Preparing the digital educator-scholar hybrid

“In a dynamically changing environment, in which digital is a given, we can no longer support this lecturer-professor divide. Every hire a journalism program makes must be able to teach courses in the digital realm.”

Journalism and mass communication programs are grappling with adapting their curriculums to address the needs of the digital marketplace. New courses, concentrations, and degrees have been developed, and faculty are adjusting existing courses to address the increasingly digital, mobile and social landscape. The biggest challenge to these necessary curriculum developments, however, is in finding people who can and want to teach and keep up with emerging technologies.

cindy-royalIn a typical journalism school, skills courses are often taught by professionals in lecturer or adjunct roles. Those with doctoral degrees often perform research on mass communication topics and teach theory and research methods courses. In a dynamically changing environment, in which digital is a given, we can no longer support this lecturer-professor divide. Every hire a journalism program makes must be able to teach courses in the digital realm, and that includes multimedia storytelling, social media analytics, data journalism, web development, and new topics as they emerge.

These topics should not be considered a stretch for academics whose expertise is in data and analysis to support their research. A Ph.D. should be able to teach a course on the practical application of social media analytics. She should be able to learn how to use a programming language to scrape an application programming interface for Twitter data. And if she can learn to program an API, she should be able to learn and teach the programming skills necessary to present the results of this analysis in an interactive chart on the Web. A journalism Ph.D. should be able to apply critical thinking skills associated with academic research to digital innovation projects.

Currently, this is not the particular emphasis of any mass communication Ph.D. program. Faculty, like myself, who have gravitated to teaching these topics are typically self-taught and have a personal commitment to providing students with skills that are in demand. But we can no longer rely solely on the handful of academics who have taken it upon themselves to move in this direction. The discipline needs as many educators as possible who can teach digital skills and concepts in a communications context and connect that to a relevant and active research agenda.

I predict that Ph.D. programs will begin to recognize this demand and begin teaching the educator-scholar of the future. Given the abundance of descriptions for tenure-track positions that mention digital, online, data, and multimedia, Ph.D. programs must take an active role in creating the pipeline of qualified applicants.

What might that look like? A Ph.D. program should teach web design and coding, video editing, and social media. Doctoral candidates should take courses in experimental technologies like drones and virtual reality and should be familiar with design thinking and innovation techniques. Current digital issues should be the forefront of discussion throughout the curriculum and intertwined with theory and methods, providing an informed background for addressing emerging issues like fake news, social media’s role in politics, and the effects of wearable technologies. Ph.D. students should also be encouraged to take computer science, business, and digital humanities courses to round out their degree programs and should have the opportunity to get experience teaching digital skills courses before they graduate.

The emerging needs of the professions we support need to be more fully addressed in academic research. This is a goal of AEJMC’s president Paul Voakes, whose theme of his term is “closing the gap between media practitioners and educators.” The only way for this to happen is for Ph.D. programs to adjust their mission and curriculum to better reflect the digital needs of the communication fields. While this approach is long overdue, I hope that a few existing programs will begin moving in this direction in 2017 and that new programs will emerge that emphasize digital expertise at the doctoral level.

Cindy Royal is a professor at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication and director of the Media Innovation Lab at Texas State University.

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