Journalism education’s future

The news media have published a number of stories recently questioning the value of a college degree. Tuition has increased, and, apparently, learning has decreased. Another point, not obviously related, is grade inflation. I argue, however, that declining value of education and rising grade inflation are related. Potential employers can no longer trust that a college graduate will be prepared to work in his or her field. Something must change.

In journalism, the change could be dramatic. One possible scenario is that fewer students will spend the time and borrow the money for a 4-year degree (which often takes 5 years to complete).

Howard Finberg, director of interactive learning at The Poynter Institute, predicts that people may gain a journalism education without earning a journalism degree. They may earn digital badges, which would verify people’s accomplishments and skills. Whereas a degree indicates that students had a certain number of professor-student contact hours and they satisfactorily completed professors’ assignments, a digital badge indicates that a person acquired a specific skill. People could earn badges by winning awards, completing special projects or meeting learning objectives in a traditional course.

Universities are striving to improve assessment of student learning. Administrators increasingly insist that course syllabuses include specific learning objectives and that professors assess students’ ability to meet each objective. These learning objectives resemble digital badges. If students took 40 courses to earn a degree, and each course had one unique learning objective, then upon graduation, a student would have earned 40 digital badges.

Digital badges, however, may face the same problem as college degrees. In order to increase revenues, degree-granting and badge-granting institutions may enroll as many students as possible. They may not care whether these students are prepared or willing to do the necessary work. They may invest a certain amount of resources to teach students. Then a certain percentage of students may withdraw or fail; another percentage may excel; and the majority in between these groups may pressure instructors to provide greater rewards than are deserved. As a result, employers may remain skeptical of graduates’ capabilities.

Of course, badge-granting institutions would probably not emphasize scholarship and research. Nor would they offer football games, beer-drinking companionship and the other pleasures of living away from parents.

But e-learning (distance education via the Internet) also fails to provide social opportunities on campuses. Yet e-learning in combination with face-to-face interaction may be the future of education, at least at the graduate level.

I’m living in Tbilisi, Georgia, and teaching a doctoral student, Matt Haught, who lives in Columbia, SC. Last night we had a 1.5-hour video Skype call to discuss his reading assignment, his writing and his career plans. Throughout a course, we talk once a week. E-learning for an independent study course has worked well for both of us.

If I had not interacted with Matt in Columbia for a year, however, I don’t believe that our e-learning experience would be as successful. I need some face-to-face time to build trust and to connect with a student.

I would be excited about participating in a visual communication doctoral program with students and faculty scattered throughout the world. It would enable me to work with the best scholars and best students. And what would be the downside (other than time zone problems)? How much difference would there be between my current independent study with Matt and an online course with 5 doctoral students on 5 different continents? Again, I’d just like a certain about of face-to-face time in the beginning.

So why isn’t there a true “international” doctoral program in visual communication? I guess the answer is money and bookkeeping. Imagine that University XX offered the degree and each student paid tuition for 48 credit hours to University XX. Of the 48 credit hours, only 9 were taught by faculty members “working for” University XX (i.e. living nearby). How much money would University XX keep for “overhead?” How much would it pay its faculty members? How much would it pay faculty members working for other universities? I don’t know, but I wish University XX would take a chance and experiment with an e-learning doctoral program in visual communication.