Introducing courses in sensor journalism or 360-video will not solve your journalism curriculum’s digital problem. Nor will drones or podcasts or apps. They won’t hurt, of course. But retrofitting your journalism curriculum with the newest digital technology won’t meet the biggest challenge journalism education faces: preparing students for an unknown digital future.
Two years ago, the dean at Northwestern University’s Qatar campus encouraged the faculty to begin rethinking our undergraduate journalism and strategic communication curriculum. The state-of-the-art building that now houses our school was nearing completion and we were making plans for a fresh curricular start when we moved in.
First, we looked back to try to understand how our program had evolved.
Like many Western journalism curricula, ours was developed before journalism experienced the full impact of the digital age. The program prepared students for an era that has passed us by, when journalism careers developed along linear paths and reporters worked in discrete, incrementally evolving fields like print and broadcast.
The program had kept up with technological shifts in the media landscape by retrofitting the curriculum to reflect new developments. Bits and pieces from the digital age like shooting video packages on iPhones and audience engagement were tacked on to an old-fashioned core curriculum.
Frankly, this was a good strategy, but only as a stopgap. It meant we didn’t have to go through the pain of blowing up the curriculum, and it allowed us to equip students with at least some of the most up-to-date skills and knowledge they needed to launch their careers.
But the further we went along, the more I worried that our curriculum would set graduates up for an uncomfortable jolt once on the job. We had digital bells and whistles, but the media landscape we were introducing students to was too neat and tidy. It wasn’t the messy business of today, where newsroom leaders often look to their youngest employees (our freshest graduates) to experiment with emerging platforms to tell news kinds of stories and chase new audiences.
If our program was going to set students up to thrive in an unknown digital future, another set of digital retrofits to the dated curriculum was not going to do. What we needed was a full-scale renovation.
Luckily, Northwestern in Qatar is a nimble school. We have 34 faculty across the school’s three programs: journalism and strategic communication, communication and liberal arts.* Many of my non-journalism colleagues have significant expertise in journalism, Arab media and digital media. All of this meant that the bureaucratic hurdles we faced were small and our pedagogical disagreements were manageable. We had more latitude to innovate than colleagues on many American campuses (though our colleagues at the Medill School in Evanston, Illinois, have recently gone through their own bold curricular renovation).
We have started to roll out our new journalism and strategic communication curriculum, but it is definitely a work in progress – and it probably always will be. Here are some of the lessons I have learned in working with my faculty colleagues to put it together:
1. Break up the 15-week semester
Not every journalism and strategic communication course needs to be 15 weeks long. We decided to break the once-inflexible semester into a variety of 5-, 10- and 15-week courses. This new flexibility increased the number and variety of journalism courses we can offer, adding breadth to the program.
This has definitely created a scheduling challenge for the registrar’s office. But the shift has created “space” throughout the curriculum for a series of 5-week “learning-by-doing” courses where student can apply the theories and concepts they learn in the core courses to short, but intensive, journalism projects. Over five weeks at the end of the spring semester, for example, I plan to lead a project-based 360-degree video course. Students will be able to take concepts they first encountered in core courses and apply them to a short, intensive project that is totally new to them. Because these courses are worth only one-third of a credit each, the grading stakes are lower, hopefully giving grade-obsessed students more psychological license to experiment, to innovate and to learn from failures.
2. Teach the latest digital tools, but not for tools’ sake
These 5-week newsroom courses also serve as spaces where students can learn and experiment with the most up-to-date digital tools.
Some argue that there’s no point incorporating the latest digital tools into your program because they will be obsolete tomorrow. It’s a valid point, but only if your overall goal is for students to master the new tools themselves. The reality is that our students must get used to learning new technology and adopting it into their workflow because they are going to have to do it on an ongoing basis for the rest of their careers. The more practice students get confronting new technology in our classrooms, the more comfortable they will be doing it forever. That mode of thinking is durable no matter how wildly the technology changes.
3. Make room for upper-year students to take on big projects
Amid my excitement for short, experimental courses, my colleagues who teach video and magazine journalism reminded me of the importance of long courses. Immersive projects that unfold over a few months allow enough time for complex storytelling projects to crystalize and for students to understand the value of multiple drafts.
4. Rethink core courses
In curriculum discussions, a common argument goes something like this: No matter how much digital technology changes journalism, the fundamentals – things like reporting, writing, ethics – stay the same.
If only it were so simple.
In fact, all of those fundamentals have been updated. Shoe-leather reporting is still essential, but so is verifying news gathered from social media. The inverted pyramid is still an important writing tool for journalists, but so is the live blog. Divisions between the editorial and business operations of a news organization are still important, but the firewalls are now porous and new ethical minefields abound.
It’s crucial that the core courses change to reflect the shifting fundamentals. At Northwestern in Qatar, our new core comprises six new courses: an introduction to journalism in the digital world, storytelling across media, newsgathering and verification, audience insight, media law and an introduction to strategic communication.
5. Allow students flexibility to create their own selection of learning experiences
In traditional journalism programs, students are forced to select an area of concentration. But forcing students into an area of concentration can shut them out of other areas.
Instead, we set out to help students to plan a more flexible, personal selection of learning experiences that include design-based workshops in our newsroom, in-depth reporting projects, a global internship, international field reporting projects and more. No more silos. The idea is to give students the best of both worlds: a plan that gives them an area of focus, but still provides opportunities to experiment with courses that fall outside of their comfort zones.
6. Constantly seek feedback and tweak your new curriculum
Seek frequent feedback from as many corners as possible: students, colleagues in other departments and universities, alumni (especially recent graduates), potential employers and others throughout the industry.
Don’t ignore their input. This is an experiment, after all.
*Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the size of the NU-Q program.
Andrew Mills is an assistant professor of journalism at Northwestern University in Qatar, where his teaching focuses on emerging digital technology and the evolution of journalism. At Northwestern, he is a recipient of the Provost’s Digital Learning Fellowship and was a member of the task force charged with renovating the journalism and strategic communication curriculum on the Qatar campus. He has lived and worked in the Middle East for more than a decade and continues to practice journalism throughout the region.