Remix: How to Teach Big Data in a Little City

    by Megan Fromm
    September 14, 2016
    Photo by r2hox and used here with Creative Commons license.
    Click the image to read the whole series. Original photo by Flickr user Richard Ha used here under Creative Commons.

    Click the image to read the whole series. Original photo by Flickr user Richard Ha used here under Creative Commons.

    The bachelors in mass communication program at Colorado Mesa University — like many universities — is a degree that, at times, must be a jack-of-all trades. To prepare graduates for the ever-changing media industry, our program must continue to serve a variety of students who are interested in careers across journalism, emerging media, public relations, marketing and multimedia broadcast.

    Luckily, our small team of faculty are eager to be nimble, and we embrace changes in the media landscape as a chance to hone new expertise and broaden our students’ horizons. For me, that has meant reimagining our senior theory and research capstone course in a big (data) way. As I begin my second semester teaching the course, we’re moving away from traditional media research projects and focusing instead on big data, data gathering and data storytelling.


    Jumping in

    After a chilly but invigorating experience at Boston University’s Data Storytelling Bootcamp in January, I was sold on the need to increase my students’ data literacy. Days after the bootcamp ended — and with only a week to go before the spring semester started — I rewrote my capstone course syllabus and jumped feet-first into data and number-crunching with my students.

    Students in the course brainstormed their own projects, gathered facts and figures and built visualizations across multiple platforms.

    The results? I’m more convinced than ever that our students need data literacy, gathering and storytelling skills to make them competitive in today’s media market. And after my 16-week trial by fire last spring, I’m approaching this fall’s capstone course with fresh eyes and new ideas.


    Screenshot of a graph from one student's data project. The student researched what emotions were most commonly displayed on Twitter following a terrorist attack.

    Screenshot of a graph from one student’s data project. The student researched what emotions were most commonly displayed on Twitter following a terrorist attack.

    Lessons learned

    To start, last semester’s test-run spoke to a number of my hesitations and uncertainties in taking on data. After all, I know that even large, top-tier research universities struggle to find the resources and buy-in to teach data storytelling. But with a little faith, helpful colleagues (both on campus and in the Twitter-sphere) and tremendous university support, I now have a sense of what it looks like to teach data in a small program with students from diverse backgrounds, with myriad career expectations, and who require vastly different educational experiences to build the right kind of market-ready portfolio and resume.

    While I am far from an expert in data storytelling, I hope the lessons I learned last spring and my ongoing transition into this new field will provide a useful starting point for professors at similar-sized institutions or those who teach in broad mass communication programs.

    Here are the lessons I’ll take to heart this semester:

    1. Know where your students are coming from. With students specializing across mass media industries, there was no way I could develop and assign a one-size-fits-all data project. So, the final course project asked students to look at data from their unique, career-driven perspective. That meant some students looked at web data and social media analytics to inform a marketing strategy while others explored gun control from a purely journalistic standpoint. Their final presentation helped articulate the purpose of their project.
    2. Don’t neglect the story. As bonafide word people, mass communication professors might be tempted to neglect the “storytelling” in “data storytelling” because the “data” part is scarier or requires that much more brain power. This is a mistake. Data, even in its clearest or most compelling form, has a story to tell, context to provide and takeaways to impart. Stay true to your roots in journalism or mass communication, and encourage students to use their words to make the data come to life. Emphasize that students should spend as much time on the story as they do on the data.

      Screenshot of another students op-ed angle on gun deaths and media coverage. As any good writer does, this student told a compelling story with both data and text.

      Screenshot of another student’s op-ed piece on gun deaths and media coverage. With a strong lead and hyperlinks to relevant sources, the student told a compelling story enhanced by data reporting.


    3. It takes a village. Trying to cover both theory and data storytelling in one class is ambitious. Doing so with new curriculum, assignments and assessments on top of my normal teaching load was overwhelming. So I turned to the resources at my university — a top-notch and eager librarian, for example — to help me fill in the gaps. The librarian helped create data research guides and resources specifically for my students’ projects. She even secured a trial access code for my students to test out Infogr.am Pro for 30 days — just long enough to incorporate that tool in my classroom.
    4.  Admit your limits. I’m not a numbers person — yet. My students know this, and I don’t try to hide the aspects of data literacy for which I’m still developing proficiency. So we relied heavily on YouTube tutorials to teach pivot tables and Poynter’s Math for Journalists course to remind us why it matters whether we say percentage or percentage points. We learned together and were better for it.

    While I could easily add to this list of lessons learned, I hope those who are considering teaching data storytelling will take one final piece of advice: Go for it. There’s no right — or easy — way to incorporate new concepts or new approaches into our classrooms. But our students deserve it, and we are better educators for taking the risk to try something new.

    Megan Fromm, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of mass communication at Colorado Mesa University, where she teaches mass communication courses. She is also the educational initiatives director for the Journalism Education Association and a former journalist and high school journalism adviser. Follow her on Twitter via @megfromm.

    Tagged: data data visualization education innovation journalism

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