Stories and Streams: teaching collaborative journalism with peer to peer learning

In January 2012 I was facing an old problem: as I prepared to teach a new undergraduate online journalism class, I wanted to find a way to encourage students to connect with wider networks in the area they were reporting on.

Networks have always been important to journalists, but in a networked age they are more important than ever. The days of starting your contacts book with names and numbers from formal organisations listed in the local phonebook are gone. Now those are instantly available online – but more importantly, there are informal groups and expert individuals accessible too. And they’re publishing for each other.

Because of this, and because of reduced resources, the news industry is increasingly working with these networks to pursue, produce and distribute stories, from Paul Lewis’s investigative work at The Guardian to Neal Mann’s field reporting for Sky, the Farmers’ Weekly team’s coverage of foot and mouth, and Andy Carvin’s coverage of the Arab Spring at NPR.

How could I get students to do this? By rewriting the class entirely.

I ditched lead lectures. I threw out the class-wide workshops. I got rid of generalist journalist roles and made everyone a specialist in a defined role. I removed the requirement to fill space in a specialist news site (not inherently bad, but I wanted to see if I could move away from ‘filling space’) and required them to produce articles on their way to a longform group investigation. And I asked the students to identify what they needed to learn to overcome the obstacles involved, rather than trying to tell them.

And it worked. In a decade of teaching I’ve not seen a class produce more work, with more motivation, and with such depth.

There was one downside: in the pursuit of depth, students perhaps lacked the technical development that previous years have. But I can accept that. Because you can’t learn how to write a good story if you don’t know how to find one.

That’s the summary. Here’s the detail.

Peer to peer learning

The biggest change in teaching was a move away from lecture-based learning to what I described as peer-to-peer (P2P) learning. This meant that the focus of activities and assessment was on students working with and learning from each other.

Some of my reasons for trying P2P learning methods included:

  • To strengthen the social interactions that not only help motivate a student, but also keep them in education at all
  • Address the ‘scaling problem’ of education by delegating power to students (e.g. editors). This was a lesson learned from community management.
  • Encourage deeper learning as students have to relate their own knowledge to others, and communicate it effectively
  • Design student-centred learning rather than a one-size-fits-all approach
  • Create positive reinforcement where learning helps solve problems rather than the potentially artificial exercises that can be created when the process is reversed
  • Create an environment where mistakes are seen as key elements in learning rather than something to be avoided
  • Place the student in a position where they are explicitly responsible for their own learning, rather than a passive recipient

The first part of this involved moving the focus away from myself (by dropping lectures – explored below), and onto group activity. The second part involved not just the creation of groups (whose members could work with each other), but of roles within each group that would create the basis for learning between groups. In addition, students were linked to wider networks within their field of investigation.

5 roles in an investigation team

I’ve already written in detail about the group format I used in this module – an investigations team with 5 roles, designed to break students out of the news production line and focus them on new methods of newsgathering and production.

Those roles have been explained in some depth over a series of posts:

This team structure wasn’t essential to the peer to peer learning, but having distinct roles within groups did help provide a reason for students to interact across groups as well as within them (a ‘real world’ analogy would be the way that specialist correspondents/role holders from different publications get together at events and share gossip about their particular part of the news machine).

This was partly about fostering a specific professional identity for students. Indeed, there were complaints when they had to change those roles halfway through the module (in order to ensure that they learned to perform at least two) as they had grown into their roles. In retrospect, it might have been a good idea to ‘rota’ those roles consistently, so they shared their new roles with the same group of peers as previously.

No more lead lectures, no more whole-class workshops

Dropping the lead lecture not only helped make time for that inter- and intra-group interaction, but also sent a clear signal that the students were going to drive their learning.

This wasn’t going to be about me talking and them listening (aside from me talking about that, which I did regularly), it was going to be about them working and identifying what they needed to learn to solve their problems. That would then feed into the workshops that I ran, but also their interactions with each other, and outside the class.

Those workshops would not be conducted across the whole class but be delivered in another room, to smaller subsets of the class. This allowed for greater depth and personalisation: taking place in the middle of the allotted class time, they would be directly related to the needs of those occupying particular roles: for example, I might run a session on FOI which was recommended for editors and data journalists; or a session on finding online communities for the community managers.

Students were given a choice of workshop to attend (with recommendations to particular role holders), again moving away from a passive learning experience. 3 workshops ran every week (this was made possible by combining three classes in total, with each lecturer delivering a separate workshop, sometimes concurrently).

The best example of how this worked is the FOI session. Last year I delivered a class on FOI to around 30 students. After it, perhaps one or two sent an FOI request. This time round, 8 students attended the FOI class, and around 10 from the class as a whole sent an FOI request. The students had clearly passed on the knowledge to their colleagues, and it was being much more widely used.

Workshop sessions were planned in advance: I anticipated what needs students would have each week, but also invited students to identify what barriers were stopping their investigations progressing so we could run workshops on those.

In the beginning their needs matched up exactly with what I anticipated, but as the weeks progressed the workshops became more and more student-driven. Notably, students often requested workshops on ‘softer’ skills such as managing teams, communication, dealing with obstructive PR practices, and so on. The contrast with the usual focus on technical skills was illuminating. I realised that this is a value which is often overlooked in education, especially in the way that we prepare ‘content’ for delivery in class.

A newsroom with team members ‘away training’

In short, the class was organised as a live newsroom where individual team members might at some point be ‘away training’ (at a workshop) or ‘at a professional event’ (talking to role holders in other groups). The news production activity continued even while some members might be ‘out of the office’.

The class was split into three parts:

  1. News conference (apart from the first class, where students started with a field and mindmapped areas to investigate): identifying leads and problems with investigations, and discussing possible solutions.
  2. Training sessions: short workshops on skills identified by the students. Newsroom continues.
  3. Peer feedback and ongoing newsroom: students pursue their investigations, and seek help from members of other groups.

Although the groups were undertaking investigations, they were expected to publish content regularly and iteratively (such as an explainer, or data post, detailed in the links above).

These elements would then come together into a longform investigation at the end of the first six weeks (compiled by the editor).

After that deadline, the process then began again: a new group, each with new roles, with a new investigation. In fact, we appointed editors based on previous performance and peer review, and they ‘hired’ their team based on online ‘applications’ by the remaining students, which led to a good spread of abilities in each team.

In the first few weeks there was a lot of reinforcement from me about the reasons for doing this: that they should be willing to make mistakes in order to get better, rather than expecting to learn how to do it perfectly from the start, and do it just once.

Ultimately, by the time of the second investigations, they got it. Students were producing more content, of a more original nature, than anything I’ve seen before at this level.

The main weakness was technical: in the focus on content, and the requirement to adopt forms of storytelling other than the formulaic print report, some good angles were buried.

But more importantly, students seemed enthused about their work, genuinely engaged with the subjects they were investigating (even if they hadn’t started that way, including one spectacular turnaround), and motivated to continue to improve their technical skills to communicate the results. (See the link to the research papers at the end for more on student feedback about the module)

That seemed to me to be a better output than students who could turn around a superficial story without much engagement in what they were reporting on, or motivation to improve.

Collaboration outside the classroom

Alongside the collaboration taking place within the classroom (not perfect: some students felt that others held back tips through competitiveness), I connected students with people in networks around their subject of investigation. This helped to lead to new contacts and ideas, as well as potential outlets.

For example, one group investigated students working in the sex industry – a subject suggested on the Help Me Investigate mailing list by UWE lecturer and investigative journalist Philip Chamberlain. That group collaborated with Philip’s students and another group at Salford University, as well as individual students in the Help Me Investigate network.

Others who looked at Olympics-related issues benefited from the contacts of fellow lecturer Jennifer Jones (whose class was combined with mine), who runs the Citizen Relay network.

This year I’m hoping to repeat the practice with a focus on CCG spending, allowing students at different universities to exchange information and tips on an important but under-reported field, with interest already being expressed by a national newspaper and specialist magazine.

Teaching collaborative journalism – the ebook guide

Luckily we (myself with Jennifer Jones and Jon Hickman) successfully applied for funding to record the results of this experiment – titled ‘stories and streams‘ – as it took place (which we did here as it progressed, and as more formal research papers which have already been presented at 2 conferences), and produce a book with more details. This handbook is now available online. The plan is to add to this with the experiences of other lecturers who try similar techniques with their own students at different levels and in different contexts.

If you do try any of these ideas, or want to collaborate on any projects, please get in touch.

11 thoughts on “Stories and Streams: teaching collaborative journalism with peer to peer learning

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