@alainsaffel kicked off a bit of a discussion this morning, with this tweet: With huge cuts in journalism jobs, nobody’s asking the question: when are journalism schools going to close? Several of us kicked it around, 140 characters at a time, for a half-hour or so, without coming to conclusions, of course, because Twitter works best for planting ideas and exchanging thoughts, not solving complex problems.

Journalism education is something I think about a lot, sometimes when I’m in the middle of delivering some journalism education. I tweeted this morning that despite the massive changes in the industry, there will always be a need for journalists and journalism training. Later in the day, I told my students (in effect; I didn’t put it quite this coherently) that while the internet provides a wealth of information and training for those who want to be journalists, the value of the school is the guidance, coaching and feedback that build skill and confidence.

Also, this morning, I tweeted that journalism schools need the type of reinvention that is sweeping through media. Some schools seem to be doing a fine job of that. Watching from the outside, it seems that the masters program at UBC is one of those.

Some of the things that I think have to be seriously looked at, based on my own experience in j-school (as a teacher only), the experiences (and frustrations) of my students, and reading a ton of writing from j-school teacher and students:

1. Institutions aren’t built for quick change and adaptability. Significantly changing or adding a course can take anywhere from six months to a year, because of deadlines for calendar, etc. That’s a fine process for philosophy or history, but not for journalism courses. The last time I made a major change in my courses (rolling in much online and multimedia), I had to shepherd it through five different committees, starting eight months before the first of the new classes was taught.

2. Not everything that should be taught belongs in a three-credit, semester-long course. Worse, not every subject deserves a semester-long, three-credit course, which means some things tend to get dumped into some other course so that they get covered. With a structure based on the idea of the semester and the three-credit course, you get a hammer and, of course, to a hammer everything looks like a nail. It makes more sense to me to think in terms of modules that are exactly as long as they need to be and not one hour more.

3. And while we’re thinking in modules, we probably need to take a look at who’s doing the teaching. It’s nuts that I’m teaching intro writing skills, feature writing, newspaper design and layout, all aspects of multimedia, etc. I think I do it well (because I work hard at it), but students would be better served with many more voices than mine. A modular approach, with shorter-than-semester “courses,” opens the possibility to bringing in more folks for shorter periods of time. More voices, more better.

(Yeah, I know that adopting such a system would interfere with my ability to make money, which is a serious personal drawback. But we’re dealing with hypotheticals here. I hope. The reason I teach all those courses is so that I can maintain my three-quarter-time employee standing, and take home a reasonable pay cheque.)

3. Classroom exercises are of dubious value. Ideally, every single assignment for a journalism student should be reality based.

4. Internships need to be re-examined. I realize the value of students being thrust from the academic world into the world of the newsroom, but I’m unconvinced that a short-term exposure (we do two, four-week internships) does much more than build student confidence. And I have some trouble morally defending unpaid internships, which students have to pay tuition for.

5. We do not put enough emphasis on students trying and failing. The college system (especially scholarships) relies on GPAs; many students are fixated on grades and terrified at the thought of failure, which is where all the interesting learning takes place.

6. Ideally there should be a way to certify a student as Ready to be a Journalist, whether that’s at the end of the first semester or the 15th. I know that screws with the whole concept of the degree — not to mention budget office planning, etc. — but some folks are ready to go before we’re finished with them.

7. We need to move past the concept of education based on the full-time student and structure for partial continuous learning, with multiple entry points, to serve the full range of journalists — want-to-bes, developing, practicing and even accomplished.

8. We need to more carefully screen journalism teachers for openness to — but not uncritical acceptance of — new ideas.

As always, feedback more than welcome.


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