Multimedia journalism teaching: 10 things I learned

One way to teach multimedia reporting skills (by which I mean use of the reporting tools, not HTML and scripting) is to have an intense, short boot camp. Three days, five days maybe, with long hours each day.

Another option is to integrate the skills into a full 3-credit course — call it “multimedia reporting,” or just change the existing Reporting 101 course to include the current tools.

I like both of those options, but this semester I tried a third option: Students enrolled in the regular 3-credit reporting course could take an additional 1-credit course in multimedia reporting. They were permitted to enroll only if they were also taking the reporting course. (They have previously completed a 3-credit mass media writing course.)

The idea is that we don’t need to teach them reporting techniques, such as interviewing, in the 1-credit tools course (because they are getting that in the 3-credit course), but the students do complete journalistic reporting assignments, using audio recorders and cameras. They are required to own their equipment (see the list at the foot of this page). The students are encouraged to do their multimedia reporting on the same story they are writing that week for the 3-credit reporting course. With several instructors teaching the reporting lab sections (which meet on different days of the week), it’s not possible to coordinate the assignments precisely — so students are not required to do the same story for both assignments.

The structure of the course is very simple and direct: Learn audio gathering and editing, then photo composition and ethics, produce a photo slideshow with audio, and finally, produce a video story.

So here is what I learned from the first two sections, in spring 2009:

  1. Meeting once a week is fine, but meeting for one 50-minute period in our computer labs is not sufficient because of technology issues that impede the instruction. Solution: in the fall, we’re doing a double period (100 minutes) once a week.
  2. Some students tried to get around the equipment requirements by borrowing from friends, etc. Then they complained when their grades were low because of the poor quality of their work. When I said, “You’re supposed to read the manual and figure out the proper settings on your camera,” they said, “Well, it’s not my camera, and it’s a different one from the one I borrowed last time.” Solution: In the fall I will make it very clear that these excuses mean nothing to me, and if they can’t hand in good quality material for the second assignment in a medium (e.g., still photo), they get a low grade, regardless of their excuses. If you don’t own your equipment, you’re not doing it right.
  3. Some students complained at the end that the course required too many hours a week for a 1-credit course. They thought it should be 3 credits, or at least 2. To me, this is simply ridiculous — there are no quizzes or tests, there’s no required textbook, and 30 percent of the grade is attendance. Solution: In the fall I will point out how some 3-credit courses, such as the lower-level liberal arts courses, are really easy and require very little effort for an A, while upper-level courses are also 3 credits, but they are much more difficult and require many more hours of work. (So don’t give me any flak about the 1 credit!) It’s a tools class, and it’s certainly not worth more than 1 credit.
  4. Students have tremendous difficulty understanding what a story is, and what stories are not journalistic. Solution: Even though we did discuss this in class, and they were assigned readings about storytelling, I need to do even more. I’m really pleased by how many of them did get it — and got how a visual story is different from a straight news story — but I’m disappointed that maybe 20 or 25 percent still apparently can’t discern stories.
  5. File management is a huge challenge in this course. What worked well was requiring them to hand in preliminary work (e.g., raw audio files) each and every week — this forces them not to wait until the last minute. The grading goes quickly on the preliminary assignments — essentially I need only to open the files and be assured that the students did the work, and then they get the points (this could be done by a teaching assistant). What worked poorly was file saving on our college’s network drives, file naming, and also handing in CDs (for seven raw video clips, for example, the students needed to hand the assignment in on a CD). Solution: I haven’t figured this all out yet, but I know I have to make some changes to the way assignments are handed in, although not to the number of assignments or the actual work that is due.
  6. Along with No. 5 is the issue of late work. Usually I assign a grade of zero to all late work, but in this course I set up a timed series of grade penalties. That worked fine, but it’s hard enough to manage the on-time work without also having several late assignments trickle in at different times after the deadline. Solution: Wait to start grading until the final “zero” deadline (third-day penalty); require an e-mail from the late student stating that the work has been turned in at such-and-such a time (for my record-keeping) — no e-mail, the grade is zero.
  7. And along with No. 5 and No. 6 is the issue of blank CDs and non-functional files. This semester I would e-mail the students and tell them to resubmit in 24 hours or less. This added a lot of unnecessary work for me. Solution: The fall syllabus will clearly state that non-functional or blank files or CDs will be graded zero, so it’s the student’s responsibility to make sure the thing works before it is handed in.
  8. Students who did “A” work did put in a lot of hours, but they did not complain. Few of them had previous experience with most of these tools. Out of 24 students who completed the course (five students dropped), eight received an “A.” There were five with “B+”; eight with “B”; two with “C”; one with an “Incomplete.”
  9. Providing printable PDFs instead of printed paper handouts works well.
  10. Showing examples that are truly journalistic — and explaining why they are journalistic — makes a big difference. I recommend showing fewer examples, choosing them carefully for particular qualities, and discussing them more — rather than showing a lot and talking less about them.

Any suggestions you might have, or questions, are very welcome.

  • The syllabus, including all assignments, is here.
  • The students’ Soundslides are here.
  • The students’ videos are here.

29 Comments on “Multimedia journalism teaching: 10 things I learned

  1. I teach a similar course at Iowa (only we have just five 150-minute sessions) and these are the same sorts of problems I’ve encountered. We don’t require the students to have their own equipment so that’s an added problem. File management becomes difficult because of the university’s locked down computers.

    This fall, the course will go to 10 shorter sessions, which I hope will work better for coordinating the class with their regular reporting and write course.

  2. Nick! Do you have a syllabus online?

    I’ve been toying with the idea of using Box.net to get around the poor technology issues within the university. What do you think about that?

  3. I wish I was taking your course! At my school, we don’t get taught much multimedia unless you’re specifically on the convergence track. There’s a multimedia requirement (one assignment) for the reporting class but most people view it as a chore. We pretty much get handed equipment and told it’s self explanatory. And we’re discouraged from taking our own photos.

  4. I teach the same class as Nick (funny how we’re jumping all over this?) and I know we really appreciate your insight, being that we’re still in the early stages of class development.

    Box.net looks interesting… do you think you would need to register separate user accounts for each student? Just thinking about the $$ standpoint.

    One thing I’ve really struggled with is (surprisingly) some computer proficiency. The kids use computers every day so they – and I – assume they understand the basics. But when I asked them to create a folder and had students opening Word docs instead, I knew we had a problem. Do you spend much time on these basics? Explaining file types? Or do the students get it somewhere else? In our limited amount of class time, I try to only stick to the biggest, most important concepts, but there seems to be a lot of backtracking and anxiety over the technical details.

  5. Hi, Kristin. I did spend some time explaining WAV, MP3 and WMA, and the differences between compressed and uncompressed file formats. But after that, no — and I realized at the end I should have talked a bit more about video formats, because although I exhorted them to follow carefully my instructions for exporting a very high quality video file, several ignored me and exported crappy WMV files.

    I have not investigated Box.net thoroughly, but it’s all about “teams” sharing files, so I think there’s no problem with having different people in one account.

  6. Mindy,

    Our syllabus is available electronically to students enrolled in the class. I’ll e-mail you a copy.

    Box.net is an interesting idea, but something tied to the class lists would be better (so we weren’t stuck adding new users and deleting old ones every semester). I’ve been exploring some possibilities with the instructional technology folks.

    One big difference between the class Kristin and I teach and yours is that ours is required for all journalism majors. This is a blessing and a curse. It means it’s hard to get enough equipment for the number of students we have but it’s also good that they have to at least try to produce some (rudimentary) multimedia.

    Obviously there is only so much I can teach them in 12.5 in-class hours. My goal is to get the students interested and pointed in the right direction so they take more classes and learn on their own. Some get really jazzed. Some couldn’t care less.

  7. Nick – Our course WILL be required of all journalism majors soon, after we plow through the red tape. That is the reason we are requiring them to own their equipment. There is just no way we could possibly supply equipment for 200 students per semester (the enrollment in our Reporting class; includes p.r. majors).

    My goal is to get the students interested and pointed in the right direction so they take more classes and learn on their own.

    My goal is the same!

  8. Nick – Re: Box.net – They say we can:

    “Create hundreds of accounts instantly by importing a list of users from Excel. Assign variable user privileges from ‘view only’ to full editing rights.” (View PDF for info.)

    I don’t know about your IT folks there, but I could not get this kind of support or flexibility here.

  9. At my school, we have a 3-hr. course called Online Media, where students do everything from set up a blog to their own websites to podcasts and videos. Luckily, we have a terrific equipment lab where students are able to “check out” cameras and mics and so forth for a few days at a time, so that alleviates the inconsistancies when dealing with equipment. However, even with our pretty good university computer system, file management was still an issue for me as well. I would love to see a follow-up post on what you think of Box.net.

  10. Mindy – We might be able to get the help we need via the IT people; it really depends who we talk to.

    Sadly, getting students sufficient access to technology is a struggle (for example, our 18 quad-core Macs are kept in a locked room that it only open when a lab monitor is available, a few hours each week). But that’s another issue all together.

  11. Why not make a separate 3-credit course that meets two days a week for two hours each time? That’s what I took this semester at Penn State and I cannot say enough about what I learned and how much I progressed. Reporting classes were prerequisites and the course was a 400-level so basically reporting skills didn’t need to be taught directly, though there was a great focus on taking reporting skills and applying them to audio or soundslides or video.
    It also seems to hurt your class that there isn’t a pool of equipment? At PSU, we are lucky enough to have somewhere around 15 video cameras, 15 D70s and another 10 or so D200s and D300s. We have some sort of program with Nikon. Also, there’s Media Tech, where you can get D80s and Sony video cameras if Comm’s supply is out. I’m not sure how you would go about getting such equipment that could then be loaned out to students, but its a thought.
    Take a look at what my class produced this semester: http://commedia.psu.edu/displayMedia/multimediaProjects/
    Especially check out Mike Barasch’s project and Alexa Keeley’s project.

  12. Katharine –

    We offer a separate 4-hour Online Journalism course that is a lot like what you’re talking about. I think it’s important to have a starter multimedia course that everyone has to take.

  13. Perri and Katharine – Thanks for commenting!

    We have about 200 students each fall AND each spring in the required reporting course (and some smaller number in the summer). The number of cameras you mentioned would not be nearly enough — and imagine the hours spent on logging the stuff in and out for repairs too!

    Sure, it would be great if the school could supply equipment. But guess what? In your working life, chances are you will be responsible for your own gear. So we thought it would be better in many ways for the students to have 24/7 access to their tools here.

    The other difference in this class is that it occurs right at the beginning of the student’s journalism coursework — at the same time as the first reporting class.

    Later the students can take as many as three other online/multimedia journalism classes, which do meet for several hours per week; those are regular three-credit courses.

  14. Oh okay, so this is the starter course — that makes sense then. I do wish Penn State would start to introduce multimedia earlier in the courses. I did get a glimpse at video and audio in my first photojournalism class and I know that professor is now going to gear that course to have more multimedia components. What I really wish is that reporting classes would integrate audio and video from the earlier stages — which sort of sounds like what you’re starting to do.

  15. Very insightful, Mindy. We’re piloting a similar effort with reporting classes at Syracuse next year so your experience gives us a heads up on several fronts.

  16. Hi Mindy,
    First, I want to say that I am a regular reader of your blog and I admire all the work you do and share.

    I teach Broadcast Journalism at Towson University and have to juggle A LOT of .mov files (they edit on Final Cut Pro). I’ve found the easiest way to have them hand things in to me, rather than on CD, is to put their assignments on my portable hard drive. So, when it’s deadline time, they come up to my computer, plug in their hard drive and transfer the file to mine. That way it’s all there. I also do this in my Journalism/New Media classes when the network drive is getting too full.

    I hope this helps…you’re tips have been invaluable to me.

  17. Great post, Mindy!

    The Digital Journalism Workshop that I teach at Ithaca College is 4 credits and we still have a lot of complains from students about how much work it is for a single class.

    The students work in teams of two and we provide each team with digital journalism backpacks that contain pretty much everything from a laptop to a video camera. But we still have students who don’t bother to read the manuals.

    No matter how much time I spend talking about principles of digital storytelling (and the definition of a multimedia story), it is still the most difficult topic for students to understand. Sometimes I think there should be a separate course on the topic.

    File management. Students would upload their files to the Ithaca College server. We still had issues with ftp, file formats, files not opening, etc. But I thought it was very beneficial for the students to realize that technology is unreliable. They finally learned how important it was to plan ahead and avoid last-minute emergencies.

    I am 100 percent with you on showing less examples of quality multimedia stories but discussing them more. I think it worked very well for my class.

    Thanks a lot for sharing those insights!

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  20. As a colleague of Mindy “Hard-nosed” McAdams, I’ll comment on #4. We’re revamping our curriculum and I’m wondering if the problem with storytelling issues is where we have this placed in our curriculum (with the beginning reporting class, so students are mainly in their second or third year).

    Perhaps, once we get all of the courses set up, more will have the storytelling angle down, but it is kind of like a chicken and egg problem that we’ve discussed as a faculty at length. Which comes first: technological skills or writing skills? We’ve opted for combining them, so, as a result, students don’t entirely know how to use the skills in a compelling way. There is something to be said for advanced writers learning the technology later, as they already know a good story and can find multiple ways to tell it.

    If it helps, Mindy, I have the same issues in my information gathering class (Fact Finding). Students further along know how to write stories and interview, but can’t find information, vs. the younger students dig the research end, but can’t figure out how to put it into a compelling news story. It seems to be clearly an issue of there is so much they need to know but when can we get all of it in?

  21. Jon, Jenny, Vadim, Cory – Thanks for commenting!

    Jenny, your solution with the portable hard drive sounds like it would eat a lot of class time. I hate the idea that I would have to spend 20-40 minutes in class just on file uploading!

    Vadim and Cory – You are correct, they are new at all this, and that accounts in part for their greenness in storytelling. But I think also they are confused by learning the straight news formats and then trying to adapt to visual storytelling, which is more of a narrative style. Inverted pyramid is not the same “shape” as beginning-middle-end.

    That probably brings us back to the use of examples — we have to show them final products that succeed in telling the story well.

    One thing spans all our classes, early and late — students often do inadequate reporting. They do one stinking interview and then turn in a story. The good students learn fast that more reporting results in a better story (and a better grade). But the lazy ones keep on whining about their bad grades, when it’s clear as day that they did very little legwork.

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  24. Greetings:

    I’m wondering why the files don’t just get loaded onto a site like Vimeo. Each student could load up their project to the one account which can be made so that only those with permission can view the files. A ‘pro’ option with more features is available for something like 50 or 60 bucks a year.

    Kind Regards.

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  27. @Tari Akpodiete – Some of the files are raw audio (their interviews); some are unedited photo takes (e.g. 200 photo files). Vimeo is for video, and it won’t suffice for these assignments.

    These students did upload their final, edited videos to YouTube, where we have a channel.

  28. Mindy,

    great list, and a lot of the things I’ve experienced as well. The technology is always an obstacle, and the lack of “journalistic” quality to a lot of stories seems common. I’m also tweaking this year to get more “journalism” from the classes.

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