Pervasive Computing in Journalism Education


Mike McKean
University of Missouri School of Journalism

This fall the Missouri School of Journalism will offer students a new major, the first change of that magnitude in more than 50 years. The 1,000 or so undergraduate and graduate students enrolled in the world’s first school of journalism can now specialize in convergence as well as the traditional disciplines of advertising, broadcast news, magazine, newspaper and photojournalism.

What d'es “convergence” mean in a journalistic context? Is it a new way to tell stories? A new way to market stories? A new business model for traditional media industries? A new way to bring the audience into the process of gathering and telling the news? The answer is “Yes” to all of the above.

MOJO (The Missouri School of Journalism) faculty embraced the notion of a separate convergence major in the fall of 2003 in the face of some decidedly bad news for the journalism profession. Daily newspaper readership has declined precipitously over the past 40 years. In the last decade, similar declines have occurred in TV news viewership (Crosby, Online Journalism Review, March 4, 2004). Significant percentages of Americans believe the news media are biased, uncaring, and even immoral (Pew Center for the People and the Press, January 2005). And the Net Generation is not developing the habit of consuming what journalists produce. As author Merrill Brown put it in a recent report from the Carnegie Corporation, “The future of the U.S. news industry is seriously threatened by the seemingly irrevocable move by young people away from traditional sources of news” (The Carnegie Reporter, April 2005).

For some time, Missouri had been looking for a partner to help transform its journalism curriculum while updating its aging computer technology. After much consultation, the J-School signed on with Apple Computer as one of five charter members of the Apple Digital Campus initiative (the others are Duke University (NC), Ohio State University, Penn State University and Stanford University (CA)). The partnership is now expanding to other interested colleges and universities through the ADC Exchange, a web site that includes blogs, threaded discussions, sample tools and galleries of student work at (registration required).

To carry out our vision of pervasive computing in journalism education, we purchased wireless laptops for all full-time faculty in the spring of 2004 and adopted a laptop requirement for all undergraduates beginning with the Fall 2005 freshman class. A core group of instructors has already begun experimenting in courses that will have a direct impact on the new convergence sequence.

One experiment requires freshmen living and taking courses together as part of a “residential community” to participate in a “movie” competition using Apple’s iLife software along with loaner laptops and mini-DV cameras ( ). Faculty members judge the movies and reward the winners at a campus-wide event. While we made mistakes the first time, many students demonstrated a surprisingly good understanding of digital and visual literacy given their lack of college-level training. This experiment also showcased the power of peer and group learning with a minimal investment of faculty time and resources. In 2006, a new one-hour “careers” course will expose all first-year students to the project.

A similar transformation is occurring in the J-School’s required entry-level news “writing” course for sophomores. Students are given laptops and cameras to record their on-location interviews. Faculty can review the saved video files giving them a powerful new tool to assess body language, rapport with sources, question selection and the like. Other students are producing web-enabled stories complete with audio, video, pictures and links ( ).

Though the official focus of our efforts has been on the freshman and sophomore experiences, we are encouraging faculty to develop their own technology enhancements. One of the more exciting projects involves using laptops and iSight cameras to bring experts into the classroom from remote locations or even teach courses virtually while faculty are traveling abroad.

These technology-enhanced courses provide the building blocks for the new convergence sequence. Students who opt into the program will sign up for courses in multimedia marketing as well as the fundamentals of TV, radio and photojournalism. As juniors and seniors, they’ll enroll in reporting and editing courses where they work in teams to produce and promote stories for our NPR station, commercial TV and newspaper operations, and their web sites. A capstone course will give them the opportunity to work on long-form projects and explore new story-telling and delivery options.

Meanwhile, the J-School is insisting that convergence students also receive in-depth training in a specific media discipline to assure professional level competence and to enhance their career prospects. They’ll do this by taking six hours in faculty-approved concentrations such as magazine design, photojournalism, investigative reporting, and TV newscast producing.

Students admitted into our M.A. program will have the option of choosing a graduate convergence model based on the same pedagogy.

Our convergence efforts were greatly enhanced last February when the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation gave Missouri $31 million to create a center for the advanced study of journalism and its role in democratic societies. Construction will be complete in the fall of 2007 and the Reynolds Journalism Institute will become the convergence sequence’s new home. Students, faculty and visiting professionals will work in the Futures Lab, an experimental newsroom and testing facility modeled in part on the IFRA Newsplex at the University of South Carolina. The Reynolds grant also provides funds to hire additional convergence faculty.

For the next two years, the new sequence will share lab and classroom space with our broadcast news colleagues and borrow heavily on the time and talents of existing faculty.

Meanwhile, we continue to work with Apple Computer, other interested technology companies and MU colleagues in other departments interested in teaching with technology. We believe this interdisciplinary collaboration will allow our faculty to focus less on ever-changing hardware and software and more on addressing the social, professional and ethical challenges that threaten the important place of journalism in civic life.

Mike McKean ( ), Associate Professor in the Missouri School of Journalism, will lead the new Media Convergence Program opening Fall 2005 on the Columbia, MO campus.

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