The lyrics of the theme song for “Zootopia” stick, in repeat mode, in my brain. Is it the curse of parenting young children who like animated animals? Perhaps. But in the same way that kids repay us with untarnished insights about how the world should work, Shakira’s Try Anything also seems to be sending me an uncannily appropriate message as I write a post about journalism, education and innovation:
“I won’t give up, no I won’t give in
Til I reach the end and then I’ll start again
No I won’t leave, I wanna try everything.
I wanna try even though I could fail
I won’t give up, no I won’t give in”
For those who believe, broadly, in journalistic mission and the role of journalism educators in finding new ways to fulfill a vital service, a willingness to fall down and dust oneself off again now goes with the territory. Journalism is messy. Trying to teach it these days is even messier.
Over the last few years I’ve felt a growing disconnect between the aptitudes and skills we want to cultivate in young journalists and what we can actually cover within curricular, institutional, attention and time constraints. Most days I can easily find a new media project that inspires and provides hope for the marriage of journalistic storytelling and technology. However, producing these kinds of original, critically sound, engaging, graphically pristine, divinely designed interactive narratives, is exceedingly challenging in many environments and downright rare in the output of a university journalism program. To be sure, these goalposts are not necessarily realistic or expected, but the gap between what we see going on out there in media innovation land can be discouraging.
Embracing the Inner Luddite and Collapsing Silos
I take heart though from the examples of innovation and change and training that we read about here at EdShift.
Tom Rosenstiel of the American Press Institute talks about journalism as collaborative intelligence. These days, more than ever, teaching also fits this description. I faithfully make an annual pilgrimage to the Poynter Institute to attend Teachapalooza. The event features the best and brightest in the field of journalism education. Educators roll up their sleeves to share their challenges and victories and together we hammer out ways we can elevate ourselves, our students and, by extension, journalism. I remember sitting at a Teachapalooza workshop in 2013 led by Robert Hernandez of the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. He spoke passionately about making the classroom a sandbox, an environment for experimentation and playfulness. That talk planted a seed. It made me want to get some shovels and buckets and start working my own little patch of sand.
My response to what I saw as a curricular gap was to do something that mildly terrified the Luddite in me – create a course that would see students work on higher-level multimedia pieces, the kind with the bells and whistles and depth that often felt beyond reach. With optimism and zeal, I launched a six-week summer pilot course called Advanced Topics in Multimedia.
The course was an attempt to break down the pervasive academic silos of information technology and journalism. For the first time, we offered a credit that was open to senior undergraduates and graduate students in both the Bachelor of Journalism and the Bachelor of Information Technology. I hoped to attract 15 to 20 students to the pilot class and ended up with 33 students, a testament, at least in part, to some of the students’ interest in a new approach to multimedia storytelling and a desire to push boundaries. Most students from both programs had just finished their third year of undergraduate study. Some of them were attracted to the course for practical reasons. A summer credit would allow them to free up some timetable space in their graduating year.
Students worked in small teams of five or six members, at times engaging in peer-to-peer teaching. They were tasked with producing web-based, interactive projects on a particular issue that they had to research and focus. Class enrollment worked out in such a way that most teams had four journalism students and two information technology students.
Attendance and engagement in the course were high, and students, many of whom had just met, worked well together. As one Bachelor of Information Technology student wrote in a final blog post reflecting on the class:
“Overall, the collaborative experience was very enriching. Working in a group with six people has it difficulties, but is an extremely valuable experience. There is always something you can learn from everyone. I think this class should definitely continue again next year because this is a quickly emerging field, combining technology and design with journalism.”
A New Kind of Teamwork: Journalism and Information Technology Students
Students were also positive about the fact that this collaborative course was an experiment and brought that spirit of openness and adaptability to their work. Many teams headed out together to do interviews, video and photography for their projects. Some information technology students were directly involved in conducting the interviews and in figuring out some of the editorial aspects, including the storyline, of their projects.
The journalism students were involved in many of the design decisions and in articulating their ideas on how they wanted the sites to work (even as they were learning the vocabulary to do so). Together with a sessional lecturer from the information technology program, we attempted to facilitate the transmission of some technological and journalistic skills (basic coding, animated GIFs, Photoshop editing, interviewing, writing, ethical decision making, etc.) by designing an assignment in which students made tutorial modules for each other.
Two projects were considered standouts, earning acclaim from industry experts (design and journalism) invited to view the students’ work on the final night of class. One of these projects tackled the one-year anniversary of a tragic bus-train collision that rocked Ottawa and affected many communities, including my university. Two of our students died in that crash. The team that worked on this project sought out stories of survivors on the bus as well as the families and friends of those who died in an attempt to better understand the widespread impact and ramifications.
Our city’s major daily newspaper, the Ottawa Citizen, ran a story about this project and the pilot course. Another project that attracted praise from our industry panel was a piece about the evolution of intentional communities, focusing on a farm in northern New York.
There were bumps along the way as students tried to figure out how and what to contribute in this new environment. Their innovations came with struggles.
Part of the interest in taking the course stemmed from the fact that it was held in the summer and it was condensed, taking place over six weeks rather than the usual 12. In retrospect, this timeline was too tight for the kind of work we all wanted to see happen. Many students were working full-time at either co-op placements or other kinds of summer jobs that created even more of a time crunch as some groups found it difficult to meet and get work done outside of class. A lack of time also affected the teaching modules. While they could be of longer-term benefit and a legacy of a course like this, we weren’t able to follow up and provide a robust outlet for students to apply and test what they had learned.
In the end, we also needed more time to develop the stories, plan the content and design and construct the projects. In terms of the work that was completed and shown to a panel of journalists and designers on the final evening of the course, some projects limped to the finish. In part, this stemmed from poor time management by students who underestimated the journalistic, design and programming work involved in mounting the high-quality projects we all hoped for. The real and sometimes unforgiving world of time management intersected sharply with the classroom, a phenomenon that plagues most of our courses but which also serves as important life lessons for all of us.
Expanding Our Digital Vocabulary and Vision
I discovered, only as the course was concluding, that there were limitations created by the composition of the groups. Some faced major challenges because there was uneven distribution of design and program expertise. Some groups said they found that they had mostly designers and, when it came to building the sites, they felt they didn’t have the requisite expertise (for example, with coding) to mount the projects to their satisfaction. Unfortunately, this appeared to directly affect stress levels and the quality of some projects. Equally unfortunately, students didn’t identify this as an issue until the end of the course. As a newcomer to the information-technology student population, this wasn’t on my radar.
If I taught this course again, I would also find a way to get journalism students to come to the table with more developed and feasible story ideas. This would allow work on design and programming to start earlier. Alternatively, if the instructors assigned specific topics from the start, encouraging students to find a focused story within this topic, we could save considerable time and angst and allow the students to get started on their projects more quickly.
Realistically, we are not going to train Bachelor of Information Technology students to be journalists with one half-credit course. Nor are we going to turn young journalists into web designers or programmers. But those are actually not the goals of this kind of collaboration. What we’re talking about is contributing to the evolution of the media, increasing understanding of the potential of online platforms and tools and the contribution of emerging designers, programmers and journalists to both processes and products.
The intent of a course like this is for students to become more aware of the editorial and technological tools that exist, to acquire additional skills in both areas and, above all, to acquire an aptitude for continuing to learn and innovate as these tools inevitably change. If we enable students to progress with more confidence in producing multimedia stories with both editorial substance and technological panache then this initiative will be a success.
There are several journalism programs in North America currently grappling with how to reshape their curriculum and their mandates to better serve their students. Some universities are launching entirely new programs that combine information technology and journalism.
Leveraging and expanding our respective skillsets
The course I launched, albeit a small step, is a response to this debate and is an attempt to find out what is needed and what is possible. It may not be the kind of large-splash initiative that many university administrators currently crave, but I would argue that even small ripples can run deep, and some of the best marriages emerge from partners who are different but whose interests and strengths are complementary. While there were challenges in the pilot course posed by divergent cultures and curricula in each department, I believe we can learn from what we achieved and apply these lessons to leveraging and expanding our respective skill sets.
There has been lots of talk about the movie Zootopia and what the movie is really about. Its attempt to tackle simmering societal divisions in new ways has churned up controversy. The process of making the film also attracted attention. The people who behind the film did something unusual by halting production and re-writing the narrative even after it had already been in production for a couple of years. The filmmakers realized their choice of protagonist wasn’t working. They were off focus. The story needed to be led by the rabbit rather than the fox.
Perhaps we need to look at Zootopia, its theme song and also its process as a metaphor. In many ways it represents the trial and error, backward and forward jostle that now represents the best of journalism and its complex evolution. Shakira’s lyrics might actually be a welcome accompaniment for the work ahead.
Kanina Holmes is an associate professor in the School of Journalism and Communication at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. She recently won a Carleton Teaching Achievement Award to create an experiential learning course for young journalists in Canada’s far North. She credits the Poynter Institute and its annual event for journalism educators, Teachapalooza, as one of her inspirations for innovation.