Tsinghua University News

Rick Dunham: Venture into the educational unknown

Rick Dunham: Venture into the educational unknown


Rick Dunham, an international professor at Tsinghua University, shares stories on distance teaching to his class of students spread out over 22 time zones.

See how he has tried to "make something sweet" at a time "when the world has given us lemons".

For the past seven years, I have had the honor to teach some of the smartest graduate students from around the world at China's top university, Tsinghua. Our Global Business Journalism program faculty takes pride in the high-level classroom interaction and individual attention we give our students.

That's one of the major reasons I was a bit anxious when it became clear in late January that we were going to have to shift our spring semester at the Tsinghua School of Journalism and Communication to "virtual classrooms". The rapid spread of the coronavirus made online learning the only way we could serve our students. But I quickly realized that this unprecedented challenge could be turned into an opportunity to experiment, to innovate and to provide an even more rewarding educational experience for all of us.

I could see our online future approaching even before government officials announced the closure of schools across China. International flights to China were canceled, stranding nearly all of our Global Business Journalism program's international students in their home countries, spread over five continents. With spring semester classes scheduled to begin on Feb 17, we were committed to finding a way to offer our students the chance to continue their education in new and exciting ways. Tsinghua University's visionary leadership had the same idea and aggressively pursued solutions.

Our biggest challenge was logistical. Global Business Journalism students are spread out over 22 time zones. It was almost impossible to find a class time that would work for everyone. For my advanced news writing course, we settled on 8 am in Washington, which was 2 pm for students in France and Spain, 3 pm in South Africa, 5 pm in Oman, 9 pm in China, and 10 pm in Japan and Korea. Thank goodness Global Business Journalism students are flexible and adventurous.

To improve the look of my lecture, I created a China-themed background for my classes in my basement studio featuring two life-sized terracotta warriors from Xi'an and traditional Chinese scroll art. I learned the importance of an attractive backdrop from my father, an award-winning set designer for Broadway and opera.

"Opening Night" on Feb 17 was an educational triumph. Students could see me, hear me, view my PowerPoint presentations, and see news articles that I had called up on my computer screen for analysis. All of the other Global Business Journalism program's classes proceeded without incident, and the student reaction was overwhelmingly favorable.

"Even though the virus has resulted in the [journalism] school having to use a virtual classroom, it's still brought so many good stories to the front page," said Hai Lin Wang, a GBJ master's student from Canada who has been staying with her grandparents in Tianjin. "I hope we can all take advantage of this time."

I'm taking this one week at a time. There are occasional glitches — the risks of "live television" — and we could have a technological meltdown any week. But I have discovered many advantages of our innovative learning experience. For one thing, I can now ask prominent journalists, academics or policymakers in Washington, Europe or Africa to join our class in real time.

One month into our venture into the educational unknown, I believe my lectures are more visually appealing, more interactive and more focused. The students are even more engaged in our virtual classroom than in the "real" classroom. Students can pose questions and make comments in real time, compounding the advantages of the online learning experience.

In good times and in these challenging times, Tsinghua University has inspired me to become a better person and a better teacher. As a professor who loves teaching the brightest aspiring journalists from around the world, I owe it to my students to give them an educational experience that they will always remember ... in a good way.

The world gave us lemons, and we are trying to make something sweet out of it. As one of my Texas friends said to me: "Lemonade, Rick. Lemonade."

Writer: Rick Dunham
Source: China Daily