Coming explosion in e-learning an opportunity to rethink journalism education

The winds of technological change are likely to blow apart educational institutes — and journalism training — and by 2020 universities will likely be quite different than they are today, according to a survey of Internet and education experts released today by the Pew Internet & American Life Project and Elon University.

Of the 1,021 survey participants, 60 percent agreed that “there will be mass adoption of teleconferencing and distance learning to leverage expert resources [and] a transition to ‘hybrid’ classes that combine online learning components with less-frequent on-campus, in-person class meetings.”

This means journalism education will face challenges very similar to the ones faced by the media industry 15 years ago — a disruption in the economic model for schools and a disruption in the content and teaching methods for education.

For some schools, these changes will mean a significantly different curriculum as they try to make programs more affordable and attractive to prospective students. Here’s how the Pew survey overview puts it:

The business of higher education seems to some as susceptible to tech disruption as other information-centric industries such as the news media, magazines and journals, encyclopedias, music, motion pictures, and television. The transmission of knowledge need no longer be tethered to a college campus. The technical affordances of cloud-based computing, digital textbooks, mobile connectivity, high-quality streaming video, and “just-in-time” information gathering have pushed vast amounts of knowledge to the “placeless” Web. This has sparked a robust re-examination of the modern university’s mission and its role within networked society.

According to the survey’s authors, Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet Project, Jan Laren Boyles, Pew Internet researcher, and Janna Anderson, director of Elon’s Imagining the Internet Center, economics are the critical factor driving change, and a reason for the growth of "massive open online courses."

Anderson said in a press release:

Some said in many institutions of higher education "bricks" will be replaced by "clicks" as online courses supplant more-expensive campus-based education ... They said some universities’ influence could be altered as less-expensive options take hold. Those who do not think an online education has as much value worry that it is possible that by 2020 only the rich will be able to afford face-to-face learning and they express concern that low- and middle-income students will have to opt for mass-enrollment courses with automated lessons and tests.

Adopting a hybrid approach for journalism education

The debate over online education is often portrayed as an “either/or” situation: either the classroom or online. However, there is an emerging middle ground that may hold promise – the hybrid model that uses a combination of e-learning and face-to-face mentorship.  Recent studies have shown that model to be as effective as the classroom-only approach.

Melinda Blau, a freelance journalist and author, wrote, “The future will hold both outcomes. It depends on the course of study and the college.”

Such an approach could be a way for journalism programs to show the value of their teaching and mentoring. As Jeff Jarvis wrote:

It simply does not make sense for thousands of educators around the world to write and deliver the same lectures on, say, capillary action—most of them bad. The best can be shared and found. Then, I believe, in-person education becomes more a matter of tutoring…

In many respects, the economic challenge facing universities is an opportunity to rethink what each school does best and allow teachers to focus on working with students. While massive open online courses haven’t hit journalism schools, some professors are bringing experts to their classrooms via Skype.

Florida Atlantic University already is experimenting with that hybrid model as it uses News University’s e-learning module “Introduction to Journalism” for its beginning reporting students. The class instructor, Neil Santaniello, uses the e-learning module as an "interactive textbook." He then meets with students several times during the semester to give them guidance and coaching.

The hybrid approach allows universities to reach more students and provide more individual attention to each one. This approach could hold promise as schools look to reshape their instructional methods and perhaps partner with other schools or training institutes to provide "best of breed" instruction.

A study by a nonprofit think tank, Ithaka S+R, compared two versions of an introductory statistics course, one taught face-to-face by professors and one mostly taught online. It showed that students fared equally well. However, the online students, who had an hour a week of face-time in addition to their e-learning, appeared to learn the material faster.

Feedback is especially important for students learning the craft of journalism, so any method that allows for more feedback could also provide an economic incentive for schools to innovate.

Another reason for J-schools to increase use of digital tools

Technology, not surprisingly, is another major theme throughout the Pew report.

For journalism educators already pushed to learn how to teach their students about new digital tools, the report highlights a new challenge: how to get teachers beyond lectures and PowerPoint slides.

Charlie Firestone, executive director of the Communications and Society program at the Aspen Institute, wrote: “The timeline might be a bit rushed, but education—higher and K-12—has to change with the technology. The technology will allow for more individualized, passion-based learning by the student, greater access to master teaching, and more opportunities for students to connect to others—mentors, peers, sources—for enhanced learning experiences.”

The Pew report also aligns with several articles calling for changes in the way journalism is taught. Both Eric Newton, senior adviser to the president at the Knight Foundation, and I have published articles in the last few months urging universities to rethink their journalism programs.

Newton referred to the “symphony of slowness” that plagues many journalism programs when it comes to changing. With less than eight years until 2020, that's an issue when trying to change academic culture.

In a article, I wrote that the technological forces that changed the media business would transform education and with it, journalism education. Journalism education, I wrote, "cannot teach its way to the future.”

In addition, I said that universities and employers need to look at new ways of rewarding training, including certificates and digital badges. Several of the Pew survey comments picked up on that theme of competency credentialing and certification. Rick Holmgren, chief information officer at Allegheny College, predicted:

Many institutions, particularly large state institutions, will have shifted to competency-driven credentialing, which may not require traditional class work at all, but rather the demonstration of competency.

There may be some debate about how much higher education will change over the course of the next eight years, but not about whether it will change. The university system is being disrupted; journalism educators should show the way.

In the best newsrooms and in the best of times, city editors and others acted as educators of younger journalists. Journalism educators should be ready to reclaim that role.

Autonomy will be shifted away from the sole lecturer in tomorrow’s university classrooms, maintains Bob Frankston, a computing pioneer and the co-developer ... “Ideally, people will learn to educate themselves with teachers acting as mentors and guides."

You can see the methodology details on the Pew site and in the report.

  • Howard Finberg

    Howard has been in journalism for 40 years. His resume includes positions with the Chicago Tribune, The New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle and The Arizona Republic.


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