Journalism Schools Experimenting with Online Learning

According to Justin Ellis at, online education is “having a moment.” A growing number of schools are dipping their toes in to the online education pond aided by massive online open course platform providers like Coursera or college online education consortia like edX.

And now University of Texas’ Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas is having a turn by putting a number of its journalism courses on the web. The first such course – Introduction of Infographics and Data Visualization – drew 2,000 students in its first go around and more than 5,000 in its second.

According to Rosental Alves, Knight’s director, Data Visualization is a perfect course to experiment with because while it is clearly something that journalism students need to learn, it has uses outside that particular field. Bringing courses that can interest students outside journalism could be key to making the transition from the classroom to the web a success.

Alberto Cairo, an instructor at the University of Miami, leads the course, which combines video lectures, discussion forums, and assignments structured around news stories and public data. Cairo, who previously led graphics departments at media companies in Spain and Brazil, said having that tie to reported stories helps to keep the course focused. In particular, Cairo used examples like The New York Times’ interactive on words used at the presidential nominating conventions, as well as The Guardian’s data map on unemployment in the U.S.

The course is about telling a story with numbers, Cairo explains. There’s no doubt that this is a skill today’s journalists need since a significant part of their job will be to interpret large sets of data and put them in context for their readers. Not only are the students learning how to assess charts and graphs critically, they are also learning how to craft their own to deliver their message.

The course encountered the issues similar to what other MOOCs have faced. Although nearly 2,000 enrolled for the first offering of the course, only about 800 remained engaged for the entire six-week duration. In total, no more than 15% completed all the required work. Just 7% going so far as to request a certificate of completion, which costs $30.

As much promise as online courses hold for journalism, they aren’t without costs. Universities that use Coursera, for example, have to pay a licensing fee, and total costs can run to $50,000 or more per course. Instructors still need to be paid, and dealing with students by the thousands can require lots of help from teaching assistants and other support staff. There’s also the small matter of how to pay for it — one imagines that were the Knight Center’s MOOCs priced at some level other than free, the demand would have fallen off substantially.