Better Than Affordable: A Funder Bets Big On Free Online Journalism Education

In recent post looking at the middling success of blended learning offerings in the liberal arts space at selected universities, we noted the following:

Despite the handwringing from more traditionalist quarters, universities and grantmakers proceeded full-speed ahead with their digital investments, bewitched by the power of technology—and, in their defense, the affordability and improved access it provides.

It's difficult to underestimate the affordability and improved access benefits of online education, especially when "affordability" means "free."

Liberal arts students, the argument goes, crave a more "residential" learning experience and are therefore unenthusiastic about blended learning. And so while online and blended learning may be a work in progress in some fields, many foundations refuse to look a gift horse in the mouth. 

Take news out of Austin, for example, where the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas at the University of Texas at Austin announced it will offer free, worldwide instruction in digital journalism through massive open online courses, with $600,000 in support from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

The investment builds on the success of a Knight-supported pilot project that served 70,000 people from 169 countries in less than three years. Alongside the free classes taught by the world’s leading digital journalists, the expanded journalism education project includes low-cost "Big Online Courses," "Small Online Courses," and online master classes tailored for individual newsrooms.

And therein lies the model's funding mechanism: "The income by smaller classes will help the center to become sustainable," said Professor Rosental Alves, Knight Chair in International Journalism in the Moody College of Communication and Knight Center director, "while keeping its role as a lab for new peer-to-peer learning models and a source of free or affordable journalism training worldwide."

What's more, unlike our friends in the liberal arts world who rolled out blending learning courses only to find out, after the fact, that liberal arts student's weren't particularly interested, Knight seems to have done its homework (pun intended). The foundation has a database of more than 100,000 people who have shown interest in online journalism training. What's more, according to a 2012 Knight program survey, nine out of 10 journalists who took the Knight Center’s online courses said the experience was "as good as" or "better" than any face-to-face training they had ever had.

And while we're intrigued about the nuts and bolts of the program's curricula—which, by the way, you can read about here—we're more intrigued by how it fits into Knight's overarching ambitions for the journalism field moving forward.

These ambitions, which have been well documented here at IP, align to a "community platform collaboration" model of journalism education, whereby traditional journalists work with developers, technologies, civic hackers, and data crunchers to optimize technology, reach new audiences, and strengthen the community as a whole.

This news out of Austin scales this thematic framework to globally utilitarian proportions.

For starters, if it weren't already evident, Knight's vision goes beyond the Western and English-speaking world. What's more,  Knight seems to be arguing that journalism shouldn't get too far ahead of the community members it seeks to partner with. If anything, the field's evolution must proceed on parallel and often instersecting tracks. And what's the best way to bring these community members along for the ride? Organize them and educate them—for free, no less!

After all, as Professor Rosental Alves so elegantly and obviously stated, "Free courses democratize access to journalism training by reaching out to thousands of people and creating big learning communities."

It really isn't rocket science, is it?

For more insight on Knight's recent gives in the journalism space, check out its efforts to help small news outlets thrive in a fragmented market here, and their winners of their Challenge on Data initiative here.

See more articles by Mike Scutari.