As we change journalism education, we need to study journalism learners

After years of exhortation and industry convulsions, journalism education is changing. The argument for infusing digital  media education – even programming — into the journalism curriculum is over. The questions are mostly logistical – what type, in what sequence, how much and to what ends? Driven largely by business needs, college newspapers are becoming sites of experimentation with new business and management models. Professional news organizations are expanding their relationships with journalism schools beyond their traditional roles as providers of internships and first employers. In some cases, they are collaborating on beat coverage and special investigations. In at least one instance, the local professional news outlets have physically moved on campus.

At the graduate level, Medill’s Innovation program helped spawn Narrative Science, a company that programs robots to generate stories. We faculty at small programs, who have thinking through what these changes mean for institutions like ours, finally have our own journal, Teaching Journalism and Mass Communications. The 2013 edition of Georgia Tech’s groundbreaking Computation + Journalism Symposium will likely drive the conversation even further.

All signs of progress, but something important is being lost amid the frenzy.

As former President George W. Bush famously put it, “Rarely is the question asked, ‘Is our children learning?'” Mindy McAdams speaks for many of us who have spent years looking for ways to infuse digital skills into the journalism curriculum:

“We can offer a course that focuses on Web technologies — HTML, CSS, JavaScript, etc. But there is no data journalism in that class. And a lot of the students are going to hate typing those little brackets and so on. They’ll be so happy when that course is done and they never have to do that again.

“Moreover, they won’t practice what they learned, and very soon, they will forget all of it.

“We can offer a course about scraping and doing stuff with large data sets. We can teach students how to find stories in data. Students who like this, who learn how to do it and want to continue doing it, are probably among those most likely to get a journalism job. Like the Web technologies course, though, this is a class that many students will either avoid like the plague or take and then count the minutes until it’s over.”

Please, please read the whole post. She points to a real challenge that we haven’t yet cracked: how to engage students who think that journalism is about writing, not math or technology. Students who have convinced themselves that writing is something they are inherently “good” at, while math and tech are something they are inherently “bad” at. Students who don’t see why they need to understand html when they can just use a wysiwyg platform to build a website.

And my colleague and friend Michelle Johnson adds another layer: too often, the students who are least successful in adapting to journalism’s digital evolution are students of color, apparently another manifestation of the racial achievement gap. She writes:

“[F]or the past 20 years, I’ve read literally hundreds of applications for journalism training programs and scholarships, as well as for admission to journalism school. And sadly, I’m seeing some troubling signs.
“This isn’t just hand-wringing about a decline in writing skills among young people with short attention spans who communicate via texting abbreviations — I’ve noticed that among all the students.
“Simply put, I’m seeing that many of the students of color lack experience with the tools and technologies that will be fundamental to journalism innovation going forward. And this comes at a time when funding for training programs for students of color has shrunk, along with the bottom lines of the news industry and professional associations.”

These are exactly the concerns that keep me awake at night, even as I champion interactive journalism as a way of bringing members of under-represented groups into computing fields. (I’d also add working-class students to Michelle’s list, by the way.)

I would submit that amid our frenzy to learn and then incorporate all the skills that our graduates need into our curricula, we need a better understanding of what students absorb, and what affects their sense of self-efficacy as they confront the unexpected skills and content we are asking them to learn. That’s part of what I’m hoping to better understand with the new research project that I’ve embarked upon with Dr. S. Monisha Pulimood, of TCNJ’s Computer Science Department. The formal title is TUES: Collaborating Across Boundaries to Engage Undergraduates in Computational Thinking.(NSF Award #1141170). As we state in our abstract:

“To adequately prepare a workforce for the changing economic and global landscape, the project is developing a model that enables students with diverse perspectives and disciplinary backgrounds to learn how to collaborate and integrate concepts from their respective fields to develop technology-based solutions for complex real-world problems.”

It’s a tall order that we’ve set ourselves, and we are grateful to have Diane Bates, our independent evaluator, on board to help us assess what we are doing.

I’ll share more specific information about our project as it develops, but for now, I want to share some specific questions that I’m working through about integrating computational thinking and integrate it into journalism classes.

What’s the right learning environment to support computational thinking in journalism?  One of the posts that I wrote for a 2010 series about my own early exposure to skills that are currently classed as computational thinking began with this prologue:

“There are, at least, two approaches to education: the mimetic approach and the mathetic approach. The mimetic approach emphasizes memorization and drill exercises and is most efficient in inculcating facts and developing basic skills [Gar89, p. 6]. The mathetic approach stresses learning by doing and self exploration; it encourages independent and creative thinking [Pap80, p. 120]. In the mimetic framework, creativity comes after the mastery of basic skills. On the other hand, proponents of the mathetic school believe that self discovery is the best, if not the only, way to learn…”

Educational Outlook,”

Sugih Jamin, Associate Professor, EECS, University of Michigan

Whether taught in a classroom or newsroom, journalism education tends to be mimetic, while approaches to engaging novices in computing tend to be mathetic. We introduce students to specific routines and rigors of reporting, emphasizing adherence to rules of attribution, AP style, divisions of genre and structure (hard news, features, inverted pyramids, nut grafs, and so on.)  We stress the importance of getting the story right the first time, and then admit that there will likely be corrections and emendations as a breaking news story develops. We do these things for good reason: flubbing the fundamentals can not only get a reporter fired, it can lead to lawsuits, or in extreme cases, endanger innocent lives and reputations. Consequently, journalism students and professionals learn to think of every thing they do in highly instrumental terms, especially when it comes to learning what they need to know to ensure that they will get or keep a job.

By contrast, programming environments for novices such as Scratch or Alice are very successful at making introductory programming concepts more accessible. However, their strategy for engaging learners emphasizes play in ways that can be off-putting to journalism students who feel a need to quickly learn how to assemble a professional product. In the past, I’ve used Scratch in two ways – as a first step in learning Flash (something I’ve abandoned since Adobe made Mindy McAdams’ Flash Journalism text obsolete, and experts such as Mark  Luckie began pooh-poohing it as an important skill for journalists.) I’ve had some success teaching Scratch in game design courses, and I may think about using Alice for this purpose in the future, since its most recent iteration is specifically designed to give students a leg up Java, and that can be useful to aspiring app developers.

Do we need a journalism-specific programming environment to engage novice journalism students?

There are other, more mimetic, web-based learning environments for learning to code, such as’s CS `101 course, which focuses on Python and teaches students how to build a web scraper. There is an appeal to that approach because it has students build something that has obvious practical use in journalism. However, that course is arguably vulnerable to the criticism made by Bret Victor of platforms such as Khan Academy and CodeAcademy – that is, that they emphasize rote skills, while programming is “a way of thinking.”

Might it make sense to create a hybrid learning environment that combines the low barriers to entry of Scratch or Alice, with the goal orientation of something like Udacity? Will we begin to succeed at teaching programming as a way of thinking if we can more closely articulate between these learning environments and our broader journalism education curricula? (Here I am speaking of curricula not only for the classroom, but also for professional training.) Will novice programmer journalists be more motivated to learn in an environment where they can see direct connections between what their growing computing knowledge, the specific journalism artifacts they are learning to create, and the marketable skills they are developing? If so, what is the best way to create these linkages?

Is learning scripting really a gateway to computational thinking? The notion that journalism students should learn to “code” has gained increasing acceptance, but what that means and how one learns to do it are not universally understood. For several years, I’ve taken a position similar to the one that Miranda Mulligan took in a September 5, 2012 essay for NiemanLab:

I am not arguing that every single writer/editor/publisher who learns some programming should end up becoming a software engineer or a refined web designer. The end goal here is not programming fluency. However, there’s a lot of value in understanding how browsers read and render our stories. Reporting and writing a story, writing some code (HTML, CSS, Javascript), and programming complex applications and services are all collections of skills. A fundamental knowledge of code allows for:

  • More significant conversations about digital presentation, ultimately leading to better, more meaningful, online storytelling. Understanding your medium makes you better at your craft.
  • Deeper thought and understanding of data. Learning more about what goes into writing and programming software teaches you to think in terms of abstractions, functions, parameters, components, frameworks, object classes, templates, and more.

What Mulligan is referring to here as code (html, css, javascript – or more likely, jquery) is not programming, but web scripting, and as Mindy McAdams noted earlier, doesn’t get students digging into data. Having taught html and css for several years in our Writing for Interactive Multimedia class, my TCNJ colleagues and I can attest to all of the challenges that McAdams cites.

But there may be an additional unexamined assumption here, that learning scripting leads to the kind of computational fluency that, as Mulligan puts it, “teaches you to think in terms of abstractions, functions, parameters, components…”  I would submit that we need data to support this hypothesis. I certainly agree with her intuitively, but we need to know. These are some of the things we hope to learn in our research project, but there is lots of good work to be done to understand what, if any correlations exist between learning to script and learning to think computationally about the creation of journalism artifacts.

What do we know about the success of CAR courses that teach Excel,  SPSS, Access and SQL? The one place in the journalism curriculum that has come closest to teaching something like computational thinking has been in Computer Assisted Reporting classes (which these days, of course, is arguably a redundant term.)  A syllabus repository for some of these courses is here. We’ve had a required CAR course at TCNJ for 10 years. Many of these classes required that students minimally learn to use Microsoft Excel and Access (something I required when I taught it in the early 2000s). Some also incorporated SPSS and SQL. I don’t know of anyone who has studied these courses to assess the degree to which they affect students’ computing efficacy, programming skill, or acquisition of computational thinking concepts such as abstraction, decomposition, data structures, etc.

We could also use some research on the viability of such classes as points of articulation with emerging computational journalism curricula in computer science. One hopeful example is the work done by my TCNJ colleagues Donna Shaw and Emilie Lounsberry on the development of a database manager, GUMSHOE, that tracked the  disposition of gun-related arrests through the Philadelphia courts, ultimately contributing to an award winning story package on endemic problems in the Philadelphia court system.

These are just some of the questions that I think could lead to fruitful education research. I have others, such as questions about the possible role of stereotype threat on the achievement gap issues that Michelle Johnson cited, and whether learning science might help us better illuminate the real gaps in understanding and engagement that have many of us classroom teachers worried. As I’ve learned from talking to learning scientist  Deborah Tatar, making assumptions about why whole groups of people aren’t grasping particular concepts is often a big mistake.

Much, much more to be learned. I’m hoping that what has been, until now, an understandably ad hoc and organic effort develops into an area of systematic study.

New Article: Computational Thinking and Expository Writing in the Middle School

Ursula Wolz, Meredith Stone, Kim Pearson, Sarah Monisha Pulimood, and Mary Switzer. 2011. Computational Thinking and Expository Writing in the Middle School. Trans. Comput. Educ. 11, 2, Article 9 (July 2011), 22 pages. DOI=10.1145/1993069.1993073


To broaden participation in computing we need to look beyond traditional domains of inquiry and expertise. We present results from a demonstration project in which interactive journalism was used to infuse computational thinking into the standard curriculum and regular classroom experience at a middle school with a diverse population. Outcomes indicate that we were able to develop positive attitudes about computational thinking and programming among students and teachers who did not necessarily view themselves as “math types.” By partnering with language arts, technology and math teachers at Fisher Middle School, Ewing New Jersey, we introduced the isomorphism between the journalistic process and computational thinking to 7th and 8th graders. An intense summer institute, first with the teachers and then with students recruited from the school, immersed them in the “newsroom of the future” where they researched and wrote news stories, shot and edited video, and developed procedural animations in Scratch to support their storylines. An afterschool club sustained the experience. The teachers adapted interactive journalism and Scratch programming to enrich standard language arts curriculum and are infusing computational thinking in classroom experiences throughout the school.

This research was supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation.

The Interactive Journalism Institute for Middle Schoolers and the Quest for Computing Diversity

The Re-education of Me Table of Contents

  1. What we investigate is linked to who we are
  2. The Me nobody knew then
  3. Mrs. Jefferson’s “Sympathetic Touch” meets Mrs. Masterman’s Philanthropy
  4. Discovering Masterman, discovering myself
  5. The electronic music lab at Masterman School
  6. The Interactive Journalism Institute for Middle Schoolers and the quest for computing diversity

(Disclaimer: while the opinions expressed here are rooted in research that I did with others, these views are my own.)

If Seymour Papert and his colleagues had been able to work their will in the 1980s, an entire generation of school children would have learned to program in LOGO as part of their normal school curriculum. Although LOGO was adopted in some schools, its use never became routine . Instead, the introduction of Microsoft Office and other software applications led most school districts who had computing resources to focus on teaching children to be sophisticated technology consumers, as opposed to technology innovators.

In Stuck in the Shallow End: Education, Race and Computing, a 2008 case study of the Los Angeles Unified School District education, UCLA education researcher Jane Margolis documented the fact that even where school districts invested in bringing computers to classrooms, unequal access to computing education persists. According to Margolis, lack of resources, beliefs that only a few talented individuals can learn computer science and pressure to teach what will be on standardized tests result in a situation where computing education for students in poorer schools is likely to  be limited to basic computing literacy and vocational skills. In addition to raising questions about social equity, this trend exacerbates the longstanding problem of finding enough students to fill the pipeline for current and future computing professionals.

The National Science Foundation, industry leaders and educators have undertaken a variety of initiatives to address this problem. One of those initiatives, the Broadening Participation in Computing program, funded a variety of demonstration projects and larger-scale alliances designed to engage students from underrepresented backgrounds in computing.  The student participants in the BPC program ranged from middle school through college, and hailed from communities across the country. In 2007, I became a co-Principal Investigator in a BPC project led by Ursula Wolz, an Associate Professor of Computing at The College of New Jersey.The goal of our project, the Interactive Journalism Institute for Middle Schoolers, is to use community journalism as a hook for exposing middle school students and their teachers with computing. (Award number CNS 0739173)




That was the formal hypothesis, and our data validated it, as our formal and informal presentations, papers and interviews amply document. [A bibliography is supplied at the end of this post that lists that work in detail. This poster, which was presented at the 2010 convention of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communications, offers an overview of the project from a journalism education perspective.] Participants reported that they understood the similarities between the editorial process and the the process of developing software. They identified programming and something that could be creative and fun. A number of participants have identified specific computing careers that they plan to enter, and are can convey an understanding of the courses they have to take to attain those careers.

The IJIMS project was implemented in collaboration with the faculty and staff of Gilmore J. Fisher Middle School in Ewing, New Jersey, and  with the support of the Superintendent of the Ewing public schools. The Fisher teachers now own the program and are continuing to develop it as a school-year program. In this essay, I am writing about the project as it was originally designed and as it was implemented from the summer of 2008 through June, 2010.

The project consisted of four components:

  • A one-week summer institute for participating teachers. The teachers ran through the summer institute that we had planned for the students, and helped us debug it. The week’s activities included brief introductions to news reporting, writing and editing;  shooting and editing video; and creating animations in the Scratch programming language.
  • A one week summer day camp for middle school students, who worked in beat reporting teams led by their teachers and supported by undergraduate research assistants/counselors.
  • An online magazine consisting of the results of the team reporting projects and powered by a custom built content management system, CAFE (Collaboration and Facilitation Environment). Our undergrads built our own CMS under the direction of co-PI Monisha Pulimood, in an effort to accommodate the need for a simple interface, flexible group collaboration, multiple security levels, and the ability to upload Scratch programs. CAFE also has a built-in sourcebook and production calendar. The 2008-9 issue of the magazine is called FISH (Fisher’s Interesting Stories Here); the 2009-10 issue is NEWS (New Ewing Web Stories)
  • An after-school program, initially available only to participants in the summer program, and then gradually made available to students throughout the school as interest spread.

In addition to these core features, students participated in “off-beat” activities after lunch designed both to let them blow off steam and to reinforce concepts related to journalism or computer science. These activities included established games such as Set, and original activities designed by our undergrads, sometimes in partnership with our teachers. Prime examples included Scott Kieffer’s Source Hunt, which taught students how to evaluate the credibility of news sources. Kieffer described the game in this essay for, excerpted below:

The ‘source hunts,’ as I came to call them, seemed simple enough. We organized the students into teams of reporters. Each team got a list of five questions. Then they sought out their potential sources, who were scattered throughout the building. The ‘sources’ were really just members of the IJIMS team portraying various characters. Student reporters introduced themselves to each source, ask the source’s name and qualifications, and then ask the questions on their list. But there was a catch: Although every source would answer every question, those answers weren’t always correct.”

In 2009, undergraduate researcher Michael Milazzo (now a professional learning designer) taught a swing dancing class as a way of introducing computing concepts. If that seems strange, consider that dance steps use an 8-count (as do bits and bytes), and dance routines consist of steps (or subroutines) that have set beginnings, transition points and endings (control structures), and so forth.

Lessons from Middle School Outreach Projects

In this 2010 interview with participating teacher Laura Fay describes how  IJIMS’ scholastic journalism model  has affected her language arts teaching. She speaks of  the steps she has taken to bring the spirit of collaboration that characterized the IJIMS newsroom into her classroom.

Raymond Broach, who was the superintendent of the Ewing public schools at the inception of the IJIMS project, explained that the IJIMS model changed the district’s view of professional development for teachers in this 2009 interview. Broach said that IJIMS was an unusual professional development opportunity for the Fisher teachers because it augmented their existing skills in a way that allowed them to introduce something completely new to the students.


Beyond IJIMS

Beyond these observations and the positive self-reports of project participants, additional lessons emerge when the IJIMS program is considered in the context of other efforts to attract young people to computing.

  1. Teachers outside of the STEM disciplines can learn how to infuse computing in their classes.
  2. You have to get IT on your side. IT policies within schools and school districts can create significant barriers to progress, even when there is adequate equipment with the school. Firewalls and computing access policies created challenges in customizing our content management system for the school. For example, the web browser installed on the school’s computers was an antique version of Internet Explorer that didn’t work well with modern content management systems. These policies vary from one school district to another, though, even within the same county.
  3. Young people who become interested in computing in middle school need academic and co-curricular paths to computing study in college. Jan Cuny, the program officer at the National Science Foundation who originated the BPC program, notes that fewer than half of the high schools in the United States have AP computer science classes. Part of the reason for this is that there aren’t enough teachers qualified to teach computer science at the high school level. Part of the problem is that computing is consistently incorporated into curriculum standards in K-12 schools across the country. Cuny and her colleagues are attacking this problem with a new initiative, called CE21, or Computing Education for the 21st Century. Central to this, Cuny argues, is the goal of producing 10,000 well-trained computer science high school teachers by 2015. As Cuny argues in this 2010 article (.pdf) for the Computer Science Teacher’s Association newsletter:

    [E]ngagement programs for younger students will be ineffective if students have no further opportunities to explore computing in high school, nor the chance to discover the exciting opportunities computing careers offer. Likewise, revitalized college computing programs will not have a significant impact on degree production if there are too few students showing up at their doors.

  4. As a corollary, they also need support for their social development as future computing professionals in high school through college. That means that computer science and math educators need to continue to develop and disseminate teaching strategies and tools that respond to the diverse ways in which children learn. Successful BPC projects engage their participants creatively and kinesthetically. A kid who gets excited about programming because she has designed games in Scratch or  Alice (another popular entry-level language) might easily get turned off by the traditional approaches to teaching CS. Computer science educators, therefore should be advocates for the arts and physical activities in the schools, and there need to be more cross-curricular collaborations around the connections between those disciplines and computing.
  5. Language arts, art and social studies are ideal areas in the secondary school  curriculum for infusing computing by way of journalism education.


The IJIMS experiment, and the BPC program generally, corroborate my personal middle school experience that learning activities emphasizing games and creative expression can engage children in ways of thinking and problem solving that are foundational to success in computing and related professions. Composing electronic music got me interested enough in electronics that I would take apart my transistor radio, memorize the names of the parts and put it back together. A basic programming class in 7th grade further ignited my interest. However, just as Jan Cuny lamented, my high school did not have programming classes. At the same time, the experience of working on my fourth grade camp newsletter was followed by similar experiences in high school and college. My parents, teachers and counselors reinforced my understanding of how these activities could lead to a writing career. But as technology storyteller Kevin Michael Brooks has argued,  it is a mistake to think that a capacity for creative fields such as writing and fields such computer science are mutually exclusive. In fact, they can be mutually reinforcing if taught in a way that allows students to explore those connections for themselves.

Diversifying the computing pipeline is essential to meeting the current and future needs of media industries. Therefore journalism industry leaders and educators should be active participants in the discussion about broadening participation in computing. Leaders and educators in the computing industry, similarly, should go beyond the traditional focus on recruiting students who have demonstrated facility with math and science as primary candidates for computer science. That pool is too small. Rather, they should recognize and cultivate the latent computing talents in the writers, artist and athletes in their midst. In the next post, I will look at the way in which interactive journalism programs can help the news industry achieve its elusive diversity goals – and respond to its innovation crisis at the same time.

References and endnotes

Articles, papers and presentations on the IJIMS project

U Wolz, M. Pulimood, K. Pearson, M. Stone, M. Switzer, “Computational thinking and expository writing in the middle school.”  ACM Transactions in Computing Education, forthcoming.

with U Wolz,  M.Pulimood, M. Stone; M. Switzer. “Computational Journalism in the Middle School.” Scholastic Division, 2010 Convention of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communications, Denver, Colo. Aug. 4-7, 2010

§ Wolz, U., Stone, M., Pulimood, S. M., and Pearson, K. 2010. Computational thinking via interactive journalism in middle school. In Proceedings of the 41st ACM Technical Symposium on Computer Science Education (Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA, March 10 – 13, 2010). SIGCSE ’10. ACM, New York, NY, 239-243.

§ U. Wolz, K. Pearson, M. Pulimood, M. Stone, and M. Switzer) Broadening Participation in Computing via Community Journalism, New Media Consortium Summer Conference, June 11-14, 2008

§  M. Pulimood, D. Shaw, K. Pearson) “Content Management Systems for Journalism,” New Media Consortium Summer Conference,  June 11-14, 2008

§ (with M. Pulimood, M. Stone, M. Switzer and U. Wolz.) “Scratch in the Interactive Journalism Institute for Middle School.” Scratch@MIT conference. MIT Media Lab July 25, 2008

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