Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Online courses play bigger role in entrepreneurial journalism

Fourth in a series on entrepreneurial journalism programs at universities and media organizations. 

The Poynter Institute's online training center, NewsU, is building out its offerings in entrepreneurial journalism with the goal of creating a certificate program. It is one of the few organizations doing this kind of training mainly online. 

Howard Finberg
Poynter Institute, NewsU
NewsU already has eight courses, webinars and training videos that fit under the entrepreneurial umbrella and plans on developing more. These training modules are focused on helping journalists and news organizations stay competitive as digital media change the nature of their work, says NewsU's founder, Howard Finberg

“We're training people along two tracks. We're reshaping the traditional mass media business model to be more entrepreneurial and independent of major corporations. We're also training journalists to be more self-sufficient. We're giving them the skills to work across disciplines in ways they didn't have to when we were in school. We're changing the organizational and economic approach to training the people who do journalism.”

(Disclosure: I was a consultant to Poynter's NewsU on the writing and design of an online course on covering foreign aid to the developing world.)

Many of the courses in this curriculum were developed for NewsU by Mark Briggs, author of the books Entrepreneurial Journalism: How to Build What's Next for News and Journalism Next: A Practical Guide to Digital Reporting and Publishing. “We're very grateful to Mark. His work is the seed to all of this,” Finberg says.

Mark Briggs, author
Entrepreneurial Journalism 
Finberg recommends that the first course people take is the free self-directed Innovation at Work: Helping New Ideas Succeed, which could be useful to journalists working in big media or startups. From that course there are natural spinoffs: 

NewsU also has courses on multimedia production, web design, HTML and CSS, and others that could naturally fit into a bigger program of training journalists to work in the digital world. 

Competition for students

Education is a competitive business. But given the length of the courses offered by NewsU at the moment -- generally a few hours each -- they are not direct competitors for students seeking university credit. 

However, the topics they cover are the same as university programs in entrepreneurial journalism. For many professionals, online courses offer an appealing alternative: convenience of working from home or office, ease of registration, content designed to build specific skills relevant to their work, and low cost, from free to about $125 for a package of several courses.

As NewsU develops its online entrepreneurial journalism courses, they will not be designed for massive audiences, Finberg says. They will have to include one-on-one coaching, as the university programs do. 

"From a teaching perspective, the most valuable thing we can provide is mentoring and truth-telling to the individuals who are trying to reshape their lives. It could be done in an online group seminar or with webinars or chats or even just scheduled phone calls. But you have to have instructor feedback. You can provide valuable feedback just by saying, 'I don't understand that.' The best teachers don't give you the answer. You've got to get them to think about where they can get the information to get the answer."
That individual attention is expensive, and it limits the number of people an entrepreneurial program can reach, even if it is offered online.

I have taken several of the courses in the NewsU entrepreneurial series and participated virtually in the two-day Revenue Camp. These courses are effective at getting participants to take the first action steps toward realizing an entrepreneurial venture.

Online disruption

Finberg is careful to distinguish the NewsU courses from the massively open online courses known as MOOCs. These free courses are disrupting the universities' business model to the point that Moody's Investors Service recently changed its forecast for university revenue growth to negative.

The Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas last fall ran a free massively open online course on data visualization for 2,000 participants from more than 100 countries. The second class just started, this time for 5,000 people. 

Participants have included many non-journalists. Knight Center Director Rosental Alves told Justin Ellis of Nieman Lab, "My inclination now is to look into a journalism-for-all type of program, where we can teach journalism skills for journalists and anyone else who wants to learn." 

I participated in the Knight Center course and found it excellent. Training materials were of high quality and expectations of students were high. It required about five to 10 hours of work a week, including creation of graphics and critiques of other participants' work in the forums. Instructor Alberto Cairo gave an impressive amount of individual feedback, given the size of the class. 

Online dropout rate

The massive reach is the courses' greatest strength. The dropout rate is high. In the first data visualization course, about 40 percent of the course participants stayed active for the full six weeks, according to Alves and Cairo. About 10 to 15 percent completed all the assignments and 7 percent received a certificate, for which they had to pay $30. 

My own experience in giving some 15 online courses through the University of Guadalajara was that in a typical class of 50, half the participants dropped out along the way, a fourth performed marginally and a fourth did very good work. The dropout rate was about the same whether it was free or had a modest fee of US $60. 

Some of the falloff occurred because the participants were working professionals who had to fit their studies around the long work days expected of journalists in Latin America. Partly it was the fault of poor Internet connections in some countries. Some may have found the course was not what they expected. Those who stayed till the end consistently rated the courses at 5 and above on a 6-point scale.

Finberg adds:

"If you understand the strengths and limitations of online teaching, the results can be as good as or better than the results of teaching in the classroom. Better only in the sense that the people you have in your online program should be people who are truly interested in doing this and who are truly invested in this process of learning and self-discovery and are willing to invest the time and energy into developing their skills."
He believes the key factor in online teaching is designing activities that reinforce the teaching goals. "The most effective training is getting people to do something. Activity-based teaching has the highest retention rate."

Shaping the future

The Poynter Institute and NewsU believe online training in entrepreneurial journalism can help shape the future of journalism, Finberg says. They will also continue to offer training in the fundamental principles of excellence in journalism for which they have international recognition: high ethical and professional standards, holding public officials accountable, and storytelling that informs and engages the public.

He brought up a third goal for journalism training: getting journalists to be more "digitally centric" -- that is, more focused on producing digital products, not products for the Internet or products for mobile devices, because "we don't know what the devices and delivery systems will be" a few years from now. But we are pretty sure that they will be digital. 

NewsU, Online courses, webinars, training videos in entrepreneurial journalism
Duration: Several hours per training module
Schedule: At student's option
Students: Mostly working journalists
Cost: Free to $125


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