New years and new semesters give educators the opportunity to review past courses and identify ways to change and improve them. In 2014, improvement can pave the way for innovation.

If you think innovation requires a lot of resources and money, my experience has shown you can do more with less. You can take small steps with fewer resources to make big changes.

Small Steps Can Lead To Big Outcomes

AzteCast

I have a short story to share with you about my own experience in innovating on a small scale. In the fall semester of 2011, I applied for a special grant that was being offered to journalism educators called the AEJMC Knight News Challenge Bridge Grant.

My idea was focused on having a cross-disciplinary course that would focus on the creation of a mobile news app that would serve an important public and civic service role on our campus. The mobile app would be built from using Ushahidi platform, an open-source and free tool built with funding from a Knight News Challenge Grant. I applied and in a few months time, I was notified I was one of the 10 grantees awarded $8,000 for the project.

During the spring 2012 semester, our journalism and computer science students worked together to build a mobile news app called AzteCast.

Based on my experience with this innovative project, I would like to share with you some of the lessons I learned from this journey that may help you innovate your own courses.

1. Get an Idea

First, you have to think about what course and what part of it might be ripe for change and innovation. Is it bringing in a new skillset, a new tool, new technique, topic, concepts, framework, etc.?

The idea can help drive how you can implement that change and the kinds of goals and learning objectives you set for the class. It also helps you discern how you will measure success.

Having the public service mobile app idea for the grant allowed me to focus on creating specific learning outcomes covering what I wanted the students to get out of the course and add those to the class syllabus. You can see my sample syllabus from my mobile class as a guide.

2. Take Small Steps

Once you have the idea in place, how can you make this change happen? You could implement the change as a whole class as I did or you could make the change in small steps of an existing class (e.g., a week or two of a few sessions).

Having the chance to test it out in small steps may make it more manageable for you, less stressful and more enjoyable for the first time. It will also have the same result on the students as well if they know you are testing the waters out with this new change.

Also, don’t think you have to take on this change by yourself either — you can find power in numbers. Some ideas to consider as you are making that change:

  • Can you bring in scholars or other professors from across campus to help in covering that skill set, subject area as guest speakers?
  • Can you invite students from another discipline into the class to bring in different and fresh perspectives? (Note: They can be invited for a special class or you can go the route of making the course an elective for other students)
  • Can you bring in professionals from the community to give guidance during a class session or set of sessions?

Innovating doesn’t mean spending a lot of money. There are many forms of open-source and free tools  that can help any journalism educator implement an innovative digital media project without expense.

In the case of the mobile app project, we used the Ushahidi platform. The only cost we incurred for our project was website hosting and the app license fee when uploading the app to the Apple iTunes and Android stores.

3. Consider Assessment Options

Once you have identified how you may want to innovate your course, you should think about how you can measure its effectiveness.

Student assessment options might include:

  • a blog post about the experience
  • a Storify curating the information into a social format
  • a full-length reflection paper
  • essay question on a test
  • other creative ideas

For the mobile app project, I had several assignments to assess their experience, including weekly blog posts, group reports and more. (See syllabus for examples.) These assignments allowed the students to have multiple opportunities to demonstrate their learning without the pressure of points being tied to only one big assignment.

4. Don’t Do This Alone

Innovation doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It happens through conversations with other people and collaboration. Talk with other people in your department and especially colleagues across the campus and make them part of your innovative project. You may be surprised to find out the ideas you get may make it better than the original thoughts you had.

photo of brian boyer

Brian Boyer (photo courtesy the Knight Foundation)

Go beyond the campus and talk with professionals in the community – not just journalists but expand your network to developers, programmers, scientists and others who may be relevant to the idea you are thinking of implementing.

For the mobile app project, I had already started collaborating with our computer science department before I applied for the grant so that made their involvement in the project easier to implement. Don’t wait to get to know your colleagues across the university – start forming those partnerships now. I also had an existing collaboration with a local non-profit news organization, iNewsource, in which they gave guest talks and advice to the students on the mobile app during the semester. I also had the opportunity to have Brian Boyer, a news app developer who was then at The Chicago Tribune (now at NPR) to spend three days on our campus inspiring the students and guiding them through the mobile app product development process. Having these additional voices and perspectives in the class was enlightening for the students and their learning.

5. Funding Should Not Be the End Goal

As I mentioned earlier, making changes to innovate in your class can be done with small steps, but you may have an idea that requires funding. Funding should not be viewed as just a one-time way to cover your costs but instead as a way to jumpstart an idea that will improve your teaching, course, curriculum or school for the long run.

In my case, I was fortunate to receive the grant to make this mobile app project happen. It has strengthened the collaboration our School of Journalism and Media Studies has with the College of Sciences and led to great job opportunities for our students who enrolled in the course. In addition, it contributed to a new public service mobile tool on our campus for students, faculty and staff, and it has shown our students they can do important journalism work while in school and have a direct impact in a community.

6. Where to Find Funding

First, don’t assume accomplishing your innovative project will take hundreds of thousands of dollars. You may be surprised to know that using existing resources on your campus, partnerships with others on campus, and open-source and free digital tools can save you a significant amount of money, so you can spend the funding you do get on the most important parts of your budget.

Start looking for funding in your own backyard. Often departments, colleges or your university may have an internal grant competition to fund teaching innovations or projects on campus.

Second, look in your community. Identify the major foundations in your community and learn about what areas they fund.

Lastly, consider several national foundations, such as the Ethics & Excellence Journalism Foundation, Robert R. McCormick Foundation, John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, among others. In fact, right now journalism educators can apply for a micro-grant through the Challenge Fund for Innovation in Journalism Education (deadline Feb. 13).

If you have a specific subject area focus for your innovative idea, don’t forget to look at foundations in that arena, e.g. science, the arts, music, etc.

Journalism educators today have hundreds of opportunities to innovate. All you have to do is make a start. Are you ready to innovate?

Amy Schmitz Weiss is an associate professor in the School of Journalism and Media Studies at San Diego State University. Schmitz Weiss is a 2011 Dart Academic Fellow and has a Ph.D. in journalism from the University of Texas at Austin. She teaches journalism courses in basic writing and editing, multimedia, web design, data journalism and mobile journalism. She is also the 2011-2012 Recipient of the AEJMC Bridge Grant with funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation that led to the creation of a mobile news app, AzteCast, for the San Diego State University campus in spring 2012. Schmitz Weiss is a former journalist who has been involved in new media for more than a decade. She has worked in business development, marketing analysis and account management for several Chicago Internet media firms. Her research interests include online journalism, media sociology, news production, multimedia journalism and international communication. See her website for a full list of research publications. Contact her at aschmitz@mail.sdsu.edu.

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