What e-learning can teach us about journalism

The Poynter Institute’s e-learning project, News University, is celebrating its eighth birthday today. In digital years (three times faster than analog), that makes us about 24; old enough to know better but still young enough to have lots of fun learning new things.

In the eight years since the Knight Foundation gave Poynter funding to build an e-learning site for journalists, journalism students and anyone interested in better journalism skills, we have learned a few things about effective online teaching. And we have learned that many of these lessons can apply to journalism.

Here are eight lessons from e-learning that can apply to journalism and journalists.

1. Every participant/reader is different. We started NewsU with an assumption that we would reach one type of journalist (someone early in his or her career in a newsroom) with one kind of training approach. We learned that there isn’t a single e-learning course that fits all journalists. This matters to journalism, too. There isn’t a single storytelling approach that will fit all of your readers, viewers and users. Tell stories (and teach) in a variety of ways and you’ll reach all kinds of audiences.

2. Engagement matters. It is very difficult to create online teaching that is engaging. But if you don’t engage your audience, it will disappear. So we’ve developed all kinds of small engagement devices in our courses to keep our participants actively involved in what we are teaching. Journalists who engage with their readers, viewers and listeners will keep them coming back for more.

3. Clear learning/story objectives are important. Any e-learning project that doesn’t have clear, focused learning objectives isn’t going to succeed. The teaching will be muddled and disconnected. If more journalists took a few minutes in their newsgathering process to clearly outline what they want to communicate, stories would be better and clearer.

4. Interactivity is essential. Want to create boring e-learning? Just have pages and pages of text or just video of a teacher lecturing. Boring. All of NewsU’s e-learning courses have some kind of interactivity because we know that people learn by doing. This is so essential to our courses that we often hold “interactivity brainstorming” sessions with our staffers and course authors to design these elements. Journalists need to find the time to brainstorm their interactivity elements. Make it part of the process. Your readers and viewers will thank you for helping them understand.

5. Measure what you do. It matters to us to know what works. So, we find ways to measure the learning. Journalists can find ways to learn whether their stories mattered, too. Did readers respond? What’s the retweet count? How about Facebook likes? What you measure may vary, but having the discipline to measure and act upon the results is key to having more successful stories.

6. Listen, listen and, oh yea, listen. One of the reasons NewsU’s e-learning project has been successful is its commitment to read every question and comment from its audience. It takes time and energy, but it’s an investment in learning what’s working. Journalism, for too long, has ignored feedback from its audience. While that’s changing, making the commitment to listen can pay dividends.

7. Don’t assume; ask. Developing effective e-learning modules at Poynter has taught us to ask lots of questions to develop the teaching content. We “interview” our subject matter experts [course authors] so we can get the knowledge out of their heads and into our courses. We can’t assume the students will know foundational concepts and ideas. That means making sure there’s a way to provide background information. Journalists too often assume readers/viewers have followed the story closely. Don’t assume. Make sure everyone can learn/enjoy your story.

8. Have fun. The world is too serious. We try to put fun into e-learning, when appropriate. We try not to take ourselves too seriously. Journalism should be fun. Find ways to make your audience smile.

How do we know these strategies work? We’ve got numbers and feedback (see tip no. 5). In eight years, we’ve grown from a handful of courses to a full online curriculum of almost 300 e-learning modules with 250,000 registered users.

Try a few of these approaches with your stories and tell us what you think (see tip no. 6). Even better, come over to Poynter NewsU and renew your journalism skills or learn something new.

Howard Finberg was the creator of Poynter News University. He is now the institute’s director of training partnerships and alliances and trying to use tip no. 8 in his work.

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  • King-Stanley-Krauter

    Poynter editors should be embarrassed by this column. There is an endless supply of evidence that journalism is ineffective because reporters are not communicating like a teacher. So the statement in step 5 “It matters to us to know what works” is pure propaganda. For example,the pre-recession journalism on subprime mortgage fraud and the housing bubble was both prescient and ignored by politicians, regulators, and voters. And Frontline on PBS did an excellent documentary on the Justice Department’s refusal to investigate potential crimes committed by bankers at the highest levels. But when Attorney General Eric Holder said that some banks are too big to prosecute, nothing happened. However, no one in the journalism profession is interested in communicating like a teacher by publishing an annual one week review of events and conditions that would work like the remedial education classes that students go to during the summer if they have flunked any of their classes. Which is badly needed in America. Consider another statement in step 5. “So, we find ways to measure the learning.” I can do that just by listening to comedians and conservatives on talk radio doing man on the street interviews among people standing in line to vote. There is an abundance of voters who don’t even know basic facts of how our government is structured. More objective surveys by the news media have repeatedly shown that most Americans are too ignorant to vote. Do the editors at Poynter overlook this fact by being happy that almost fifty percent of Americans don’t vote? Even though most Americans don’t take notes when they read a newspaper or listen to a news broadcast, which is not a good study habit that is conducive to becoming an informed voters, a teacher would be fired if her lectures were as disorganized as the events that reporters must investigate. So most of the hard work by reporters is being forgotten as white noise. Why don’t reporters care that their hard work is ineffective. Which leads me to label as propaganda another statement made in step 5. “Journalists can find ways to learn whether their stories mattered, too.”. Apparently the author of that statement has never thought about the political dynamics of our tax laws. There has been an endless supply of news media articles on the tax code and everyone agrees that it should be reformed. But it continues to get more complicated every year until it is impossible to avoid reforming. Then after the reforms are done, i.e., the 1986 tax reforms, the political dynamics will immediately start corrupting it with exemptions for the most powerful special interest groups. However, no one at the Poynter club is interested in how this dynamic could be stopped by reporters who were willing to communicate like a teacher.