Launching TXStateofChange.com

 

On May 21, our class was included in a program for the local groups of Hacks Hackers and Online News Association on Student Innovations in Data Journalism. The first presentation was from Jake Batsell of SMU discussing their Campus Crime piece for the Light of Day Project.  I, along with several of my students - Sara Peralta, Shannon Delaney, Ashley Hebler and Joe Vasquez - presented our TXStateofChange.com project. It was a great opportunity for us to show off our work to professionals and to reflect on the skills and experiences of the semester. You can see video of the event below and more photos and detail on the Hacks/Hackers site.

 

 

What I think is most interesting to reflect upon this semester is the role of experience learning in the classroom. We often discuss internships or student media in the realm of experience learning, and these are wonderful opportunities. But there are ways to develop experiences as part of regular classroom curricula that can simulate real world experiences. Both our projects this semester, the SXTXState.com  and TXStateofChange.com projects, have unique aspects that reflect an environment that requires collaboration, teamwork, problem solving and innovation. For the SXTXState.com project, students did extensive preparation for a project that ultimately required swift reporting on deadline. They were given a broad set of tools and skills to use, but were then let loose on the SXSW environment to cover it in "guerrilla" style. They worked alone or in small teams and were required to function in a completely mobile setting. 

For the TXStateofChange.com project, the goals were a little different. We spent the semester working on tools and engaging with professionals to develop an extensive project around Texas State's status as Hispanic Serving Institution. Our deadlines were a bit longer, but our deliverables were more detailed. Students worked in teams of 3 on beats that were established through a brainstorming session with the group. The groups were responsible for covering their beats with text, multimedia and data. We had a range of presentations throughout the semester showing how professionals are dealing with data and using data journalism to tell stories. 

Here are a few items that I feel are necessary to do experience learning projects in a regular classroom curriculum. There are definitely challenges, but the benefits most certainly outweigh.

  1. Pick a project that is limited in timeframe - a course meets for a semester. Once the class is over, students are gone. It is difficult to maintain a project over time unless there are discrete sections or breaks, so I wouldn't recommend embarking on a "generic" newsroom situation. For the SXTXState.com project, SXSW happens each year. We are able to maintain continuity year-to-year, but each group is responsible for that particular event and those that lead up to it. We are very lucky to have an event of this magnitude in our region, but I would imagine that other schools could capitalize on conferences and events that happen on campus or in the local community. For example, another experience learning project we coordinate through social media is our annual Mass Comm Week. Several classes contribute content to the txstatemcweek.com site, and we include photos and live streaming video of the event. This brings much attention to our activities from outside the university. For the TXStateofChange.com project, we picked a topic - our status as Hispanic Serving Institution - that was extensive, but could be covered in the course of a semester. It's a topic we can revisit again, or we can move on to another area.
  2. Don't underestimate time commitments. These projects require a great deal of setup in terms of preparing students. Students need a variety of skills and approaches. They have to be encouraged to step out of their comfort zones. It may take them time to comprehend their roles in the project, and as often the case in something that has little definition, may have a few false starts and the need to regroup. Plus, when the semester is over, it's over. There may not be time for extensive editing or rewrites or re-working of the data. In that case, be prepared to be the editor and make the necessary adjustments to insure the quality of the project. A better scenario is to allow time and set the expectation that edits to their submissions will be required. Set this deadline at least two weeks before the end of the semester.
  3. Leverage social media tools as much as possible. It used to be quite difficult to do any type of public reporting and get that out to an audience. Even with the proliferation of desktop publishing and the availability of printers, you still had a limited scope of your distribution. Then, the Internet and Web came along, but that required a fairly advanced skill set to get content out there. Now, there is a vast array of free and easy-to-use platforms that allow you to publish student work to a wide and often global audience. You can be as simple as a Blogger blog or as complex as designing your own Wordpress or Drupal platform, depending on the skill set you wish students to obtain. You can use social media tools like Twitter or Facebook to get the word out and to connect with your audience. You can host a large amount of video on YouTube for free with incredible bandwidth and streaming capability (and embed it on your blog). And you can encourage students to test out new platforms to see how they can be integrated, like Pinterest or GroupMe or whatever the next new thing turns out to be. 
  4. It may be best to execute an experience learning project as a 2nd class or one that has a prerequisite of the range of skills that they might need. In both these projects, students are in an Advanced graduate class in which they were required to take a basic Web design course prior. If that is not possible, I think a course can be structured to allow for part instruction, part experience. Even in the Advanced class, we spend a great deal of time pushing the envelope of technologies - including JQuery, PHP/MySQL, Ruby, Web Scraping and advanced Wordpress and Drupal. You can see more on this site on the Course Outline
  5. Provide some general guidelines and expectations to the students... but not too many. This is a fine line. Students want you to tell them exactly what they need to do to get an A. But that is unrealistic in a setting in which you want students to be innovative and creative. You need to set up basic structure for the project - perhaps the content management system platform - and the basic responsibilities. Set up beats in groups, if that works for the topic. Or set up responsibility areas - like content, social media and site design. And, introduce students to a range of skills and tools, with the understanding that they are to figure out the best ways to implement. Have them understand that this is how it works in a professional setting. I often say "doing what you are told might allow you to keep your job. But exceeding someone's expectations is what leads to raises, promotions, new opportunities." Make sure the students know why you are being intentionally vague with the requirements, but be there to answer questions or provide support throughout.
  6. Be prepared to know how to do everything or at least be committed to learning it. You can't just bring in a professional to show students how to do something, and then expect to wash your hands of it. This was articulated by Jake Batsell of SMU at the Hacks/Hackers event mentioned above. You have to be prepared to learn new things and to present them to students throughout the semester. Get comfortable with the idea that your support system is limited (Google is your best friend) and model trouble-shooting behaviors for students. You don't have the luxury of spending a semester becoming proficient in a technology before you are able to teach it to students. By then, it may be too late. Students need to know how to stay on the cutting edge of technology and how to use their foundation of knowledge to acquire new skills. 
  7. Engage the professional community as much as possible. When they speak to your group, they are likely to reinforce and validate things you are saying to the students, but hearing it from professionals seems to make it resonate a bit more. We are very lucky to be able to partner with SXSW (we have a few alum who work there), and we were fortunate to receive a grant from AEJMC and the Knight Foundation to sponsor several guest speakers throughout the semester. But you don't always need a grant to cover travel expenses. Engage local professionals or take advantage of technologies like Skype or Google + Hangouts to virtually bring people into the classroom. When discussing SXSW, we were happy to hear from one Statesman employee who was visiting with our class that we were using the same techniques to cover the event as they did - blog, Twitter, Pinterest, etc. These sessions help to validate that what they are learning is important and valuable.
  8. Be prepared for the stress associated with uncertainty. These projects are much more complex and time-consuming than regular classroom lectures or activities. You still need to prepare lessons on skills, you need to be able to discuss issues. You need to be prepared for some students who are not comfortable in the environment and need more coaxing, guidance or assistance. And, you need to constantly push students to achieve their best. In the end, it will all be worth it, when students feel a sense of accomplishment and have strong portfolio pieces. But I won't lie to you. The environment can take its toll. So, try to find projects that are fun that can sustain the entire group. Identify students who are the bar-setters, the ones who can set the pace for the rest of the class. This can really make a difference in terms of the overall quality of a project. Delegate responsibilites to students as much as you are comfortable, but be prepared to oversee each aspect, even from a distance. Look for opportunities to gain feedback (hopefully positive, but use criticism constructively). Use social media to promote what you are doing. 

Remember, the goal is to develop an awesome project, one in which everyone involved will be proud and will reflect well on your school and program. However, know that each time you do one of these projects, you - as the instructor - get better at it. You figure out new things to teach, new skills to introduce and new ways to coax desired behaviors out of students. So, even though you start over with a new group in a new semester, you are able to set a bar of quality that can be exceeded with new features or approaches each time you do it. That is the challenge, but it is very rewarding to watch these projects develop over time. 

I recently did a post on my tech blog about training students for jobs that don't exist yet. I call it the Hipster Method of Education (you know, I listen to bands that don't exist yet...). In it, I frame a few items that I think are necessary to achieve well prepared students. One thing I plan to add to that list, however, is the role of experience learning in this type of prep. You can talk all you want about technologies and the future, but if you don't provide experiences in which students can actually be innovative and creative, I don't think they will truly be successful in a professional environment that requires it.