When COVID-19 swept the nation in March and the VCU School of Business was thrust into virtual teaching, Assistant Professor of Marketing Katie Gilstrap was one of many professors who excelled. She immediately collaborated with a former student to create professionally produced, asynchronous ecourses that enabled her students to thrive – even when faced with inconsistent wi-fi or unique challenges like needing to share their computer with a family member.
This fall, during her first full semester of online learning, she was at it again, staying one step ahead of Zoom/video fatigue, and switching up her curriculum to feature podcasts as an alternate educational resource.
“As we all settled in non-stop, virtual interactions, I found myself gravitating to podcasts when I was walking the dog or folding my laundry,” she explains. “It was a way for me to continue learning in a fresh way. One day it occurred to me, ‘Could this be a way to connect the dots for my students between my course content and what’s happening with the pandemic?’
“VCU gave its faculty the charge to reimagine online learning and find ways to keep the student experience positive,” Gilstrap says. “Everyone is leaning into those possibilities. For me, one outcome is this podcast.
“I reached out to a former student of mine, Sarah Huffman [currently pursuing a B.S. in Mass Communications with a concentration in Public Relations] who had started her own podcast, Non-Trad Undergrad, about her experiences as an older student going back to college. I was hoping she could offer me some advice, but she offered to produce them for me!”
The “Pivoting in the Pandemic” podcast
Students who tune in each week to “Pivoting in the Pandemic,” hear the program’s signature techno background music followed by Gilstrap’s upbeat introduction, explaining that “Over the semester, we’ll bring together marketers, entrepreneurs, executives, designers, makers and creators to start conversations about how the pandemic is shaping the future of business in our community.”
Episodes to date indicate she is delivering on that premise:
“I felt it was important to talk about how what we are going through is affecting the industry and discipline we are studying,” Gilstrap explains.
“I try to keep the podcasts to 15 to 30 minutes,” Gilstrap explains. “Tony Rogers [CMO of Sam’s Club] was so generous with his time and insights and he covered a few topics, so his went a little longer.”
After conducting face-to-face interviews on Zoom, Gilstrap shares the audio with Huffman. “She reviews and edits. Then we organize the content into blocks and produce it together. Finally, she punctuates it with music.
As a result, Gilstrap now deploys “instructional content of the week” – a healthy mix of reading content, video ecourses, assignments and her latest podcast.
She never could have imagined, when creating a podcast exclusively for VCU students, that she soon would be fielding requests to make the podcasts public and getting cold calls from business owners in the Richmond area and beyond, seeking to share their own stories. “The business community wants students to understand what pandemic is doing to marketing,” Gilstrap says.
An upcoming episode will feature one such guest – an executive with Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts. John Taxin, owner of The Old Original Bookbinders restaurant, was another. “He happened to talk to one of my students and reached out, saying he wanted to be a guest. He had a great story to tell about the Richmond’s restaurant industry and how they are evolving and launching a new brand.
“This winter, John is introducing a completely separate ‘all mac and cheese’ company with comfort foods made for the ‘to go’ environment. That one ran a little longer because it was a topic our students have a deep interest in. So many of them work part-time in that industry.”
Gilstrap is encouraged by interest in the podcast and working feverishly to meet demands to make past episodes public. But even more, she remains genuinely touched by the groundswell of support for her program.
“It’s such a great tribute to students like Sarah who want to give back to contribute to the VCU experience. I’ve also been so impressed by the support of local business leaders. The Jefferson Hotel did an episode when they were still figuring out how to reopen! To me, it says a lot about VCU and how much people care about our school.
“It’s this lovely circle of ‘We Are One VCU.’ We’ve all come together to lean into the possibility of what virtual learning can be. I’m just so grateful, excited and inspired by the level of support from students, the business community and alumni. This story continues to tell itself, and it shows what can happen when you take the opportunity to ask, ‘What can this mean for our classes?’ versus ‘Oh no, how can we replicate what we were doing in class and push a square peg in a round hole?’
“VCU is asking ‘What are the possibilities of this type of learning?’ and ‘How can we make this really fun and challenging?’ It’s paid off in so many ways.”