Posted on May 7, 2009
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.”
- Providing printable PDFs instead of printed paper handouts works well.
- 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.