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Home > Reading Room > Converging Curriculum: Finding the Niche

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Converging Curriculum: Finding the Niche

By Sybril Bennett, Ph.D.
Executive Director, New Century Journalism Program
Assistant Professor, Journalism, Belmont University, Nashville, Tenn.


“Ugh, not another meeting to discuss changing the curriculum again,” that’s the shout being heard around the country as journalism educators face the convergence conundrum, creating a curriculum to prepare students to work in a multimedia world.

Whether you are at the beginning or in the middle of the process (note to newbies: like good editing, revision means the curriculum adaptation never ends), taking a snapshot of curricular change in journalism programs throughout the country should help you manage this virtually unending task. This article shares the curriculum experiences of faculty at the University of Kansas, a veteran program, that’s been in place eight years; Belmont University, an intermediate program, that’s been in place four years; and, Towson University, a newly revised program to be implemented in this fall. With respect to the elders, the University of Kansas is first.

University of Kansas
“We’ve been there, done that and have the t-shirt,” these words of wisdom were uttered emphatically by Ann Brill, Dean at the William White School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Kansas (KU). For KU, the curriculum change started in 1997 with a formal curriculum being adopted in 1999. Brill left the University of Missouri-Columbia to work at KU in 2000 and was appointed as Dean in 2004. When asked about the lessons she and her colleagues learned through the implementation of new curricula, Brill responded in rapid fire. “Faculty members need to be storytellers before print, broadcast or online journalists.” In other words, the technology is secondary to the message.”

This is in line with the underlying premise for KU’s integrated multimedia curricula. “It’s about the purpose, message and audience,” Brill said. To clarify she added the following questions. “Why are we telling the story? What is the message? Who are we telling the story?” With respect to curriculum changes, faculty may need to ask a similar set of questions. Why are we changing the curriculum? What needs to be changed? What needs to remain? What is the main goal? Who will the change affect and how? Which faculty is best suited to lead this new initiative? Include as many stakeholders as possible in the conversation including faculty, staff, administrators and students. Each will play a role at different stages of the process.

With confidence, character and candor, Brill breaks the facts as well as myths down into the lowest common denominator, “the audience doesn’t distinguish as much as the industry does in terms of news, entertainment or marketing. For the consumer, it’s more about the content than the intent.”

Brill deliberately uses the term multimedia instead of convergence. “Convergence took on the meaning that we’re all in the same boat together but some distinctions are necessary. Multimedia is more clear than convergence.” Through multimedia, the content distribution comes together online. The convergence is actually at the end of the process. She adds, “You’ve got to learn how to use the different tools to tell a story.” For Brill, it is clear that the story is the bottom line no matter the platform. For example, KU offers two tracks to meet the needs of their students. The News and Information track is for aspiring journalists. While the Strategic Communication track meets the needs of students interested in public relations. Both sets of students have stories to tell in different ways.

Students have laptops, Mac Notebooks, iPods, MP3s, cellphones and access to a myriad of other video and audio equipment prior to their college admission. “It’s not about the technology. Students know how to shoot, they don’t know how to tell stories. They need help with putting stories together and learning ethics, grammar and spelling,” Brill said.

Up Close: Towson University

By Beth A. Haller

In reinventing our journalism/new media curriculum at Towson University, what we are not helped us most.

We are not a journalism school. We don’t have a journalism department, or even a journalism major. Those aspects, which some may see as deficiencies, actually helped us more easily craft innovative, new convergence-oriented journalism/new media courses.

What we are is a track in a mass communication and communication studies department. As the second-largest state university in Maryland with 18,000 students (after University of Maryland-College Park, which has a College of Journalism), we have one of the largest mass communication departments in the United States. We have about 1,200 mass communication and communication studies majors. But thankfully, for our purposes of reconfiguring our journalism/new media track, the majority of our students, similar to trends nationally, are interested in public relations or advertising.

The fact that we were dealing with a smaller group of students and weren’t changing a major that would affect nonjournalism students ended up being a great benefit to us. Additional benefits are some of the perks that draw journalism students to Towson University in the first place: an attractive, manageable campus that is appealing to young people, a location minutes from the major metro area of Baltimore, and a thriving and award-winning, independent student newspaper, The Towerlight.

Our curriculum change has been in the works for a number of years. And we have been lucky to have a faculty member, Thom Lieb, develop convergence-oriented courses for us over the years.

Lieb, whose specialty is new media, developed our track’s senior-level Writing for New Media course, which is the capstone course for the track, back in 1996. The course teaches students how to use the full range of tools available online — hypertext, graphics, photos, audio and video — to create multimedia journalistic packages.

Our new curriculum grew from this Writing for New Media course. Students take a number of traditional journalism courses as the prerequisites: Newswriting, as well as Feature Writing and/or Broadcast Journalism. The course has always been a challenge for students who do not quickly grasp new technology, because if they have taken only the required prereqs, they likely did not have the skills needed for Web design or video and audio editing.

To try to address this, our track added a junior-level Digital Publishing course designed to teach students the computer technology needed to create print and online publications. This should have given students the software skills they needed for Writing for New Media, but due to the structure of other prerequisites and the domino effect it would cause, we couldn’t require Digital Publishing as the prereq for Writing for New Media.

As we wrestled with this problem, other things became clear: It wasn’t just technology issues that had students struggling in Writing for New Media; it was also that they were getting few of the needed building blocks for writing and reporting in a convergence class. (Concurrent with this decision to redesign our track, we were also fortunate to beef up our broadcast journalism certificate, which is an optional part of the journalism/new media track. We hired a full-time broadcast journalism instructor, created a digital audio lab for editing and began developing a separate digital video editing lab.)

It took only a few minutes of journalism faculty discussion about our current introductory journalism writing course, Newswriting, to see that it would be better to start fresh, rather than try to cobble convergence components onto a historically print-oriented course. We also looked at a list of convergence skills and our enhanced availability of broadcast journalism, and quickly decided that we needed our introductory journalism/new media writing course to be two courses.

Here’s the rationale we came up to present to the college curriculum committee, as we developed our new track: “To be competitive in today’s news media world, students need to acquire the basic writing skills required in print, broadcast, online journalism and emerging news media formats. The goal of these two courses is for students to learn the writing styles and formats used across the news media. Students will learn skills that fit the needs of the converged journalism newsroom, in which news staff members are proficient in working with text, audio and images.”

This goal was reiterated by our department chairman, Charles Flippen.

“Our change from a traditionally based, print-oriented journalism program with a smattering of courses related to broadcast and new media to a converged model represents our recognition of what is happening in the profession,” he said. “Graduates of journalism/mass communication programs will need to be competent across several media platforms if they are going to be competitive in the job market.”

The first convergence course, Journalism/New Media I, will cover news values and news judgment; the basic writing style for online news media and emerging news media formats; the basic writing style for broadcast news; the basic writing style for print news; some of the commercial, ethical and legal issues affecting converged journalism; and how to create accurate and fair news reports in that environment. Class assignments will include writing news alerts, radio and print leads, radio readers, TV voiceovers, inverted pyramid stories and blog postings.

The second convergence course, Journalism/New Media II, will cover researching and interviewing for news and feature stories for all major media platforms and emerging news formats; creating audio and video news packages; creating nonlinear and visual news narratives; and writing in-depth news and features for print. Class assignments will include researching and posting to a personal blog throughout the semester; producing an audio story with actualities and natural sound; producing a video story from clips and notes provided; researching and writing a feature story for print; researching and writing a nonlinear narrative; and photographing and creating an online slide show.

These two new courses will anchor the beginning of the journalism/new media track. Digital Publishing will also take on a larger role, moving from being an elective to a required course in the track. News Editing and Writing for New Media will both continue to be required in the track.

The other changes, in terms of requirements, will give students the same choices for professional writing courses (News Reporting, Feature Writing, Broadcast Journalism I, and Literary Journalism), but they need only take one of the courses, instead of the previous requirement of two. However, students still need to take three courses for electives, so we expect some students will take more than one of the professional writing courses as an elective. Students have a number of other courses they must take to fulfill the mass communication major requirements, but those are separate from track requirements.

Our hope is that students will receive all the fundamentals they need to function well in a converged media environment, if that is where they are employed after college. But we also hope we have left enough flexibility in our journalism/new media track so if they want to focus on feature or magazine writing for print, for example, that is available, too, through offerings such as Literary Journalism and Magazine Publishing.

Our changes are in line with many of our students, who are supremely savvy about what is happening with converged news media, and know how to make their place within it. One of our journalism/new media students, Ryan Reed, who took Writing for New Media in spring 2007, summed it up succinctly on his blog for The Baltimore Examiner:

“Print is slowly but surely dying, and everything is going online. Today I walked past The Baltimore Sun because I knew I could read it online and not pay for it. If you’re in journalism and you think InDesign is a new fashion reality show, Photoshop is a place where you get your film developed and Dreamweaver is simply the name of a song by Gary Wright, you have a lot of work to do.”

Beth A. Haller, Ph.D., is unit coordinator and an associate professor in the journalism/new media track in the Department of Mass Communication and Communication Studies at Towson University. She has been on the faculty since 1996 and teaches News Reporting, Magazine Publishing, Feature Writing, Media Law and Honors Introduction to Mass Communication. She serves on the SPJ education committee and diversity committee.

Towson University
Thom Lieb is a Professor of Journalism and New Media in the Department of Mass Communication and Communication Studies, Towson University. Lieb has been on the front line for years helping to add new media courses to the journalism/new media track. He notes some faculty were receptive to the change but he says that others were a bit apprehensive. “I am concerned about the strain on the faculty (learning to teach new courses) and about student outcomes. Can we get students through two new journalism and new media introductory courses and have the students learn the desired skills? So far, this is an untested plan.” Lieb credits his colleague Dr. Beth Haller for finding a quick solution by adding a news writing course for non-majors. Compromise is the key.

The only real concerns Lieb has at this point are twofold. “I am concerned about the strain on the faculty (learning to teach new courses) and striking a balance. Can we get students through two new journalism and new media introductory courses and the students learn the desired skills? So far, this is an untested plan.” For many institutions, funds for faculty training are insufficient. This is a prime area of advocacy for professional associations as well as the academy.

In spite of the virtual learning curve, Lieb said “to some extent, I think the academy has fallen behind, but we still may be a step ahead of the industry in some way.” It’s an interesting dance. Sometimes the academy takes the lead, while other times the news industry takes control. To get a more in-depth look at how Towson has revamped their curriculum to keep in step with the industry see Dr. Beth Haller’s companion piece (right).

Belmont University
Administrators and faculty for the New Century Journalism Program at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee has been experimenting with a converged journalism curriculum since the fall of 2003. The focus of the change was integrating the N.E.W.S: new media, ethics, writing and storytelling across multimedia platforms. Like traditional media, finding your niche within the curriculum is critical. Our program is growing and becoming known for the converged curriculum. We do well with what we offer. We cannot be Western Kentucky University with an exceptional Photojournalism program. We are not trying to be something that we are not. As other educators revise curriculum, playing to the program’s strengths is paramount.

Like Belmont, the Towson faculty made a conscience decision not to seek accreditation for the new program. Lieb said, “we don’t see the advantage for us.” For Belmont the journalism major is 48 credits and we are building and working on improving the program on a regular basis which means we, like the media industry are in a constant state of change. Therefore, it would be very difficult to meet all of the accreditation standards.

Collaborative Wisdom
A borrowed lesson is better than one paid in full so hopefully these parting words of wisdom will lead to a more positive, productive and less painful curricular change process.

Brill said, “We thought that we had to use broadcast quality equipment. We found out that we were better off buying more cameras at cheaper prices and actually to some extent the lower end is better.” Remember, the movie the Blair Witch Project was created for $35,000 and grossed more than $248 million. The cell phone video by the student at Virginia Tech was aired more times than anyone cares to number. Quality matters but getting the story matters more. Brill suggests that every academic read the book , The Long Tail by Chris Anderson. It underscores this pearl of wisdom.

She adds, “Don’t underestimate the students’ ability to learn on their own.” KU put a bunch of tutorials online and provided additional help for students who were apprehensive about learning the technology on their own. They also coined a new phrase to describe the phenomena, just in time learning. Brill explains “Just in time learning is when you’re going to have to do this assignment. So, I [the student] better learn it because it’s just in time for my assignment deadline.”

Another word to the wise from the Dean is that, “Change cannot be lead from the outside, it must come from within. Buy in from within is critical.” When it comes to getting veteran faculty members to embrace change, Brill notes, “you can teach mature people new skills.” And it doesn’t really matter who is doing the teaching. “Don’t be afraid to learn from your students” Brill said.

The price of change is manifest in many ways. Brill has a suggestion to cover some of the financial costs. “We have course fees, so if there is a high technology demand, students don’t mind (paying the fees) as long as they are learning.”

When facilitating new media seminars, I often encourage the participants to try one new media innovation at a time. The same advice is beneficial when converging a journalism curriculum. It is imperative that some aspect of the curriculum is successful even if more changes need to be made.

At Belmont, Associate Dean of the School of Social Sciences and Chair of the Media Studies Department, Thompson Storey implemented a three-tiered practicum course so that all of the majors would have an in-depth experience in print, broadcast and online media during the spring semester of their freshman, sophomore and junior years. Overall, the practicum has been successful but there was still room for improvement.

Initially, students took the print practicum and then the online practicum as the second course in the three-part series. However, students suggested making the broadcast component second since they needed to learn the video aspect for the online practicum. As a result, not only did we adjust the sequence, we also made broadcast news and electronic news gathering required courses to teach the students how to shoot and how to edit. Listening to the students is an integrated piece of the annual program evaluation.

Thom Lieb was a Convergence for College Educators Fellow at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Florida in 2006. “I learned a great deal from my colleagues.” Yet, another valuable kernel of advice, attend as many conferences, workshops, etc. to learn from other faculty. Of course, surfing the web and doing research on other programs is a given.

Lieb adds the biggest lesson the Towson faculty have learned so far is to be prepared to change...again. “Flexibility is the number one thing everybody needs to keep in mind.”

Conclusion
Brill mentioned several graduates who have secured employment because of their multimedia training. “One of KUs graduates is 24 years old and an online editor at the Poynter Institute.” A Belmont University alum landed a job at CBS in New York on the International desk because of his knowledge of multimedia journalism and global affairs. Although some said the industry wasn’t ready for these graduates, a growing number of news operations are. Therefore it is imperative that universities supply students with a multimedia mentality to meet the media industry’s real as well as virtual needs.

My years at Marquette University were memorable for many reasons but the words of one professor took hold, “nothing stays the same except change.” So the cries of journalism educators in the throes of curricular change may wane but it’s unlikely they will ever disappear.
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