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MCM During COVID-19: Preparing Future Communication Professionals in a “Vivid Leadership Laboratory”
Master of Communication and Media Program Director Richard Dool describes how the MCM Program is adapting to best support, mentor, and teach its students during the pandemic, and he discusses the program’s new specialization and degree.
MCM During COVID-19: Preparing Future Communication Professionals in a “Vivid Leadership Laboratory”

In just three weeks, every Master of Communication and Media (MCM) class was converted to an all-online environment. By increasing communications and being more accessible, the MCM program is creating an overall more welcoming and positive learning environment, tailored to student needs during COVID-19.

By framing the challenges faced by MCM faculty as an opportunity to teach in a “Vivid Leadership Laboratory,” MCM Program Director Richard Dool is also using this time to instruct students, who are future communication and public relations practitioners, how to lead during a crisis.

In our Q&A below with Dool, learn more about the many ways the MCM Program has adapted during the pandemic, and why the program’s new Corporate Purpose and Social Impact Specialization and its new degree program, the Masters in Heath Communication and Information, launching in January 2021, will inspire many to realize this is an ideal time to join the communication and public relations profession in order to make a positive impact on our society.

How is the MCM Program adapting to accommodate students during the pandemic?

It has been relatively painless as our MCM program was already largely designed for online delivery. Not every course, but most of them. We usually run about 50/50 on-campus and online each semester. We were able to convert to fully online for our Spring ’20 classes in less than three weeks. We had some issues with helping some of our PTL faculty who were not as experienced, but we have good infrastructure support and training so we were able to help them quickly. Now six weeks in, all is going generally well. We have had to adapt some of our class expectations because many of our students do not take all classes online in a typical semester. We have reduced the expectations in some classes so they can manage their overall workload.

What are some of the new support systems students now need?

 I have personally stepped up my communication and outreach. I normally check in with my students individually 3-4 times in a typical 15-week semester. I also post a weekly class announcement and also send a weekly email with a checklist of what is expected and due that week. Now, I am doing the same with the weekly checklist and email, but I am also checking in with each student either weekly or bi-weekly. I am also monitoring their activity in our class more closely, so I can proactively engage with them if I see any difficulties. I am encouraging them to call me if anything comes up or if they are facing any specific challenges. I have given them my mobile number and told them to call day or night, if needed.

This past week, I had 19 live calls with students either by phone or Zoom. I think it is important to not only reach out more, but also to be more accessible. I am also in class every day, M – F, being an example and a positive and encouraging presence.

We also in general need to be more responsive and student-centric than our normal levels in terms of other support, outside of the classroom.  Areas such as student services, tech support and university services (e.g. registration). Anxiety is high and a higher personal touch is needed.

Could you share tips for other instructors for getting more out of this challenging time?

A few things…

  • Be more communicative and accessible.
  • Keep in mind that the student is facing more complications and overall workload now that all classes are online. In general, online classes create a higher workload for students.
  • Be realistic on class expectations and find ways to balance the class learning objectives and rigor with a reasonable workload. Be prepared to be a bit more flexible.
  • Monitor each student. Not every student will engage in an online environment and some will overdo it. We have to reach out to those who are hesitant or minimally engaging and encourage them. We also have to watch the overachievers who may burnout or intimidate the less engaged students.
  • Create an overall welcoming and positive learning environment.
  • Be active yourself, be an exemplar.

What are some of the ways MCM's summer program will be impacted?

A very pleasant surprise, our MCM summer class schedule is fully enrolled. We are offering 11 courses and 94 students have registered. We had 78 in the summer of 2019, so given the environment, this is a very positive position for MCM. We always encourage our students to take advantage of our summer classes, they are a good way to accelerate their degree and also lower their workload for the Fall semester.

An even better surprise came with our Summer applications. We accept MCM applications on a rolling basis – fall, spring and summer. Our summer ’20 applications are up 60% over 2019!

Has the MCM-J&J Fellowship program changed as a result of the pandemic? 

No, there has been no change thankfully, other than our Fellows working remotely. Our four current Fellows are fully engaged and making the most of the opportunity.  It is also a great time to be at J&J, as an organization J&J has really stepped up in terms of its social impact programs and initiatives, which provides an excellent learning experience for our Fellows.

Will the MCM curriculum expand to more broadly teach MCM students how to communicate in a crisis, so they are prepared as professionals to face a situation such as COVID-19?

We have to find some positives in this environment. We will get past this, but the lessons learned are too valuable not to seize. We see several areas that will serve as a strong learning source. We are living in what I call a “vivid leadership laboratory.” We are seeing leaders stepping up and standing tall, and others who are falling short. In terms of crisis communications, terrific examples for several of our MCM classes. In the area of Public Relations, our faculty are actively using marketplace examples to underscore course concepts.

The pandemic has resulted in the need to adapt during a stressful, difficult time. Has this environment also created new opportunities for MCM program growth, or other opportunities?

I see several areas that could create opportunities for MCM.  The fall is still in flux, but I do think we are going to see more interest in a Master’s credential overall as individuals assess their career positions and may want to use the degree to pivot. We are going to see a higher interest and acceptance of online learning, for which MCM is well positioned. We seem to be on the cusp of an emerging job market in terms of our new Corporate Purpose and Social Impact specialization. This crisis has either awakened this in some or opened possibilities for others. As an example, we shot a short video on our new specialization, which I posted on my personal LinkedIn page and in 3 days, there were over 3200 views.

We are also going to launch our new Masters in Heath Communication and Information in January 2021. I can’t think of a better time to enter this market as we watch all the frontline healthcare heroes every day. I think many are going to be inspired to enter this profession.

More information about the Master of Communication and Media Program at the Rutgers School of Communication and Information is available on the website.

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