Wednesday, September 26, 2012

"What's wrong with the newspaper?"

I'm viewing this on an iPad = irony x 2. 

For the past couple of years, I've kicked off my ad and PR classes by showing the above photo, from The Story So Far: What We Know About the Business of Digital Journalism, a report by Columbia Journalism School (click here for the full PDF).

The photo features the Miami Herald building with a giant iPad ad on the side.

"Why is this photo ironic?" I ask.

Student: "The newspaper business is advertising the thing that helped destroy it."

Perhaps it's even more ironic that I'm showing it to them on an iPad plugged into a digital projector in a program that teaches journalism.

The report rubs salt in the wound:
"At the end of March 2001, the stock market valued the Herald's parent company, Knight-Ridder, at almost the same amount as Apple: $3.8 billion. Ten years later, Apple's valuation is more than $300 billion. And Knight-Ridder no longer exists as an independent company."
It's an old discussion, but it's a subject worth considering for students who want to work in journalism, many of whom are too young to know what "traditional media" means.

Layoffs lead to hate, hate leads to suffering

Last week, that discussion hit Winnipeg the way any discussion usually does: 10 years after it hits everywhere else. The catalyst was the Winnipeg Free Press laying off seven employees, who were widely perceived as "the young ones" primarily concerned with social media and the Winnipeg Free Press News Cafe, the paper's noble experiment selling scones and news under one roof.

Among the layoffs were some grads from the program in which I teach. One of them was among the first students I ever saw in a classroom. She was and is "an awesome kid," and was doing awesome things for her newspaper. That they got rid of her was an enormous surprise. That they laid people off was not.

The Winnipeg Free Press then ran an opinion piece by one of my current students called, "What's wrong with the newspaper?"

I have no idea if the headline writer meant, "The writer is going to tell you what's wrong with the newspaper," "What's so bad about a newspaper?," or both. I asked my student how she perceives it, and she doesn't know either. Whatever the case, she's a convenient bogeyman for the newspaper industry to parade before its imagined audience of octogenarians: "Nooooo - not the young people on the Twitter!!"

The writing on the wall has been there for some time, so I was surprised when folks blamed "the kids," Twitter, and those greedy readers who refuse to pay for content. More irony: the debate was happening online.

(Read Free Press reporter Dan Lett's column: What did you think was going to happen).

The Elvis genie has left the barn

I hate to break it to ya, folks, but the horse has left the barn, the genie has left the bottle, and Elvis has left the building: we live in a digital world, and the old, traditional media model doesn't cut it anymore. You don't have to like it, but it's a fact: we're going digital and we're going there yesterday.

Like the Titanic slowly approaching the iceberg, we've seen no shortage of evidence that this is where our local newspapers are going (and other traditional-media journalism and media is right there with them).

There's also Newspaper Death Watch, which exists to mark the death of print and "the rebirth of journalism," and Wikipedia's "Future of Newspapers" entry. Adbusters wrote a story in 2007 with the optimistic headline, "The Death of Canadian Journalism."

I recall pulling out the latter article out on the first day of school in 2007 and joking, "You enroll in a course to be a journalist, and the entire profession dies - ain't life grand?" (It was, of course, only a joke).

I also wrote a blog post in 2009 in which I expressed frustration with the Free Press for choosing a Sunday tabloid format (On7!) over digital. I ended up getting an email from a Free Press reporter who was upset at my lack of belief in newspapers, but ultimately ended up agreeing with me that On7 was off in terms of the demographic it was trying to reach.

When the Free Press finally launched it's iPad app, it was also a dud. I wrote about it two years ago.  

What's up? Here's how the Columbia Journalism School report calls it in its conclusion: "Journalists just don't understand their business," says Randall Rothenberg, then-journalist and now-president of the Interactive Advertising Bureau.

The foot is on the other shoe

I do understand the frustration of the remaining staff at the Free Press. No one who has power and then loses it likes it. Just ask Saddam Hussein. Oh, yeah...

Rupert Murdoch weighs in on the issue in Mike Walsh's excellent book, Futuretainment:
"Power is moving away from the old elite in our industry - the editors, the chief executives, and let's face it, the proprietors. A generation of media consumers has arisen, demanding content delivered when they want it, how they want it, and very much as they want it."
Right on, Rupe.

For the longest time, the gatekeeper-controlled media had it good. They controlled the info, and we paid for it, because we had no other choice. It could put out anything and do reasonably well. Traditional media gave us Knight Rider, and we had no choice but to watch it. Years later, traditional media tried to give us Knight Rider again and we refused to watch it, because we had some choices.

For traditional media, it's been a struggle to find a profit model. You can't charge as much for ads online. Some newspapers have put up a paywall only to realize that "popularity" is as much a currency these days as currency. You want your audience to link to your content, rate it, debate it, embed it, pass it along, mash it up, and talk about it. A paywall stops this from happening.

The proletariat has seized the means of production (just as Karl Marx once predicted in the Facebook Manifesto!). The former gatekeeper is now dependent on a loud audience network. Futuretainment: "Your only hope of ensuring distribution is ensuring that consumers are motivated enough to do it for you."

The solutions

I've offered my own starting point to a solution, which no journalist likes to hear: Journalism could use a little PR right about now. Hint: if you blame your readers for embracing online media, we might as well shut down the paper now.

The report I link to, above, does as nice a job as any at chronicling what's up and what's to be done about it. Spoiler: the jury is out. However, as a famous former CreComm instructor once told me (1,000 times in a row): "The Chinese symbol for crisis is opportunity." At press time, China has not returned this reporter's calls. 

Regardless of where you stand on the issue, we can agree: the journalist of the future won't be a gatekeeper, but an inventor. The revolution starts now.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Do U.S. teacher unions support or subvert school reform?

What a difference a week makes. 

Last week, asked to choose a stance on teacher unions in the U.S., I wrote piece on the topic for my master's in education. Shortly thereafter, Chicago teachers went on strike. Yes, it must be the power of my writing that made them do it. Cough, cough. 

Here is the paper, edited for brevity, which I wrote in response to a chapter in the book Critical Issues in Education, which asks the question posed in the headline, and outlines the arguments for and against U.S. teacher unions as they relate to school reforms.  

As a member of the Manitoba Government and General Employees’ Union and a resident of the home of the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike, I’m predisposed to agree with my pal, Billy Bragg.

Be that as it may, I would be very reluctant to strike knowing that my students’ education and profession's reputation are hanging in the balance. There’s something very disheartening about a teacher walking the picket line while his or her students sit on the sidelines (as happy to have an extended vacation as they may be). Says the PR instructor: it’s bad PR.

The appearance of U.S. teacher unions goes back to the early days of the profession, when teaching was considered less a career than, in sociologist’s Willard Waller’s words, “a failure belt…the refuge of unmarriageable women and unsaleable men.” Like me!

Bad working conditions, detached administrators, and a negative perception of the profession sewed the seeds for early U.S. teacher unions. The National Education Association (NEA) formed in 1857 to advance “the profession of education” but was dominated by men and not as “concerned with the personal welfare of classroom teachers.”

The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) formed in 1916 and “focused on improving economic aspect of teachers’ lives” and the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) of 1935 “changed the status of unions by recognizing that workers in private industry had the right to bargain collectively.” At the same time, some courts still considered unions to be “criminal conspiracies.”

“Collective bargaining changed the relationship between classroom teachers and administrators. It promised teachers more pay, better job security, and an audible voice in education.” Today, the NLRA covers private sector workers, the NEA and AFT are rivals for the same teacher base (together, their membership is comprised of 80 per cent of U.S. teachers), and teachers enjoy the promise (if not practice) of better “pay, job security, and an audible voice in education.”

The two positions:

Position 1: “Teacher unions are champions of teachers and school reform.”

The pro position is that unions “have had a positive effect on teachers’ working conditions” in terms of salaries, collective bargaining, status, job security, and to “prevent a teacher from getting fired solely for disagreeing with administrators.” It also maintains, “unions also have been good for students,” and cites Finland, the shining example of educational reform, as having “the highest student test scores” and “some of the strongest teacher unions in the world.”

 Position 2: “Teacher Unions Stand in the Way of School Reform.”

The against position raises the specter of “bad teachers” and “rubber rooms” and wonders, “why the nation has done almost nothing to get bad teachers out of the classroom?”

It also says that unions “have outlived their usefulness,” are for teachers and not students, are apologists for poor teaching and an obstacle for school reform” and agrees, while unions do lead to higher teacher pay, it’s at the expense of everything else (except maybe union dues). Instead of union representation, this side suggests the solution to school reform is “merit pay and quantifiable data.”

The anti-union position in the book makes much of the idea that unions protect bad teachers and don’t support great teachers. However, the reality is that teacher unions don’t just represent bad teachers, but also good ones.

Presumption of innocence wasn’t invented by a teacher union, nor was due process or right to a speedy trial. As much as we might like to rally behind a simplistic slogan, like “bad teachers should be fired and good teachers rewarded,” it’s sobering to remember that few people agree on what makes a teacher good or bad.

The article, Building a Better Teacher, from the NY Times Magazine, illustrates the struggle inherent in the pursuit:
"But what makes a good teacher? There have been many quests for the one essential trait, and they have all come up empty-handed. Among the factors that do not predict whether a teacher will succeed: a graduate-school degree, a high score on the SAT, an extroverted personality, politeness, confidence, warmth, enthusiasm and having passed the teacher-certification exam on the first try. When Bill Gates announced recently that his foundation was investing millions in a project to improve teaching quality in the United States, he added a rueful caveat. “Unfortunately, it seems the field doesn’t have a clear view of what characterizes good teaching.”
If the answer is, as the article suggests, “voodoo,” it’s unlikely we’ll be any closer to objectively defining good and bad teachers anytime soon. For the same reason, I also don’t believe that merit pay is a more reasonable way to solve the problem of school reform.

A key problem with merit pay is “teacher quality cannot be measured solely by changes in student test scores.” Student performance can be a function of many things, including family environment. Would parents agree to be judged on their parenting skills based solely on their kids' test scores?

The other side of merit pay is the recent epidemic of teachers being caught raising their students' test scores. Further, it’s proven to be unsuccessful in other countries. "England ended its experiment with performance pay in the 1890s following public outcry over academic dishonesty and the negative effects of exams on students and teachers."

I believe that U.S. teacher unions and school reform aren’t mutually exclusive ideas and agree with the quote attributed to Albert Shanker: “It is as much the duty of the union to preserve public education as it is to negotiate a good contract.”

- All quotes from Nelson, Jack, Stuart Palonsky, and Mary Rose McCarthy, Critical Issues in Education, Eighth Edition. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2013. 

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Is Lore the Facebook for education we've been waiting for?

Lore isn't the first website that's promised to combine Facebook with learning, but it might be the best-looking one.

Last year, I tried to use Edmodo, but after a grand total of two students took me up on my offer to join, I mostly used it to meet other teachers and crowdsource assignments.

Lore could be different: it looks pretty sweet, like Facebook meets Google+, and it promises a world in which it's easy for students to send messages, have conversations, submit assignments, and get back marks. Even better: it's free.

I've monkeyed around with it a bit today, and it seems to work quite well. The only issue is that it appears to take a very long time to upload an assignment or outline. The status bar keeps chugging away, and you never get a message that says, "It's uploaded."

That complaint aside, it would also be great if there was a mobile app to go with the website, but I assume it's on its way.

I'm going to give it a trial run this semester for students who are interested. So far, I've just got the course outlines up, but if enough people use this, we might be able to use it over the longer term. I'll give out "the codes" to join in class, and we'll take it from there.


And while you're at it, have a gander at Learnist, which could very well be the Pinterest of learning (and there's an app too).

The Big Question: where's the Twitter for learning? Oh, yeah, that would just be Twitter.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

How does Richardson's "Blogs, Wikis, Podcasts" hold up six years later?

Will Richardson talks the future of education on YouTube.

Will Richardson's excellent book "Blogs, Wikis, Podcasts (and other powerful Web tools for classrooms)" explains how teachers can integrate online media into their teaching to help students learn and be engaged - no small task, as any teacher knows.

(I recently read the book as part of my master's degree studies at Central Michigan University).

As someone who attempts to keep up with the latest digital media and technology, it's interesting to see where some of Richardson's suggestions have already been replaced by other online tools, and read his predictions in the context of where we're at today. Example: Richardson imagines a tablet, which we now know is called an iPad. And no one giggles when you say it.

That the book came out in 2006 (the third edition was published in 2010) shows how quickly technology has changed and is changing, and how nimble you have to be to incorporate it into the classroom and just know "what the hell is going on online" in everyday life.

Richardson begins the book with a discussion about Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the Web, who was recently honored at the London 2012 Olympics opening ceremony (and flummoxed the NBC commentators, who suggested - not ironically - that viewers Google his name).

Berners-Lee's vision for technology is the Read-Write Web:
"Berners-Lee saw the potential to construct a vast "web" of linked information, built by people from around the globe, creating the ability to share not just data but personal talents in new and powerful ways." (Richardson, P. 1)
It's a theoretical idea championed by the public relations industry for years (in the industry, we call it "two-way symmetric" communication), but it took the Internet to make it come to life.

Richardson's resources

In the book, Richardson gives examples of how teachers can use the read-write Web to communicate, get and pass along information, create content, and encourage students to create content. Richardson's suggested classroom resources (in his order), and how they hold up:

1. Blogs

I've been a champion of blogging for years, though I admit that I arrived late to the party. But as soon as I started blogging, I made up for lost time.
"I will never forget the first time I posted my opinion, and the first time someone responded to it. There was something really powerful about so easily being able to share resources and ideas with a Web audience that was willing to share back what they thought about those ideas" (Richardson, P. 17). 

In Richardson's chapters on blogging, I particularly like his suggestion that teachers use blogs with other schools - in their neighborhood or around the world - to encourage discussion. It's an idea I hadn't considered.

For my students, the biggest blogging benefit is a chance to practice expressing themselves in writing in a public forum, which is something they'll be expected to do for their potential employers or clients.

I see every chance to write as a chance to get better. I recall Stephen King's advice in his excellent book, "On Writing":
"Practice is invaluable (and should feel good, really not like practice at all) and...honesty is indispensable" (King, P. 195). 
 Blogging checks both boxes.

The biggest downside to blogging, from a teacher's perspective, is that it's difficult to legislate students' blogging and commenting. It's the age-old problem: how do you teach (or encourage) passion?

The other issue: the complaint that "no one reads my blog, so why should I bother updating it?" The answer, of course: "You need to update your blog, so that people will read it."

2. Wikis

I've never used a wiki as a classroom tool, other than for the classes I'm taking myself.

So, I felt a little ashamed when I read Richardson's chapter on wikis and then came across this article on 50 Ways to use wikis for a more collaborative and interactive classroom. Ideas include "virtual field trips," "exam review," "fan clubs," data collection, "adventure story," "school tour," and "teacher collaboration."

Among Richardson's suggestions: creating an online classroom text, lesson plan exchange, or class Wikipedia.

The strengths and limitations of using a class wiki are apparent when you visit a class' shared wiki pages - the variety of fonts, colors, and formats (not to mention coding issues and broken links) can make for a disjointed read. In addition, the ability to edit and be edited can be a help and a hindrance. What if, for example, a well-meaning student edits a classmate's work, but makes an incorrect edit? And what if a student posts weak work, knowing that someone else will likely correct it?

Of course, if Wikipedia founders would have listened to these arguments, we'd be missing one of the key sites on the Web.
"No one person or even small group of people, could produce Wikipedia, as currently edits appear at a rate of around 400,000 a day. The extent to which this happens and to which it is successful is truly inspiring" (Richardson, P. 56 and 57).
3. RSS
"I think it's the one technology that you should start using today, right now, this minute. And tomorrow, you should teach your students to use it" (Richardson, P. 70 and 71).
The difference between what RSS readers used to be and what they are now is stunning. For instance, I now find Google Reader to be a difficult way to enjoy reading my favorite feeds. What's better? My heart goes to the Flipboard and Pulse mobile apps, which turn RSS feeds into very readable social magazines and news tickers, respectively.

The upside of this technology is enormous: the ability to "read more content from more sources in less time" (Richardson, P. 72). In this age of "too much information" that's the real trick. The downside of this technology is that you can lead a horse to water, but you can't make 'er drink; you may subscribe to the prescribed RSS feeds, but that doesn't mean you'll read them.

4. Twitter and social bookmarking

I tweet, therefore I am. And I hope that it makes up for my lack of work in the wiki world, because with Twitter, I'm all in.

The upside of using Twitter is enormous: I've used it for class discussions and networking (#journchat on Monday evenings is particularly good), for generating and testing comedy material, and to see what students are saying when I'm not around (har, har!).

I haven't yet used a social bookmarking tool in class, but I plan on introducing (website and app) this semester. Similar to Delicious and Instapaper ("read it later"), lets you publish online magazines by curating content (social bookmarking) on the topic of your choice.

The benefits, again, are collaboration and the ability to collect, curate, and share.

5. Flickr

Generally speaking, photo-sharing is easy and part and parcel of running a blog. Apart from reminding students to "post a photo with every blog post," I've never needed to make photo-sharing a separate assignment - it's happened organically.
"The easiest place for teachers and students to begin experimenting with creating and publishing content other than text is with digital photography, a technology that is becoming more and more accessible every day" (Richardson, P. 101).
Flickr is where Richardson and I part ways, although it's only fair to point out that his book came out before there was an Instagram and pretty great digital-phone photography led by the iPhone.

Instagram, of course, is the photo-sharing website that Facebook recently bought for a cool billion dollars. It has some advantages over Flickr: the ability from your mobile phone to very easily take and filter your photos, post them online instantly, and instantly share them with your friends on Instagram or other social networks.

At its heart, Instagram is easier, more flexible, and faster than Flickr. Its biggest advantage, however, might be its "fun factor." Where Flickr is a photo storage site with sharing options, Instagram is all about sharing, liking, and commenting with storage as an afterthought.

The other big advantage is that Instagram is free with no maximum number of uploads (though it's not currently possible to upload whole photo albums). Flickr caps users at 200 photos and then asks them to upgrade to a premium account. Knowing that I could upload the same photos to Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook without charge, I decline to pay for Flickr's premium service.

6. Podcasting/screencasting/streaming
"The simple fact is that it has become much easier to create and consume multimedia as well as text and digital images" (Richardson, P. 112).
I'm grateful I had the chance to learn GarageBand this summer and to find out how easy it is to record a podcast. I'm at three and counting - and I'm looking forward to submitting it to iTunes in the near future, alongside my podcasting comedy heroes Adam Carolla, Bill Burr, Greg Proops, Marc Maron, and Joe Rogan.

I will put this knowledge to good use at school: my college's radio station recently discontinued its broadcast license, which means that podcasting is among the best options to replace it. It's unfortunate that students are no longer able to broadcast on traditional radio frequencies, but I'm optimistic that podcasting skills are more forward-looking, since you can no longer imagine an invisible audience listening; instead you've got download and streaming stats and "marketing" becomes the much-needed partner in crime.

The good news:
"About $100 and an Internet connection is all you need to start doing regular radio shows with your students" (Richardson, P. 115). 
It's probably cheaper now. I've recently downloaded the Ustream, viddy, and Bambuser apps, which allow anyone with a smartphone to live stream video.

Also underrepresented in the curriculum: screencasting. The downside of much of this technology is that it's becoming more and more necessary for everyone to own an iPhone and iPad. On a student budget, that is not always a possibility. I can't help but consider how great it would be if our program could provide each student with an iPad on the first day of school.
"Our ability to create and share multimedia in more and more transparent ways is only going to continue to expand...publishing to an audience can be a great motivator for students. Podcasting, videocasting, screencasting, TV are all great ways to get student content online" (Richardson, P. 129).
7. Facebook/Ning

My school is far from the only one that's afraid of Facebook. Be that as it may, I believe it's a teacher's duty to show "appropriate use," especially in a communications program.
"The key to...these sites for educators is to move beyond the friendship-based connections and really explore the potentials of the networked, interest-based learning that's possible within these frames" (Richardson, P. 132).
Among the benefits of Facebook are creating a strong online community, sharing information, and collaborating. However, if one's school doesn't allow it, what's the solution? Could it be Ning?

Before my class, I'd never heard of Ning. I was looking forward to experimenting with it, but you begin to be charged for using it after a 30-day trial. I'll pass: Edmodo is available for free. Like a Facebook for the classroom, I've found Edmodo do be very easy to use and a great way to meet other teachers. The issue is getting students used to using a site other than Facebook - Edmodo is even more of a ghost town than Google+.

Facebook is also good for classroom discussion purposes: What is Facebook's responsibility toward its users? Personal data? Is freedom of speech on Facebook a right? Should you buy when Facebook stocks finally drop to $6?

The ongoing multimedia revolution is mind-boggling and ubiquitous at once. To ignore this revolution in school is to miss out on an incredibly powerful range of communication tools that allow us to publish, consume, discuss, comment, and collaborate.

Students will be using "the new media" in the workplace when they graduate, and it may look very different than it does today. We owe it to ourselves and them to show them how to not only learn about the tools Richardson talks about in his book, but to be on the cusp of whatever replaces them.

Richardson's book is a good reality check for teachers considering incorporating online media into their classes and road map for how far we've already come.