As I noted earlier today, Bill Bradley helped me find archives of No Train, No Gain at the Internet Archive. So over the next few weeks, I will be posting my old contributions to NTNG, so I’ll have them in the archive here. I will try to place each piece in context, but won’t take a lot of time to update them. I link better now than I did then, but I won’t add a lot of links. I will do minimal updating. If you subscribe to my blog by email or RSS, I warn you that you’ll be seeing a lot of old stuff posted for a while.
Also, I am working with two journalism organizations that are interested in hosting the NTNG archives. I will blog more about those plans when we have worked out more details.
This was the last entry in my Training Tracks blog for NTNG before I moved that blog to the American Press Institute, when I started working there. This posted on NTNG on April 11, 2005. By the way, I’m working with Poynter now on plans to update Beat Basics and Beyond, the online course discussed here.
I’ve presented something over 250 workshops in person, able to look around the room, make eye contact with participants and engage them in discussions. I worry sometimes that my confidence in this kind of training could give way to complacency. I have no such worry about e-learning.
I’m no stranger to journalism training and the Internet, having been a coordinator of the “No Train, No Gain” web site for nearly five years. I have more than 40 workshop handouts posted online there and many other places. I knew that the interactive nature of e-learning would take me into new areas, but I started the experience confident – and naïve.
I wasn’t prepared for the humbling experience of learning how far my expectations were from reality and how much I needed to learn about e-learning. Humility really aids learning as much, in its own way, as confidence.
My initial expectation was shaped by the word “university” in the name. When Howard Finberg, the “dean” (I think they really call him director, but c’mon, it’s a university) of News U, and I first talked about developing a course, I envisioned something that would last about a semester. I put together a proposal to combine about 15 of my reporting workshops into a single course, each designed to take a student about a week.
I wasn’t just going to roll the handouts together into a single course. I was planning to develop new exercises for the online format. I thought I was adapting.
Howard patiently explained that e-learning really didn’t follow traditional models. We needed something more focused that a student could take in a much shorter time. So we settled on “Beat Basics and Beyond,” which would combine four of my workshops into a course that I figured a student would take during the first few weeks or months on a new beat. I saw it as a course that could work either for an inexperienced reporter starting on any beat or for a veteran reporter starting an unfamiliar beat.
Howard helped me tighten the focus even more. We needed to design the course for reporters with five years experience or less starting on a beat. After a few telephone discussions and e-mails, Howard said we were getting close. I began working on the content and he turned me over to two producers, Vicki Krueger and Elizabeth Ferris, to turn my proposal into a course.
I’m sure my first version of the course amused and/or shocked them. I had expanded my handouts, which are tip sheets with a paragraph on each tip, into what would essentially be online textbook chapters. I had added exercises to each chapter as well as some exercises that students would work on through the length of the course.
Vicki’s response angered, humbled, then excited me. I was angry because I felt like I had wasted a lot of time and energy on those textbook chapters (I’ll have to finish the book someday to resurrect them). I was humbled because it had been a long time since an editor had rewritten one of my stories the way Vicki was rewriting my course materials. After I got beyond the anger and humility, I began getting excited. I started understanding how e-learning worked and looking forward to learning more about it.
Vicki narrowed the focus and shortened the length of the course further still. One of the four workshops I originally included, “Juggling Daily News with Enterprise,” would be omitted completely. She also was omitting some of the material from the other workshops. And she started changing the material’s form dramatically.
From the first I had recognized the importance of making the course interactive. I knew I needed to develop exercises for the students to carry out on their beats to help them learn the geography, develop sources and so on. What I didn’t understand was the need to make the reading of the material interactive. Here I became the student and Vicki, and later Elizabeth, became the teachers.
For instance, when I presented text about ways to deal with sources, Vicki and Elizabeth changed them to a list of traits such as honesty, humility and compassion that a reporter should show in dealing with sources. The student would click on a characteristic, then read a paragraph or two on why that was important and how to use it in developing sources.
I really thought Vicki was being unreasonable when she proposed a city map that the student would roll the mouse over and see examples of the places a reporter on a particular beat would need to visit in learning the geography of the beat. I was picturing an actual map of an actual city such as Omaha, the city where I worked at the time. It seemed like a lot of work for something that wouldn’t be useful for reporters who weren’t from Omaha. I didn’t really “get” the map until I saw Vicki’s finished product, which is almost more a drawing of the city than a map. You click a beat (education, for instance) and roll the mouse across the map and it highlights examples of the places you need to learn (administrative offices, public schools, private schools, etc.) It was an interactive visual representation of the exact advice I had sent to Vicki in paragraph form.
The adjustment for someone experienced in other forms of training is somewhat akin to the way a reporter has to think differently to start “layering” stories effectively through use of graphics, fact boxes, sidebars and the like. You’re giving readers or students essentially the same information, but you have to think differently to present it differently.
I’m really pleased with the “beat breakdown tool” that Vicki and Elizabeth developed, using my original material and new material I provided to fit the format. A reporter can select her own beat from five common beats we provide (public safety, education, local government, neighborhoods, courts). Then the reporter can select one of eight topic areas such as sources, money and data and we provide specific advice in that area for reporters on that beat.
We finished with a course that a student could probably finish in a few hours working straight through and ideally would finish over the first week or so on the job. I have mixed feelings about the final product. It won’t give a reporter as much help in mastering a beat as I had initially envisioned but I can see that the interactive nature will keep the students involved online, rather than simply reading all the material I developed.
I hope News University and e-learning evolve to where journalists could take more detailed and extended courses. Or perhaps they could select narrow units such as “Beat Basics” and assemble several related units into an extended course that would take the student deeper into a subject matter than “Beat Basics” did.
“Beat Basics” is a self-guided course with no direct interaction with the instructor. I think e-learning would be most effective when students could ask questions directly by e-mail and get some response and mentoring. The personal touch, even when you never meet face to face, is an important and effective part of learning. It also makes e-learning more expensive and I know part of News University’s challenge in this grant from the Knight Foundation is to develop an effective economic model for e-learning.
We didn’t do this for “Beat Basics,” but I’m pleased to hear from Howard that News U is offering one course and plans to offer more at two levels: for a lower price, you take the self-guided interactive course. For a higher price, you would receive personal e-mail guidance and feedback from an instructor.
Even with those reservations, I’m delighted with how interactive we can make e-learning. I think “Beat Basics” would be an excellent help to a young reporter starting on a beat. News U offers other courses on topics ranging from cleaning your copy to handling horrible images to writing leads. Browse the selections to find a course that might help you or your colleagues.
I encourage journalists involved in training to consider offering a course through News U. Howard and his staff will help you try the exciting, if humbling, transition to online teaching and learning.
I’m starting a new job that will take me away from e-learning, at least for now. But I’m grateful for my first experience with this teaching and learning method. I hope my students learn as much from “Beat Basics and Beyond” as I did.