How universities can sneak digital innovation into journalism curricula

par James Breiner
30 oct 2018 dans Journalism Basics

A few years ago, I was on a team designing a master's degree in digital journalism. The university required that we propose three areas of research for the professors in this program to pursue.

One subject area we proposed was new business models for news. Another was the use of social networks in distribution of news. I forget the third. All three were rejected by the university's academic authority because they were not on the list of approved areas of research, and it appeared that we could not launch the program.

However, we appealed to the vice chancellor, who persuaded the academic authorities that an innovative university program could (and should) include areas of research not on the approved list.

Outside the curriculum

You have to be a little sneaky to innovate in a 1,000-year-old institution like a university. The system rewards academic authority built on systems of peer reviewed publication. You might not be able to get the curriculum changed quickly enough to take into account all of the digital disruption going on.

The theme of the inflexibility of university curricula came up repeatedly in Bristol during a meeting of professors and students participating in an entrepreneurial journalism program in England, Spain, Portugal, and Finland. The CreBiz program, sponsored by the European Commission, aims to help students in creative fields find models for establishing their own businesses.

All the examples of entrepreneurial journalism courses we heard about took place outside the standard course structure. One colleague mentioned the necessity to sneak the theme into existing courses rather than trying to get an entire course approved by university authorities.

Jonathan Dovey, professor at the University of the West of England, told the group of his experience pairing universities with businesses in the creative industries to help them solve a problem. It is difficult to align the timelines of academia (years) with those of businesses (months), Dovey said, but in three years there have been successes.

The program -- Research and Enterprise for Arts and Creative Technologies -- has launched 56 business prototypes that generated £1.9 million of initial investment and attracted £350,000 of follow-on investment. The intellectual property developed goes to the business. "Universities are not that good at commercializing the creative economy," he said.

Situation in the U.S.

As it happens, the topic of innovating in journalism schools is a hot one in the U.S. PBS Education Shift, an excellent source for digital innovation, this week it carried a post byMichelle Ferrier, associate dean for innovation at Ohio University, on How to Use a Hackathon to improve entrepreneurial teaching methods.

Education Shift also linked to a post by Sarah Bartlett, dean of the graduate school of journalism at the City University of New York,  who pointed out how difficult it is to keep the curriculum fresh while satisfying the authorities that accredit programs.

Her thoughts were part of a Knight Foundation report that made three recommendations:

  • Establish a digital-first academic startup, the educational equivalent of the ProPublicas, FiveThirtyEights and Vox Medias of the news-and-information marketplace.

  • Leverage the disciplinary expertise of the full-time faculty while creating new delivery structures for skills-based learning.

  • Create a mission-specific accreditation process for programs that define as their core mission the preparation of 21st-century journalists.

In other words, universities need to bring in some industry professionals who don't have Ph.Ds. to complement their existing staff. And the systems for accreditation need to recognize that journalism programs have to be more future-oriented and less traditional. They need to emphasize a "digital first" mentality.

Sounds logical and simple. But universities have unwieldy structures that make it hard for them to compete with the thousands of nimble for-profit and nonprofit organizations that are offering journalism training.

For example, many working professionals who want to stay current with new technologies opt for free or low-cost courses offered at convenient times and locations, which often means online. At the moment I am one of the instructors in such an online course offering through the University of Texas. The course is in Spanish, and close to 200 have signed up, from Spain, the U.S., Latin America, and other countries. The course costs $95 and lasts five weeks, both considerably less than a standard university course.

Universities are being digitally disrupted just as the music, movie, newspaper, book, and television industries have been. It is very difficult for the legacy industry to respond to these digital challenges. But respond they must.

James Breiner is a former ICFJ Knight Fellow who launched and directed the Center for Digital Journalism at the University of Guadalajara. Visit his websites News Entrepreneurs and Periodismo Emprendedor en Iberoamérica.