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For journalism curriculum to change, its faculty needs disruption

“What do these companies want? Leadership, strategy, problem-solving, excellent communication skills, all buoyed by an undercurrent of tech savvy — just what journalism graduates should be able to deliver.”

It’s time we got serious about building media curriculum around digital product concepts. But in order to make meaningful, comprehensive and holistic change, we’ll apparently need new faculty.

A research project by academic professional Amanda Bright of the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia says it’s faculty who are preventing journalism curriculum from becoming more digital. Her case study of three U.S. journalism/communication programs found that “the predominant obstacle to digital curriculum decisions at these institutions was individual members’ inability or unwillingness to learn new concepts and technologies.” She found that journalism curriculum was more likely to be developed around faculty interests than student needs. (Full disclosure: Dr. Bright was a fellow in the inaugural PhDigital Bootcamp held at my university this past summer, a program I directed, designed to prepare faculty to lead innovative curriculum.)

This situation is untenable. Students need exposure to current media platforms in a modern curriculum and faculty interests and competencies must align with those needs. Digital product jobs are becoming more commonplace both within and outside of media industries. You’ll see positions now at Washington Post, New York Times, McClatchy, BuzzFeed, Vox Media and across community media organizations for web, mobile, data, visuals, video, engagement and social media producers. It’s no longer unusual to see the roles of product manager, director of product and chief product officer in media organizations.

Plus, opportunities abound for product-focused people at companies like HomeAway, HEB and Home Depot. What do these companies want? Leadership, strategy, problem-solving, excellent communication skills, all buoyed by an undercurrent of tech savvy — just what journalism graduates should be able to deliver.

But if we want graduates to have a chance at contributing to product teams across a range of industries, profound changes to curriculum will be necessary. That change can’t occur with faculty who are unable or unwilling to adapt.

It will ultimately require more than just a tweak here and there. It means teaching new courses in coding, data analysis, social media analytics, social storytelling, data visualization, multimedia package development and emerging topics to include 360 video and virtual reality, bots, artificial intelligence, blockchain, and whatever comes next.

But it’s more than just introducing these shiny, new technologies. It’s about focusing on the needs of users, identifying and solving problems and having the insight and exposure to know what’s possible. Beyond having scholars and instructors who can research and teach in these areas, programs need faculty who make decisions on personnel and curriculum committees to understand and embrace these concepts.

How can a program move its faculty toward digital product concepts? Here are a few suggestions:

  • Take an inventory of your faculty. What competencies exist and which are absent? Then develop a plan for filling the gaps.
  • Hire new kinds of faculty. Consider hiring tenure-track faculty from other disciplines, like information or data science programs, or professional faculty from web development and technology companies.
  • Identify faculty candidates with technical inclinations who are self-taught with strong digital portfolios.
  • Disrupt mass communication doctoral programs to better align faculty interests with student needs that are driven by the requirements of the professions. Recognize that instruction is an integral part of a professor’s duties and integrate teaching and research in these programs around relevant digital concepts.
  • Invest in existing faculty. Send faculty to new kinds of conferences, let them take classes, set expectations for faculty development. Substitute an academic conference with something that allows them to be exposed to emerging topics. Encourage them to become active in meetup groups in the local community. Adjust the ways in which faculty are evaluated and incentivized to include these activities.
  • Seek collaborations across the academy. It may not just be the computer science program that can augment your digital competencies. Make connections with programs in information and data sciences, the business school and the art department.
  • Set an example. One innovator can have an influence. Be the change you want to see in your program. But know that a program will only go so far with a token digital leader. The center of gravity of a program must shift toward a digital product mindset.

Yes, tenure is an issue when it comes to motivating faculty. But if we accept that, in general, faculty have students’ best interests at heart, programs must start exploring curriculum solutions that better meet everyone’s needs.

In 2019, begin to innovate your curriculum. But first, disrupt your faculty.

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

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