Pierpont Executives Teach University Classes Through COVID-19 Pandemic

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Pierpont CEO Phil Morabito, Vice President of Digital Strategy Chris Ferris, and Executive Counsel Terry Hemeyer, shared how they successfully navigated teaching classes through the 2020 spring semester.

Since sweeping across the United States in March, the COVID-19 pandemic has reconfigured almost every facet of our society. The education system was not spared, as university faculties across the country were forced to adapt seemingly mid-lecture.

“It was sort of like repairing an airplane while you were flying,” said Ferris, who teaches a self-designed digital marketing course for MBA students at the Jones Graduate School of Business (Rice Business).

The three professors amongst Pierpont’s staff managed to guide their metaphorical planes through the spring semester to a safe landing. Although university classrooms may never look the same, professors and students alike learned valuable lessons over an unusual three-month span.

Learning While Teaching

The journey did not come without turbulence. The most obvious hurdle was effectively implementing technology to host class sessions remotely, Ferris said.

“We had a couple of glitches where the audio would go out or something like that,” Ferris said. “Every week brought a slightly different technical challenge.”

The professors agreed the transition was made easier by support from their respective universities, whether that meant having an omnipresent technical assistant or being provided with best practices from a variety of sources. Hemeyer, who teaches a public relations strategies course, said the University of Texas at Austin gave him more capabilities than he could handle.

“I would call it an avalanche of messages about all this as we got ready … but they were all necessary,” he said. “It was a little bit tough … but I read everything. You needed to.”

For everyone involved, not sharing the same classroom each week was the most difficult adjustment. Without seeing all 40 of his students’ faces at once, Ferris said he lost the ability to gauge their level of interest, clouding when it was time to pivot to another part of the lecture. Hemeyer said it was difficult to tell if his students were laughing at his sarcastic jokes.

“The key part about speaking anywhere is reading the room, and it’s hard to read the room versus read the screen,” said Morabito, who teaches a self-designed integrated marketing communications class to MBA students at the Bauer School of Business at the University of Houston.

For students, Hemeyer said he believes they simply missed interacting with their classmates. Ferris concurred, saying that many students like to compare notes in real-time to make sure they understand the material.

“It was hard for them because they were doing this from home, and a lot of them have families or kids” added Ferris, who had to make sure his own children were not using Wi-Fi while he taught class from home. “Plus, it was just the stress of COVID… There was the whole external environment.”

Despite many challenges, Hemeyer said his students understood the gravity of the situation and that it was in nobody’s control. In fact, his favorite part of the ordeal was that his students seemed more motivated than ever.

“I had perfect attendance,” Hemeyer said. “I was stunned. Not one student missed a class or the final… They were motivated because they really had a thirst to learn. They had a thirst to find out how the heck to deal with this thing going forward.”

Preparing for Next Semester

Looking to the future, Ferris said he expects Rice Business to adopt a hybrid format, where every class will be offered both in person and online or something similar. At the University of Texas, Hemeyer said his class, which holds 30 students, will likely be offered in-person while larger classes will remain online.

“If they say it’s safe, I will show up with my mask,” Hemeyer said. “I would rather do the class like that.”

Each professor said they made adjustments to their assignments and will implement some changes moving forward. For example, Ferris will be more thoughtful about the homework he gives.

“The homework became more important because that was their chance to do it on their own and not be in this weird new environment,” he said. “I also changed how many things I gave them to do in class… That was really helpful for them… and it helps me get a better sense of how they’re understanding and processing stuff.”

Morabito focused on keeping his students engaged, as they were usually at home in a comfortable environment.

“Online, you’ve got to have visuals,” said Morabito, who will likely require his students to keep their webcams on next semester. “You can’t be a talking head… I think you have to be a little bit more entertaining online to keep people engaged.”

Professors also needed to stay sharp, and Ferris, who teaches a five-hour class, was surprised by how tiring virtual teaching is.

“It’s more draining,” Morabito agreed. “Especially when you feel like you’ve got to be on all the time. Because there’re no natural pauses online, it’s almost like you don’t get a break.”

To combat fatigue for both themselves and their students, Ferris and Hemeyer increased the frequency of breaks for their classes, while Morabito said he chose to teach straight through his three-hour, 30-student class.

“You really do need a break,” Morabito admitted. “That would have been a great deal better.”

When this unprecedented semester drew to a close and all grades were in the books, Pierpont’s professors claim success.

“The reviews I got for this class were unbelievable,” Hemeyer said. “I was stunned. … I didn’t know how I did.”

Although Ferris had to reorient the class, he said he made sure not to sacrifice any material and feels his students are as prepared as any other semester.

“They’re still paying a lot of money for this MBA, and I didn’t want them to feel cheated,” Ferris said. “Based on how they did on the final exam, I think that’s true.”

In the end, the spring semester was about adapting and persevering. That is exactly what Pierpont’s professors achieved.

“I’ve always known that you just adjust to your conditions, wherever they are,” Morabito said. “You figure out a way to do it, and you make it work.”

Read more about Pierpont’s commitment to education.

About the Author: Jack Holmes is an intern at Pierpont Communications, who provides PR and marketing solutions to clients in energy, healthcare, retail and more. Since joining the Pierpont team in January 2020, he has supported the firm and our clients with efforts in public relations, public affairs, marketing and social media, digital content creation, and crisis management.