Data journalism MOOCs offer new options for distributed learning

One of the most common questions I’ve heard since I began investigating data-driven journalism has been “where can I go to learn more?” Every day, those options are expanding. Starting in early 2014, for instance, the European Journalism Centre is offering a relatively novel option: a “massive open online course” (MOOC) focused on building data journalism skills.


“We’re very excited to be able to offer this course for free to anyone in the world who has an internet connection,” wrote Liliana Bounegru, project manager on data journalism at the European Journalism Centre, in an email.

“We’re proud to have been able to get support from Google, the Dutch Ministry of Education and the African Media Initiative for this course and to get some of the best people in the business to teach and provide guidance to the course: the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism, the New York Times, ProPublica, Wired, Twitter, La Nacion Argentina, the Chronicle of Higher Education, Zeit Online, and others.”

More than a month after Bonnegru first told me about the MOOC, more than 6,000 participants from more than 170 countries all over the world have now signed up to learn how to become a data journalist through this MOOC and the Data Journalism Handbook.

Will the thousands of participants get the skills that they need? A data journalism MOOC that just concluded suggests that many of them will find the EJC’s course valuable.

This fall, more than 3700 people from 140 countries participated in a data journalism MOOC hosted by the University of Texas. Their number included journalist Anna Li, who took the online course on data-driven journalism and really enjoyed it, save for some frustrations with the software design.

Silvia Meave, a Mexico City-based journalist, heard about the MOOC through the Knight Center’s account on Twitter and enrolled. Meave, who has now participated in four MOOCs (two in English and two in Spanish), had not taken classes online previously.

“It’s great for me because I’m studying at my own pace at my computer,” she related, in an email interview. Meave pursued and achieved certificates for all four of the MOOCs.

“I wanted to get the certificates because these have been great courses,” she said. ” I’ve learned too much and it’s good for my curriculum vitae.”

The data-driven journalism MOOC offered Meave an opportunity to obtain training that wasn’t otherwise as easily accessible.

“The only way to take this kind of training in Mexico is to enroll in on-site seminars at the university, but I know these topics are not managed at my university yet,” she said.

Meave is now working on applying what she learned to two investigative projects, which she said that she hopes to finish within the next 6 months and publish at TribuAmericas.

Deanna Cheng, a journalism student at Langara College, told me that the MOOC helped get her up to speed on what the actual practice of data journalism involved.

“The enormity of task of cleaning data made an impression,” she said, in an interview. “Getting it right, going back and getting the formats right.”

Like Meave, Cheng took the course because she thought that the subject matter expertise of the instructors went beyond what was available to her within her institution.

“I was really excited about it because I wanted to understand data journalism more,” she said, in an interview. “I felt that the class at my university wasn’t satisfactory.

Cheng found the peer-to-peer learning forums and the MOOC itself somewhat daunting.

“The course itself… it’s huge,” said Cheng. “It’s massive. I just felt like I got lost in it.”

Her experiences in using social media were also mixed.

“They had a Facebook group where people shared what they were doing, like their projects and their information,” she said. “That was cool, but I saw hundreds and hundreds of replies. On Twitter, I could have direct conversations with instructors. That was most useful to me, and to have connections after the course, if I needed help with using Google Fusion Tables.”

What made this MOOC work?

The views I found on the other side of the screen was decidedly positive.

“I thought it was pretty effective,” said New York Times interactive developer Derek Willis, in an interview. Willis, who was one of the instructors, told me that this was his first experience teaching or participating in a MOOC.

“We were able to put a lot of material in front of the students, with specific, concrete tasks for them to do,” he said. “My week of it was particularly skills-based, in terms of spreadsheet skills. That can be tricky with two or three thousand students. Not everyone has the same background. The people who really want to stick with them are probably going to power through it, and that was our experience.”

Willis’ success was aided by the fact that this wasn’t the first MOOC from the Knight Center for Journalism at the University in Texas. As I learned, they’ve managed to conduct 5 MOOCs in 10 months.

The secret to their success, as Amy Schmitz Weiss explained at PBS MediaShift, was engaging good instructors and doing a lot of planning. Weiss, an associate professor in the School of Journalism & Media Studies at San Diego State University, offered practical advice for anyone who might try to follow in their footsteps:

Any online course, whether it is a MOOC or not, takes a lot of time to plan and maintain once it launches. Be prepared to spend twice or four times as much of your time on the course. Be available to the students. As the online medium creates an imaginary distance between people, students crave interaction with the instructor to know they are there. Try to be as present as possible in the course. Don’t take on too much. Don’t try to put everything into the MOOC about the given subject. I started out in the planning phase by including a lot of information and ended up reducing it by half to make sure it would be a manageable amount of course material for the students.

When I called up Weiss this winter, she emphasized again how much of a difference thorough preparation made for making the MOOC work.

“We planned for two and a half months to put it together,” she said. “Planning & organization takes a big chunk of time. Once you have that set, you don’t go on autopilot, but it makes the overall course flow much better allows the instructor to focus on teaching and the students.”

Weiss shared Willis’ positive assessment of the outcome.

“Given the topic itself, the approach we took at addressing the basics went really well,” she said. “Having the right people and right content makes a difference in any kind of course you do, whether face to face, online or if it’s a MOOC. For me, I consider it a success if students came away with skills they wouldn’t have before and a learning community was formed. Knowing both were achieved makes me very happy.”

She was also much more bullish about what she saw on social media than Cheng was, when we talked.

“The forums were fantastic, seeing the conversations, sharing ideas and examples of data-driven journalism around the world,” said Weiss. “Seeing the challenges people had was quite eye-opening, as was seeing them help each other out was great. We have social media channels set up, so that those who wanted to go further could.

The promise and perils of MOOCs

So are MOOCs the secret to unlocking data journalism’s secrets, meeting the demand for people who can build news apps, data visualizations and crunch government data sets around the world?

In a word, no.

While the results and experiences of the students and instructors I interviewed are promising, these kinds of online courses will only be a part of the answer, not the singular solution to peoples’ needs for skill development on their own.

“This kind of MOOC was focused on basics, for someone new to it or a citizen who wanted to know how data journalism worked,” said Weiss. “More experienced people did sign up, and felt they weren’t getting a lot of mileage. We assigned more reading to people who wanted to built those skills.”

Given the amount of vehement criticism of the potential downsides of MOOCs for students and professors, and misunderstanding of the dynamics of such instruction, any positive recommendation of these online courses also has to be leavened with a heavy dose of caution.

As Tamar Lewin reported at the New York Times this week, after setbacks, such online courses are being rethought. One of the most publicized experiments, a partnership between Udacity and San Jose State University, has flopped: the students who participated in the MOOC in spring 2012 actually fared worse than students who took classes on campus.

Many students will benefit from in-person interaction with teachers and peers, from the ability to ask timely questions and receive immediate follow up on problems. As more schools experiment with inverted classrooms, more classroom time may be maximized in new, more effective ways.

Cheng, the journalism student who logged on from Vancouver, reflected on a challenge that online courses pose in general.

“It’s great to have direct contact with people,” said. “I’m finding that with just an online course, if there’s no meeting with the teacher before hand, even if there’s just one day if I get to see the classmates, it’s harder,” she said.

“I’m doing that for ‘Intro to Urban Politics.’ I have all these other journalism courses and deadlines and I’m constantly reminded of them. With this online course, it gets pushed off, because there’s no reminder. I find it a bit of a struggle. I was on top of everything for data journalism because it was something I was personally invested in learning.”

Multiple definitions for success

The recent remarks of Stanford professor Sebastian Thrun and challenges that Udacity and other early MOOCs have faced suggest that the current approaches to distance learning are unsuccessful for most students, with a 7% completion rate. In Tanzania, MOOCs are seen as “too Western.”.

That grim attrition rate doesn’t mean, however, that online courses for data-driven journalism or other subjects aren’t worth experimenting with further, particularly as network capacity and video conferencing technology improve.

“I think it’s having an open mind to new ways of incorporating digital technology to education,” said Rosental Alves, a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin and founder of the
The Knight Center, in an interview with “MOOC News and Reviews.”

“I think there is a lot of hype about MOOCs now, and there is a lot of negative energy and approach about the impact of the MOOCs, etc. And I think people should calm down and just be open minded to adopt technology in ways that break what we have been doing for centuries in one specific way and be open to check what is effective. It should be brought from the bottom up, not from us who teach and our own interests, but what is the interest of people who are the beneficiaries of the educational process. …There are people out there who play an important role for democratic society, who are in trouble because the world is changing so rapidly in their area, and they need instruction. They need guidance. It’s based on what is the interests of them that we are doing this.”

When I called Alves, he told me that the University of Texas’ College of Education has been looking at evaluations of participants and thinking through how their approach to MOOCs is working.

“The MOOCs that we do are different from the big movement,” he said. “We are not transforming college classes. In our case, it’s more professional training, where we are creating a massive course out of what would be a workshop. It’s short and very specific.”

The Knight Center launched this particular program a year ago and are now working on their 7th MOOC, which is focused on entrepreneurial journalism, in Spanish and, according to Alves, has 5015 people registered.

In general, he described four broad types of registrants that he described in their classes.

The first category are people who register but don’t do anything. The second are people who log-in and take something away, either by watching some videos and downloading some material. The third category are the people who are getting something more from the MOOC.

“It’s hard to tell how many finish, because the concept of ‘finishing’ an open course is not very well defined,” said Alves.

Cheng, who did not apply for a certificate, fell into this category. “By the third week, I just read everything,” she told me. “I watched videos, but when it came to homework or forum questions, I didn’t do them any more,” she said. “It was free, I wanted the information, and I wanted structure,” she said.”

The fourth category are the people who pay for their certificates. According to the Knight Center, 278 people paid and earned certificates in University of Texas’ data journalism MOOC, out of a total of 3,777 people who registered for the course.

That ratio is in-line with their other MOOCS: “It has been around 5-10% of people who get the certificates, which helps us financially,” said Alves. “We charge $30 if someone wants us to verify in the logs of the platform if they pass the course,” said Alves.

(Recently released research suggests those participation rates are roughly similar to other MOOCs. A study of one million MOOC users published by the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education this December found that about 4 percent of users completed the courses, with around half of people who registered for a given course ever going in to view a lecture.)

The upcoming European Journalism Center’s MOOC is very similar to what the Knight Center offered, he said.

“It’s the same structure, same duration, same topic, and same style, with 5 different instructors with each one,” he said.

Whether it gets the same results remains to be seen. A broader way to assess success, Alves suggested, is to think in terms of connecting peers and mentors, and increasing global access to specialized education.

“The beauty of this program is to create a learning community,” he said. “Each of the six MOOCs that we’ve done has created a sort of a virtual community with people all over the world interested in the same topic. People help each other a lot. I think people learn from each other as much as from the instructors. We think that’s an exciting new opportunity and are very happy to offer these [online classes] to people who wouldn’t have any other access to training. We don’t want to put any barriers in front of them.”

When I asked online about the experience of other journalists or professors with MOOCs, however, I found measured — and generally quite positive — responses.

“[I’m] not sure MOOCs are the best way to learn anything, but they’re [a] good way to check it out and you do learn,” tweeted Carol Zuegner, a journalism professor at Creighton University, who indicated that she’d done a couple of them and would be trying the EJC’s: “I learned stuff, but got caught up in work and didn’t finish. I signed up for this one!

“As a prof myself, I prefer smaller classes, ability to discuss. Posting with thousands, while interesting, was not ideal,” Zuegner explained. “I liked being able to do it when I wanted; I could go over things on my own time. Perhaps [it’s] better than big lectures. That said, I took a big map course and felt I learned a lot by being able to play with maps.”

If MOOCs are compared to the experience huge, in-person lectures, they fare better. When it comes to seminars or bootcamps, their limitations become more apparent.

“They provide [a] helpful repository of distilled information and examples,” tweeted Jonathan Groves, a journalism professor at Drury University, “I took UT-Austin’s. Helpful (and free), but if you’ve never done it before, I’d recommend the in-person boot camp from IRE/NICAR.”

Groves recommended the bootcamps from the Investigative Reporters and Editors organizations for “great hands-on experience, which is the best way to dig into this stuff.”

There are a couple of important differences between a MOOC and the IRE classes, noted Willis.

“In person, you should get more individual instruction,” he said. “They are broadly comparable. It can be a good experience. Get the right instructors, do a good job defining the scope of things, which Amy really did.”

One concern Willis had turned out not to be as bad as expected.

“I thought that it would be really tricky to do skills-based learning at scale,” he said. “It turned out not to be as big or as bad. I think you can do it, but you’re going to need to be very specific, very detailed, and there’s only so much you can cover.”

On the other hand, instructors can’t ‘freelance’ as they might in a live, in-person lecture.

“It’s tough to do, and somewhat risky,” said Willis. “If someone asks a question in person, you can seize on it and use it to explain some concept to the class. Doing that in person is much easier than doing it in a classroom environment where people aren’t all paying attention in the same time and place.”

The feedback that the University of Texas received from students indicated that the majority of the participants in the MOOC enjoyed it and liked having five instructors. Weiss told me that many students wanted to know when the next course would be offered and to retain access to the materials for a while. A few even wanted to use them to transfer these skills in their newsrooms or home towns.

Weiss was strongly bullish on the potential of distributed learning.

“The MOOC model is something we can experiment with, and challenge ourselves to be better teachers and contribute to society,” she said. “It’s a way to scaffold learning, and to learn how to do it better. We can’t afford not to take the risk as educators. We owe it to the students to keep experimenting and trying it out.”