Click the logo for a full listing of series posts. (Image courtesy of Flickr user DeclanTM

Click the image for a full listing of series posts. (Image courtesy of Flickr user DeclanTM)

Rumors were circulating on Twitter that a teen pop sensation was dead, and it was my job to get the story.

Of course, eyewitness accounts varied, the facts were shifting quickly and I had an editor texting me every few minutes, asking me where the story was. I was confronted with the unique challenges of breaking news: weighing whether a source is reliable, verifying facts and balancing the pressure to break the news first while also being accurate. And I did it all while sitting in front of a computer.

This breaking news exercise was part of a University of Wisconsin-Madison introductory journalism class that embraces blended learning methods – any combination of face-to-face lectures and technology, online or hands-on practice based lessons –- a form of instruction gaining traction in J-schools.

There are a number of models, but popular blended learning methods include swapping brick-and-mortar class time for time spent reporting in the field or on site visits, rolling back time spent in class in favor of online activities like blogging or taking a quiz, and having students learn a new program on their own ahead of in-person meetings, so they are primed for discussion.

While some instructors say digital media classes are best taught away from a whiteboard, others maintain that students are best served learning some journalism concepts in a traditional classroom setting.

Creating a framework for blended courses

If a course is thoughtfully designed, Kelvin Thompson, a member of the team building online learning tools at the University of Central Florida, sees no drawbacks to strategically implementing blended learning methods.

The University of Central Florida has been leading the charge in developing online tools to support blended learning courses since the mid-1990s. Working with the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, they developed a Blended Learning Toolkit to provide resources for instructors looking to design blended courses. Thompson said almost as an afterthought, the group developed a subject-neutral MOOC to teach educators and developers the ropes for designing these classes.

One of the resources made available for instructors in the Blended Learning Toolkit is a detailed checklist for building a blended course.

One of the resources made available for instructors in the Blended Learning Toolkit is a detailed checklist for building a blended course.

Now finished with its third cohort, that MOOC has taken on “a life of its own,” he said. While no more than 100 enrolled in the first online class, more than 2,800 registered for the last round, which ended in June. The course is particularly valuable to instructors who do not have much institutional preparation or support or those who simply want to supplement their training.

Thompson sees the boom as evidence that educators are more interested than ever in breaking away from in-person only instruction.

“We’re hard pressed to find a purely face-to-face course,” he said. “I have not run across a course yet that couldn’t benefit from being blended.”

But he said that with a caveat: the spectrum of higher education includes institutions with different values, and schools need to be strategic in adding what makes sense in their situation. For example, liberal arts schools typically consider small, in-person seminars a cornerstone of a student’s learning experience.

He also said blended methods can capture the best of both online and traditional courses. Like online-only classes, blended courses can spark more student ownership and involvement while allowing more flexibility. But maintaining strategic face-to-face meetings also means instructors can continue providing the structure and support of a traditional class.

Blended learning models vary, and the proportion of instruction and engagement that occur online vs. in-person can differ widely. Four common models suit different instructor, student and class needs:

  • Supplemental: Preserves traditional class time, assignments and textbooks, augmenting with technology-based activities outside the classroom. For instance, creating a YouTube channel of recorded interviews with journalists for students to view as homework.
  • Emporium: Trading class time used for lectures to instead do place-based active learning projects, such as a social media scavenger hunt in a reporting class.
  • Flipped Classroom: Students engage with lecture materials online before class while class time is used for deeper discussion of or practice with the material covered. For instance, students learn the basics of Excel through online modules before coming to class to work through a spreadsheet and interview data for insights.
  • Replacement: Reduces in-person class time in favor of online activities — as small as trading two media law lectures a semester for online quizzes on key cases to as large as creating a full-scale MOOC.
A breaking news ethics module at the University of Wisconsin-Madison is an example of supplemental blended learning. Students run the module outside class and then discuss their choices and the implications.

A breaking news ethics module at the University of Wisconsin-Madison is an example of supplemental blended learning. Students run the module outside class and then discuss their choices and the implications in person.

In student surveys, Thompson said, blended classes outperform both online and face-to-face courses, with consistently higher success rates and lower withdrawal rates.

Teaching social media through practice

Teaching students how to use social media in their reporting lends itself well to experimenting with ways to break up the “monotony of lecturing,” Sue Robinson, an associate journalism professor at UW-Madison, said.

In that class, Robinson sent students out to explore the city for a social media reporting project, encouraged students to have their phones and tablets out in class, and Skyped guest lecturers into class. The cornerstone of the course was a largely out-of-class group project, where students met with a local client to develop an in-depth social media strategy to grow their brand. (Disclosure: I took Robinson’s social media course as an undergraduate.)

Robinson said Skype has been “revolutionary” for all her classes, allowing her to bring journalists and social media professionals into class who would never otherwise have committed to traveling to deliver a guest lecture.

It can be a gamble what alternative activities classes respond best to. Some students, accustomed to learning by sitting in lecture, taking notes, and doing homework, bristle at multitasking during class, so Robinson said it has proved important to take time getting to know a class’ strengths at the start of the semester.

‘I want them to get their hands dirty’

Retha Hill wanted to create a safe space for students to experience the challenges of entrepreneurship and product development. The result was a lab course at Arizona State University where students are immersed in developing a product for a paying client two full days a week.

While Hill, the director of ASU’s Digital Innovation and Entrepreneurship Lab, said that model would not transfer well to every journalism course – classes about theory, for instance – it makes perfect sense when teaching about creating digital products.

Students work directly with executives, “get their hands dirty” developing a product to just short of market-ready and, possibly most importantly, emerge “unafraid of tech,” something Hill said is critical for young journalists entering the field.

“You’ll be looked at to see what you bring to the table … If you’re not allowed to experiment, you won’t be able to guide the rest of your newsroom,” she said. “Otherwise you’ve kind of spent four years preparing for a world that no longer exists.”

One recent project to come out of ASU's Media Innovation Lab is a site visualizing what it means to be an at-risk  citizen living in Arizona.

One recent project to come out of ASU’s Media Innovation Lab is a site visualizing what it means to be an at-risk citizen living in Arizona.

Putting public knowledge in students’ hands

In a quick poll, the majority of American University students had not been to any of Washington D.C.’s free museums.

With that many valuable resources close at hand campus, associate professor Andrew Lih set out to position his students at the forefront of documenting new historical findings.

Over the course of the semester, his students are often out in the field, collaborating with museum curators to cull new historical information from their archives. AU students digitized Civil War-era documents and studied priceless artifacts—experiences that would not have been possible in a classroom.

Lih chose a ubiquitous outlet for students to report their findings to the public: Wikipedia. He is no stranger to contributing to the online encyclopedia and was one of the first instructors ever to structure an information studies course around the fledgling site in 2003.

The course, which Lih first taught at Hong Kong University, gave students first-hand experience verifying information and contributing to public knowledge at a time when no museum would give classes working with the little-known site the time of day. Now, students engage in two hour-long biweekly “edit-a-thons” on Wikipedia while working with experts at a rotating location.

On the horizon

As technology continues to change, education developers look to keep experimenting with new technology-based tools both in and out of the classroom.

Education strategists will continue to work with instructors to build classroom-ready learning tools, like that teen pop star software simulation, said Ron Cramer, a technology consultant at UW-Madison. He said experimenting with a mobile learning initiative is also a focus.

“Quality learning can happen online just as it happens face-to-face,” he said. “We’re hoping instructors will [keep asking] ‘how can I offer my students the best learning experience with the tools at my disposal?’”

Thompson said innovations in blended learning are constantly shifting. Some campuses will try integrating blended courses with MOOCs or begin developing “high flexibility” model courses to provide more choices, where students could choose online, in person or a hybrid format for the same class.

Katherine Krueger is a recent journalism graduate from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and former editor-in-chief of The Badger Herald. You can find her tweeting frequently at @kath_krueger and blogging at katherinekrueger.com. She is hoping to continue her journalism career in New York.