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Can Slow-Moving Universities Adapt Quickly Enough to Teach in the Digital Age?

August 29, 2013


The start of classes this fall will also bring renewed debate about what journalism and mass communications colleges should teach in an age of disruption. Professors are trying to figure out how we should be preparing students for jobs that don’t exist yet. Or for jobs that will exist in two years, but won’t in four.

I wonder if everything we want journalism and communications students to know can be accommodated in the structure we have. Maybe curricular modifications are too small of an effort to bring about the changes we really need. Perhaps the nature of the university and the nature of journalism education in a digitally disrupted world require that we look at new ways to provide the training employers say they want in new hires.

Can universities designed to make slow, incremental, deliberative and consensual changes respond with the speed, risk-taking and adaptability demanded by today’s technological disruptions? If the nature of universities and the needs of mass communication students are at odds, how do we fix that?

Below are some thoughts on ways colleges are trying to square this circle to keep journalism curricula current and relevant. Extracurricular projects, the teaching hospital model, hackathons and innovation labs are ways various universities are trying to keep their curricula current. But none of those seems to be the systematic change we need.


One way to revise curricula is to study what’s being taught, study what employers say they need, study the differences, study which of those differences students should know, study how to teach that, find who would teach it, then propose a class for two years from now to deal with the problem.  In those two years, the department, college and university curriculum committees will study the proposed new course and get it on the schedule. That process works well for philosophy or history courses, but not for journalism courses. A more aggressive faculty would use temporary processes to teach a new class as a “current topic.” But that’s a temporary solution because topics classes usually can’t be continually repeated. The deliberative and committee processes still have to be tackled.

Even when a timely new class is offered to meet a changed market need, students’ schedules often don’t let them take the class because their majors allow no or few electives if the student wants to graduate in four years.


Foundations that fund journalism are joining the call for changes by proposing how they think journalism curricula should change. Last year, six foundations called on educators to blend practice and scholarship in the “teaching hospital” model called for by the Carnegie-Knight Initiative for the Future of Journalism Education. This model blends students, professors and professionals doing journalism together as they digitally inform and engage the community in new ways and then research the results.

Some colleges of journalism and mass communications are doing great jobs having students provide news to their communities. But this is only a part of the teaching-hospital model. Missouri is famous for student classes providing community news. At Nebraska, students supervised by a faculty member with legislative reporting experience supply our state’s news organizations with free coverage of state government. The University of Maryland and Northwestern University have long had students providing news to the public. Arizona State University has state and national student news bureaus. But if this model of students, professors and professionals working in partnership isn’t informing and engaging their communities in constantly new ways, using new technology and studying its effects, it isn’t the model the foundations say is needed. And frankly, few of us are doing all that the teaching hospital model requires.


I’ve been proposing a model that emphasizes multidisciplinary education. I want to create a Center for Mobile Media that would combine research professors and professors of practice working with journalism, advertising, public relations, computer science, design, business and marketing students. Each of those groups provides an essential piece needed to create a successful mobile media product, then study it in the field and improve it. But multidisciplinary education is probably one of the more difficult and slower changes a university can make. Two or three colleges, each with their prerequisites and requirements, each trying to fill the student’s time with required, not elective classes, geometrically complicates the ability to create a multidisciplinary class.

To test the type of projects a multidisciplinary Center for Mobile Media might do, I tried using extracurricular clubs or informal gatherings of students to teach skills that haven’t yet made it into the curriculum. For instance, last fall I sponsored a hackathon that attempted to bring journalism, advertising, computer science and design students together to create a mobile app. Despite having a grant that allowed me to pay $1,000 for the winning app, the hackathon was a failure, so we had to figure out why. Not enough students attended to even form one team. I think the term hackathon scared some people away, but a big problem was simply trying to fit a Friday-Saturday creative marathon into students’ schedules — especially on a football weekend.

The redesigned hackathon turned into a series of half-day Saturday meetings around the topics of creativity and problem solving, entrepreneurial thinking and coding. I partnered with a campus IT group designed to teach technical skills to students and staff. The students’ news app would bepresented at the annual spring convention of the Nebraska Press Association to gauge members’ interest in its feasibility and to try to find a development and rollout partner. (I’m also using the Nebraska Press Association to test a four-week online class about using mobile media as your reporting tools. I hope this test will eventually become a regular part of the curriculum.)


My colleague Matt Waite, developer of the Pulitzer-winning, holds “Maker Hours,” an open lab on Friday afternoons for people who want to learn to make websites, mobile sites, drones or sensors. Our college supports the Maker Lab as a way to supplement students’ skills.

The same is true for Waite’s Drone Journalism Lab, funded by a grant fromKnight Foundation. Waite doesn’t teach drone journalism as a class; he teaches it as an extracurricular project. That way he gets students who truly are interested in the work.

More and more, it seems that extracurricular projects are good ways to bring contemporary skills to a few students. The problem is that most students have no time for extracurricular work. The only way to reach a large number of students is through curricular changes. The dilemma is that curricular changes are slow and extracurricular projects have few students.

Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication has created a smart solution to this problem by making an Innovation Lab part of its curriculum. The work the students do in the lab can change every semester, even mid-semester, to answer new problems and ideas.


Probably the best way to keep journalism curricula current and meeting the needs of the changing marketplace is to instill a culture of change and risk-taking among faculty. Frankly, that’s a challenge, because universities aren’t designed to take a lot of risks, fail fast if necessary, adapt and move on. But that’s the attitude successful businesses, particularly startups, require.

All this makes me wonder: Should we radically change the concept of journalism education? Should we create freestanding journalism institutes to teach the skills journalists need, and staff them with professors of practice on contract, not tenure? These institutes would be designed to offer new skills classes every semester. As demands change, people with those skills are hired. But the hires are temporary. If the skills go out of date, then the teacher either needs to stay current with other skills, or not teach there any longer. At the same time, it makes sense to continue to house the study of journalism’s relationship with and influence on society at universities. Are colleges of journalism and mass communications artificially forced combinations of practice, research and theory that should be pulled apart? Is that why curriculum reform is so difficult?

If a journalism education were split between university education and practical skills training, students could do university studies emphasizing critical thinking and research skills, a foreign language and detailed knowledge in topics like health issues or immigration issues. Then they could have a year of communication, digital and data skills training from a media institute staffed with experts who teach there only as long as their skills are the most current the market demands. The university could do what it does best — teach critical thinking, analysis and research while the institute could do what it does best — teach the most current skills today that might not be needed in two years because entirely different ones are demanded. The university could tenure its professors, but the institute shouldn’t. It should grant contracts based on one’s ability to teach the latest technologies and proof that the teaching is effective.

A journalism or communications institute is a way to solve some of journalism’s curricular problems. It’s responsive and adaptable because it’s staffed by people current in the latest technologies. It can create partnerships with news organizations to provide community news, as the teaching hospital model does. It can be staffed by people with a variety of skills from any background because academic silos will not be an issue. Its purpose would be to take risks, adapt to change and teach ever-changing technologies. It separates, rather than forces, complicated relationships between the need to respond fast to technological disruptions and the deliberative slower nature of the university. It doesn’t attempt to mix oil and water. Maybe we need a new way to look at the relationship between teaching journalism skills and teaching topical knowledge, research and analysis. Published at

Note: These ideas, and particularly the Teaching Hospital Model, are scheduled to be discussed at the Online News Association Conference in Atlanta in a panel session conducted by Eric Newton of the Knight Foundation called “Hack the Curriculum.”

Gary Kebbel is a journalism professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He is working to create a Center for Mobile Media there. Previously he was the journalism program director for the Knight Foundation in Miami.


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