I believe that the future of journalism education must be about innovation. That’s easy to say, but hard to achieve.
Academic institutions can be more resistant to change than legacy news organizations. Curriculum overhauls can take years. And even the best students are afraid of taking risks that may affect their grades.
So how can we create space for more experimentation in the journalism classroom?
Here are a few things I’ve tried in my decade of teaching undergraduate journalism courses.
Study the Innovators
If I want my students to explore new technology, platforms and storytelling techniques, then they need a steady diet of groundbreaking digital journalism. One way I’ve done this is to use the annual Online Journalism Awards as the one of the primary reading texts in my courses. Each week the students explore examples of award-winning journalism, we discuss and debate, and then I urge my students to imitate the approaches that inspire them.
Encourage Students to Be “Early Adopters”
Whenever a new reporting tool or platform emerges, I urge my students to try it out, and then we discuss the potential and pitfalls of using it for journalism. I don’t care that they become of fan of a particular technology. I want them to realize that they must continually adapt.
Make Space in the Syllabus
Teachers have a tendency to pack as much content into a semester as possible. But experimentation requires time for brainstorming, false starts, and collaboration between students and instructor. Each semester when I’m planning out my syllabus, I make sure to set aside multiple class periods with no lecture or structured activities. Instead, I ask students what they need at that point in the course.
Reward the Risk-Takers
Grades can be one of the biggest barriers to experimentation. Students want to know exactly what is required to achieve a grade and aren’t inclined to try something they haven’t done before. So when it’s appropriate, I build an assessment of risk into my grading rubric. In some cases, an ambitious and imperfect project can earn a higher grade than a safe and well-executed one. I always require multiple drafts and reward those students that revise and revamp.
Challenge Students to Rethink the Campus Newspaper
Like legacy news organizations, campus media outlets have their established traditions, platforms and revenue models. That means they are hard to change, but also the best places for students to innovate. Each semester, I have my students reinvent the editorial workflow of a typical campus newspaper. I ask them to articulate who their audience is, what the audience wants, when the audience wants it, and how they are going to reach them. Then I send students out to try to cover a typical campus story in a totally different way.
Invite Interdisciplinary Collaboration
When engineering and journalism students at my university worked together on sensor journalism projects as part of a 24-hour Hack-a-Thon, they accomplished things I could never have orchestrated in my classroom. I’m always looking for ways to connect journalism students with other disciplines.
I can’t expect my students to innovate if I don’t do the same in my own teaching. Each semester, I try to push beyond my own knowledge and skills. It can be scary and disorienting. And occasionally a lesson plan will bomb, and I crash-and-burn in front of my students. When that happens, I do my best to model an appropriate response to failure. I acknowledge when things don’t go as planned. I articulate what I learned. I restart and try again.