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Australian Journalism Education Fueled by International Collaboration, Field Experiences

RMIT (Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology) graduates march through Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Luis Enrique Ascui/Getty Images)

The byline of the article caught my eye: “Reporting from Pakistan.”

As a Pakistani settled in Melbourne, I was baffled. How could this Australian university-run news website have special reports from Pakistan? RMIT Senior Lecturer Alexandra Wake, a participant in my research project on trends in Australian journalism education, explained it was the product of an international collaboration between RMIT University (Melbourne, Australia), University of Peshawar (Peshawar, Pakistan), and University of Stanford (Stanford, Calif, USA).

International collaborations like this one, as well as those with indigenous groups and across various regions of the country, are driving Australian journalism education right now. Additional key shifts include an emphasis on entrepreneurship, adaptation to a changing industry and a focus on indigenous cultures, all of which help students build connections in a global society.

How International Collaboration Worked

The students from Melbourne and Peshawar had a joint classroom via Skype and worked together on news stories. As a first-year course, the stories weren’t that refined, but the learning that happened was steep, and not just in regard to news reporting skills.

“The students were confused what a tea man was doing serving tea in the classroom,” Wake said, laughing.

More than surface cultural differences, the students also learned how difficult simple things can be in a different region. Even for Wake, who has worked in the Middle East, gaining a deeper understanding of regional issues was eye-opening.

She recalled approving a student’s story proposal on polio immunization by mutual consent from her counterpart in Peshawar, Altaf Khan. Shortly thereafter, she learned that Pakistani social health workers had been targeted by the Taliban. Covering stories about immunization wouldn’t exactly have been safe.

According to Wake, Australian students learned a lot about the socio-political culture of Peshawar and the geopolitical situation of Pakistan. They also became aware of the difference in news reporting in Melbourne and in Peshawar. Furthermore, they developed ties with journalism students in Pakistan, contributing to their understanding of the world and perhaps providing them with more empathetic and rationalized perspectives.

Expanding Collaborative Learning Opportunities

In the past five years or so, other interesting collaborative learning projects have happened in Australian journalism education. Perhaps the largest of these is UniPollWatch project.

It was developed and facilitated in 28 Australian universities, and the main theme was coverage of Australian federal elections in 2016. Participant academics had flexibility to select their own student cohort, and then developed their own project design and assessment evaluation. The result was a plethora of student journalism stories from different parts of Australia. These stories came from students at different levels, using different kinds of writing and platforms, with different takes on the election.

As an example of extensive collaborative learning, this project, like others, included the compulsory elements for journalism in the contemporary job market: writing, data collection, interview techniques, building relationships with sources and use of technology.

An Emphasis on the Entrepreneurial, Indigenous

A digital-era addition to this classic skill set is entrepreneurship. Since 2012, there have been approximately 3,000 journalism job cuts in Australia, so knowledge of developing marketing plans, attracting target audiences and budgeting are essentially survival tactics. There is a constant struggle with a lack of job security, and journalism academics understand students need entrepreneurial skills to be successful in the field.

Most of the Australian journalism programs now have embedded training for entrepreneurial skills in their teaching, and as Peter English (University of Sunshine coast, Queensland) aptly put it: “We try to prepare them for what’s going to happen in newsrooms, but we also give them skills that would help them if they don’t end up in newsrooms.” Like most of his colleagues, English has extensive field experience and understands the importance of providing lifelong, employability skills to students, especially those that extend beyond classrooms on campus.

Students at The University of Melbourne work on campus in the Baillieu Library. (Photo by: Jeff Greenberg/UIG via Getty Images)

Field trips that use entrepreneurial skills, both national and international, are limited for students, but they are significantly instructive. Kayt Davies at Edith Cowen University has been involved in organizing field trips to regional Australian communities like Onslow, Kimberley and Kununurra. These trips often target areas with indigenous populations. For students, this learning is more intensive as they are in a different environment. I can visualize a group of young city dwellers, being challenged by trying to find a story in a hot, dusty, country town full of strangers.

Davies agreed: “This teaching is about how to enculturate people into being somewhere unfamiliar but behaving respectfully, without gawking or gossiping about the people.” She mentions that students work with integrity, make friends and work their way through community. This has allowed her projects to gain trust within these regional townships over time.

Similarly, Saba Bebawi (UTS, Sydney) and Andrew Dodd (formerly at University of Swinburne, Melbourne) have been taking students on a foreign correspondent study tour since 2015. Their students travel to the United Arab Emirates and Jordan to cover stories.

These are just a few examples from a growing number of such journalistic study trips. According to Dodd, if “you can write, and you can create a picture, and you can structure an argument, and you can record an interview and package stuff and put it on social media and you can find an audience, you are employable.”

Preparing Students for Practical Possibilities

In my conversations with Australian journalism academics, I am struck by their sincerity toward equipping students with practical options for an uncertain industry. Initiatives for collaborative learning and field trips are time consuming.  They require extensive planning, unaccounted extra workload, much preparation, proper funding and the ability to ensure student security in places which might not be comfortable. In spite of these challenges, Australian journalism education continues to evolve and prosper in these areas.

I suspect the adrenaline rush from such modes of teaching is quite powerful.

“It was a magnificent class. I left that class each week on a high note,” Wake said about her joint teaching class.

That is exactly what a teaching philosophy should be: first, ensuring that you and your students are efficiently learning what is needed; second, ensuring that all involved understand the goal; and third, that all learners are being fueled by such a vital purpose.

Wajeehah Aayeshah is a curriculum designer at the Curriculum Design Lab (Faculty of Arts) at The University of Melbourne and a self-described academic geek who loves traveling, photography, drinking tea and collecting stories. When she isn’t busy working on her research, she likes writing articles and short narratives. As a Pakistani Muslim living in Melbourne, Australia, her perspective comes from intricate and diverse cultural experiences. Feel free to contact her at wajeehah@gmail.com or @waj_aay.

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