Communities of practice: teaching students to learn in networks

One of the problems in teaching online journalism is that what you teach today may be out of date by the time the student graduates.

This is not just a technological problem (current services stop running; new ones emerge that you haven’t taught; new versions of languages and software are released) but also a problem of medium: genres such as audio slideshows, mapping, mashups, infographics and liveblogging have yet to settle down into an established ‘formula’.

In short, I don’t believe it’s wise to simply ‘teach online journalism’. You have to combine basic principles as they are now with an understanding of how to continue to learn the medium as it develops.

This year I set MA Online Journalism students at Birmingham City University an assignment which attempts to do this.

It’s called ‘Communities of Practice’ (the brief is here). The results are in, and they are very encouraging. Here’s what emerged:

‘Communities of Practice’

The ‘Communities of Practice’ assignment asks students to focus not just on developing technical skills around a particular medium of their choice, but on exploring the communities of practice that exist around it. In fact, at this stage the development of technical skills was one of the ways of making contact with those communities.

If, for example, you are developing skills in data journalism, it makes sense that you should be joining relevant mailing lists, following particular blogs, attending meetups, and having conversations (in person, or via email, Facebook or Twitter) around your area.

In addition, as a Masters level student, I’d say you should really be actively contributing to the development of the medium, by publishing your own experiences and reflections on those platforms, and on your own blog.

Two side benefits of this: you build your social capital within those communities (because you are contributing to them, not just taking away), and you build your professional status and reputation.

Hedy Korbee’s blogging on data journalism, for example, led to contacts with Microsoft Canada’s Open Source Strategy Lead, and raised awareness of her soon-to-be-launched hyperlocal website. Other students attended events and made other useful contacts in their fields.

A small aside here: the assignment constitutes a minor part of the Multimedia Journalism module on the course, accounting for 25% of the final marks, and it is assessed on 3 criteria: research, reflection, and creativity. The design of the assessment is geared to ensure that students focus more on learning than execution, and are therefore prepared to take more risks in their work (the second assignment, for which this builds the foundations, focuses more on execution).

The importance of a community’s culture

The culture of the communities of practice was important. Desi Velikova found a warm welcome on this Flash forum, and found that she was able to contribute without being an expert as one of the members needed to put himself in beginners’ shoes to write some tutorials.

Hedy Korbee, meanwhile, identified the divide between journalists and data experts and the problems for people joining those groups who, like her, don’t possess the expertise to actively contribute:

“I’ve learned that the culture of these groups requires asking practical, answerable questions based on specific problems that users face and I don’t think my skills are at a level yet where I can make a useful contribution.

“In light of this, I’ve also joined groups with meetups, such as Toronto OpenStreetMap, where I can interact with and hopefully get inspired by others who share an interest in data and mapping.  I am particularly looking forward to attending my first Hacks and Hackers Toronto meetup.”

Finding workarounds was key. In one instance, Hedy contacted a particularly approachable member of the community directly. Andy Watt, meanwhile, struggled to find communities around audio and video, so he created his own on LinkedIn, and two Twitter lists. Interestingly, he rejected the option of using his own website to host discussions “as it may have been perceived as a ploy to drive traffic to my own site.” Samuel Negredo identified communities around a blog, forums around particular software, and events.

Identifying best practice and reflecting on your own

Identifying best practice was a key process for students. Hedy Korbee’s ‘Five great audio slideshows‘ is a good example, and clearly influenced her own work. Desi Velikova compiled a list of resources for starting Flash 8.

Andy Watt’s blog focused more on documenting his own processes, posting various stages of particular experiments as he continued to edit them. Samuel blogged about the process of filming architecture. And Desi blogged about using one dataset as the basis for exploring 4 visualisation tools.

Being required to talk about process publicly in this way does two things: firstly, it engenders a reflexive approach to production, identifying what works and what doesn’t so that further work is of higher quality. Secondly, it provides material around which other members of the production community can talk: those who are not as proficient will learn from it, and be inclined to help in return in future; those who are more proficient may chip in with their own suggestions now. In short, it’s an investment.

Breadth versus depth

In terms of the structure of the MA, this assignment marks the point at which students move from breadth to depth. To my mind an online journalist needs an awareness of the wide range of storytelling possibilities in the medium, and the variety of newsgathering and distribution tools and techniques. But they also need to stand out in a particular field.

Communities of practice are key to both. One student commented that “Although I will never be a Flash expert, I will feel much more confident if I am in a situation to work on such a project”. Another said “Maybe I won’t be able to keep up with every development, every day, but the work I have done around communities of practice is helping me to identify and organize better the resources which are available”.

This is the nature of working in networks: our connections are key assets we need to work to build, and the ability to access expertise and advice a key skill. You do not achieve either by learning in isolation, producing in seclusion – the traditional mode of education. As these students go forward to specialise in online audio or video, slideshows, infographics and data, they do so within networks.

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7 thoughts on “Communities of practice: teaching students to learn in networks

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