Alternative Data Instruction: The State of Online Courses

One response to the widespread lack of instruction in data journalism, and instructors capable of teaching it, has been to enlist respected teachers for massive open online courses, or MOOCs. Doig is one of those teachers, and he suggests MOOCs offer great benefit for certain classes, providing expert instruction and hands-on training.

He was an instructor in two MOOCs focused on data journalism, one organized by the European Journalism Centre, which drew 25,000 people to enroll, and the other by Rosental Alves of the Knight Center for Journalism in The Americas at the University of Texas School of Journalism, which drew more than 4,000.

“One strength is that there are a wide variety of MOOCs out there created by top faculty at major institutions like Harvard and MIT and Stanford,” Doig wrote in a memo on the subject. “Their existence begs the question of why should your institution go to the trouble of creating and staffing a class that covers the same ground. (Of course, one reason would be to collect the tuition from your students!)”

He suggested that a partial journalism curriculum could be crafted out of MOOC offerings combined with video content from journalism-related sources such as IRE and the Poynter Institute’s News University. However, being unable to provide individual feedback, MOOCs would come up short for classes in newswriting or basic reporting, he said.

Our research assistant participated in three MOOCs to help us develop a sense of how well the virtual courses teach data journalism. He found that MOOCs are best at offering introductory exposure, but one should not expect to reach in-depth knowledge. MOOCs may be useful for developing an initial foundation in a subject, or for reinforcing a fading proficiency, but may be lacking in terms of teaching reporting techniques, critical thinking, or creative skills. The three MOOCs he participated in were effective at teaching tools, and our RA reported that he was often excited to learn a feature or technique within an application. However, finding ways to apply these tools outside of exercises may require person-to-person interaction in a classroom setting.

In order for MOOCs to be viable resources, they must be maintained. Many classes referenced lost and outdated information. Broken links, missing materials, and redesigned websites often made it difficult to navigate through the lessons.

Our participant’s experience pointed to the issues raised by Doig, but the ASU professor does think MOOCs could still be an optional resource for a data journalism course. “Students eager to go beyond what is offered in the classroom (alas, almost certainly a minority) can be pointed to online sources that will give them that content,” Doig wrote. “To that end, it might be a good idea to develop a list of MOOCs and such that journalism instructors could sample and offer to their students.”

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