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Recrafting a High-Touch Course for COVID Times

Matthew Sawyer, Lecturer in the M.S. in Strategic Communication program, discusses how he worked with fellow faculty member and Senior Director of Assessment and Faculty Development Dr. Zach Kornhauser to adapt his popular Industry Insider course to be productive and engaging for students who are learning remotely this fall. 


Soon after COVID-19 sent us to our rooms, I realized my course in the M.S. in Strategic Communication program wouldn’t be possible for Fall 2020. The course, Industry Insider, introduced students to the activities, players, and trends in the ever-changing media and communication industry. A popular component was the “Inside Look” class sessions at leading marketing and media organizations in New York City. Over the past few years, we’ve held classes (4-5 each year) at companies and agencies, including Ogilvy, Ketchum, Mediacom, IBM, and Mastercard. It was hard to imagine any agency or company letting 50+ graduate students and teachers trek through their offices this fall.

In early May, the Academic Director asked me how I was going to teach students about the inner workings of the communication industry without site visits? She offered to reschedule the course to Spring 2021, but I responded that I could figure out a good solution and still deliver a great educational experience for our students.

When developing the course in 2017, I worked with Dr. Zach Kornhauser, Senior Director of Assessment and Faculty Development at the Center for Teaching and Learning. He instructed me to first develop assessment methods for the course’s learning objectives. Zach’s approach was unfamiliar, as I typically would jump into creating activitiesassignments, reading lists, lesson plans, guest speakers, etcwhen building a new course. His approach was effective, as it directly linked Learning Objectives  Course Activities → Assessment. 

With this approach in mind, I started to map out the curriculum for Industry Insider for the Fall. My first step was to create a spreadsheet with four columns:

  1. Learning objectives
  2. Activities in past years
  3. Activities for 2020
  4. Assessment of student learning 

To maintain academic integrity and keep within Columbia’s rules for curriculum changes, I kept the same four learning objectives as previous years. Then I inserted how to assess the students’ learning against each of objective, with the only change being the addition of pre- and post-course surveys. Before creating activities for 2020, I reviewed activities from earlier years. Many activities could be conducted online in either a synchronous or asynchronous mode, including class lectures, cases studies, assignments, and guest speakers. The problem was the “Inside Look” site visits.  

Zach and I discussed how to recraft my high-touch course for Covid times. He encouraged me to forget about the site visits and other activities from previous years, as the Fall 2020 students wouldn’t know or care about past years. Our discussions led to the epiphany that:

Students don’t have to physically be at companies to learn about the people, culture, and processes in the communication industry.

Given this freedom to reimagine Inside Looks, I created the idea for virtual workshops to give students a “behind the curtain” view of the players, cultures, and processes in the communication industry. These virtual workshops would enable students to work on typical communication industry projects along with executives at top organizations. They would be perfect for Zoom breakout groups, too. Students wouldn’t just hear and see presentations; they’d actually work with industry players and experience how organizations deal with communication issues. (I’m hoping to add virtual backgrounds for Zoom from industry players, so students can also get a sense of the organizations’ physical environments.)

I reached out to executives that hosted our Industry Insider students before to gage their interest. AT&T, IBM. Landor, and Mastercard signed on immediately. I also signed up Americares, since many students are interested in nonprofit organizations. Currently, I’m working with senior executives from each company to plan a virtual workshop that focuses on important issues. For example, how does a global organization inform thousands of dispersed employees on news, events, and policies regarding the pandemic.

In addition to tackling COVID, we’ll also cover other important topics of 2020, including the presidential election and racial inequality in the communications industry. For some of these, we’ll Zoom in notable guest speakers, including: Cheryl Overton, Chief Experience Officer of a multicultural communication firm; Ray Day, former Chief Communication Officer of Ford and IBM, and currently Vice Chair of The Stagwell Group; and Todd Williamson, Vice President at SKDKickerbocker.  

Throughout the course, students will write about their findings and insights to be shared with other students on a closed blog built for the course.

All told, it should be a great course and learning experience despite the obstacles caused by COVID. It possibly could be an even better course than pre-pandemic years.  

Learn more about the M.S. in Strategic Communication.