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Coronavirus and Cronkite: A Letter from the Dean

March 26, 2020

Dear Trustees of the Cronkite Endowment Board:

I hope this note finds you, your family and your teams physically healthy and mentally strong despite the unprecedented challenges our country and communities have faced over the course of the past days and weeks. I wanted to take this opportunity to update you on how the Cronkite School – our students, faculty and staff – have taken on these challenges. The short answer is a simple one: I could not be more proud of our students, professors and the entire Cronkite community. They have been nothing short of remarkable, displaying astonishing levels of adaptability, creativeness, teamwork and fierce perseverance.

Please allow me to elaborate.

The Cronkite leadership team has been working around the clock for more than two weeks, since the first U.S. universities – the University of Washington and Stanford University – were largely shut down in response to the coronavirus. From the beginning, our strategy has been to focus exclusively on two goals: the health and welfare of our students and the continuation of their education at the highest possible level.

Preparation: President Crow made the announcement to move the university from in-person classes to remote learning experiences on late Wednesday, March 12, to take effect Monday, March 16, following spring break. The Cronkite team was immediately ready to act, thanks to the efforts of the leadership team, which worked around the clock through the days leading up to President Crow’s announcement. Less than 90 minutes after the president’s notice that we would be making the switch starting the following Monday, Cronkite rolled out a detailed plan to spend the next four days providing our faculty the digital tools and immersive training to make the transition.

New Design, New Thinking: The technological and pedagogical challenges were daunting: Transforming 193 courses taught by 124 professors – the majority taught in digital labs, newsrooms, editing bays and in the field with highly specialized equipment and one-on-one teaching – into completely remote, interactive learning environments. But even more than the obstacles posed by technology and teaching techniques, we were worried about the cultural and philosophical hurdles, especially since most of the 124 professors and instructional professionals have never taught in a setting other than face-to-face. But as is always the case, our Cronkite professors – to the person – recognized the needs of our students and selflessly embraced the challenge without hesitation. You often hear me say we have the most talented and dedicated faculty of any school of journalism in the country. That has been on full display from the outset, and it is inspirational to watch.

Technological Challenges: The technological challenges, however, were non-trivial. First, we were faced with the reality that some of our students would not have access to the necessary home computer, laptop or internet connections needed to engage in remote classes. We immediately began asking students about their technology needs. Working with our university technology leaders, our Cronkite IT team secured laptops and hot spots and delivered them to all students who were without. That was a major challenge met early on, thanks to our IT team led by Technology Director TJ Sokol. Then there was the question of our specialized software and field equipment. The field equipment question was a relatively easy one: Since most of our students would be out-of-state by the time the semester restarted following spring break, we shut down our equipment checkout room. If all students couldn’t access the equipment, then we felt none should in order to keep the educational playing field level.

The one technological element that our faculty said was essential to the preservation of uninterrupted deep learning our students expect and deserve was the Adobe suite of software products. Significant parts of our curriculum are designed around the video editing, photo editing, web design, audio editing and other functionalities provided by Adobe. The Adobe software is available on all 400-plus student Apple computers in the Cronkite building, but most students would not be close enough to access the building. And, frankly, we did not want to encourage the congregation of students in the building. Fortunately, we have a terrific university CTO, Lev Gonick. I reached out to Lev, who called Adobe CEO Shantanu Narayen in corporate headquarters in San Jose, who immediately asked his team for solutions. The result: the ability for all Cronkite students to download the Adobe suite at home – for free – for the next three months. Additionally, Adobe then deployed the Cronkite-driven solution to help many other schools nationally.

Teaching the Teachers: Meantime, while our IT team was working quickly to solve these technological challenges, others were focused on creating immersive learning environments to “teach the teacher” how to transform their in-person classrooms into immersive, interactive learning environments delivered 100 percent remotely. Assistant Dean Rebecca Blatt led the effort, gathering together great resources and creating a rich special section on our Canvas platform detailing both techniques and pedagogical strategies. Rebecca and Assistant Dean Jessica Pucci led the immersive sessions – nine in all – via Zoom. Every one of our 124 professors participated in full.

Professional Programs: As you know, the hallmark of the Cronkite School is our 15 highly immersive professional programs – our “news teaching hospital” in which students learn from master teachers in professional environments while providing critical news and information to our community. We made an early decision to ban all field assignments, but were adamant that we would continue our learning and news operations in full force in our remote environments. Not surprisingly, our talented students and dedicated faculty rose to the challenge, producing major coronavirus news stories from the very first day following spring break. You can see much of that terrific work on our Cronkite News site: https://cronkitenews.azpbs.org/.

Internships: Internships, however, were a different story. All Cronkite students are required to do at least one internship during their four years. Most do multiple internships. Our best students complete a half dozen or more during their time at Cronkite. As is typical, we have 150 students in internships this semester working for 80 employers. Our hope was that the internships would continue, but that employers would allow our students to work from the safe confines of their homes and not be sent on field assignments. Most readily agreed. The ones that did not, however, posed a problem. We obviously cannot force employers to make decisions about their employees (and interns are their employees, albeit temporary ones). So we provided students the option of leaving the internship and guaranteed that they would receive full credit for the experience.

Another challenge that came up much faster than we anticipated was that just days into the crisis, one major local employer laid off all nine of its Cronkite interns – and did so without notifying us in advance. Our career services team, led by Director Mike Wong, scrambled to reach out to those students. We assured them that Mike’s related class experience would continue and they would receive full credit for the internship. We are now developing plans in anticipation of a wave of internship cancellations for the summer and fall. More to come on that.

Executing the Game Plan: With everything in place, we launched our new remote learning curriculum on Monday – exactly halfway through the semester – with the start of our 7:30 a.m. classes. To provide as much support to our professors as possible, we set up a command center in the fourth floor IT headquarters, where the entire technology staff and deans – led with the grace and good humor of Assistant Dean Jessica Pucci – were able to monitor the start of every class. The majority of our classes went off seamlessly. For those who hit some early bumps in the road, our team in the command center was able to provide real-time assistance to get the courses quickly and unobtrusively on track.

Communicate, Communicate, Communicate: A hallmark of our strategy was communication. We held open Zoom meetings every day with undergraduate students, graduates, faculty and staff. The open-ended daily Zoom meetings gave us the ability to hear about problems early on and to provide visual connectivity as our community started new lives largely in isolation. Meanwhile, I wrote separate letters each night to our students, faculty and staff, providing updates, support and examples of early successes. Those letters triggered hundreds of one-on-one conversations.

Our Parents: As part of our communication strategy, we also focused on an often-overlooked group – parents. Our student population is overwhelmingly undergraduate, and 60 percent are from out of state. Parents’ anxiety, as you can imagine, was sky high. My letters to them each night with updates provided both some confidence and the opportunity to open up direct lines of communications with me. In the course of the past two weeks, I have corresponded or spoken with more than 200 parents, answering questions about everything from student safety to access to textbooks (Senior Associate Dean Kristin Gilger quickly secured free access to most of our required textbooks) and from securing student worker jobs to giving our best estimates on things like May graduation, summer classes, study abroad programs and a wide array of other issues. I also began holding Zoom meetings just for parents. We had 45 on the first call. When several parents told us they missed the first one, we held a second one last Sunday afternoon. I expected a half dozen parents; we had more than 125 attend that session, which lasted more than 90 minutes.

An Opportunity: Some students feared that the new learning environments would be “lesser” experiences. But, as we have messaged repeatedly to all, we believe that the new learning designs created by our professors are achieving the same high-level Cronkite-quality learning outcomes as always. And in some ways, this experience is additive for our students. Employers tell us over and over – and more and more as time goes on – that in addition to the traditional qualities they look for in interns and young new hires (journalism ethics and skills, critical thinking, clear writing, accurate reporting, etc.), they are focused on applicants’ adaptability, creativity and perseverance. And while we never would have wanted the scenario we face today, the fact is that it has created an environment where students can learn, expand and hone those critical skills in ways never possible before.

Beyond the Classroom: Shortly after we successfully launched our 193 new remote classes in mid-semester, we quickly turned our attention to our students’ mental health. Social isolation is a significant concern for all, but it is perhaps more acute among young people who are in a period of their lives where they are highly social and surrounded by hundreds of friends, acquaintances and classmates every day. With that, our team – led by newly appointed Assistant Dean Melanie Alvarez and Student Success Director Mary Cook – developed a series of professional, recreational and social events and activities to reconnect our students to each other remotely. Part of that was to turn our existing professional events – such as Must See Mondays – into remote experiences, and then add to those new opportunities such as weekly conversations with top national recruiters that Associate Dean Mark Lodato quickly organized. But the biggest change was developing a wide range of social and recreational activities for our students to engage in with other students. You can see the results of that – the Cronkite Café – at https://cronkite.asu.edu/news-and-events/events. Students can participate in yoga sessions, meet ups to discuss sports or the latest show to binge watch, and even enjoy the “Pets of Cronkite.” We hope these will help alleviate a bit of our students’ feelings of isolation.

Telling Our Story: We believe that it is essential – for our current students, future students and our many supporters around the country – that we take our own advice to be nimble and creative, so we moved to quickly tell the Cronkite story in the wake of the coronavirus. As we often do, we turned to Senior Associate Dean Kristin Gilger, who assembled a team that is doing a magnificent job of telling the Cronkite story through our students and faculty. Take a look at Kristin’s excellent overview story at https://asunow.asu.edu/20200325-solutions-asu-cronkite-school-faces-challenge-gets-work-done as well as our Cronkite and Coronavirus special section at https://cronkite.asu.edu/content/coronavirus-and-cronkite.

Arizona PBS: Arizona PBS posed some special challenges. Arizona PBS, as the largest public media outlet in our state and the seventh-largest PBS station in the country, holds a special place in the lifelong learning and news and information needs of all Arizonans – but particularly in times of crisis. Led by General Manager Mare Mazur, the station completely overhauled 12 hours of the 24-hour daily schedule, replacing regularly scheduled programming with subject-specific, grade-specific K-12 teaching and learning that started Monday, just as schools around the state were shutting down and children were sent home to their parents. AZPBS also added to its rich array of digital K-12 teaching resources https://azpbs.org/kids-and-education/at-home-learning/. Meanwhile, our public affairs team led by Allysa Adams quickly transformed our nightly public affairs show, Horizon, into an hour-long program devoted to coronavirus-related issues.

Remote Working: In the midst of all of this, we began redesigning our team of more than 200 full-time employees and more than 100 part-time employees to largely work from home. As of today, our 300-plus person team is now down to 12 people in the building – engineers essential in keeping Arizona PBS on the airwaves, production crews to produce Horizon and PBS NewsHour West, a Cronkite IT staffer, two administrative staffers, our first-floor security guard, and me. Everyone else was deployed to work from their homes. As part of our effort to limit the number of people in the building, starting tonight, Horizon will be broadcast from the Phoenix home of longtime host Ted Simons, with his producers also working from their homes and guests brought in remotely.

We were concerned, however, that most of our team has never worked from home – at least for an extended period of time. Thankfully, we have an in-house expert in working from home in Janet Coats, our newly hired Cronkite executive director of strategy and innovation. Janet put together a series of Zoom training sessions teaching our staff how to smartly, efficiently, safely and happily work from their home environments, as well as how to use technologies such as Slack, Todoist and Trello. Meantime, each unit is meeting at least once a day via Zoom, and we continue to have weekly Zoom meetings for all faculty as well as staff.

What’s Next: It is an unprecedented time for all of us. Our teaching, learning and broadcasting are continuing unabated, but the building is ghostly quiet. A structure that is nearly always abuzz with energy from more than 1,000 students, faculty and staff each day is eerily silent. The giant screen in the First Amendment Forum is dark. The classrooms empty. The newsrooms and editing bays locked. But the silence belies not just the deep learning that continues throughout our school but the spirit of adaptability, creativity, teamwork and perseverance that permeates our enterprise – no matter the physical location or format.

What will the future hold? None of us know the details, of course, of what the future holds. But what we do know is that our students will continue their deep learning with creativity, adaptability and grit, our professors will continue to teach, guide and mentor those students with their inspiring spirit, and our staff will continue to support both. It is the Cronkite Way.

Many of our students are suffering financially. Some have lost their non-university jobs. A growing number of families are in dire financial straits. Led by Senior Director of Development Liz Bernreuter, we are quickly organizing a campaign to provide much-needed emergency resources to those students most in need. You will be hearing from Liz more about that shortly.

In the meantime, please reach out to me directly if you have any questions. And, as always, thank you for your tremendous and continued support of our school and students. It is always essential – now more than ever before.

Stay safe.

Sincerely,

Christopher Callahan
Founding Dean, Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication
Vice Provost, Downtown Phoenix Campus, Arizona State University
CEO, Arizona PBS