When the University of Texas’ Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas offered its first massive open online course in journalism — “Introduction to Infographics and Data Visualization” — more than 2,000 people registered. A second course that begins tomorrow has attracted 5,000.
Online education is having a moment; companies like Coursera and institutions like Harvard and MIT are all chasing what’s expected to be a upcoming boom in learning through the web. For UT’s Knight Center, its first experiment with MOOCs is also an experiment in pushing journalism education beyond its traditional audience. While data visualization has obvious connections to journalism, it also has clear applications outside newsrooms. And that kind of crossover appeal may be the key to succeeding in future online journalism courses.
“I’m sure that we’re onto something,” said Rosental Alves, director of the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas. “To have 2,000 people in a course on one issue for journalism, and so much demand that you start another a month later and there are 5,000 people? It means there really is a demand.”
Alberto Cairo, an instructor at the University of Miami, leads the course, which combines video lectures, discussion forums, and assignments structured around news stories and public data. Cairo, who previously led graphics departments at media companies in Spain and Brazil, said having that tie to reported stories helps to keep the course focused. In particular, Cairo used examples like The New York Times’ interactive on words used at the presidential nominating conventions, as well as The Guardian’s data map on unemployment in the U.S.
“You try things until you find the thing that works and then you apply it.”
“How to summarize data. How to tell a story with data. How to get your message through. All of those are journalism skills,” Cairo said. The goal of the course, Cairo said, is getting students to cast a critical eye on charts and graphics, but also to give them the tools and knowledge to build their own. Instead of adopting an existing class and putting it online, Cairo worked with Alves to develop the course specifically for online learning.
Even though he has experience teaching online courses in the past, Cairo said the size and scope of a MOOC means instructors have to be ready to adapt their plans. And for a journalism course meant for a mass audience, that means taking the time to better explain concepts and terms from the media to people who don’t work in the business. “This is unexplored territory — it’s hit or miss,” he said. “You try things until you find the thing that works, and then you apply it.”
Alves considers the first MOOC to be a success, having attracted students from 133 countries and countless cities around the US. The Knight Center has been creating online courses since 2003, specifically for its multilingual distance learning program for journalists in Latin America. Developing the course was relatively low risk, with the biggest cost being the purchase of a dedicated server. The class itself was hosted through Moodle, an open-source online teaching software package. Alves said lightweight setup opens the door for additional journalism classes.
“My inclination now is to look into a journalism-for-all type of program, where we can teach journalism skills for journalists and anyone else who wants to learn,” he said.
“If you create MOOCs about journalism but you market them to appeal to audiences outside journalism, I think you could have a huge success.”
Of the 2,000 people who registered for the course, Cairo and Alves say around 800 remained active through the six-week period. Cairo estimates around 10 to 15 percent of the students completed all the work, with 7 percent receiving a certificate for the course. (Though the course is free, students who want a certificate have to pay $30.) Figuring out ways to keep students engaged will be critical to online courses — both to maximize impact and for institutions to evaluate their worth.
Online journalism learning is not exactly new; the professional set has been using webinars from providers like NewsU for some time, while some colleges have offered distance education courses to help learners who don’t have the time or inclination to step foot on a campus. But it’s the potentially industry-reshaping scale of MOOCs that has brought them their moment in the sun. An ongoing debate on the future of journalism education includes questions about how much j-schools should emphasize specific digital skills; that sort of technical, tool-based training could be a good fit for MOOCs. A Knight Foundation report last fall said technology and digital opportunities were increasing access to training:
Digital classes are gaining popularity as a cost-effective way to reach more trainees. A third of U.S. journalists and eight in 10 international journalists say the online classes they took were as good as, or better than, conventional training in the classroom.
Eric Newton, senior advisor to the president at Knight Foundation (disclosure: Knight is a funder of Nieman Lab), has been a vocal advocate for transforming journalism education. Over email, Newton said online education provides the speed and reach necessary to keep up with changes in the industry. “Journalists in the digital age need to know much more than ever, not just how to get and share the news but how to use the new, powerful tools to do it. Traditional educational institutions and professional groups have been, for the most part, too slow to help them,” he wrote.
As much promise as online courses hold for journalism, they aren’t without costs. Universities that use Coursera, for example, have to pay a licensing fee, and total costs can run to $50,000 or more per course. Instructors still need to be paid, and dealing with students by the thousands can require lots of help from teaching assistants and other support staff. There’s also the small matter of how to pay for it — one imagines that were the Knight Center’s MOOCs priced at some level other than free, the demand would have fallen off substantially.
Cairo said universities want to develop online education programs that can have a good return on investment, in areas of intense interest and high student engagement. More technical courses, in areas like engineering or data and computer sciences, are appealing because they have practical elements that reach into growing industries. Cairo said there’s no reason online journalism courses can’t be developed in the same way: Data visualization, writing for mobile platforms, editing, and headline writing, are just a few of the concrete, skills-based area Cairo thinks could have a broader appeal.
“I believe that if you create MOOCs about journalism but you market them to appeal to audiences outside journalism, I think you could have a huge success,” he said.
Image by David Gandy used under a Creative Commons license.