Notes from the VisCom Classroom: Are Journalism Teachers Failing?

How Journalism Teachers are Failing, and How to Stop It” is the title of a provocative column by Wayne MacPhail on the PBS website MediaShift. MacPhail has worked as a newspaper and magazine journalist, and currently runs w8nc inc., a Canadian marketing and communications company specializing in emerging technology. He also teaches online journalism at the University of Western Ontario and Ryerson University.

The main point of MacPhail’s column is that most journalism teachers are ignoring the “wholesale remaking of the information landscape.” Technology, in the form of smart phones, digital tablets, and applications that package and distribute information, has completely changed the nature of journalism.

All Online, All Wireless

“We are all online, all wireless and all capable of sending video, audio or text anywhere in the world,” MacPhail says. “But, despite that, much of the fundamental (and sometimes final) training we offer journalism students is dished out as if none of it were happening. As if the boulder-sized granularity of the news cycle had not melted in a quicksilver stream.”

Journalism teachers are ignoring this technological revolution, MacPhail says, because they themselves are largely ignorant about it, having grown up with traditional media.

“Many journalism profs, I’d wager, have never used Flipboard, done a podcast, played with Foursquare or Gowalla or have really seriously engaged in an online social community,” MacPhail says. “Nor have they paid attention to the video blogs and online networks that bear as much resemblance to a traditional television studio as a unicycle does to a Hummer.”

Digital Natives, but Not Tech Savvy

The evidence for this gap between what journalism teachers teach and what their students need to know shows up in MacPhail’s own classroom, he says. Despite being so-called digital natives, many of MacPhail’s students are not tech savvy when it comes to the latest online media sites or the requirements of preparing information for the new digital platforms.

MacPhail says his students appear to be locked into the traditional modes of print and broadcast journalism. They don’t seem to realize that the production, transmission, and consumption of information are changing. “The students I see know little if anything of the online world or of emerging media. Their own personal experience extends to Facebook and texting, for the most part.”

The Comfort Zone

The bottom line: journalism teachers have failed their students. The reason? The nature of story and storytelling have been altered forever, MacPhail says, but journalism teachers are afraid to move out of their comfort zone and confront the new media landscape. “They resist changing because they have so little experience of the changed world.”

MacPhail says he is not advocating the layering of course information about new technology on top of a traditional journalism education. The only way to fix journalism education is to change it from the bottom up.

MacPhail’s article comes at a time when many journalism schools are trying to redesign their curriculums for the 21st century. At the University of South Carolina’s School of Journalism and Mass Communications, we have had many hours of discussion on this very topic.

How do we prepare our students for a media landscape whose landmarks are not yet in clear focus?

The Challenges

In addition to our uncertainty about what the future holds for journalism, we face other challenges. The first involves the total number of journalism courses our students take over their undergraduate career.

Our students are required to take 80 general-education credits outside the journalism school. There is a strong impetus to make it possible for students to graduate in four years, which leaves about 40 credits, give or take, of journalism education. That’s about 13 or 14 journalism courses over a four-year span.

One of the hot-button topics for discussion concerns the core curriculum — courses required of all students in the journalism school. How many should there be? What topics should they cover? What core courses are essential if we are to live up to the name of our school?

We are trying to sort this out in an educational environment that is leaning toward more flexibility and choice for our students. Perhaps the core should be more of a menu, where students get to select one from column A, one from column B, and so forth.

The second constraint is the number of in-class contact hours teachers have with their students during the semester. We have 14 weeks of instruction per semester, so a single three-credit course has 35 hours of contact time.

Meeting Learning Outcomes

Think about that for a minute. That’s less than the average person works in one week. And yet we have to try to make sure our students meet all the learning outcomes for the course with less contact time than the number of hours in an average work week.

Obviously, much of the learning at the university level must, by necessity, take place outside of the classroom — through assignments, readings, group projects, and self-directed study.

After I thought about this for a while, I realized that one of the key questions we who teach journalism need to be asking ourselves is this: what’s the best use of those 35 hours? In other words, how do I make sure my students are getting the most bang for their bucks?

And, equally important, what can I reasonably expect my students to learn outside of the classroom?

Seen in this light, perhaps the message of MacPhail’s article can be transformed into one of success, rather than failure.

“We can’t teach skills we lack, offer wisdom about tools we’ve never used nor provide even the most rudimentary opinions of social media experiences we’ve never had,” MacPhail says. I agree, but I would offer this alternative vision.

Becoming Great Storytellers

Journalism is about storytelling. I don’t believe that is going to change—no matter on what platforms those stories appear. So the essence of journalism education is to teach our students to be great storytellers.

In today’s multimedia world, that means they need to know how to use visual images, graphics, typography, design, and audio to tell their stories.

But they also need to know how to find compelling stories, how to research and fact-check them, how to flesh them out with human interest, and how to package them for their various audiences.

So I come back to the 35 hours, but I look at it in reverse. What am I reasonably confident my students can learn outside of class? And what do I think they are going to need our in-class time together to master?

What Will Students Learn on Their Own?

My students are going to pick up the latest technology on their own — I’ll wager MacPhail a nickel on that. And many of today’s new apps and online sites are going to be obsolete by the time my students get out in the “real world.”

What they won’t pick up on their own, I am reasonably certain, is how to become great storytellers. That’s where I come in. That’s the best use of our 35 hours together.

That’s not to say that we don’t teach technology. An informal survey of my colleagues in the Visual Communication sequence turned up about 18 software programs currently in use. We teach still photography, video, graphic design, and Web design—other sequences in the school teach electronic newsgathering, print, broadcast, advertising, and public relations.

Conflicting Demands, and the Old Verities

My colleague, associate professor Ernest L. Wiggins, says we seem to be caught between two conflicting demands: to be “more aggressive” in teaching technology to help our students become better storytellers, and to be more diligent in teaching them to recognize good stories in the first place.

Another colleague, Doug Fisher, senior instructor and author of Common Sense Journalism, sums it up best when he asks, “Can we harness some of the new technology in the service of teaching the old verities?”

If you teach journalism or are a student, please let me know what you think — I’d love to hear from you!

2 Responses to “Notes from the VisCom Classroom: Are Journalism Teachers Failing?”

  1. Great read. The bells and whistles are changing, and dramatically--to the peril of those that don't keep up with it all--but the core storytelling skills stay the same...

  2. My father used to say: "Those who do not know how to work end up teaching"

    I have been teaching and I have directly verified how, although coming from a working background, the two fields are different, you cannot teach your work-skills at school, the truth is not appealing, students need to be motivated, need to be fed a dream and these is what faculties staff have learned pretty well over the years, offering curricula that are quite useless.

    In a recent article for "Internazionale", David Randall, senior editor for the "Independent on Sunday" (London) talks about the working opportunities students coming journalism school may eventually find in this critical era:
    (In Italian)

    The question he highlights is the qualtity of journalism school that have flourished in the last decade and why: easy to build such a course, cheap for the faculty and extremely rewarding for the university.

    On the other hand there is the mere truth: how many will succeed?

    Not many, but not for their lack in knowledge or technical skills, but just because the market is non existant, it has vanished and the available positions are always less, at least the paid ones.

    To reach these, so long sought after, paid positions, you need to be able to work for free for a long time, that means that, in the end, the only ones that will make it are those who have a rich family at their back providing for their daily life necessities.

    The result will be a world who's narrative will be the one of the winner, the counter part, the other voice will hardly reach the media.

    I do not think that knowing how to use an iPad or RSS feeds will ever improve the quality of the story, these are closer to marketing tools or just tools, these are not part of the story to be told, these are distractions that won't help those who are forced to work for free, to get that "paid position" they may have studied for.

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