TEACHING NEWSWRITING ONLINE

By Rich Cameron, Cerritos College
November 1999

"Thank God for this class," wrote Maria Gonzalez. "Without the class being offered online I would not be able to take it. I've long been interested in taking a journalism class, but because of my kids and work schedule I cannot take classes offered during the day. Even evening classes are difficult to attend."

This and other comments are among the joys of teaching my beginning newswriting class as a distance education class online. Another benefit is that I've managed to more than double the enrollments in my newswriting classes. I've opened my courses to a whole new audience while maintaining standards I felt were so important.

I resisted it for a long time. Surely, teaching a distance education class could not be as fulfilling and practical as in person, I thought. I was afraid of distance education.

Others have worked with distance education for newswriting. Perhaps the most well known is Peter Berkow's Newswriting telecourse. His program is great at teaching ABOUT newswriting and I use his tapes in my traditional course to supplement my lectures, but a telecourse does not fit my style of actually teaching writing.

But one day distance education for newswriting suddenly made sense to me. And teaching it in a new way has invigorated my teaching in my traditional class.

Getting over the fear of distance education was the first step. Rather than looking at it as a threat, I looked at it as an opportunity. My first thought along these lines was to be the first on the block --or in my case the first in the state of California-- to offer an online newswriting class and maybe pick up a student from this school and another from that school until I had a full class. Instead, I found out that getting students from other schools from around the state was not realistic. What I got mostly were students from my own school who were not taking my traditional courses for a number of reasons, including the timing of when I scheduled my classes. I think I also get students who are more interested in taking a class via online than taking a journalism class. But that is okay, too.

My college has adopted a philosophy that distance education classes must essentially be the same as traditional classes in content and other respects. The main difference is merely the mode of delivery. This is important. While I am sure that administrators would love to see 100-plus students in all distance education courses --there is, after all, no seat limitation that a traditional classroom offers-- this is not practical for a writing course. Our school sets enrollment limits of distance education courses the same as the traditional classroom. In my case that meant a maximum of 22 students.

The college's philosophy also applies to class load. A distance education course here is loaded the same as a traditional course. At some schools instructors get less than a full load for distance education courses, particularly courses delivered via pre-packaged television. If anything, a distance education course requires more time from an instructor.

The second step was to figure out how to teach the class without face-to-face interaction and maintain the high standard I set for my classes. The manner in which I teach my newswriting course helped here. I long ago adopted a newswriting workbook ("Practice Exercises in Newswriting" by George Hough, Houghton-Mifflin) in my course. I like the fictional city setting he has created to lay a background for real life type stories. Much of my class has evolved into students writing and my marking papers. This can be done by e-mail. In fact, those who teach online classes find that they end up having greater interaction with students when commenting on their writing. For instance, where I might simply use a copyediting mark on a piece of paper, in e-mail I have to include a fuller explanation.

And because I have students I never meet, I spend more time asking them questions about themselves in our exchange of e-mail messages. It is a challenge to find ways to keep students engaged in the class when you have only the written word to do so. I recently had a student answer a question I had posed by using current slang as part of her answer. Instead of merely indicating that her assignment was "OKAY" as I do with most assignments, I decided to let her know her assignment was "PHAT," which as much as I can tell is one of today's slang words for something that is pretty good. By coincidence shortly thereafter we met face-to-face for the first time. She was surprised to find out that I was a middle-aged white guy. "How'd you get so hip?" she asked. Already she is looking for additional journalism courses I teach that she can take.

Here's how my online class works:

LECTURES

Lectures for the course are online. Students access them at the course web site at www.rcameron.com/journalism/20/lectures.

My teaching pattern for my traditional class is to open each class with a short lecture introducing a new concept about newswriting and then give students workbook assignments to put the concepts into practice. I found it took an incredibly great deal of time to convert my lectures to online. After 25 years of teaching I can write a lecture outline in 15 minutes. Give me an hour and I can produce PowerPoint slides to go with the lecture. But to write out the same lecture, word for word, and then edit it to a reasonable online reading attention span takes hours. I recommend planning for an online class at least a semester in advance. Teach your traditional course during the day and that evening imagine how you would teach the same lesson online. Build your course before you offer it.

To insure that students are "attending" lectures each one has a few questions at the bottom that students must answer by e-mail. I do the same with textbook reading assignments. The questions are not difficult, but are designed to make sure that the student completes the assignment. Whether the student learns from the lecture or reading will show up in the written assignments.

Some of the lectures are specifically tied to assignments in the workbook.

WORKBOOK ASSIGNMENTS

A difficult part for many students is to look at the course as a regular course, just delivered in a different mode. Some get it while others adopt an out-of-sight, out-of-mind attitude. They think that a class that they don't have to attend is a class they don't have to work in. They don't survive.

Assignments are posted by e-mail to students twice a week: Sunday night/Monday morning and Wednesday night/Thursday morning. They are due Wednesday night and Saturday night. Students can submit them any time during the three-day period. Some turn them in within hours of posting and others wait until the last minute.

It is important to give students feedback on assignments right away, even if it is to say that you received the assignment. I copy the written assignment and past it into a "Reply" window. (I don't like the quote indicators my e-mail program puts with replies, so the copy/paste method is a cleaner interface.) When I want to comment on portion of an assignment I put a number in parenthesis. Then above the original assignment I type out a full comment, sort of a footnote in reverse. Some assignments have no comments, some have 15 or more.

Typing comments can be time consuming. All the students in the class are working on the same assignments at the same time and you can get tired of writing the same comment on nearly every assignment. Years ago I discovered a shareware program for the Macintosh that makes it easy to deal with repetitive typing. Called TypeIt4Me, the program allows you to store comments and assign a key word title to it. Type the title and a pre-defined hotkey and the computer will type in the recorded comment for you. For instance, when I want to explain the AP style noon or midnight on times to someone, I simply type "noon" and the hotkey ">" and this shows up:

Use noon or midnight, not 12 a.m. or 12 p.m. Noon and midnight are easier terms to understand and always happen exactly at 12. If it were 12:01, you would need the a.m. or p.m.

If an assignment is acceptable, I notify the student that the assignment is "OKAY" (or PHAT) and record it (see my other article on grade sheets). If it needs to be redone I fire it back to the student for a redo. And I issue a lot of "redos." I take care to make sure that comments are learning devices, not merely the correct answer. Take for instance the example given above. It would be easy to just write "noon" instead of the whole comment, but would the student learn from just being given the right word?

WHO IS TAKING THE CLASS?

One of the concerns I think every teacher has who teaches a distance education class is whether or not it is really the student who is doing the work in the class. Couldn't the student have someone else doing the work? Yes, I guess it could happen. But then again, a student could hire a ringer to attend my day class every day. I don't give tests in this class, I just give a lot of assignments. I guess a student could get someone else to do the work, but I give so many assignments -- between 70 and 75 a semester per student-- that it would impractical for someone to have another person do the work.

Online courses are not for everyone --students or teachers. They take a lot of discipline, organization and time. But if you can figure out how to do it and maintain high standards for your classes, it can be fun and rewarding. And you get a chance to reach out to students like Maria Gonzalez, who might not otherwise ever get a chance to take a journalism course.