Utilizing Multiple Learning Modalities for Remote Teaching of Journalism and Promotional Communication Students

Courses: COM 225: Media Writing, COM 335: Multimedia Storytelling, COM 372: Podcasting, COM 425: Publication Design, COM 447: Promotional Production, COM 464: Media Metrics and Analytics

Department: Communication

Institution: Cleveland State Universtiy

Instructors: Elizabeth Thomas & John Jirik

Number & Level of Students Enrolled: Total of 202 undergraduate freshmen through seniors

Digital Tools/Technologies Used: Blackboard Learn, Zoom, Adobe CC Suite

Author Bios: Elizabeth Thomas, Ph.D. is an Assistant College Lecturer in the School of Communication at Cleveland State University and teaches promotional communication courses and serves as the Public Relations Student Society of America (PRSSA) chapter advisor. She worked in the public relations field for more than 18 years in the non-profit and higher education sectors.

John Jirik, Ph.D. is an Assistant College Lecturer in the School of Communication at Cleveland State University. He worked internationally in television and social, digital, and online news. His employers include Reuters, NBC, CCTV and TRT World. He did his Ph.D. at The University of Texas at Austin.

Case study: Utilizing multiple learning modalities for remote teaching of journalism and promotional communication students


The COVID-19 crisis has triggered a crisis in delivering education, including at Cleveland State University (CSU). At the time of writing (June 27, 2020), CSU has announced that about 50 percent of classes will be held online for the Fall 2020 semester, including classes with more than 60 people in them.

The co-authors of this paper are Dr. Elizabeth Thomas and Dr. John Jirik, both of whom are Assistant College Lecturers in the CSU School of Communication (SOC). They teach several of the core journalism and promotional communication (JPC) courses offered by the school.

CSU moved to online or remote (defined below) teaching after an extended Spring Break in 2020. CSU’s administration extended the break by a week to March 22 to give faculty and staff some time to transition their on-campus classes to remote or online. Thomas taught five classes in Spring 2020 and moved three to online/remote, with two remaining online. Jirik taught four classes in Spring 2020 and moved three to remote, with one remaining online.

This case study outlines what Thomas and Jirik did, discusses problems they encountered and how they addressed them, provides a tentative assessment from the instructors’ and some students’ perspectives of the results of the shift to online or remote, and outlines some suggestions for further developing teaching in the uncertain context the coronavirus pandemic has brought to education.[i]

A note on (site-based) teaching modalities

For the purpose of this study, the authors define teaching modalities as follows: Education has four basic (site-based) teaching modalities — on-campus, online, remote and hybrid. On-campus means an instructor and students are physically present in a classroom together; online means primarily asynchronous learning with a minimum of student-teacher face-to-face interaction (usually during office hours, which would be done via technologies such as the popular video communications tool Zoom); remote means primarily synchronous teaching with a significant amount of real-time face-to-face interaction between students and teacher on a platform such as Zoom; hybrid teaching is a mix of on-campus and online or remote teaching.

Thomas and Jirik deployed a mix of remote and online teaching when they moved their classes off campus after Spring Break in 2020. They clarify below, where necessary, which modality they are discussing.

Thomas’s and Jirik’s shift to off-campus teaching

Classes taught by Thomas

Thomas taught five classes in Spring 2020; making adjustments to three of them after Spring Break:

  1. Com 425 – Publication Design (on campus to online)
  2. Com 447 – Promotional Production (on campus to remote) (*syllabus attached)
  3. Com 464 – Media Metrics & Analytics (on campus to remote)

Meetings & Technology

Thomas moved one class to online and two classes to remote. In the latter case, students met one to two times a week via Zoom, as needed, for topics covered and to meet with the capstone client and guest speakers. Thomas had previous experience with Zoom and therefore moved directly to it when teaching students after Spring Break.

Classes taught by Jirik

Jirik taught four classes in Spring 2020; making adjustments to three of them after Spring Break:

  1. Com 225 (1) – Media Writing (on campus to remote) (*syllabus attached)
  2. Com 335 – Multimedia Storytelling (on campus to remote)
  3. Com 372 – Podcasting (on campus to remote)

Meetings & Technology

The three classes Jirik moved to remote teaching each met three times a week. Jirik held Zoom meetings with each class at the time they would have met had they met on campus. Jirik originally tested Blackboard Collaborate as a synchronous teaching tool for his remote classes. However, after one week and feedback from students he transitioned the class to using Zoom exclusively for class meetings. They tried Blackboard Collaborate and found it was clumsy to use. Then, he told them he would try Zoom the following week. The consensus of Jirik and students was that Zoom was easier to use.


Access to technology


The implementation of Adobe CC as a core teaching tool in the SOC began in Spring 2020. The shift off campus from where Adobe CC had been installed in some SOC classrooms and labs was offset by Adobe providing off-campus access for all JPC student who needed it. At the time of writing, whether Adobe CC will be available to students off campus in Fall 2020 is unknown.

Laptops or computers

Some students reported that – after they were unable to return to campus post-Spring Break – they were unable to access a computer or laptop. One of Jirik’s students told him she was doing ALL of her work post-Spring Break on her cell phone.

Student attendance

The impact of COVID-19 on students was obvious in the difficulty they had in making it to class for Jirik’s remote classes, given each class was meeting three times a week on Zoom. Jirik’s decision to focus on remote rather than online modalities probably contributed to a drop off in attendance (although some students told him that his Zoom meetings were the only thing still getting them out of bed). Thomas taught upperclassmen in her remote classes (under 16 students) and didn’t see a drop off in student attendance from face-to-face to Zoom class meetings.

What evidence of success or failure?


Overall, both instructors believe the transition to off campus went relatively smoothly due, they feel, to the fact that both instructors were experienced with using and exploring new technologies and most students had previously taken an online course at CSU. In addition, as Thomas was in her second year at CSU, she had built a rapport with most of the students she was teaching. Jirik was in his first year but had also taught in Fall 2019 some of his Spring 2020 students. So many students had a good idea of each instructor’s style of teaching and expectations.

A key to the transition was staying in contact with students, which the instructors did via office hours (Zoom), phone, email, and social media apps like Twitter and WhatsApp. Thomas used Twitter – @eac5335 – and email to communicate with students three to five times a week. Thomas disseminated information about internship and career opportunities and sent due date reminders and updates about class activities. Jirik used email and Zoom to stay in touch with students, providing regular reminders of upcoming topics and assessment due dates.

Both instructors use Blackboard to keep track of students’ work and performance; that did not change after the shift off campus, which meant students were able to continue to self-monitor their progress.

Finally, because Adobe provided off-campus access to students they were able to continue their projects.

Failures & problems

The shift off campus and issues associated with the pandemic external to students’ education impacted students in ways the instructors were unable to monitor if students did not tell them what was going on. Some of Jirik’s students either attended class meetings on Zoom sporadically, or in some cases not at all after the administration announced that students could take the semester on a pass/fail basis. Conversely, all but two of Jirik’s students completed the semester and neither was doing well before the pandemic-driven interruption to their studies. All of Thomas’s students completed the semester.

Student evaluations

The Student Course Evaluation response rates for three of Jirik’s four classes rendered them meaningless from an analytical perspective (with response rates less than 15%). The scant written feedback from all classes suggested some students were comfortable with remote learning. Others missed the on-campus experience.

The Student Course Evaluation response rates were higher for Thomas’s classes – 48% for Publication Design, 76% for Promotional Production and 77% for Media Metrics & Analytics. With that being said, Thomas sent multiple reminders to students over the span of three weeks to encourage students to complete the evaluations. The feedback was overall positive and students appreciated faculty being available to answer questions and provide updates. One student wrote, “ALWAYS available for email questions and during COVID– 19, she was almost always available for Zoom calls.” Another student wrote, “She really cares about her students and makes the class entertaining and informative. She is also the only reason I am ever aware of potential internships.”

Suggestions for improving remote and online teaching

The instructors suggest that the following should be paid attention to with respect to off-campus teaching:

  • Online, remote, and hybrid teaching are different. If CSU is to continue teaching off campus, hybrid teaching is not possible;
  • Students MUST have access to a computer or laptop;
  • Remote (synchronous) learning requires students to commit to being present at face-to-face virtual meetings. Unless that expectation is built into the campus and “classroom” culture, remote learning is not a viable pedagogical option;
  • Given the lack of an established remote learning culture at CSU, Thomas and Jirik believe online (asynchronous) teaching remains the safest option for educating student if they cannot be on campus;
  • An option that could be further explored would be a hybrid of asynchronous and synchronous teaching. In this method, the class would primarily be asynchronous, but with e.g. one face-to-face Zoom meeting each week to provide direct interaction between instructor and students in a classroom-like setting;
  • A way of tracking whether students are engaging needs to be developed to help instructors keep online students on-track; Starfish is only useful if the instructors have a genuine sense of whether students are involved in online learning, especially if it is asynchronous only.

Faculty Online Teaching and Design (FOTD)

Both instructors did the eLearning FOTD (Faculty Online Teaching and Design) course offered by the Center for eLearning at the end of Spring 2020. Both see such courses as a valuable way of improving the online and remote education experience for students. The course provided best practices, including Quality Matters standards for online learning, and instructors were able to apply what they learned to their own online courses.

Student Evaluations

Thomas and Jirik recommend that if CSU is not on campus in Fall 2020 that the student course evaluations be used by instructors to gauge the effectiveness of their online and remote teaching. Students should not only be encouraged to do the evaluations but be asked to write in any and every praise, criticism, or suggestion they have for instructors.


If Adobe does NOT provide access off campus to students and CSU does not return to campus in Fall 2020, this will have a significant impact on the students who are doing JPC classes that have an Adobe component (Thomas: 363, 425, 447, 464; Jirik: 335, 427, 429). An absence of access to Adobe will also impact the ongoing shift to teaching digital and social-media based journalism and promotional communication that the SOC is undergoing. Alternative applications and/or options will be discussed, if needed.

Summary and conclusion

Thomas and Jirik conclude that, in the current context at CSU, online teaching was more effective than remote teaching when students were moved off campus in Spring 2020. Moving forward, students’ expectations of presence and the possibility of working, etc. when not on campus makes this an easier option for all involved than expecting students to make “class times” remotely when off campus. A hybrid of asynchronous and synchronous teaching with a reduced expectation of face-to-face meetings could be explored to test for the best balance of online and remote learning.

The eLearning Center’s support for off-campus teaching is an excellent resource for instructors, who should be encouraged to take advantages of offerings like the FOTD.

The heavy emphasis on technology and expectation that Adobe CC will be available for most classes Thomas and Jirik teach, means the CSU and SOC administration must pay particular attention to ensuring students have access to the learning tools they need to do the courses being developed by Thomas and Jirik to align the offerings of the SOC’s JPC division with the expectations of the fields into which student will graduate.

[i] Two additional challenges that Thomas and Jirik were dealing with during Spring 2020 are the ongoing revamp they are leading of the SOC’s JPC curriculum to bring it into line with industry and professional expectations students will encounter after graduation, i.e. the shift to digital-first and social-media-based and online-oriented journalism and promotional communication. The industry standard for both fields as regards technology is Adobe CC. CSU implemented support for Adobe CC in Spring 2020. Most students were encountering Adobe CC for the first time when access was lost to the Adobe CC classrooms and labs the SOC is still in the process of building. The twinned issue of curriculum revision and deploying a new software suite affected the transition to online/remote teaching for Thomas and Jirik and is an ongoing challenge.

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