Throughout my career, I’ve worked to communicate science and produce newsletters and website content for the Texas Water Resources Institute at Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas. Since I earned a Ph.D. in 2003, I’ve been able to teach Journalism and Mass Communication classes as a part-time (adjunct) instructor at universities throughout Texas and Louisiana. In the spring of 2007, I taught the Online Journalism class in-person for the first time for the Mass Communication Department at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas.
Sam Houston State University uses the Online Journalism course as a capstone for seniors in the print journalism track. To qualify for the course, students must first take a series of prerequisites, most of which are in print journalism and mass communication. As a result, 10 or fewer students are typically enrolled in the class each semester.
The intent of the course is to prepare students for careers in the rapidly-evolving field of online journalism where news organizations from the traditional realms of print and broadcast media are developing constantly updated Web-based efforts. The focus is to teach students how to use the skill sets needed in journalism, along with new technologies, to carry out excellent reporting and writing. In contrast, it’s much less important that students be able to create great-looking webpages, especially if the quality of writing and reporting is not up to high standards.
Developing the course
The course has been taught for a few semesters at Sam Houston State University. Previous instructors focused on providing students extensive hands-on instruction about how to use specific technologies (i.e., Flash, DreamWeaver, etc).
I was given considerable freedom to structure the course the best way I saw fit. After looking at the few textbooks that cover the field, I chose Online Journalism Principles and Practices of News for the Web by James Foust (published by Holcomb-Hathaway). I chose this book because it stresses the changes in the way journalists will have to think when working in converged journalism. Also, the book is supplemented by a website with several links to additional sources of information.
One of the most difficult choices I had to make was the extent to which students would work on technologies in class (i.e., writing code for various programs) vs. being exposed to emerging issues that will affect the future of news organizations. Ultimately, I settled on deemphasizing the amount of in-class time the students would spend on the mechanics of specific software programs. I wanted to avoid turning the students into technicians who would only learn a skill-set that could easily become obsolete if workplaces were using other programs and as new technologies emerged. Instead, I focused on teaching students the essentials of how to work in online news organizations.
The key elements that influenced the most students’ final grades involved the quality of their digital portfolios, their scores on a final exam, and a research paper in which students described how the lessons learned in this course would affect their careers in online journalism. In addition, students scored and ranked the portfolios their colleagues developed and presented in class. Students were encouraged to offer constructive comments that could benefit one another.
Teaching the course
Over the course of the semester, I taught eight students, all of whom were seniors focusing on print journalism. The class met on Tuesday and Thursday nights (the only times I was able to be on campus). In-person instruction was supplemented by a Blackboard site that featured reading materials and a forum where students could ask questions and discuss the issues.
On the first day of class, I gave the students a survey to learn their proficiency in using Internet-based technologies to produce Web-related content. I assumed that most of them had grown up around Internet technologies and had probably already worked extensively to create webpages.
However, results indicated that not only did most of the students say they had little experience with DreamWeaver, Flash and related technologies, they were also worried about their ability to master these programs. I also used the survey to learn if students had worked with creating and editing digital audio and video and formatting it for the web. The ability to create and manage digital audio and video was essential, as students were expected to produce an online journalism that includes their use of audio, video, and multimedia. However, only a few students had taken traditional broadcast news courses or had worked with digital filming and editing.
Because of these limitations, I gave the students the option of creating a digital portfolio using applications other than DreamWeaver and Flash. As a result, only a few of my students created pages in DreamWeaver from scratch. Several of them made portfolios with downloaded DreamWeaver templates or using software to create blogs.
To overcome these obstacles, I brought in technically-proficient guest speakers from the Sam Houston State University Computing Services Department who were skilled in Internet publishing. These guest speakers demonstrated some of the basic and more complex applications of DreamWeaver, Flash, and related technologies. Better yet, they made class members aware of on-campus resources (e.g., computing labs and commercial programs that could be downloaded with a student ID). Students were encouraged to take advantage of these resources in their out-of-class time. I also tried to make students aware of teachers, technicians and resources they could use to produce their own audio and video and convert it for use on the Web. However, I could not bring any campus experts to demonstrate their work in this area because these people worked during the day and my class started at 6 PM. Though students were encouraged to meet with the broadcast production staff outside of class, few took advantage of this opportunity.
To give students with a perspective on how online journalism is practiced on the job, I invited practitioners working in online media from throughout the region to guest lecture and share their experiences. Guests who addressed the class included the Web content editor of a daily newspaper, a TV journalist who files lengthy versions of her stories online and decides on which stories will be placed prominently on the station’s webpage and a Web designer for a company that creates innovative webpages for sports teams and leagues and other organizations. The goal was to give students an idea of what skill sets tomorrow’s journalists will regularly need.
My overriding goal was to give students a broad understanding of how they will have to develop new skills and new ways of thinking to succeed in online journalism. Because the field is so changing so rapidly, I regularly introduced news items from the mass media (i.e., the interactive timeline developed by Cable News Network to describe the massacre of college students at Virginia Tech). In addition, students were regularly introduced to breaking developments in the trade media, including materials from The Online Journalism Review, The Bivings Report, The Poynter Institute, The CyberJournalist, and Teaching Online Journalism (among others).
Some of the topics we spent a lot of time discussing and debating included the following:
Observations from teaching this course
Now that the semester is over and I can look at how my students performed from a distance, a number of observations come to mind that might be of benefit to other instructors.