 2017, instructors have had to pivot and modify their courses during the pandemic. Here, Saleem Alhabash, associate professor in advertising + public relations and MSU StratCom professor, talks about the changes he made for one of his classes.

What MSU StratCom courses have you taught during the pandemic?

During the pandemic, I taught CAS 827: Digital Media Strategies. [This was offered during the Fall 2020 semester.]

These past three semesters (spring, summer and fall) have been difficult for students and professors alike. What kind of changes, if any, have you made in your courses to adapt to the challenges you and your students are experiencing? What has been the impact of those changes? 

One of the biggest changes that I made in the Fall 2020 semester was to revamp the entire structure of the course. The last time I taught CAS 827, students had to complete weekly reflection assignments that I called Critical Thinking Exercises, in addition to two exams, and a group final project. For the Fall 2020 semester, I moved away from including exams, and upon reflection, this decision was taken because I could no longer see value in having students sit through an exam twice in the semester. Instead, I replaced the exam with a new mechanism to engage students and get them excited about learning the topic of the course. For each week in the course, I set up student-led and centric discussion forums that I called Learner-2-Learner forums, where a group of students led the discussion each week. I was amazed at how enthusiastic the students were to adopt this idea. Every week, the engagement was beyond compare. Despite how much I wanted to intervene, I remained true to the premise of these forums, and had minimal-to-no engagement on my end, to really make this space one where students took ownership of. In the mid-term evaluation, this received numerous positive comments from the students.

Another area that was a direct modification because of the pandemic and the parallel socio-economic challenges we faced in the Fall was that each week during my weekly video overview and email, I included a "Quote of the Week" where I shared with students something that inspired during that week.

Nearly every week, I would hear back from at least one student who would tell me that the quote of the week spoke to what they were going through. This was also an opportunity for me to share and show vulnerability to students. Often times, as professors, we perceive the learning process as a series of inputs and outputs, and fail to understand the human connection that facilitates the learning and building of a community of students. It was a great exercise for me to step out of my comfort zone and share my feelings and reflections with the students.

The MSU StratCom program was created as a fully online program. Has that been of benefit -- the fact that the modality of this program was already online (even before the pandemic)? If so, in what ways? If not, why not?

Absolutely. Having taught in the online StratCom program for many years, those experiences have helped me tremendously to smoothly transition my other classes online. I am also grateful for the training workshops during the summer that really widened my horizons about pedagogy in general, and specifically online.

What has been a surprising aspect of teaching during the pandemic?

The most surprising aspect was to ensure that I'm attentive to students and what they're going through. But more importantly, showing care to students in intentional ways was surprising in the impact it had on the students. As an educator, I take pride in being caring to students, yet I was not that great at being intentional in showing my care to them, week in and week out. The response from that was quite outstanding. It has changed my view of learning and education.

Have you found that certain course content resonates more now, during the pandemic, than it did before the pandemic?

For sure. The topic of my course is pretty dynamic and ever changing. Opening the space for students to talk about newer platforms like TikTok and engaging them in vivid discussions about this and other matters that were in line with what's going on around us in the world.

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