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The transition to remote learning in the face of COVID-19 had professors and instructors across the University scrambling to adjust course presentations, tests, and final projects for the spring semester.
Penn State Altoona’s TV studio production course was a tricky one for Assistant Professor of Communications Stefanie Kempton to re-plan. Without access to the college’s studio, how could students still receive relevant content and put it into practice for their final project?
Kempton and the course’s tech instructor, Chris Lawson, discussed how best to proceed. “When I heard that our seniors would not have a physical graduation ceremony, I was really sad for them,” says Kempton. “I have a close relationship with a lot of my students, some of whom are graduating seniors, so I wanted to do something special for them.”
The project needed to be some sort of produced piece, so Kempton suggested a video featuring the seniors and their accomplishments at Penn State Altoona. How to go about doing that presented some challenges—the largest was not being able to be together physically, followed by not having use of the studio and production rooms.
Students themselves were unsure of how the project would work. “At first, I felt frustrated because our classes are extremely hands-on, and I knew our final project would require a lot of collaboration with classmates,” says Jacob McElroy, a junior from Huntingdon, Pennsylvania. “I was nervous about what a final project would look like without the studio and without being able to work together in person.”
Kempton and Lawson laid out a plan for the students to work as a news team. They were to interview the seniors via Zoom and gather photos and videos documenting their time at Penn State Altoona. Each student was assigned a role and responsibilities, just as they would receive in a professional newsroom. There were two producers, two reporters, one anchor, one audio tech, and one editor, while Kempton and Lawson acted as executive producers, overseeing the entire project.
While each student had an individual role, the project couldn’t be finalized without collaboration. “It’s like a puzzle. There are individual pieces, but the entire puzzle can’t be completed if one is missing,” says Kempton. “It’s allowed the students to work on individualized skills they are interested in, while also working as a team. This is similar to a professional television news environment with reporters working out in the field, so it’s a good real-world lesson for them.”
Rachel Price, a junior communications major, initially had misgivings about the project. “I didn't know how it would come together without access to cameras and editing equipment. I am also a very hands-on learner. I like to interact with my professors in person, so I figured I would struggle.”
However, even with the challenges of being apart, Price, as the video’s anchor, found it a valuable learning experience.
“This project required us to be creative and successful without in-person guidance. My favorite part was practicing my skills in narration, voice-overs, and on-camera delivery. I'm excited and proud to have a piece for my portfolio.”
The video also includes music, graphics, and text created by the students using GarageBand, Audacity, and Adobe Premiere.
“I think the biggest lesson we, as students, learned from this is flexibility,” states McElroy. “No one planned for this big curveball, but it taught us how to be adaptable and how to pivot our agenda during tough times.”
That is precisely what Kempton was hoping. “I wanted students to learn time management, how to think outside the box, troubleshooting, and good communication skills. I wanted them to learn how to change on a moment’s notice and tackle whatever challenges pop up. While online learning may have been a shock at first, I think they got skills from this they may not have otherwise.”
McElroy says that working on the video was fun, and even though he and his classmates were working from different places, it still felt collective. “The communications major at Penn State Altoona is a rather small group of students. We know each other pretty well and have a feel for one another's strengths and weaknesses. I think the pandemic actually brought us closer because we were going through the same challenges at the same time. We can relate to one another now more than ever.”
Kempton agrees that this alternative project united the students perhaps more than the original would have. “Communication is always important in group projects, but in an online environment, it is critical. Without the luxury of meeting in person, students needed to be in constant contact with each other to make sure the project was moving forward. Because of that, they seemed to connect with their classmates on different levels, which was nice to see.”
Brooke Mauer is one of the communications graduates. The sudden end of the semester on campus left her feeling empty inside. “Knowing I wasn't going to experience my last Blue and White game as a student, my last day of classes with professors I wanted to hug and thank, not having that closure of saying goodbye to every friend I've met at college was heartbreaking.”
That’s why the video means so much to Mauer. It highlights her journey at Penn State Altoona with the good moments, memories, and people she met along the way and also documents a unique time in history. “I love that my classmates put together something memorable for us seniors and for doing what they could to help us end our college experience on a positive note. It means so much.”
Kempton enjoyed watching the students come together for this project. She was proud to see them work in such a productive, engaging, and upbeat way while taking seriously the task of doing something positive and encouraging for their fellow classmates. “This project was kind of an experiment, and the fact that everything went so smoothly speaks volumes to the dedication and hard work the students put in. In such trying times, it’s refreshing to see our students working toward a common goal that benefits others. I’ve gotten a lot of joy out of watching them work, and I hope this project brings just as much joy to our communication seniors and their families.”