I’m all for disrupting higher education. I think open-enrollment online programs and “digital badges” to recognize the development of certain skill sets are a great idea, as Howard Finberg of Poynter writes, and I was doing a fist pump in agreement over the Knight Foundation’s Eric Newton’s piece deriding the “symphony of slowness” in journalism education. By all means, let us escape from the bureaucratic, risk and change-adverse academic climate to one that welcomes innovation and can help us lead in building the future of journalism.
There’s a reason, beyond the obvious one of self-preservation, that 96 percent of journalism academics said that a degree was “very to extremely important” to learning skills, according to Finberg’s survey, compared to just 59 percent of professionals.
This reason is that many students are coming to college woefully lacking in basic reading/writing and digital skills. A significant amount of what my colleagues and I do as college professors is essentially remedial. SHOULD this be the case? Hell no. But it is. CAN students learn these journalism skills on the job or through their own initiative using online resources? Sure. But in my experience, very few employers have the ability or desire to do the kind of time-intensive remedial training I’m forced to do in my classroom; they complain about the students we do send them because sometimes we are unable to completely make up for the deficiencies they come in with. And very few students, especially between the ages of 18 and 22, have the kind of self-motivation to push themselves through an online program with no carrot in the form of a formal credential and no accountability in the form of tuition. Each semester, I fail at least one quarter of my undergraduate journalism classes because they simply do not do the work, and that’s in a face-to-face class they are paying for.
Ultimately, this is a problem with our nation’s struggling primary and secondary education systems and the lack of parental and social and financial support for education that many communities face. I honestly believe it is a crisis that will ultimately erode our democracy, which depends on an informed citizenry, as well as our economic competitiveness.
I love my students dearly and care passionately about teaching, so forgive me if I sound down on them. And certainly this does not apply to all of them. But I think we need to have an honest conversation about the state of education today, or nothing will change.
The kinds of people who become journalists at elite institutions are often smart and self-motivated, and it’s hard to conceive of a 19-year-old who has difficulty writing an intelligible sentence or a so-called “digital native” who doesn’t know how to copy and paste a link (I have many of the latter). Trust me, I have trouble believing it myself. And I’m sure the best journalism schools have far fewer struggling students, but they also pull from a far-less diverse population of more wealthy students, too.
If we were to eliminate journalism degrees, what you would see is even more newsroom jobs going to a more homogeneous group of people from upper-class family backgrounds. You would also see a decline in the kind of news literacy we need to ensure future demand for good journalism, as yes, many students with a journalism degree go on to other non-news jobs. By all means, embrace online delivery and open education. I just think it’s a little naive to think that we are ready to eliminate the degree.