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Missouri State experiments with online journalism class

Monday, April 25, 2011 | 7:33 p.m. CDT

SPRINGFIELD — Missouri State University and the Poynter Institute of Florida will work together to offer an online journalism course at the university in Springfield next fall, though some professors are concerned about the precedent the experiment might set.

Instructors based at the St. Petersburg, Fla.-based Poynter Institute, a nonprofit journalism training group, will teach one section of introductory journalism. It's the first for-credit class Poynter has taught as part of its initiative to develop an online course on the basics of journalism.

Howard Finberg, interactive learning director for Poynter, said the class is designed to give journalism instructors more time with their students.

"We can do some of the teaching for them," he said. "It's about working with them."

Mark Biggs, head of Missouri State's media, journalism and film department, said no journalism faculty members objected when the partnership was proposed, The Springfield News-Leader reported Monday.

"If we can deliver a high-quality class and meet (the students') needs, I'm all about that," Biggs told the Faculty Senate at a recent meeting.

But Mike Schilling, who has taught introductory journalism at Missouri State for years, said he has doubts about taking journalism education online.

"My skepticism is when you take the personal connection out of teaching, you diminish it," Schilling said. "I understand the pressure of money, or lack of it, and the need to circumvent the lack of it in the public higher education sector. It's the de-personalizing of education that I'm worried about."

Professors in other departments said they were concerned that the experiment could lead to more outsourcing of curriculum. Last Tuesday, the Faculty Senate approved a resolution demanding similar teaching partnerships be brought to the panel for review.

"(The journalism faculty) say this is just an experiment, but it's an experiment that can possibly set a precedent for other departments to follow," said Richard Johnson, professor of computer information systems.

Andy Cline, associate professor of journalism, said the partnership has been "willfully" mischaracterized.

"I kind of understand the general worry about outsourcing curriculum," Cline said. "What we set up with Poynter is absolutely not outsourcing the curriculum. We are in total control of the curriculum. It's a one-semester experiment."

The partnership comes as Missouri State is looking for new ways to deliver courses in a time of tight budgets. A combination of retirements and promotions left the journalism department short an instructor to teach one section of introductory journalism this fall.

Biggs said the partnership with Poynter will help fill that gap and could give the university's journalism program a higher profile.

Missouri State sent its basic journalism syllabus to Poynter, which adopted it with minor changes, Biggs said.

Poynter will develop all readings, exercises and chat topics for the course, and will create a weekly live video/audio training session as the major teaching component. Several Poynter instructors will teach the course, with one person serving as academic liaison.

Mary Jane Pardue, the new assistant head of the journalism department at Missouri State, will coordinate with Poynter and students and assign the final grades, Biggs said.

The university and Poynter will evaluate the course at the end of the semester. If all goes well, Biggs said Missouri State might ask Poynter to teach advanced journalism courses in the future.

Missouri State University will pay Poynter $6,500 to teach the class. Although that is significantly higher than pay for a per-course instructor, the university expects to make money because it charges significantly more in tuition for a student to take an online course.


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