Click on the image for the full series. Original photo by Taqi®™ on Flickr and used here with Creative Commons license.

Click on the image for the full series.

College towns have a set of seasons all their own: the quiet shudder of the winter, the frenzied exodus of the spring, the lazy silence of the summer, and the excited buzz of the fall. Here in Chapel Hill, N.C., it’s no different. And this fall, I too was eager to join my classmates in the place we have gotten to know one another: an online message board.

As a student in the Master of Arts in Technology and Communications (MATC) program at the University of North Carolina, most of my class time is spent online, working asynchronously. I also work full time — as a content strategist for a website testing and optimization firm — so much of my reading and writing for class happens on the bus to and from work, in the early morning, and on the weekends. It’s a decidedly nontraditional means of obtaining a master’s degree but — having just passed the program’s halfway point — I feel confident saying it is a no less valuable one. More importantly, I feel it represents a very compelling vision for the future of education, particularly for communications professionals and journalists.

Learning to Teach Others

Before anyone can ask, I will answer: In my experience, online education has been no less rigorous than my years planted in dusty lecture halls as an undergraduate. Indeed, it has been much more so. You can’t avoid a discussion by staring at your notes on a message board. It may be true that “on the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog,” but they always know whether or not you did the reading.

Unfortunately, however, this inevitable question focuses on what could go wrong and in doing so misses all that is right. By allowing professionals to remain in their careers the MATC accomplishes several things:

First, discussions are influenced by the experience of people working in the media industry. Problems presented by classmates are not hypothetical. Their perspective is not theoretical. This helps to frame the conversation in a wonderfully practical way.

In addition, students apply what they learn immediately and then return to share their experience. The MATC uses a cohort system, in which groups of students move together throughout each class. We get to know one another, which helps personalize online discussion. It also makes it easy for the material from one class to bleed into the next. Combined, these characteristics foster a (virtual) environment in which each student has as much to teach as learn.

Finally, a part-time online degree allows — indeed, encourages — students to keep their jobs. This is vital to preserving the practical nature of the program, cultivating applied problem solving, and utilizing the unique value of each student’s experience. John Zhu, a member of the program’s first cohort, told me via email that the program “was a natural fit with my belief in being a lifelong learner, which I think is crucial for communication professionals.” Allowing education to fit into a career is appealing for this very reason.

Here’s a promotional video for the program:

Attracting Tomorrow’s Leaders

Earlier in this series, Cindy Royal outlined eloquently the need for a “digital-first curriculum” in journalism schools. I agree completely, but for a slightly different reason: If journalism schools hope to attract the top talent of the next generation — not to mention the emerging leaders already in the industry — they must offer a curriculum that reflects the goals and desires of these potential students.

This means, as Royal and others suggest, breaking up the traditional concentrations meant to produce specialists in print, broadcast and radio journalism. Changing these concentrations is one possibility — and for undergraduate journalism majors, probably a good option.

But for those already working in journalism, media or communications, there is little value in being confined. Zhu puts it succinctly: A program like the MATC “is more about convergence than immersion.” It’s about building a broad set of skills, coordinating between them and — most importantly — making deliberate decisions about an entire media package.

Leading Change, Not Surviving It

By its own description, the MATC seeks to “position students for leadership roles in digital media and web-based communication.” Zhu confirmed this, commenting that his biggest takeaway from the program has been a “greater ability to think strategically about writing, design, video and marketing.”

Of course, there are clear disadvantages to the broad approach. Students in my cohort — myself included — have struggled through topics where they lack experience and excel in others. It’s very hard, for example, to teach a class about writing to 10 students who do it professionally and 10 who do it infrequently. The same thing goes for design, marketing or anything else. There is also little time to stop and cultivate new skills or spend extra time reviewing challenging material. The optimist in me says that these moments are an opportunity to teach and learn from others — and in practice they have been — but ask me at the end of the semester and the question may elicit a more frustrated response.

And that hints at another challenge of a program like the MATC: It demands a huge amount of time. Some students balance work, class and family responsibilities — leaving little time for other luxuries, like sleep. Though my family responsibilities are minimal (thankfully, since I do love sleep), I will admit to regularly feeling as though I am struggling week-to-week.

In this way, the MATC has been a sort of crucible. It is challenging, tiring and at times frustrating, but in the end I feel my cohort will emerge stronger and ready to lead a turbulent industry, not merely survive in it.

Clearly, such a program cannot be a solution for everyone. But it offers a compelling option as journalism schools work to address the needs of a changing industry and the demands of new students.

David DeFranza is a student in the Master of Arts in Technology and Communications program at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. He is also a content strategist at Brooks Bell, a leading website testing and optimization firm. You can follow his progress on Twitter: @ddefranza.

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