Save the old or start new?

For the discussion about journalism education with the #collegejourn folks, I’d like to add a few thoughts to the fire.

First, the assumption is incorrect. There’s no way professors are going to be able to “catch up,” but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s just another characteristic of the indicative paradigm shift that’s happening right now. We’ve got to move from a “one-to-many” style of top-down education to a “many-to-many” style of networked education. What we’re doing right now, having a lateral conversation that is independent of geography, is just one example of this transition happening organically. If anything, it’s going to be us (i.e. the students) getting professors caught up. In doing so, however, the question will be raised of what exactly the role of journalism professors is. I don’t necessarily have an answer.

Journalism schools, furthermore, need to become catalysts for innovation. “Innovation” is becoming a buzzword these days, but there has been less discussion on what is needed to inspire it. I’m of the opinion, though, that schools are excellent ground for experimentation. Students should be afforded the opportunity and encouraged to test new things out because the school can be an environment where it doesn’t hurt to fail, pick up the pieces, and try again.

It’s critical to drop multiple choice testing.┬áStandardized tests and rote memorization are one of the worst excuses for learning, and do even less in an era of rapid technological transformation. One of my classes this fall was J204 Visual Communications. In my opinion, 90% of the tests we took were based on how well you could memorize the book. I did quite well but honestly couldn’t tell you what I learned four months later. Grading is subjective, and should instead be based on an interpretation of merit.

Furthermore, there need to be multiple tracks of learning. Classes now are held for the lowest common denominator, but the gradient of skill aptitude is increasing. There needs to be better rapid certification for “self-learners,” and the class needs to be better structured such that those who learn at a quicker pace are incentivized to teach their fellow students.

What if class was an unconference? What if, at the beginning of every semester, the students came together and collaborated on their syllabus for the next semester? Instead of the professor teaching what he or she thinks the students should learn, the educational process needs to be driven by what students want to learn and, more importantly, by the questions they want to answer. Education through creation instead of education through systemization.

I challenge any school to be this radical. It might even motivate me to re-enroll.

Parallels between journalism and education

I’ve got an email thread going with John Lowe of the Detroit Free Press, and it’s conversations like these that make me wish there was a better tool for having transparent, but directed conversations. The discussion topic is education, specifically the current university system, and I think there’s a pretty interesting parallel to the journalism industry.

John asks, “Is there still room for a professor to teach wisdom?”, to which I reply (emphasis added):

I think professors can teach wisdom, but so can students. The current model, to take a journalism analogy, is broadcast, whereas the technology is quickly allowing many to many communication (or education). There’s still room for professional news organizations (or traditional universities), but they are now facing the crunch to evolve in order to maintain their relevance. The one thing that the universities still hold as a competitive, monopolistic advantage is certification, in my opinion. A substantial alternative, a system for rapidly certifying you in certain areas if you already hold the knowledge or can pick it up at a greater rate, will be a huge disruptor.

I don’t think the “current college system” will remain relevant. Instead of thinking about textbooks and lectures, which in some arenas are becoming obsolete faster than they can be printed (i.e. journalism, where the “Web” was discussed in only one part of one chapter of my J201 textbook), I think universities need to be thinking a lot further forward.

This [many to many communications technology] presents a huge flaw in the “top-down” model, too. For universities to function as it stands, the professors must “learn” the material before the students do, hold a monopoly on that information, and then present that information. The problem is that the information they need to teach will be changing at an increasingly greater rate. That’s why the evolutionary, “network-based” model is appropriate.

I’d like to continue that evolutionary learning, where knowledge grows from the ground up, is likely the only way that universities (or any other education system) can “keep up with the times” and not teach 5 year old material. The real issue is that we’re amidst a fundamental paradigm shift on top of accelerating change, and that most institutions that have dealt information in the past aren’t adequately forward-thinking to survive the transition.