Journalism education cannot teach its way to the future

As we think about the changes whipping through the media industry, there is a nearby storm about to strike journalism education.

The future of journalism education will be a very different and difficult future, a future that is full of innovation and creative disruption. And, I believe, we will see an evolution and uncoupling between the value of a journalism education and a journalism degree.

When we think about the future, there’s not a single future. The future for a 20-year-old is clearly very different than the future of a 60-year-old. Each will bring a very different perspective.

The future of journalism education is linked to the future of journalism itself. Each is caught within the other’s vortex, both spinning within today’s turmoil of change.

The disruption in the economic models of news organizations, rippling out from the United States to Europe and elsewhere, is well documented.

The media industry missed the inflection point when things started to change more than 20 years ago. Media companies have been disrupted by innovation created by others, by new organizations and technology companies.

The media industry did not respond well to these disruptive technologies that took away the economic foundation upon which journalism depended. The industry, as a whole, did not innovate to serve its audiences and missed the opportunity to make important changes.

Journalism education is at its own inflection point.

Whether you are an educator, school administrator, run a training center or are just interested in journalism, this is a critical time for journalism education, as critical as it was for media industry 20 years ago.

Without a robust future for journalism education, it is harder to see a robust future for journalism. And that’s bad for democracy and for citizens who depend on fair and accurate information.

We have learned that media companies cannot cut their way out of the disruption in the economic models.

Journalism education cannot teach its way to the future.

Just as media companies needed to innovate, so must journalism education. We need to innovate inside the classroom with new forms of teaching.

Frankly, it is unfair to pick on just journalism education. The turmoil is underway across educational institutions, and that includes nonprofit and for-profit schools. It is happening at the grade school level, in high school and at colleges and universities.

Education is being disrupted by the same technology innovation that turned the media business upside down and inside out.

Of course, the academy has multiple purposes.

There’s research and scholarship.

There’s socialization, helping students operate independently.

And then there’s the formal education and training of students.

It is this student education and training where I see the potential for the biggest disruptions.

One possible future will see the unbundling of a journalism education from a journalism degree.

Think about the unbundling of news and information from the traditional mass media delivery methods, such as a newspaper or television broadcast.

In the past, the economic value these delivery methods provided was the distribution of a scarce product, the news.

In much the same way that there was an economic model based on scarcity in getting the news, there’s a societal and economic model based on the scarcity in getting an education and degree.

A college degree, because it is offered to a limited number of individuals, provides a means to differentiate applicants in the hiring process. While there was the assumption that a journalism degree meant a quality journalism education, there was no guarantee.

There was scarcity – not every school had a journalism program and fewer schools had an accredited program. These programs are based on a delivery method rooted in “custodial education,” which is teacher-focused.

If you are a teacher-focused institution, you are less likely to disrupt your core audience, which is the faculty. Eric Newton at the Knight Foundation refers to this as a "symphony of slowness."

This scarcity is also true for journalism training organizations that are forced to limit the amount of training based on costs or seats in a seminar room.

However, technology, mostly the Internet, is changing how we learn.

Technology is providing new forms of teaching and new ways of delivering an effective educational experience.

Technology will create a student-focused culture, in much the same way technology has created a more customer-focused media industry.

In much the same way that news became available whenever a reader/viewer/user wanted it via online and mobile devices, so will education.  Students can go to school -- or go back to school -- online without having to really go anywhere.

So why haven't things changed already?

In recent years much has been written about the coming disruption in education. Today, those promises of change are starting to whip around universities and colleges the same way they started battering media companies 20 years ago.

The constraints of today’s journalism education system do not reward innovation.

They provide students with less opportunity to get the best education and instead force students to pick courses based on the available seats in “classrooms” and not from the best teachers in the world.

There are also economic challenges facing the academy: less funding from traditional sources and less public support.

There are academic challenges: the world is changing faster than the people who are supposed to teach students can learn themselves.

And while there’s always been a disconnect between the media industry and academic community, the fault lines, I believe, have widened.

How important is a journalism degree?

To look at this question I surveyed more than 1,975 professionals and professors.

About 42 percent of the respondents were from the academic community.

About 34 percent were from media organizations and about 11% were independent or freelance workers. The rest were students.

When asked about how vital a journalism degree is in understanding the value of journalism, 95 percent of academics said it was “very to extremely important.”

Slightly more than half (56 percent) of professionals said "very to extremely important."

This is a gap of almost 40 points.

When questioned about the value of a degree when it came to equipping students with the skills or abilities in news gathering, editing and presenting the news, the gap is just as wide:

  • 96 percent of academics said that a degree was "very to extremely important" to learning skills
  • 59 percent of professionals said "very to extremely important."

We’ve known for a while there’s been a difference of opinion about the value of a journalism degree. Today, the gap looks more like a canyon.

What will it take for educational institutions to deal with the disruptive innovation that is here today and will get more challenging in the future?

We need to look for new ways to teach the values and skills of journalism so they are relevant to today’s media world.

What's working

It is an opportunity and challenge for journalism training institutions to re-imagine the way the reach their audience, the way they teach their students and the way they measure success.

We need to encourage more ways of teaching, using all potential delivery means possible -- lecture, video, online, self-study and guided learning.

One innovative example is the massive online courses being offered by Stanford. For example, when the university offered a Machine Learning online class, 104,000 participants registered, with 13,000 completing the course.

Sebastian Thrun, one of the pioneers in the “massive online course” movement, taught an artificial intelligence course for which more than 160,000 signed up, for free. It was so exciting that it created its own culture, including a Facebook group, online discussions and volunteer translators who made it available in 44 languages.

“Having done this, I can’t teach at Stanford again,” Thrun said at a digital conference in January, according to a story in The New York Times. “I feel like there’s a red pill and a blue pill, and you can take the blue pill and go back to your classroom and lecture your 20 students. But I’ve taken the red pill, and I’ve seen Wonderland.”

And this form of training works.

Poynter recently completed an "Introduction to Journalism" program at three U.S. schools. Each Poynter faculty member shared his or her expertise in this 16-week program.

While most of the program was online, one school, Missouri State University, provided mentoring or face-time to the students during the 16-week program. Missouri State also taught the same subjects via the traditional classroom method.

We tested both groups, the online and the classroom students, before the term began and after the course work was finished.

The e-learning group, with its hybrid approach, learned as well if not better than MSU classroom groups.

A new 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. The online module had only an hour a week of face time.

Researchers found these students fared equally well in both formats on every measure of learning.

The only difference: The online group appeared to learn faster.

These new ways of teaching are disrupting the education industry.

The students raised online get it. The students raised on e-learning get it.  More than one-third of U.S. college students are currently enrolled in an e-learning course. That number will keep growing.

What's next

A new report by the U.S. Department of Education showed about 53 percent of public school districts allowed high school students to enroll in distance learning courses. During this academic year, about 1.3 million of them used distance learning, compared to only 300,000 five years earlier.

Even students who haven’t taken a formal online course are using informal e-learning, such as the thousands of video tutorials on hundreds of subjects on YouTube.

There are even new businesses developing around innovative ways of teaching, such as the Khan Academy.

Today’s students and even young adults will come to expect education that is innovative.

These students will come to expect education that is not custodial.

The world is full of people who want to write better, who want to tell stories better, who want to share their experiences. These are potential journalists, whether they have a degree or not.

One innovation that might serve journalism education is the "digital badge" movement. Digital badges represent skills or other competences.

The MacArthur Foundation, a supporter of this educational concept, says a digital badge could be a “validated indicator of accomplishment, skill or interest.”

The University of California at Davis' sustainable-agriculture program is built upon digital badges that measure core competencies rather than the standard three-credit courses.

Digital journalism education badges could not only show formal training but capture the informal learning, such as workshops attended, awards won, special projects completed.

This is about mastery of skills rather than specific classroom work. And it is goes beyond a portfolio of work.

This is a radical, disruptive, innovative concept.

The badge movement is based on the idea that people should have a way to gather useful, verifiable evidence of everything they have learned, not just show that they sat through a class at a college.

I believe the digital badge movement needs to be nurtured and promoted.

More important and immediate, journalism training organizations should come together and embrace this new way of rewarding participation in quality education, regardless of how and where it is received.

I hope that all of the world’s journalism training organizations can find a way to help participants share their accomplishments, regardless of who provided the training.

We need more people "schooled" in journalism, not fewer.

We need more ways to instill the values of good journalism regardless of the platform or medium. It shouldn’t matter whether you work for a company or for yourself.

Journalism education is at an inflection point.  We are at the point at which we need true educational innovation. Some will do this. Others will be left behind.

It is time to seize the future.

This article is adapted from a speech given the the European Journalism Centre's 20th Anniversary conference in Maastricht, The Netherlands. The full text of the speech is available at Access, the blog for Poynter's News University.

You can watch the video of Howard Finberg's speech about the future of journalism education to the European Journalism Centre 20th Anniversary conference.

  • 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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