LEAP instructor goes above and beyond to engage students virtually

August 04, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — As instructors across the University devise new strategies to engage students from a distance during the coronavirus pandemic, Renea Nichols, assistant teaching professor of advertising/public relations in the Donald P. Bellisario College of Communications, has emerged as a shining star.

In teaching Comm 100: Mass Media and Society for the LEAP Program, which serves incoming first-year Penn State students at the University Park campus, Nichols has leveraged a range of strategies to keep her students connected to her and one another despite the constraints of social distancing.

Like instructors across Penn State and the nation, Nichols is discovering in real time how best to engage her students remotely. With no playbook to reference, she empowered her students to decide when and how often to meet “face-to-face” through Zoom, and they opted to meet two times per week.

“Students were concerned about staying focused and motivated in the remote teaching and learning environment, so they requested these regular face-to-face meetings,” she said.

Nichols explained that she tries to make her Zoom room feel as much like a classroom as possible by asking students to leave their microphones and cameras on. She gets the conversation flowing by inviting students to discuss challenges they are confronting as first-year students, such as studying for college-level exams and managing their time independently, in addition to the course content.

First-year student Vincent Yang, who is majoring in mechanical engineering, appreciates the emphasis on class discussions. “I would describe Professor Nichols' teaching style as being quite interactive, meaning she likes to teach while talking with her students,” he said. “The focus on discussions is my favorite part of her teaching style being discussions make learning interesting.”

While the balance of her students’ learning takes place asynchronously, students do not have to navigate this landscape alone. Nichols invites her students to get to know her and Penn State by spending time in  her virtual “office” and “classroom,”  which she created using Google Slides and the Bitmoji app.

A cartoon version of Renea Nichols stands in a virtual office space with brick walls.

Nichols' virtual office space has an urban warehouse vibe and features a wealth of conversation pieces.

IMAGE: Renea Nichols

Nichols’ virtual office allows students to explore campus life from the privacy of their own homes. A perk of a virtual office space, of course, is that your design budget is unlimited, and Nichols uses this fact to her advantage. The space has an urban warehouse vibe and features a wealth of conversation pieces. Click on the Arizona State University diploma on the wall, and you’re led to the website for the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, where Nichols completed her graduate work. Click on the bottle of Grey Goose, and you’re directed to Student Affairs’ “All About Alcohol” page. Click on the pillow that reads, “I can’t breathe,” and you’re brought to the Black Lives Matter homepage.

From Nichols’ virtual office, you’re led to her virtual COMM 100 “classroom,” which brings the course content to life. On a page featuring the Bellisario Media Center, students can catch a glimpse of a space that will soon occupy the Willard Building while exploring the question, “What is media?” Within the “History” room, students can learn about Thomas A. Edison, Alexander Graham Bell and other facets of media history. Nichols’ virtual classroom also includes a “Wellness” page set in the Arboretum with links to relaxing music, positive affirmations and other wellness tools, and a “Hype Room” with information about groundbreaking advertising and public relations campaigns.

A cartoon of Renea Nichols appears in a mockup of the Bellisario Media Center

On a page featuring the Bellisario Media Center, students can catch of a glimpse of a space that will soon occupy the Willard Building while exploring the question, “What is media?”

IMAGE: Renea Nichols

Nichols encourages students to browse her virtual classroom and acclimate themselves to the course concepts before they begin reading.

“Reading is a huge challenge for many first-year students,” she said. “There’s a lot of reading in college, and today’s students are not used to that. The videos in the virtual classroom provide a supplement that students can digest a little more easily.”

Nichols explained that her virtual office and classroom follow a trend among elementary and secondary school teachers, who are creating “Bitmoji classrooms” for their students during the coronavirus pandemic. She learned of the trend from her sister, who is a pre-K teacher, and adapted it for Penn State students.

“This is a challenging time for everyone, but students are really taking things in stride,” she said. “We all look forward to returning to campus full-time when the moment is right, but in the meantime, I want students to enjoy learning remotely as much as possible.”

The LEAP Program is administered by the  Office for Sumer Session , which is part of Undergraduate Education, the academic administrative unit that provides leadership and coordination for University-wide programs and initiatives in support of undergraduate teaching and learning at Penn State. Learn more about Undergraduate Education at undergrad.psu.edu.

Last Updated August 04, 2020