Business Communication in a Time of Difficult Communication — David Rhoa

David C. Rhoa
Visiting Asst Prof of Economics and Business.
July 2020

Spring 2020 was the first offering of BSUN/ECON 285 Business Communication. The course was designed from the ground up to be an interactive program that encouraged student engagement and discussion. When we switched to the distance-learning model, I had to scrap most of my planned in-person discussion prompts and activities.

My course was originally scheduled for Thursday nights from 7:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. E.D.T. Prior to the start of the course, I surveyed all course members to determine the following:
• Access to internet
• Access to a webcam
• Ability to meet at the scheduled time
100% of the students indicated that possessed all the requisite hardware, software, and internet access. In addition, all but one student (located in Greece) indicated that they would be able to meet at the scheduled time. My average attendance was 90% to 100% each week.

I recorded all lectures, guest speakers, and discussions and made the recordings available to students within 24-hours of meeting via a link on Moodle. I kept a detailed index of the topics I covered during each week. When students would email or text asking a question, I first referred them to our discussion during Week X. I asked them to review the videos and then confirm with me that their original questions were answered. 80% indicated that reviewing the videos answered their questions. The remaining 20% were given direct Zoom meetings with me.

Class meetings were planned for three hours each. In most cases, the time was split between course material and guided discussion. I discovered early on that, unlike my business Zoom meetings where participants are eager to share opinions, many of our class discussions were more abrupt, almost simplex in nature. One student might share an opinion. A second student might then state their agreement with the first student and add their own opinion. Unlike in-person instruction, I found it difficult to gauge student reactions to opinions offered by their classmates.

The average class period ran approximately 2 hours 30 minutes. At the end of every class I would take time to ask students how they were doing. Response levels were mixed early on and then dropped as the term continued. One could sense that students were increasingly fatigued by the circumstances of the COVID-19 shutdown and their exile from campus. I encouraged students to contact me if they had questions, about the course material or anything having to do with COVID-19 and the shutdown. On average, I spent about 6.25 hours per week in direct contact with students.

I purposely scaled back my lecture content to allow more time to engage with students in smaller groups. The downside to this approach was it added significantly to my workload. To counter this, I made a point providing any response I made to a small group available for the entire class through email (for speed), or Moodle posting (for depth). The approach of providing all students with both the questions of their classmates, and my response, more closely simulated in-class discussion.

In lieu of the direct-engagement elements originally planned for the course, I added impromptu discussion questions on Moodle. These proved very popular with the students as the discussions typically ran their course over a couple of days with students agreeing and respectfully disagreeing with each other.

By about third/fourth week I started to notice that the “newness” of distance learning was beginning to wane. In response, I added a “pop quiz” feature. I would email students “ripped from the headlines” issues on a variety of topics and ask them to comment on the tonality and content of a tweet, social media post, or news headline using the techniques discussed during our class sessions. To encourage participation, I made it clear that these “pop quizzes” would not be graded. I know that a campus-wide, a number of students said they disliked the use of email. In my course, I found that the “pop quizzes” were well received and produced a variety of discussion topics for our next class.

The one struggle I encountered throughout the course was the students NOT using their web camera. It was nearly impossible for me to gauge their sense of understanding when their screens appeared black or displaying a portrait photograph. Should the same circumstances be present in future classes, I would require that all participants use their camera for the duration of any class meeting

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