It is important for a journalist to be equipped with a moral compass to have a strong discerning sense of what is right and wrong that goes beyond political propriety. Take the case of using a hidden camera. Normally it is unethical to use one, but a sting operation may be warranted in the larger public interest when it becomes legitimate, even if not necessarily legal in the strict sense.
The impact of the move to online teaching as a consequence of the Covid pandemic has been quite severe, especially in courses where field studies and surveys (in the social sciences) and laboratory-based experiments (in the basic sciences) are essential. In addition, there are several fields where practice is crucial – for example medicine, the fine arts or performance among others.
Journalism is one such subject wherein theory and work-experience are combined. Sashi Kumar, Chairman of the Asian College of Journalism (ACJ), Chennai, joined us (V Madhurima, Sujin Babu and Ram Ramaswamy) to discuss the impact of the pandemic on the training of journalists at the ACJ.
How ACJ has been impacted by the pandemic? Do you think the impact has been greater when compared to conventional educational institutes? Or less?
Like for all educational programs, the situation is mixed… ACJ has been able to cope well in terms of the technical delivery of the program. Indeed, several teachers at ACJ feel that some of the training has been delivered more efficiently online compared to the older offline system. Teachers and students who were located in different parts of the country, and some from outside India as well, were able to use a combination of production software such as Wirecast, Team Viewer, enabling remote access for video and audio production and postproduction and enable real time access to our Bloomberg financial terminals available etc, quite efficiently.
Actually, digital online journalism and production have been in existence even before COVID, and we have long appreciated the fact that production can be without having to go to a particular place for recording and editing. This has been standard practice even before the pandemic since we were using software available on mobile phones and computers, be it audio, video or text, namely convergent multi-media. There was already a recession before the pandemic; and the pandemic and lockdowns further hit the economy, and this affected most media houses who faced declining revenue from advertisements. The order of the day became the multi-tasking journalist who was conversant with all media. Thus, the idea of online mode was already not entirely novel to journalism and had become a technology of both novelty and need even before the pandemic struck.
It is one thing for a journalist to work online and another to teach the same where one has to use copyright material. How have you dealt with issues related to Copyright, in online teaching mode for journalism?
There are two functions in journalism; reporting and editing. Copyright is not an issue in direct reportage since the reporter finds their source themselves, talks over the phone or email to get to the primary or secondary sources to substantiate the stories. ACJ has a trademark course called Covering Deprivation which entails the students having to go to remote areas of our country after preparatory lectures and a proper theoretical framework, provided by those who have studied issues of deprivation in depth. They would undertake this work in groups and study how the bigger segment of India lives. During the pandemic, the students were in despair when they were told to cover deprivation online from wherever they were. They would go either to some place nearby or to distances as far as 40 km away from the city/town that they were living in, depending on the situation of the pandemic locally. They would send across their text/audio/videos edited to the instructors. Sometimes the editing was done with remote access to software. Students of ACJ began to do this work individually for the first time. We found that the products that emerged from this had far greater diversities than the work in bigger groups and teams physically descending on remote village and which was the practice earlier. The products of all media were far richer than the previous team work products. However, the experience of sharing notes at a particular location, a general sense of sharing among themselves and the sheer experience of doing this task together was subliminal and certainly missing in this new method. By the by, the print version of the Covering Deprivation is a bulky volume called The Word. Last year’s version of The Word was far richer than the previous cultural products, but the process may not have been as educative as in previous years.
This is of particular interest to us because this comes closest to field work and in most institutions the things that have taken a hit have been lab work in scientific labs and any kind of field work in social sciences. What you are suggesting is that there seems to be a way around in the case of journalism.
I would say yes and no! The jury is out on it, but this has been our experience. My sense is that the ‘product’ would be better, with a richer and more varied tapestry, but the ‘process’ will be of lesser value in terms of the experience, in terms of the learning curve and in terms of what is achieved by teamwork – in those respects being entirely virtual may not be as rich or as consummate as an offline effort.
Speaking of the process, has ACJ taken up any specific online practice during pandemic, in terms of technology, support, policy decisions etc.?
There are two aspects to the ACJ courses. One is the lecture, which is for the entire body of students of about 160 students are in a class. The other is field work. The normal lecturing part becomes a challenge in the online mode because you have to keep all of them engaged. In an offline classroom there are the back-benchers, middle-benchers and the front-benchers. A teacher’s eye is constantly on the lookout, especially at the backbenchers, to make sure they listen to the lectures properly and are not texting each other. In the online mode, this hierarchy does not exist.
At ACJ we directed all our students to switch on their cameras during classes and dress formally to keep the seriousness of the learning process. The plus point of switching on video is that the teacher could treat each student as good as any other student, since each of them is in a box. There is a screen equivalence. The teacher could call out to any one of them – and in turn, students don’t hide from the teacher in order not to be noticed as they sometimes tend to in the offline mode.
The downside is that while the teacher-student relationship is one-to-one, I think there is no mutuality between them in the online class. Also, there is no discussion among the students which normally take place in the offline classroom. We know these from experience, and have tried to compensate in other ways while teaching online.
In fact, the students can edit their videos using A/V systems on campus, and while they are at home through Wirecast. The caveat is that the digital divide does exist. Some students often had the issues of internet connectivity and power cuts. To overcome this challenge, the teachers were asked to take extras sessions for those students and all the lectures were put up on the server where they could access them anytime. The lab part had the excitement of doing editing online.
Interestingly the attendance figures were far better in the online mode than offline mode. Part of the reason for this was that they had nothing much to do since they were all locked up in their homes during the lockdown. In the offline mode, on the other hand, they tend to skip classes, to hang out with friends, or to do team project work.
This is in contrast to most other organizations where the attendance has gone down, sometimes by as much as 20%. Also, in many of our institutes, they do not want to switch the cameras on. Also, women students are unable to attend classes on time. Whatever be the reasons, it is heartening to see that the attendance at ACJ has gone up for online classes.
We have also had more students seeking the help of counselors at our institution during the pandemic. We are not privy to what transpires between them, but more students sought counselling. Teachers, although far more stretched in online teaching, did not seem to seek out help. We ensured to have fairly good breaks between classes.
How do you deal with communicating with an audience effectively without students switching on their camera and how do you ensure that what is being said reaches the students?
Unlike other institutions, we insisted that our students switch on their cameras during the classes. In a sense, talking to a screen with many equivalent boxes of students makes it was no longer mass communication or broadcasting but narrowcasting. The equation is no longer 1:n as in the celluloid media but has now become 1:1 in the digital era. However, it takes longer for the teacher to get to know the students well. In the offline mode the teacher gets to meet and interact with the students even outside the class hours and a student is more than the rectangle you see them in on the digital screen. The teacher has a better sense of the student in the offline mode. It is difficult find an alternative. One alternative was that during the pandemic, while the classes were still online, some students came to the campus and interacted in person with the teachers. Our teachers reported that the physical interactions did make a difference since they got to know the students, which was otherwise not possible in the online mode.
We appreciate the idea of narrowcasting where the ratio is in the nature of 1:n, when at places like the IITs, the typical classroom strength is now of the order of 500. It is nice to know that there are some ways such as this to effectively engage with large numbers.
Even if the classroom has a physical strength of 500, the human capacity to grasp in that context is far better than in the online mode.
True, especially when larger classes are broken down into smaller ones for tutorials.
The difference being that in a narrowcast, even if you were speaking to 150 students, you wouldn’t raise your voice, as you would in a physical class room. In that sense, the interaction itself remains one-to-one.
What were the measures taken at ACJ to ensure that quality of the journalism education was maintained in the online mode?
ACJ follows a time-tested curriculum with periodic assessment and periodic feedback system. We have continual assessment. The feedbacks during the complete online mode were heartening. There were less complaints because the scope for complaining was limited, possibly for the wrong reasons like not having canteens to complain about! The delivery of the curriculum has been very efficient, but it is very difficult to find out if the students were assimilating all of it. Different teachers took up different methods to assess the students, such as webinars, written work, projects etc.
Moreover, there has been a big shift in the syllabus of ACJ. We have moved to an integrated course. Print, television, audio and video were integrated into one syllabus. It was far easier to bring about that convergence in the online mode. Going forward, it should be easy to maintain the shift in an offline fashion. We have moved into non-stream specific or specialized multimedia courses.
Do you think that the methods that you have employed at ACJ will be useful in other streams or institutes?
It is possible in the social sciences and humanities. The idea of splitting a class into smaller groups and each group being given a different aspect of the subject to discuss may or may not be feasible for all streams. Since ACJ does not come under a university structure, the absence of a board of studies gives us the academic freedom to ourselves frame the curriculum and structure it according to the needs of the disciplines and the times.
It has been our experience from our other discussions that academic freedom of the teachers is paramount to successful online teaching since the teachers are the ones in touch with ground reality. However, in most cases, it seems to be a case of business as usual through methods such as open book, with an emphasis to show that things are alright. Also, the parts of the syllabus, usually the ones towards the end, that need more time for preparation, have been dropped in online mode.
I can understand the difficulty in handling Chemistry laboratory in an online mode. For us, online is a natural extension of our profession, namely journalism. The online is something that we aspired to before it became a necessary evil. Every fortnight we had special lectures. Overall last year, we had 36 specialized lectures from domain experts across the world. It would not have been possible in the offline mode. We had the why and the how to aspects of journalism covered by experts from many continents; an experience that the previous batch of students did not have. We found this as an additional advantage of going online.
We are very concerned that teachers and institutions have not responded to the need for different syllabi and different methodologies for evaluation for online teaching. The prime concern of any consumer of journalism is the onslaught of fake news. How do you deal with this at ACJ?
Fake news has been a running thread these days in discussions about the media. Fake news can be of misinformation or disinformation. There is a distinction between misinformation and disinformation: the former may not be deliberate while the latter is definitely so. We do not have a separate module on this but our teachers are asked to keep this in mind throughout the course. The students of ACJ are taught to detect fake news and they are also taught not to practice it. As we say to the students, the only reason to fail a course at ACJ is by not submitting assignments, or by plagiarizing. Now we are adding fake news to this. Countering fake news, and not just letting it be or ignoring it, is very important. In fact the ACJ research cell has undertaken a research on this problem and its incidence in contemporary media and come up with a toolkit that was distributed to all the important media houses. It mainly deals with the filtering of fake news to arrive at the real news. It is shocking how prevalent fake news is, in all media. We get more international experts to talk to our students on this important issue in today’s world. We do workshops on fake news which have proved more effective than lectures.
How effective is the online platform for communicating the idea of ethics?
I imagine it is not very different from an offline class. Ethics in the sphere of journalism is very important, but it is also different. Objectivity is not as important as fairmindedness or even- handedness for a journalist. But fake news is a timebomb and sometimes it is years before a journalist is caught for quoting a fake source or indulging in fake news. It is important for a journalist to be equipped with a moral compass to have a strong discerning sense of what is right and wrong that goes beyond political propriety. Take the case of using a hidden camera. Normally it is unethical to use one, but a sting operation may be warranted in the larger public interest when it becomes legitimate, even if not necessarily legal in the strict sense. So being ethical in journalism is not about being moral, or legal, or politically proper.
Do you think that the persona of the teacher comes out in an online mode?
Firstly, our teachers do not have a larger-than-life persona and are very friendly in classes. Also, journalism is about the ability to stand up to authority. When we teach this, we have to allow ourselves to be questioned too. So it is a de-hierarchised relationship. Of course in the online mode, because you are in most situations a magnified close-up presence before the student, the expressions and body language becomes an important part of establishing rapport and conveying the message.
The non-verbal communication that happens between the teacher and the student, how do you communicate the ethos of a guide and student in an online mode?
Body-language came in only because of television. Television could magnify the small gestures and one could parse the movements. Online mode has different sets of codes. Body language is different in the two modes and we need to study it more. It is important to have the videos on from both sides on online mode. We have had situations where the teachers have said that the students are free to switch off their video, but they will not take questions from them, since one is not sure who is behind a blank screen.
Digital devices which were banned from educational institutes not so long ago, are now the new norm for learning. One of us has taught a batch of students who joined and passed out in the online mode. Since the institute does not emphasize switching on of cameras by the students, one might not recognize the students even if they came face-to-face!
With discussions such as this with leaders and teachers from different fields, we hope to come up with some simple guidelines and things that people could do to facilitate online teaching-learning. We have learnt from you how journalism has coped with this. Thank you!
Sashi Kumar is the Chairman of the Asian College of Journalism (ACJ), Chennai. Views expressed are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of Confluence, its editorial board or the Academy.
This article is part of a Confluence series called “Still Online: Higher Education in India”. The remaining articles of the series can be found here.