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9 Practical Ways to Foster Innovation in a J-School Classroom

Silhouette of a group of people listening to a lecture. (Photo: Vector illustration by Ellagrin/Getty Images)

The challenge for journalism education is clear: innovate or become obsolete.

In reality, innovation is easy to talk about, but difficult to undertake in a traditional university setting. Academic institutions can be even more resistant to change than legacy news organizations. Curriculum overhauls can take years. And even the most ambitious students are often afraid of taking risks that may affect their grades.

So how can journalism educators create space for more experimentation in the journalism classroom?

From 1999 to 2006, I was fortunate to work as an editor for a groundbreaking, local news website. At a time when some news organizations refused to even link to other websites, we built databases of public information, created interactive games and covered local communities by inviting residents to participate in the process. We distinguished ourselves by trying things that traditional news organizations couldn’t or wouldn’t.

While the news industry has evolved greatly in the last decade, that experimental mindset still guides my approach to teaching undergraduate journalism courses. Here are some practical ways I’ve worked to foster that same kind of innovation in my classroom.

1. Stay Inspired

If I want my students to explore new ways of reporting and telling stories, then they need a steady diet of amazing 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.

2. Identify and Cultivate Audiences

A decade ago, I began requiring my students to create online publications for untapped audiences. Students with limited experience began covering local schools, governments, arts and culture communities, environmental issues, and youth and niche sports. In the process, they learned how to identify what audiences want and how to deliver it to them, as well as how to respond to feedback. This has become a standard practice now, but many of my former students still say it was one of the most valuable experiences in their journalism education.

3. Add Tech to Traditional Reporting

From Facebook to VR, my students are often the first to introduce me to new tools and platforms. My approach is to embrace whatever they are using and challenge them to try to use it in their reporting, not just their personal lives. I incorporate tech into traditional assignments, and we discuss the ethics and potential hazards for journalists. I don’t care whether they become a fan or user of any particular technology, but I do want them to learn the habit of constantly adapting.

Students use technology in the classroom. (Photo: Hero Image/Getty Images)

4. Make Space in the Syllabus

Like most teachers, I have a tendency to pack as much content as possible into a semester. I’m an educator, after all; my job is to impart what I know. However, I’ve also learned that experimentation requires time for brainstorming, false starts and collaboration. So 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, and that space often leads to the most surprising and rewarding interactions.

5. 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 “creativity/risk” into my grading rubric. For example, when I gave an assignment to create a Vox-like explainer, the student who explained Brexit by baking a cake, cutting into pieces, and shooting and editing a stop-motion video earned a higher grade than the one who submitted a PowerPoint presentation. If students understand that an ambitious and imperfect project can earn a higher grade than a safe and well-executed one, then they have more incentive to push themselves. In addition, I regularly require multiple drafts and reward those students who revise and revamp.

6. 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. Eventually, the exercises from class work their way into the editorial process of the student-run publications.

7. Invite Interdisciplinary Collaboration

When engineering and journalism students at my university worked together on sensor journalism projects (using sensors to gather and report journalistic data) 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.

A model for success. (Photo: Zamzum/Getty Images)

8. Model Experimentation and Failure

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.

9. Surround Yourself with Innovators

Since I no longer work in the day-to-day of a start-up news organization, I must continually find concrete ways to keep a forward-looking approach. In my research, I’ve studied experimentation in news organizations, entrepreneurial ventures, and how students embrace new technology. Also through organizations, conferences, local meet-ups, trainings, and online forums, I try to be a student of other journalism educators who are leading the way.

Mark Berkey-Gerard teaches digital reporting and data journalism courses at Rowan University in Glassboro, New Jersey. He was selected as a 2017 Tow-Knight Disruptive Journalism Educator.

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