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“Beyond J-School 2011” is sponsored by the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, which offers an intensive, cutting edge, three semester Master of Arts in Journalism; a unique one semester Advanced Certificate in Entrepreneurial Journalism; and the CUNY J-Camp series of Continuing Professional Development workshops focused on emerging trends and skill sets in the industry.

This week on MediaShift, we’re exploring the moving target that is teaching journalism. Stay tuned as we offer tips, tools and insights on educating tomorrow’s journalists.

I’m not the only one saying this: Online journalism educators should be good at teaching journalism online. After all, we are comfortable communicating clearly, are early adapters of technology, and we like being first.

But online teaching (= distance ed = e-learning) isn’t easy. It requires rethinking teaching methods, tools and student needs. It is, however, worth it.

I’ve been teaching an online class for about eight years. I am fortunate enough to do that — shameless plug coming — at American University where faculty can get course development grants to create online courses and enroll in a semester-long training tutorial to design the courses and learn the pedagogy. (We talk like that in academe.)

My class, called Media@theMillennium (oops, needs new name) is entirely online, no face-to-face, and mostly asynchronous. I’ve used Blackboard tools, including Wimba, while drifting into faster platforms such as Facebook, Skype, Twitter and more. Colleagues add the online learning tool Jing, Delicious, Tumblr and others.

Students have taken my class from as far away as Ethiopia during a summer internship and as close as downtown during lunch at a full-time job. The ones who say they want to take it during the summer “because I am getting married” or “I’ll be on vacation” during class time are encouraged not to enroll.

As an online instructor, I see myself as an aggregator and guide through the course content, much as the traditional journalist’s role has evolved from a one-to-many model to a curator designing a more interactive experience.

This is not the end of “place-based” education, as this university president notes. But the pros for online education are easy to spot:

  • Students who do not normally talk in class feel empowered to share online when they have a chance to formulate their thoughts.
  • Students prefer to take courses when they can; if you look at course metrics, it’s not unusual to see many inside the online courses at lunch, dinner and midnight.
  • You’re using a lot less university space!

There are challenges, too: You need an extremely motivated student — and a very motivated instructor.

“You don’t (just) talk once a week” online to students, said my colleague, AU professor Lynne Perri, managing editor for the Investigative Reporting Workshop, who created an online course called Visual Strategies for News. “You are available all the time.”

There are universities running fast ahead, particularly testing the concept of free; others are way behind. Here’s a look from my perch.

8 Lessons in Teaching Online

1. Online learning works, but there is a lot of upfront work.

E-learning is “way more difficult than people understand and way more effective than people give credit to,” said Howard Finberg, Poynter’s director of interactive learning. Poynter launched its News University in 2005; now 200,000 users have registered at the site, which has 275 training modules and 15 online seminars.

At the time of this writing, Finberg’s team also is nearing the close of a new 16-week pilot teaching introduction to journalism, by distance, to three universities. He’s using live lectures, text chats, weekly online discussions, and a “virtual textbook” of self-directed modules.

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Teaching online requires different skills than in the traditional classroom

The lessons so far? “You have to find ways to engage your students. You have to understand your audience,” he said. It’s important that you “don’t dumb it down and don’t over-reach.”

For me, the prep time before my course is at least twice that of a face-to-face (or f2f) class.

Professor Mindy McAdams created a one-credit, entirely asynchronous tools course at University of Florida. She is upfront about the time investment. Making narrated PowerPoints, for example, “is insanely time-consuming. Trying to make video or Captivate versions of demonstrations I give in class — also a huge time eater,” she said.

“I think one of the challenges universities face with this push to distance education is that creating quality course materials (and keeping them up-to-date) takes much, much longer than prepping a f2f lecture,” she said. “Even if you don’t have to make everything yourself, working with an instructional designer is also very time-consuming.”

2. If you create an online course, plan to teach it multiple times.

“If the same lecture/lesson will be given again and again, the return (for the work of creating the online materials) can be very high,” McAdams said, though instructors don’t always know a lecture’s shelf life in advance.

3. The tools are as good as they are at the moment you use them.

The field is evolving so quickly, instructors I know just keep trying the next thing to come along. You can teach through Blackboard or Moodle or any proprietary system, but many will turn for a quick run at gotomeeting.com or other web conferencing tools. I’ve had Wimba work fine and not work, depending on where I used it. New products are often less clunky.

Adobe Connect has worked well for out-of-town speakers and for collaborating with other faculty, my library colleagues say. And AU saw a huge spike in Wimba use during the February snowstorm in 2010. Sorry, students.

Whatever your tools, Mark Plenke who has been teaching online for 10 years at Normandale Community College outside Minneapolis, says transparency is key. He encourages new instructors to “resist the tools that allow them to hide content from students. The entire course should be visible and accessible on the first day of class.”

But we know stuff breaks. Anyone who tried to follow the livestream of the Republican Presidential Debate the other night from Spartanburg, S.C., saw the coverage fail, leaving CBS panned, according to Politico.

4. You cannot take your f2f class and put it online.

You also cannot just post video of your lectures. Lots of universities have done so and posted them on YouTube and iTunes. If they are well-produced, sure. But watch a poorly framed, poorly performed, poorly lit lecture, and your eyes roll back into your head.

Perri noticed she was missing something in her online class, which is a blend of skills and theory. By the second year, she chose to make the course a hybrid, or blended, course — online and f2f — because optional in-person meetings and labs “went really well. People liked the mix.” She also added brief videos of her talking about something she had likewise posted; students appreciated hearing her voice even if it was similar content.


Here is a sample of a video by AU Professor Lynne Perri that accompanies her online course.

At the University of Minnesota School of Journalism and Mass Communication, instructors created a digital textbook with an online-only publisher. The Information for Mass Communication class is taught as two in-class lectures with a virtual lab on Fridays. There is an online-only version of the class, as well.

5. You make the same mistakes online that you make f2f.

I had a terrific author speak virtually to one of my classes one year in the Blackboard forums. He was at a conference in another time zone, and when he left, we all said goodbye. For some reason, some of my students took the opportunity to post some not-flattering and perhaps unfair comments about his book upon his exit. Well, because I had not closed the virtual door behind him, he came back to the discussion board the next day to answer lingering questions. Oops No. 2.

6. For live chats, grab a co-host.

Poynter’s Finberg is adamant about having a host for webinars, a colleague who is separate from the person running the show. Perri likewise hosts live discussions with two in control.

Another tip: If you’re trying a new platform and the students are scattered, schedule a practice session ahead of time. There’s nothing worse than hosting a speaker when students are more interested in playing with the technology than participating. Get the time spent virtually waving hello out of the way early.

7. Your directions and assignments must be as clear as humanly possible.

The little things are the big things online. All content headlines, presentation, phrases must be numbingly consistent, particularly if an assignment is paired with readings posted separately. Just as with the web in general, clarity trumps creativity. Pay special care to homework assignments, particularly if you have students abroad. If something is due at COB, say it’s due at “close-of-business, Nov. 30, EST.”

At a Sloan Consortium conference a few years back, I learned another tip: Rather than answer questions from students as one-offs, post them publicly so that everyone gets the benefit of your response. Saves you time, too.

8. Asynchronous courses have a life of their own.

The other things to keep in mind when creating entirely online programs for working professionals are the “life events” around which adult learners must schedule. My faculty pal Brigid Maher is now overseeing an online certificate in digital skills and is building it outside of life events such as back-to-school season.

Why are we putting so much effort into online learning? It’s pretty obvious.

As Kevin Carey argued in The Chronicle of Higher Education, universities cannot make the same mistakes with students as newspaper execs made with readers by declaring publishers knew what customers needed, how it should be delivered and when. Look how well that worked out.

As we move forward, we will grapple even more with questions of scale, identity verification, and how best to assess student learning. The effort is worth it.

Amy Eisman holds two posts at the School of Communication at American University and is a frequent judge, speaker and trainer in web writing. At SOC, she is director of Writing Programs and director of the weekend MA in Interactive Journalism. She also created an online course, which explores the influence of business, technology and audience on journalism. Eisman was an editor with Gannett (USA Today, USA Weekend) and was a managing editor at AOL. Today she trains newsrooms on web content and writing, including workshops at the washingtonpost.com, BNA, Freedom Forum, the Voice of America, the World Resources Institute, wtop.com and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in Prague and Moscow. She co-chaired the Online News Association conference in 2010 and last spring lectured on new media in Vladivostok.

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“Beyond J-School 2011” is sponsored by the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, which offers an intensive, cutting edge, three semester Master of Arts in Journalism; a unique one semester Advanced Certificate in Entrepreneurial Journalism; and the CUNY J-Camp series of Continuing Professional Development workshops focused on emerging trends and skill sets in the industry.

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