Last month the first submissions by students on the MA in Online Journalism landed on my desk. I had set two assignments. The first was a standard portfolio of online journalism work as part of an ongoing, live news project. But the second was explicitly branded ‘Experimental Portfolio‘ – you can see the brief here. I wanted students to have a space to fail. I had no idea how brave they would be, or how successful. The results, thankfully, surpassed any expectations I had. They included:
- Dan Davies did a number of experiments around covering cycling collisions in Birmingham that involved mapping, RSS feeds, FOI requests, data, Help Me Investigate, and eventually an idea for a game of sorts.
- Alex Gamela constructed the Hashbrum website, experimenting with mapping plugins and other content management technologies. His series of posts on hyperlocal publishing provide an excellent insight into his processes.
- Caroline Beavon experimented with Google Wave.
- Natalie Chillington experimented with a self-updating gig map. Although she didn’t succeed in achieving what she’d set out to do, the knowledge of web tools and technologies such as KML.
- Ruihua Yao experimented with recruiting members of the Chinese community in Birmingham to contribute to a Chinese community blog.
- Andy Brightwell looked into the ways linked data can be used to uncover political relationships in local councils. There’s a good reason why there’s no blog post to link to, but I’m not telling you what it is…
- Ioana Epure (studying MA Freelancing and Journalism Enterprise, which has some overlap with Online Journalism) looked at music communities and different ways of producing music journalism.
- One student launched the map-based social network Blomap.
- Mikel Plana was exploring lifestreaming, but was offered a job before the deadline (congratulations Mikel).
There are a range of things that I found positive about the results. Firstly, the sheer variety – students seemed to either instinctively or explicitly choose areas distinct from each other. The resulting reservoir of knowledge and experience, then, has huge promise for moving into the second and final parts of the MA, providing a foundation to learn from each other.
Secondly, by traditional standards a couple of students did indeed ‘fail’ to produce a concrete product. But that was what the brief allowed – in fact, encouraged. They were not assessed on success, but research, reflection and creativity. The most interesting projects were those that did not produce anything other than an incredible amount of learning on the part of the student. In other words, it was about process rather than product, which seems appropriate given the nature of much online journalism.
Process, not product
One of the problems I sought to address with this brief was that students are often result-focused and – like journalists and news organisations themselves – minimise risk in order to maximise efficiency. So the brief took away those incentives and introduced new ones that rewarded risk-taking because, ultimately, MA-level study is as much about testing new ideas as it is about mastering a set of skills and area of knowledge. In addition, the whole portfolio was only worth 20% of their final mark, so the stakes were low.
Some things can be improved. There were 3 areas of assessment – the third, creativity, was sometimes difficult to assess in the absence of any product. There is the creativity of the idea, and how the student tackles setbacks and challenges, but that could be stated more explicitly perhaps.
Secondly, the ‘evaluation’ format would be better replaced by an iterative, blog-as-you-go format which would allow students to tap into existing communities of knowledge, and act as a platform for ongoing feedback. The loop of research-experiment-reflect-research could be integrated into the blog format – perhaps a Tumblelog might be particularly useful here? Or a vlog? Or both?
As always, I’m talking about this in public to invite your own ideas and feedback on whether these ideas are useful, and where they might go next. I’ll be inviting the students to contribute their own thoughts too.