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Option 1: Hire temporary staff

Perhaps the biggest challenge universities face is that the staff they have on hand aren’t as skilled in data as their students need them to be.

Teaching teachers to use data, University of Illinois professor Brant Houston said, may not be the best approach. There are a few, he said, who take it upon themselves to learn and pass the learning on to their students. One of them is Dustin Harp at the University of Texas-Arlington, who took a lynda.com course so she could teach her students in turn.

But many, Houston said, have achieved full, successful careers by the time they come to teach, and in some cases, may be close to retiring themselves. “I think it’s more difficult to go that way,” Houston said. “You have a lot of really good journalists who never did data, who are teaching in journalism schools.”

So how can schools teach data, if their teachers can’t? The most popular route seems to be hiring outside staff on a non-permanent or even volunteer basis.

Dean Sheila Coronel said Columbia University has had success with hiring TA’s and former students to fill in. For example, one of Columbia’s best professors asked a former student to come talk about data in her food writing class. To make sure these student teachers are up to snuff, Coronel said they are paired with professors and slowly given more responsibility. Many guest lecturers are recent grads, Coronel said, but another option would be to find adjuncts from the professional world.

That’s the approach taken by the New School in New York. True to its name, the New School’s journalism program is only two years old, and doesn’t have the alumni network that other schools have. Instead, the New School “embeds” data reporters in each of the three core journalism courses. The visiting staff lecture for a total of about 10 hours a semester. These guest lecturers find ways to work data into what the students are already learning.

The New School ’embeds’ data reporters in each of the three core journalism courses.

Ryann Grochowski Jones, for example, dug up census data to contribute to a class project on gentrification in Harlem. This data, she said, could indicate changes in a neighborhood over time, just like going and talking to people on the streets in Harlem could. This data component is part of the school’s first course, and for many students, their very first experience with journalism.

“I wish I had been introduced to data as an undergraduate student, like how these students are now being introduced,” said Jones, who works full-time as a reporter at ProPublica. “Students should at least be aware of data and what it can do for your reporting.”

Heather Chaplin, who designed the program, said the New School had the “tremendous advantage” of planning its entire curriculum around what journalism looks like today. “We felt you just can’t approach contemporary journalism without a data component,” she said. “We didn’t want things like data to be ‘ghettoized.’ We wanted a more holistic approach.”

Rather than depending on an alumni network, Chaplin leaned on her professional network of journalists in New York City. The New School faces the same challenges as Columbia in making sure these outside staff — many of whom do not have teaching experience — are a good fit in academia. The first year, Chaplin said, they were too ambitious in how much the data embeds could teach.

“It’s a lot of work for the professors and the embeds to create an experience that feels holistic, rather than fractured, for the students,” she said. “We’re just constantly iterating.”

But most schools aren’t in New York City, one of the biggest media meccas of the world, and don’t have this kind of access to skilled data reporters the next door down. “We’re in central Illinois,” Houston said. “There’s not a whole lot of newsrooms around us doing data.”

He went on to say the local paper does do some data projects, but they don’t have time to come teach. Every once in a while, Illinois can get a professional to make the 140-mile trip down from Chicago.

The University of Missouri faces a similar dilemma in Columbia, more than 100 miles from the nearest big city. “Different schools are going to have different challenges,” data professor David Herzog said. “For us, it’s been recruiting full-time faculty to teach.”

Herzog acknowledged that many journalists who are skilled in data are busy with lucrative and fulfilling professional careers. Missouri has run a few experiments — such as recruiting alums to teach weekend workshops — and has settled on piping one in digitally.

Missouri has run a few experiments — such as recruiting alums to teach weekend workshops — and has settled on piping one in digitally.

Chase Davis is the deputy editor for interactive news at The New York Times, a Missouri graduate and an adjunct professor teaching Python, a programming language. He prerecords some lectures, which the students listen to on their own, then holds a class session via a software called Adobe Connect. Each approach to temporary staffing is going to pose its own challenges, and a digital lecturer poses some technical issues.

Missouri settled on Adobe Connect, for now, because it’s stable and reliable. Davis can share his screen, write a script live or hold a discussion in the comments section. The school also started experimenting with Google Hangouts last year for a more seminar-style class. Hangouts allows for multiple people to be online and having a discussion at once.

“One reason Mizzou has a strong emerging data journalism curriculum is because leaders of the industry happen to be alums,” Professor Mike Jenner said. “I’ve been able to talk them into sharing what they’ve learned with students.”

These approaches to hiring outside staff — recruiting TA’s, visiting speakers and digital lecturers — have worked, or at least are works in progress, for many of these large schools. They’re able to tap into rich networks like alumni and professional connections to convince skilled reporters to teach on the cheap.

Many other colleges, though, lack these kinds of resources, and might want to look into having their students teach themselves, or recruiting help from a national organization, as is discussed in the third option, “Self-training.”

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