Reinventing Universities. How a Pandemic Forced Flipped Lectures into New TV-like and Radio Shows.

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“Ask me anything” says BBC journalist and news presenter Alice Bhandhukravi. I have a question says Indigo, an MA student. “How does it feel to be followed by Barack Obama?”. Alice pauses for a moment: “Am I being followed by Obama?”

We’re approximately 20 minutes into a Q&A and Alice is delivering a masterclass in how to break into broadcasting as her evening news bulletin, she’s due to present, draws nearer.

“Let’s give it up for Alice” I request and applause spills out from zoom portals.

Our next guest is Channel 4 News’ Chief Correspondent Alex Thomson. “Are we on or off the record? ”, Alex asks. The chat room is pinging “off”. Alex begins to produce a spectrum of life stories: from interviewing the IRA, putting together a report on the day with little notice, and then the off the record stuff, which I can’t tell you, because it’s off the record.

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BBC journalist and news presenter Alice Bhandukrava and Channel 4’ News’ Chief Correspondent Alex Thompson

Alice started off as a investment broker before deciding she wanted to be a journalist and admits her first job booking crews could have gone better. Her break to become a newsreader emerged from being thrown into the deep end. She had no training. Sink or swim should be one of the enduring mottos of journalism. She swam.

Alex rode around India for six months on a bike after a stint at BBC Wales. He published his tales and then joined the much coveted competitive BBC Journalism Scheme, which would later lead to his present abode at ITN’s Channel 4 News.

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As formats go this isn’t far off from a hybrid magazine cum chat show. It’s a mixture of the personal, guests appearing casual when at home and opening up about their trials and tribulations.

Previous guests have been Shaimaa Khalil, BBC Foreign Correspondent in Australia and New Zealand; Award winning psychologist John Amaechi; and the BBC’s stalwart presenter and foreign reporter Clive Myrie.

There’s intrigue and then much needed advice. Yet this is a lecture in Foreign News Reporting, one of a series that opens up conceptual ideas and practice of the craft of reportage.

The Pandemic’s knock on effect

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The chilling effects of the Covid-19 pandemic caused a rupture in universities forcing radical changes and a rethink in lectures. Many would move substantive, if not all, teaching sessions online. It appeared an unprecedented challenge to tertiary institutions.

Yet, commercial and academic enterprise had previously shown how remote lecturing could work. In 2008, a Pulitzer Prize winning photographer Vincent Laforet spent a weekend testing a new DSLR camera. The results would blow the world of film and video apart. Reverie resembled a slick Hollywood boy meets girl short, shot on a $2000 camera.

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What followed were a series of online lectures, charging $50 plus. It had the cosiness of broadcasting from a living room, aided by props and a monitor. Soon Vimeo Video School would be offering free classes.

In academia, in 2010 Stanford University’s CS221: Introduction to Artificial Intelligence attracted a staggering 160,000 students from 190 different countries. Their set looked like a garage repurposed. Khan Academy and soon Udemy using pre-recorded modular videos would follow. “The Classroom Flip”, the name of a paper from J Wesley Baker a Cedarville University research, had arrived.

If the future was being reinvented, universities were not buying in wholesale. February 2020 would refocus minds. Previous companies might have done online and remote to supplement their living or create new revenue streams. For Universities this was their living. Questions surfaced. How do you engage with students online without them zoning out? How do you exchange knowledge in the absence of face-to-face? And how do you ensure your content is memorable?

Reports surfaced that students would rather not listen to a lecture for more than 20 minutes. Professor Diana Laurillard, an expert in blended, MOOCS and digital learning technologies at University College London’s Institute of Education warned one hour lectures wouldn’t work online. They’d need to be broken up into small units interspersed with other activities, such as discussions.

The idea of the classic zoom face-time, coupled with disembodied full screen powerpoint filled some lecturers with dread. Yet, if 2000 onwards was the manifestation of a digital solution, a more apt analogy had been visible in plain sight for about forty years.

The solution lay with one of the UK’s most venerable tertiary education institutions and John Logie Baird’s invention.

Television the drug of the future

Forty years ago the Open University brokered a deal with the BBC to show its lectures remotely down a television tube. The concept was met with considerable trepidation. Experts, writes Andy Northedge, Emeritus Professor at the Open University (OU) wrestled with the following:

  • Might students have difficulty concentrating?
  • Might broadcasts put off potential future students if they were too ‘academic’ and stuffy and intimidated and baffled if programmes did not draw on the wiles and wisdom accumulated by mainstream TV?
  • Would the OU be taken seriously as a university if its public broadcasts veered towards popular TV norms?

In “Three decades of Open University television broadcasts: a review”, Professor Northedge a member of (OU) staff from 1972 and an expert in Learning and Teaching in Higher Education in the Faculty of Health and Social Care at the OU, reveals some interesting findings.

The first OU programme makers faced the prospect of how to pitch their show, arriving at the compromise “between ‘ivory tower’ university teaching and entertainment TV”.

Evidence shows how programmes developed from archetypal academic presentations delivered by personal from conventional universities, with little to no experience in television. Northedge writes:

Even the OU’s BCC TV producers were generally recruited as academics and then trained as producers, rather than vice versa. Not surprisingly, then, there are many signs of the influence of traditional university teaching in the early broadcasts.

Over the years, television lectures would change. Studio sets became more elaborate and academics as presenters were recruited for their friendly, plain speaking personas, as much their expertise. The legacy of the OU’s approach has played in no small part to the rostrum of superstar academic presenters seen today on BBC two, Four and Channel 4 in particular. They include, Professor Brian Cox, Historian Lucy Worsley, Dr Janina Ramirez and Professor David Olusoga.

From Pro to Pop up Studios

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Set designs have come a long way since the early days of television, from the seemingly cavernous studios of Blue Peter to newsrooms like Channel 4 News, which is an exemplar for the illusion of television design and space.

Several people comment about how small Channel 4’s newsroom is compared to what they see on television. Yet its colour scheme and spatial arrangement has a profound impact on viewers’ reception of news presentation. This is a reference to mis en scene — composition arrangement in the film frame.

Almost all TV News launches and relaunches are accompanied by a new ‘psychologically-mastered’ set and the colours tend to be the same.

“Red is a warm, sentimental color for women — and a sign of danger or anger to men”, says Alex McLevy writing in Why every cable news set uses the same two colors.

Whilst “Blue is a positive color for men, signaling authority and control,” advises an article from the book Winning Elections: Political Campaign Management, Strategy & Tactics”.

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The concept of the newsroom studio was expatiated from the chat show in the 1940s and the roles of TV News lifted from Hollywood productions.

Where Good Ideas Come from by Steven Johnson shows just how ideas are copied from one domain to another — the wine press and Gutenberg’s printer is a case in point.

How then, I thought if you’re teaching journalism could you expatiate from others?

This isn’t an unfamiliar question I’ve faced and tried solving as a journalist/ creative technologist throughout my career working in media and academia.

In the mid to late 90s I was a producer on Channel 4 News, and keenly remember the days of BBC Reportage — another programme where I cut my teeth. Innovation in studio sets, for example, The Big Breakfast exploded on the scene in the early 90s demonstrating how you could turn a detached house into a production suite.

In the 90s, I created TV formats for clients in Ghana and South Africa, which led to working in dotcoms. When the opportunity at university to lead a new course in digital storytelling lab arose remote and pop up studios were central to the programme. The photo above was created in the university’s photographic studio.

But could it work at home? That was one of the first challenges. How could I turn a small section of the living room ( about 1/4 ) into a pop up studio?

Set up, Content and Delivery

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The three main elements to consider in home productions are:

  1. Studio set up, which includes camera arrangements and potential vision mixes if you’re using more than one camera.
  2. Content — Using the wheel to break lectures into modular units.
  3. Delivery which includes styles of presentations as much as the pipelines e.g. zoom

Studio set up

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At the online Digital Education Summit we organised this summer we featured world leading digiratis from the US, Canada, Nigeria, India and Russia, such as Webby Awards founder Tiffany Shlain and father of videojournalism Michael Rosenblum. They shared ideas on the future of digital education. IBM’s Jose Velazquez exhibited one of several solutions to home studio design.

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His arrangement involves fill lighting against a neutral backdrop, but his USP is a glass panel across his camera. It means he can write on the screen during lectures, but there’s one snag. Because of the optics interpolating an image, he’s had to learn to write in reverse — as if standing in front of a mirror.

A secondary USP has his set up wired into a mixer costing around £300. It means at the flick of switch he can change multiple camera angles.

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In London, Professor Jonathan A.J. Wilson, an expert academic and industry professional, who featured in the Digital Summit, has also thought deeply about his set.

His book shelf is both aesthetic and functional allowing him to pull books from for referencing — something I’m prone to do. Besides that Jonathan occasionally takes to riffing on his guitars — features from his days playing in a band. He says his design inspiration came from the Russian suprematism and constructivism of El Lissitzky,

It’s where iconic shape, form and aesthetics bring new contextual cultural meanings to the individual, within which I am the facilitator. Also, following the work on possessions and materialism by Professor Russell W. Belk, whom I have authored with, my set is an extension of my ‘self’, designed to reinforce a branded me.

The prominence of Wilson’s microphone and his emphasis on sound quality gives the feel of a talk show host. He adds, “because online can be so flat, that means playing the shock jockey too. Most weeks the special guest is knowledge, rather than an actual person”.

The mic, he continues, allows him to me to play around with delivery, by regulating his voice for affect, like the narrator in a film trailer.

The icing on the cake is that, like sitcoms and radio shows, I use audio effects like canned laughter, applause, jingles, dings, and buzzers — otherwise, online is just so unemotional. Some of the best digital and creative minds too were at it.

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There’s a secondary arrangement to be considered too around what zoom viewers are privy to on screen. Senior Lecturer, friend and blogger Andy Dickinson explains in Tech demos with Zoom.

Dickinson was experimenting how he could turn Zoom into a vision mixer. Simple enough when it’s explained, he logs into his main zoom host account with a secondary laptop which hosts his Premiere editing interface and creates a separate account for his iPhone to show how mobile iPhone editing works.

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Collaborating with a colleague James Taylor our work around involved mobile apps Epocam or iVcam that serve as an adjunct camera to the laptop on Zoom.

We were able to road test this hack this summer in our digital education summit and it worked well enough.

But if you’re really into geeking out on tech, to aid the workflow, the Proster clicker will enable you to change PowerPoints remotely. And a video capture card plugged into your Mac’s HDMI, with the other end plugged into your DSLR, will give you high fidelity pictures. A wireless microphone should up your sound levels.

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Programme Content — The Wheel

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Most TV programmes use a wheel to drive output — another import into the course. Its guidance, provides some flexibility, in that I’ve broken it a couple of times because of our guests’ commitments.

But importantly, segments will cohere with the overall structure of 15–20 minute session leading to different activities in breakout rooms. Psychologically too as Foreign News Reporters, each week we’re in a different location, which should provide an opportunity to pre-vis reports.

Research shows how laughter decreases the stress hormone cortisol and aids short term memory, so each meeting we start off with a quiz. The effect is two fold, to loosen up and test ourselves against general knowledge using Kahoot’s interactive quiz programme.

Delivery

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Core streaming is one thing, and the question of bandwidth requires consideration, particularly if you’re streaming to territories where Net speeds are constrained. One idea is to create bespoke sites to accompany material. For lectures in cinema journalism, a dedicated site videojournalism.co.uk provides additional information.

For Foreign News reporting, a combination of FB postings and soon-to-be published blogs wrapping up learning outcomes has helped in the past.

Prof Wilson’s likens his lectures to nothing less than a mash up forms — an ‘edutainment’ fest as the conveyor belt with knowledge placed on.

“Just like Jimmy Fallon has Questlove and Black Thought”, he says, “and James Corden has Reggie Watts — well I’ve morphed into talk show host and live band in one”.

The academic as personable “friendly, plain speaking personas” is something the OU would come to realise. Today, Wilson et al believe this to be key.

For some academics they have a built-in cheat sheet. Several in journalism come from broadcasting or newsroom backgrounds giving them an edge about how audiences react to reportage.

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I have observed similarities in live presentation skills from the days of presenting on BBC Radio interviewing a range of celebrities and public figures.

And just like broadcasting the idea in delivery is to be prepared for anything — a slide malfunctioning, a guest unable to make it, or a piece of equipment failure which happened last week. Stand-by interviews such as this one from Cory Elia, who’s been on the frontline of Oregon’s streaming newscast and Clive Myrie are but a click away. I made this promo of Cory last week.

Translating items from short term memory to long term is aided by conversational pieces that take place on Social Media.

In future presentations the plan is to leave the makeshift studio to show more “how tos”. An attempt last week to show mobile journalism outside held until I was out of range of our wifi. That’s a further challenge to which I’ve discovered a solution.

The signs seem to be that post-pandemic when we move back into offices, the knowledge gained over this last year will be jettisoned. Hardly! Online aided by 5G networks and AI was always on the horizon.

Unfortunate circumstances have accelerated its uptake. Flipped lectures sounding like a new TV like and Radio Shows are here to stay and that’s not taking into account the unknowns in AI ahead. Zoom and academia were thrust into this which sparked various innovations. The revolution has only just begun.

That was then below — the living room. This is now, a 10–15 minute pop up….

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Author Dr. David Dunkley Gyimah is a journalist, creative technologist, filmmaker and lecturer with more than thirty years in media working for the likes of BBC Newsnight, Channel 4 News and ABC News in South Africa. David was the first Brit to win the coveted Knight Batten Award for Innovation in Journalism, subsequently won by The Guardian and Storyful. He’s one of the top 15 Global writers in Journalism on @Medium David is a senior lecturer at Cardiff University specialising in Foreign News and Emerging journalism and AI. His PhD from University College Dublin investigated new story forms between the interstices of cinema and journalism

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Written by

Top Writer & Creative Technologist, Int. Award Winner. Cinemajournalist. Cardiff Uni @jomec. PhD (Dublin). Visiting Prof UBC, Ex BBC/C4News. Apple profiled.

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