Hiring part-time staff, collaborating with Computer Science departments and holding open labs won’t work for every school. Luckily, there’s a wide array of resources available to students — and their instructors — who want to learn on their own.
“It’s gotten much easier to get a foothold as a student,” said Houston, in Illinois. “The doors are open much much wider.”
The Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas, for instance, produced an online course in data journalism designed to help reporters teach themselves. The course had almost 5,000 registrants from 150 countries, Knight Chair Rosental Alves said. It remains their most popular MOOC, or massive online open course. “The idea is to bring knowledge and journalism skills to people all over the world,” Alves said.
The following organizations offer data journalism training for little or no cost:
Most of this training is online, but some groups are willing to arrange in-person training, like SPJ’s Journalism Training program. There are others: “civic hacking” groups have the goal of creating projects for the public good, but often work with journalists because they have similar goals. Open data groups in London, Johannesburg and elsewhere offer free training to journalists. Code for America is an umbrella group with chapters in many cities, and similar groups exist elsewhere.
And other opportunities can be created: they only need the catalyst of someone at the school reaching out. Hacks/Hackers, a global organization for bridging journalism and technology, holds weekly sessions at Missouri. The sessions take the form of open labs, similar to Waite’s Maker Hours in Nebraska, where any student can come work on a project, get help with a technical issue or just hang out. James Gordon, who organizes the meetup, sometimes recruits journalists or developers to come talk about their projects.
The main challenge with this approach to teaching is that it only reaches self-motivated students. Waite, for instance, said he offered extra credit to students who used data for a class project, but had few takers among students who weren’t already assigned to learn data.
Another challenge is deciding how much to teach. The Columbia study, for example, found that MOOCs and other online courses are “best at offering introductory exposure, but one should not expect to reach in-depth knowledge.”
The main challenge with this approach to teaching is that it only reaches self-motivated students.
Steve Doig, who teaches at Arizona State University, found a happy medium between the two by including an assigned data module in each introductory journalism course. He recorded a short video explaining how to calculate changes in the local government’s budget. The students are required to do the calculations, then write a short story on what they found. This approach also circumvented the problem of journalism instructors who don’t know how to teach data.
“The actual instructors for each section just have to introduce the module,” Doig said. “They don’t need to be proficient with Excel themselves.”
A third option would be to send people away for self-training. ProPublica, the Sunlight Foundation, IRE and many more offer in-person workshops — and scholarships — to students and professionals willing to travel to learn. Missouri experimented with giving students course credit for taking an IRE bootcamp over a weekend.
Each of these options for training — online, in-person, away or at home — circles back to the issue of making sure students actually use it. The lessons offer learning, and the labs offer support, but it’s up to the learner to implement their new skills. It’s like forging a bridge between coding classes and journalism by simply making a project, USNews’s Cook said. “You need to just go in and accept that it’s not going to be perfect.”
But, like any journalism skill, it all comes down to how and how often you use it. This is a field that prides itself on prioritizing merit and experience over other measures, and journalism schools epitomize that. Changing curriculums has never been easy, but adapting to new information and making the most of it has always been a journalism trademark – in the field and in academia.