Toward a solution to the more tech in J-school problem

First, lets state some general conditions and agree to them:

  1. There is a generally agreed upon need for tomorrow’s journalists — no matter what area of the craft they intend to go into — to have more technological skill and experience than their past counterparts.
  2. There is not a generally agreed upon way to accomplish this increase in technological skill within a j-school curriculum.
  3. There is not a generally agreed upon list of tech skills that journalism students should/must have before graduating to become a journalist today.
  4. There is a … tension … in newsrooms and faculties over the balance between focusing on reporting/storytelling/fundamental skills and on new technologies for storytelling. Whether you believe this tension is well founded or a not-mutually-exclusive waste of time, it exists and must be acknowledged.
  5. There are a finite number of classes a student can take in any major and the list of skills and tech that have come up at various discussions and conferences vastly outstrips this class hour limit.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. It started with me thinking about what is the technological/computer science answer to Doing More With Less. Ah yes, Doing More With Less, the trite bullshit line publishers trot out after axing half the staff. It is bullshit, but there’s also a legit question there. How could you do more with less, because guess what? There’s less. A lot less. Ignoring that is angrily yelling at clouds. Pointless.

In academia, the do more with less argument isn’t necessarily about less. It’s about an absolute limit. There are only so many credit hours a student can take in their major. In that limit you have to teach, you know, Journalism. Reporting, writing, editing, design, photography, videography, “the basics.” You don’t hear from people anymore arguing that these classes shouldn’t include more tech. For example, traditional print reporting classes are using digital recorders and cameras on smart phones and video cameras and live tweeting to cover stories. J-schools, by and large, have made that adjustment, from what I hear from my colleagues around the country. The classroom reporting classes are trying to mimic the professional experience, and that has meant more tech.

The question, then, is how do you get some of these other emerging ideas into the curriculum? Where does programming fit in? Or mobile design? What about completely out-there ideas that should be getting a test run in a university setting before going out into the broader industry? Like drones? Or sensor networks? Or machine learning? Or algorithm-written stories? How do you fit those into a curriculum many believe is busy enough teaching “the basics”? How do you deal with a not-insignificant number of people who don’t believe any of this should be in the curriculum at all?

My thinking lately?

Don’t. 

Just don’t. Forget the curriculum. Forget classes. Do something outside of class. Create an opportunity that doesn’t have credit hours attached that has value and fire away.

What do I mean by this?

If you’ve been paying attention around these parts lately, you’ll know that I’ve started a Drone Journalism Lab and have just entered the Knight News Challenge with an idea of building sensor networks for news. I get asked regularly, are you going to teach a class in drones or sensors?

Nope.

Couple of reasons for that. First and foremost, I want to be clear that both are just tools. A smartphone is a really great tool for storytelling that opens all kinds of ethical questions about their use. Would you teach a class in smartphones? No, you wouldn’t. That’d be silly. So using a drone to report a story is … slightly more complicated … but similar to using a smartphone to report a story. It’s a tool to tell a story. It’s not a completely new form of story. Might drones end up in other classes? Yep. Count on it. Sensors? Yep, count on it. Are they their own classes? I don’t think so. I can make an argument for them being their own class, but for now I’m saying no.

So what are they? 

Every campus has student media where students take what they learned in class and apply it to doing more journalism. They get more experience. In sports, they’re called repetitions or reps. The more reps you get, the better you get, the more you can do. Students need reps.  But J-school isn’t the only place for this. Other disciplines have students who work in labs as lab techs or research assistants. They get paid, they get experience, they get reps. 

So what if we did this for journalism too?

I called it the Drone Journalism Lab for a reason. It’s going to be a lab. Where students work. And through grants and undergraduate research programs, they’ll get paid to do so.  They’ll get hands on experience with a very interesting technology, get to take part in the research and they’ll get to put it on their resumes. And given the number of news organizations that have asked me about it, they’ll have no trouble finding a job if this all goes according to plan. Number of classes required? Zero.

The Knight News Challenge app? A good portion of the funds requested is to pay students to work on the project. Again, hands on, in the lab, taking part, without course credit on the line. No need for a curriculum committee meeting. No need to fret about what basic skill is going to get short shrift because we’re talking about sensors.

I’ve talked about starting a hacker space here in the college where students could hang out and build stuff. A kind of proto-incubator stage space where students build things they can then take and build a business around. At the time I was thinking about web stuff or Kinect hacks or things like that. But now I’m thinking it could be a whole universe of things. And again, not things in the curriculum.

I have no idea if this is a solution or not, but it seems to solve a lot of problems. It creates some problems — space, funding, resources to name a few, plus how do you measure this for faculty time commitments? I’m sure it causes more problems than that. I just haven’t thought of them yet.

But if you believe J-school needs more tech, and you accept the reality that universities aren’t going to allow us to double the number of credit hours required to get a degree, then these kinds of outside-the-curriculum ideas are part of the future.