Visiting the virtual newsroom

Cristina Jamschek, Programs Director, the Center for Independent Journalism

It’s already old news that the SARS-Cov-2 pandemic has disrupted our lives and raised considerable concerns and debate about education nationwide. Both the public system and private actors engaging in formal and non-formal education were forced to abandon the calm waters of planning, timetables and the familiarity of face to face learning. They plunged to the new reality of remote learning, which claimed a new perspective on access and infrastructure, training, pedagogy and reaching learning outcomes. We, at The Center for Independent Journalism, reconsidered our planned media literacy activities with students and teachers, transposed and adapted our objectives for this year and the following.  We created a new concept, that of a virtual newsroom, where youth and their humanities teachers meet journalists and media experts.  

On March 16, 2020, Romania entered a state of emergency, as a protective measure against the spread of SARS-Cov-2. By then, the schools in Romania had already been closed, on March 11, initially until March 22. The Ministry of National Education postponed the return date several times, only to finally announce, on April 28, that students won’t return to school until fall. 

Still, the education process had to go on and it did. It moved online, initially just as a recommendation from the Ministry of Education and mostly because teachers understood the importance of their intervention in preserving an appearance of normality and routine for their students. The Ministry provided a more concrete path for online formal education only on April 22, more than a month into the forced switch. 

The switch was not easy, primarily because, prior to the pandemic, the online tools had only been tolerated, if not even ignored, while other more traditional classroom approaches were in use and highly valued.  

In terms of access, Internet providers, along with local administrations increased their actions in providing services to local communities and the Ministry of Education promised free devices for 250.000 students from disadvantaged environments (150 million RON, approx. 30 million Euro, to cover expenses until fall. Other for profit and non-profit actors stepped in and provided free devices and Internet services in low-income communities. A start-up even developed its own educational tablet, to be provided to vulnerable children. Still, the number of students with no access to online education remains high and a long-term solution is necessary to ensure education for all. The Ministry of Education estimated the number of students with no access to a device of their own to 250.000, while a study of the research institute IRES put the number at more than 900.000 – 32% of the total enrolled students.  

Even if students and teachers have access to the Internet and computers or other devices, many don’t know how to use the online tools and the issue becomes even stressful when learning shifts to platforms that deliver classes in real-time: manoeuvring video, audio or simply using a program’s chat feature. Students and teachers have been learning on the fly and training, sometimes reciprocally, how to use online tools. Teachers have gone through online courses delivered mostly by non-profits, with two models standing out: The Internet School (Scoala pe Net) and Digital Nation

Also, resources were promoted and other created (digital boards, chats, evaluation tools, apps for synchronous learning etc.), all to come in support of what the digitalization of education should look like. 

Access, basic training and resources are only the first steps. Knowing how to write on an online board or showing a digital presentation is no longer enough. Teaching online is profoundly different than in-classroom instruction and it requires unique skills. The public debate on developing a pedagogy that integrates the use of online tools, with impact on student learning increases these days, with strong voices stating that online learning cannot reach the efficiency of face to face learning and others aspiring at proving its effectiveness. 

At the Center for Independent Journalism, we had our share of uncertainty, learning and adapting. We reconsidered our media literacy program, “Teaching Media Literacy! – Media Education and Culture Lab”, in development for over 3 years now, in partnership with Romanian-American Foundation, and transferred our activities for teachers and students online. 

Since 2017, we have been working on a grassroots approach to media literacy, in cooperation with 92 humanities teachers, who, following intensive training, include media literacy in their usual classes. At the end of 2019, more than 16.000 students benefited from media literacy infused classes. 

Since the pandemic, our plans reshuffled and the accredited media literacy course for Romanian language teachers, initially thought as a face to face one, is set to include an extensive online feature, in order to enable teachers to address media literacy concepts in their students’ learning. We plan to reach more than 1.750 teachers and 175.000 students by 2030.

In the short term, we created a virtual newsroom, open since the beginning of May, where we organize workshops for students and teachers with the participation of journalists and media experts. We are also developing educational materials framed for online environments (videos, infographics, lesson plans for online implementation etc.). 

Diana Oncioiu,

18 meetings for students and teachers have been hosted in the virtual newsroom during May. The context has changed the place and functioning of newsrooms, but it didn’t change the values of journalism, of which we discussed with journalists from the national and local media and experts. Partners in organizing these meetings were humanities teachers across the country.

Fake news and the ways of identifying them, especially when misinformation and disinformation become very subtle, were debated with the young participants, aged between 14 and 19, with plagiarism and media landscape following closely. 

Like probably most of workers in education, we were far from being at ease with remote teaching and learning, with reaching objectives and framing media literacy competencies for the digital environment, and also with negotiating open and closed cameras on Zoom, with virtual raised hands, with chat questions, and overcoming mutual shyness. 

The state of emergency was lifted on May 15, to be replaced by the somehow milder state of alert. At the end of these exceptional circumstances, we come out aware that remote learning will likely be the new normal, but also with the hope and energy that we will successfully educate students in media literacy, because they have our back: “What should an ideal media education program in school look like?”, was the question one of the students left us with. 

The meetings were organized with the support of our partners:

Romanian-American Foundation

Ambasada Statelor Unite ale Americii la București

The project – “Information save lives” – Supporting Journalism through media Literacy in times of Crisis – is funded in part by a grant from the U.S. State Department. The opinions, findings, and conclusions presented in this paper are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Department of State. ”