There’s no intrinsic reason why organized journalism education shouldn’t lead — rather than merely reflect — what’s happening in the world of communications. Yet this passive “mirror” status cries out for transformation.

Of course, not everyone sees J-schools as reflective entities. For years, editors worldwide have complained that the schools don’t in fact reflect the mainstream media enough. J-teachers are blamed for a shoddy supply of new cogs to the newsroom machines.

The industry’s assumption has been that it knows exactly what’s needed; that it’s the J-schools that need changing. Educational institutions, in this view, should be service providers to the status quo, generating graduates who can do “the job.”

In a nutshell, this perspective condemns J-schools as generally lagging behind; as falling short of what they are “supposed” to be doing. It’s a model of J-education “manqué.”

The other side of the coin is avant-garde J-teachers who regard the industry as endemically conservative, and whose innovative work qualifies graduates with a mindset that’s out of synch with restrictive newsroom practice.

For industry, this is a model of J-teachers as irritants rather than disappointments. From the J-educator side, however, it’s the industry that’s the problem and in need of change.

These two polarized perspectives — J-schools behind, or J-educators too far ahead — do reflect some realities. But their appeal can conceal the systemic situation. This is that J-education has generally correlated, more-or-less, industry patterns in regard to a manifesting both a predominant conservatism and fragmentary pockets of innovation.

Two Education Conferences

So it was that two recent conventions about university-based programs exhibited this “mirror” status — of mimicking the trends in broader society. In Boston, the annual conference of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC) consisted of those teachers resisting change (most delegates) and those embracing it (a minority). A sizeable constituency felt that “journalism is in major upheaval and journalism educators don’t know exactly what to do about that.”

In Accra, the African Council for Communication Education (ACCE) revived itself after ten years of inaction to draw its constituency into an academic conference. Here the mix was between the bulk of delegates interested in development communications, and a fringe focused on mass media and journalism.

Only a handful of AEJMC participants blogged and twittered their conference, and packed out appropriate sessions that generally squeezed into small venues. Yet, the predominant refrain at the event seemed to be one of J-teachers clinging to vanishing models and urging “back to basics.” This despite the prize-winning entry to a conference competition by Jane Singer about the need for new kinds of graduates.

For example, titters of approval arose in response to one speaker criticizing the shortness of Twitter (140 characters). A lone voice (backed online by a few Twitter fans using the tag #aejmc) had to point out that the truncated format is an advantage for skimming, and that posts often include links to content of greater depth.

Impressionistically, the overall balance of views at AEJMC seemed to be widespread reluctance regarding change — thereby echoing what seems to be the situation in the media industry. There was much nostalgia for the old certainties, and a display of defensive fears of the unknown future.

Alfred Hermida had the same sense, following the conference via the limited blogging. My own experience was that excitement at change was in short supply.

Former Washington Post multimedia editor Tom Kennedy earnestly urged AEJMC teachers to become change agents, but his appeal seemed puny against the inertia of two similarly cumbersome institutions: big media, and university academia. For now, the revolutionaries appear to be pretty marginal.

Barely Touching on New Media

In Accra, the ACCE barely touched on new media. Although there were a few research papers on Information and Communication Technologies, these mainly focused on the significance of these for health care and development purposes, rather than for journalism.

The dominant thrust at ACCE was that communications in Africa is much wider than journalism and the mass media, and that priority goes to word-of-mouth communications, culture and community radio. Only a minority of research papers dealt with mass media, journalism and democracy.

The bulk of participants also seemed to have little inkling about how cell phones are game changers for so much social life in Africa — not least media and journalism. In all this, the ACCE event also seemed to duplicate much of the communications and media environment in Africa.

In summary, two conferences — despite being continents apart — both seemed to miss making a mark in terms of changing journalism education. That may not be very surprising, but it also doesn’t have to be this way.

Fortunately, at both events, some attention was given to the forthcoming 2nd World Congress on Journalism Education (WJEC-2), scheduled for South Africa, 5-7 July, 2010. The theme of that gathering, based on a suggestion by this writer, is: “Journalism education in an age of radical change.”

The character of this occasion will be a chance to focus energies on going beyond the nature of J-schools as we know them.

Experience of difference is a great stimulus for change — in part, because looking at others helps you to see yourself in different ways. So, by mashing up a myriad of international experiences at WJEC-2, there’s a prospect for imaginations to really break free, en masse.

Anyone out there agree that journalism education needs re-booting?

Postscript: Suzanne Yada (below) directed me to her blog and some good links too:

Her post: “Throwing social media in J-school curriculum isn’t enough”

* Mark Hamilton’s “Remaking Journalism Education: Some Thoughts”

* Vin Crosbie’s “Anatomy of a 21st Century Media Executive” (Plus Joey Baker’s Publish2 links.)

* Greg Lynch’s posts on “Wanted: Resident Butt-Kicker (Thoughts on journalism education)” and “Rich Beckman discusses how to reshape journalism education”