When teaching media studies, hybrid thinking means flex…

Today we still have radio, the cheapest and most widely used medium in South Africa; printing, which began in the 1800s; television, which we’ve had since the mid-1970s, and there’s a growth in online news sites and social media.

The pandemic is over, but what will likely persist is that we will be vaccinated once a year for the rest of our lives. All good; it’s kind of a hybrid end to the pandemic.

Teaching media studies, mostly face-to-face starting this week in 2022, means some serious hybrid thinking. Hybrid doesn’t just mean blended learning – some online and some face-to-face – it also means flexibility in approach, content, delivery and assessment. It could mean more freedom from old habits.

But just as with journalism, where the basics matter, i.e. fact-checking and accuracy, which cannot go out of fashion, because that is what matters more than anything else, so too in the teaching of media studies, the basics of applying theory to cases, and cases to theory, will remain. Even though some theories we teach debunk them, for example the hypodermic needle theory – the one-way transmission of communication (Harold Lasswell in the 1920s on the power of the media over the public). You receive information, you absorb it, you believe it, that is, the political model of mass propaganda that worked in Nazi Germany. Of course, we teach this to criticize it.

Today there are more than one-way and two-way streets – there are multi-way streets and interactions are the norm. But there are also downsides: with more online engagements, there is also more vitriol. And we have to ask ourselves about what we read, especially on social networks.

Delivering the lessons, however, will mean extending beyond what many have done in the past: presenting PowerPoint slides and having a discussion or asking, “Any questions?

The end, to borrow from Georg Hegel, of the “master-slave” relationship of the speaking lecturer and the absorption of the students – one-way street – was happening anyway, and participation was happening. Then the pandemic happened. And technology has saved lives.

First and second year of confinement: how the technology worked and did not work

Let’s take the honor class media and politics course. In the first year of lockdown 2020, I found that students were hiding – literally – behind a name they registered for a class and not showing their faces except for two or three confident, out of a class of maybe 20. I had a student who signed up for the Zoom conference for the whole hour but when I asked him a question about what he was thinking, there was no no answer. I said, “You’re muted.” A friend of his must have told him that I was trying to engage with him. Later he apologized and said he had to take his mother to the physio, where unfortunately there was no WiFi. He had to leave his phone behind, registered as it was for class.

In 2021’s icebreakers on “So what’s been your experience with online learning during the pandemic?”, I expected more grief about loneliness. Surprise: most cited conveniences such as savings on transport costs to Wits and being anywhere, such as in your car, on your phone and accessing the conference .

By 2021, we have introduced continuous assessments and students themselves speaking first, for half of the course, as in a one-read discussion, five minutes each. They learned a lot more.

Other things I heard. Some academics prefer continuous assessments because exams are “emotional abuse.” And there are others who say that open-book, take-away courses are “exams”? Seriously, what kind of gauge is that of knowledge? Yet all masters and doctorates are “open book” and some do very well in dissertations and theses and some do not.

In this almost post-pandemic period, I have learned a few things. This is definitely the end of Hegel’s master-slave relationship – although there will always be vestiges of that delay. A hybrid that advances.

Now we will certainly have to expand in teaching, because visuals, sound, jokes and humor, satire and music all matter, almost as much as words and theory.

Because we did this while teaching online, it can now become the norm. It’s not about going back to normal now, but incorporating what we did that worked and incorporating that into the “hybrid model”. We will now do live face-to-face lectures and publish them on online sites.

For sure, it’s the end of the master-slave relationship: me the expert, you the learner and empty vessel absorbing everything. As the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire said: “Liberating education consists of acts of cognition, not transfer of information”.

What I learned in 2021 is that unless you insist on participation, through assessments or presenting a reading, students hide; they register that they are there and then slip away to a dream world or to do other important things, like household chores or taking mom to the physio.

It’s also a fact that most of us can’t concentrate on listening to someone for more than 45 minutes. For me, hybrid means flexibility and freedom. In content, delivery and reviews.

But presenting in a fun way is essential regardless, as is linking media theory and politics to everyday issues locally, continentally and internationally.

Media studies students don’t talk much about journalism as future career paths. They mention academia, public relations and event planning.

During teaching, we advise on how to do research. But more practical things are needed to bridge the gap between academia and industry. A few years ago, I discovered that students had been taught for years how terrible journalism was; they learned that journalists “deliberately sensationalize to sell stories, to profit for media companies.”

I arranged tours so they could see and hear for themselves how the news is. The sociology of news production is a sophomore course, but at the honors level, they had never even been in a newsroom.

Before Covid, two years in a row, I took the entire media and politics honor class to various television, print and radio newsrooms. It linked reality to theory and theory linked to reality. But it also debunked many previous opinions about how the news was made. Broader education, meeting industry, also brings freedom.

The students loved it. They had never heard of a daily “press conference” before, let alone sat down to hear how the stories were chosen. Education, also through the media, can bring freedom. What does not change is that the freedom to think and to have a different point of view will always remain intrinsic to learning. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly newspaper Daily Maverick 168 which is available for R25 from Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. To find your nearest retailer, please click on here.