Monday, February 24, 2014

Comparing syllabi of introductory mass communication courses

To compare syllabi, I chose J201 Introduction to Mass Communication of UW-Madison, J110 Foundations of Journalism and Mass Communication of Indianan University, and C130 Mass Media and Society of University of Pennsylvania. Although J201 is a three-credit course and J110 and C130 have two credits, all are the introductory mass communication courses at each school, devoting to helping students understand and critically think about media’s roles and activities in society.

Course organization

The three courses have drastically different organizations. J201 is organized around three broad yet distinct topics -- journalism, strategic communication and media effects. J110 is structured by six debates surrounding media, which are about either recurring themes, like profit vs public good, or the more recent developments, like the evolution or revolution of media techonoglies. C130 also has three parts -- overview of media, print media and electronic media. 

Of the three models, J110 is probably the least helpful for students to build conceptual frameworks about the media world, though its course design might greatly stimulate interest. Its topics are loosely related to and overlapping with each other. Prior to the first topic, the instructor arranges two media effects sessions. The first and second topics, although under different and fancy titles, are essentially about the influences of media technologies on the media ecosystem and public sphere. The third topic switches abruptly to the tension between people’s right to know and national security, and the fourth topic takes another abrupt turn to media’s commercial interest and civic mission. In the last two topics, the focus circles back to the media effects. Through out the arrangement, there isn’t a thread that strings together all the bits and pieces of materials, nor is there a logical reason for such a set-up. If I were the student, I would probably exit the class without having any systematic and conceptual tools to analyze the media messages and performances. 

In contrast, J201 and C130 do a much better job of scaffolding. The first two sections of J201 focus on the two important and dominant media models, making a clear distinction between news and advertising (public relations). After directing students to learning the media practices and products, it then leads them to think about various media effects with an expanded scope that includes video games and entertainment. 

Although C130 takes a different approach in designing the content, it is as effective as, or proabaly more conducive than J201 to orient students to criticaly think of the media world. In its first part, C130 introduces media content, as well as the economic and political factors that influence media production and practices. In the second and third section, it focus on print media and electronic media respectively, with a heavier focus on the latter. The materials contain a spectrum of media forms, including books, newspapers, magazines, radio, television, movie, television, video game and PR. 

Reading materials

Since J201 has the most credits, it’s no surpise that it has more readings than J110 and C130. But the difference is not limited to the amount of readings, but also the genres. 

J201 bind together a rich mix of “readings,” including books, journal articles, newspaper or magazine articles, radios and videos. The only required book is Kovach and Rostentiel’s Blur, published in 2010 and providing useful insights to looking into journalism by journalism insiders. It’s practical, but definitely not dense nor academic. The rest of readings is equally split on media publications and academic publications. Also, quite a lot of supplemental readings are attached, accommodating students who crave more. 

The types of readings for J110 are similar to those of J201. The required book is Media and Culture (Richard Campbell, Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2008), but students read excerpts or chapters of the book instead of its entirety. Interestingly, podcasts feature in the rest of the readings. 

In contrast, C130 has only one book, Media Today written by the instructor Joseph Turow himself. Students read this book chapter by chapter as they move forward in the course of semester. Although teaching with one book can help students develop ideas in a more systematic fashion, there are downsides. The lack of diversity of topics and opinions might not inform students very well and one reading can make them bored. 


J110 and C130 share virtually the same formats of assignments: three exams and one final paper that asks students to make some reflections on certain media phenomenon or case. Contrastingly, J201 designs much more assignments in different forms. The three exams are the same, but in addition there are three 1000-word essays on each theme and a set of assignments that train students public speaking skills.  

Friday, February 21, 2014

Educational Innovation: Blend@UW

As e-learning has become a popular way of learning, another concept- blended or hybrid learning- has also gain its popularity in education field. According to the Sloan-C criteria, a blended/hybrid course is comprised of both online and face-to-face delivery, while the content delivered online should be about 30-79%. Since a blended course falls between the traditional classroom learning and online learning, it solves some problems embedded in the other two course delivery formats; however, blended course is not free of limitations. As a report from the Badger Herald points out, although providing a more efficient learning experience, blended course also imposes new requirements on both students and instructors: students have to be highly active in both online learning and interactions with classmates and instructors; while instructors have to redesign the learning experience from content to classroom activities. In addition to the multiple programs to help students obtain a positive learning experience, the university also provides diverseprograms/workshops to support instructors developing their pedagogical and technological skills for designing a blended course. Among these efforts, Blend@UW program aims to help those instructors redesign their course to fit into a blended learning environment.

The Blend@UW program was first introduced as a semester-long series by DoIT Academic Technology (DoIT AT) in the 2013 Fall Semester, and the 2014 Spring series started on February 5. This program focuses on strategies only used for developing the Replacement Model among other blended learning models.

The participants of this program are instructors who wish to use the Replacement Model in their courses, and 20 instructors was accepted in the 2013 Fall program and 16 in the 2014 Spring one. Instead of providing specific technological training, Blend@UW focus more on the pedagogical training. By attending a 1.5-hour class weekly, participants work closely with instructional designers to learn the skills for redesigning a blended course, including: developing course activities, selecting appropriate delivery formats and technologies, and understanding different assessment models.  

Very few information about the assessment of this program could be found in the university’s website; however, Professor Jillian Sayre from the English Department, who is also one of the participants in 2013 Fall semester, shared her experiences in redesigning a course after attending the Blend@UW. Sayre taught English 591: Visions and Revisions of the New World, a course that is open to non-English-major students to fulfill their general education requirement. Due to the students’ varying backgrounds, Sayre faced the problems of how to deal with different writing levels, while she could not spend class time on teaching writing. In her redesigned blended course, Sayre adopted the backwards design by delivering the learning objectives at the very beginning of each lecture and understanding what students want/do not want to do. For instance, Sayre always communicated the learning goals in the previous face-to-face lecture, and re-address these goals in the online lecture; she then would check in students’ work based on the e-lecture during the following in-personal lecture. Another benefit of attending the Blend@UW is that it exposes multiple technologies for Sayre to select from in order to achieve her course goals, especially for the e-lectures. Overall, Sayre found out besides the flexibility generated by the resigned course, it builds up a learning community among students, which also encourages discussions in this class.          

After checking the 20 redesigned courses in the course enrollment system in the 2014 Spring semester, I noticed that most of these courses are still provided in traditional classroom model rather than a blended learning environment. It would be interesting to track the actual implementation and outcomes of redesigned courses after the instructors’ participation of the Blend@UW program.