This Is (Not) a Test:Adventures in E-Learning
Who knew journalists would respond so quickly to a new form of learning?
Who knew that more than 14,000 journalists, students and educators would register at News University?
To learn more about News University, visit NewsU.org.
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"The Explosive Growth of E-Learning," a NewsU white paper
Who knew they would come from 157 countries?
Not the small band of trainers, designers and producers who created it. Not the folks at The Poynter Institute, which provides a home for this e-learning site. Not the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, which provided the money to start the project. And not me, the guy who directs NewsU.
Everyone had hopes, but nobody really knew what to expect when Poynter's e-learning project launched last year on April 11.
Until recently, the potential of online training for journalists had been a promise unfulfilled. Non-classroom, non-conference settings for journalism training initially were not successful. The training was too costly, or there were issues of technology or time zones. And there were questions about how effective such training could be.
But now, the Internet has changed everything.
More than half of all Americans who are online use high-speed access. And 21 million Americans have turned to the Internet for additional training, according to the Pew Internet & American Life Project.
That's where NewsU comes in. In just its first year, NewsU has used the Internet boom to deliver more than 25 diverse education modules to journalists, students, educators, public relations practitioners and others interested in learning more about the profession. NewsU has international reach, too, with almost one-fourth of its registered users outside the U.S., and with participants in all but about 35 of the world's countries and territories.
To put NewsU's growth in context, The Poynter Institute, during a busy year, can train about 1,500 journalists at its St. Petersburg, Fla., campus. That means offering seminars almost every week and keeping every faculty member busy. That's the top of the training pyramid. Below Poynter seminars are the one- and two-day conferences and workshops, such as the National Writers Workshop. They reach about 5,000 participants.
Poynter also reaches tens of thousands of journalists and others via its Web site and newsletters. Poynter Online, with its broad base and wide reach, is at the bottom of the pyramid. NewsU is in the middle, below seminars and workshops and above Poynter Online. Each aspect of this training pyramid provides a different training experience and serves different training needs.
NewsU's growth to 14,000 users is just one indicator of the site's success -- and of the enormous potential for this type of e-learning. User evaluations show how effectively NewsU-style training is meeting the needs of journalists.
Findings from those surveys show:
- 72 percent said their course content was useful to extremely useful.
- 86 percent said they were likely to participate in another course.
- 72 percent said they would recommend NewsU to a colleague.
- 81 percent said they would use 50 to 100 percent of the course content in their job.
Consider the experiences of Elisabeth Enloe, a second-year reporter with The Port Arthur News in Texas. Her first NewsU course was "The 'Be a Reporter' Game." Pleased with that experience, she moved on to "On the Beat: Covering Cops and Crime."
"Both were great," Enloe told Poynter Online contributor Bob Andelman in a phone interview. "I took them because I wanted to improve my skills. And it's not that I don't want to take courses in person -- I would love to. But it's cost-prohibitive. I'm a new journalist and I've worked for small papers that don't have the budget for professional development. E-learning lets me learn at home without any expense. It's what's available to me now."
A 2004 study about journalism training [PDF], conducted by Urban & Associates Inc. for The Poynter Institute and News University, builds the case that the media industry not only needs greater training resources but also demands them.
"We were surprised at the increased need for training expressed," said Karen Brown Dunlap, president of The Poynter Institute, in an article about the study. "We knew that journalists needed training, but they need it even more than we knew."
The demand is especially high among newer professionals, those with fewer than 10 years of experience.
What stands between journalists and more training?
For many organizations, finding the time to allow journalists to get training is often as difficult as finding the money for travel and tuition.
However, knowing the need and fulfilling it are two different things.
In theory, everybody thinks e-learning is a great thing. In practice, there are lots of e-learning courses that are nothing more than screens of text or a PowerPoint presentation. Course development has been one of NewsU's greatest challenges.
Initially, and without many examples to point to, NewsU producers needed to find the right balance among text, images and interactivity. Producers struggled to get the site's goals across to an already-stretched Poynter faculty and to outside content experts who didn't have any experience with instructional design.
Through trial and error, NewsU established some key principles in the development of courses:
Tightly focused. Rather than a 16-week course about writing better stories, NewsU courses focus on a specific craft skill, such as interviewing or writing better leads.
Short time commitment. A study by Learning Tree International, a national technology and management training firm in El Segundo, Calif., showed that participants are unlikely to complete technical e-learning courses that include multiple tracks and take more than a few hours. NewsU wants to keep its courses short; most take just an hour or two to complete.
Engaging activities. Interactivity is fundamental to NewsU training. Courses use quizzes, games and other interactivity to teach. Participants can assess their skills and they learn from both "right" and "wrong" answers.
Continual resources. Courses include links for additional readings, contacts and other resources that participants can review anytime, whether to refresh their knowledge of a particular skill or to help them with an assignment on deadline.
Melissa G. Baggett will attest to the power of having e-learning available anywhere. She is on a fellowship in Macedonia, teaching English to journalists on an advanced, intermediate and basic level. Baggett uses NewsU courses in two ways.
"I have been using the 'Anatomy of a Newspaper' lesson in my advanced and intermediate classes to give the students an idea of how newspapers are organized," Baggett told Andelman in an e-mail interview. "We used, particularly, the diagrams showing the layout of a newspaper along with some of the vocabulary offered in the glossary of this course. I also had the students examine the mission statements of Knight Ridder and The New York Times in a discussion of the role of the media and we crafted our own mission statements for these classes using the newspapers' missions as models.
"With my other class, we have been using the 'Cleaning Your Copy' lesson." she said. "As you might imagine, for non-native speakers, copy-cleaning is a bit more complicated. I have talked a little about how even though some things are fine in standard grammar, journalistically they are undesirable in most contexts. In this lesson, the most useful parts so far have been the punctuation and grammar sections, particularly as two of these students' weaknesses are run-on sentences and noun/pronoun agreement. We will also be using the 'Get Me Rewrite: The Craft of Revision' lesson, as I think that's useful for anyone writing news copy."
With its first birthday behind it, NewsU is working on a number of different arenas and with a number of partners.
One of the most exciting projects is with the Association of Health Care Journalists. Using a simulation -- similar to that of the popular "Be a Reporter" game -- the "Beat Doctor" will help journalists understand how to cover a hospital from quality-of-service and financial-health bases.
Studies of how adults learn point to simulations as one of the most effective ways to ensure that information is retained. The NewsU simulation engine is being developed so it can be used with other partners.
NewsU and AHCJ are sharing the costs in developing the technology to support this initial effort. NewsU's goal is to design the activities in a way that will allow the reuse of the underlying software code for other simulation exercises. The challenge is funding such development at this point. Discussions are under way to create a "Day in the Life of a Frontline Editor" module in partnership with the Tomorrow's Workforce project.
NewsU will also be developing a module (or two) from the 2006 Best of Photojournalism contest, which will come from a partnership among Western Kentucky University, National Press Photographers Association and Poynter.
Additionally, NewsU is starting conversations around two important fronts:
1. Developing international alliances so NewsU content can be translated into other languages. This, of course, has certain challenges. However, given the right partners and support, this might be an effective way of further assisting journalists in developing countries or in areas of the world that do not have strong journalism training programs.
2. NewsU is thinking about what it will take to grow the site to the next level and how to develop programs that could provide sustaining funding for the project.
In a short period of time, NewsU is becoming an important way to train journalists. It has changed the way e-learning is delivered.
NewsU has changed the conversation about whether e-learning is effective to a conversation about what else can we do to help journalists do their jobs better.