Why High Schools and Colleges Need to Catch Up to the Digital Revolution

MIAMI -- The deep losses of traditional news outlets to Internet firms like Facebook and Twitter should sound alarm bells for high school and college educators that they must embrace social media to stay relevant to students.

This was the message of Eric Newton, author of the new ebook Searchlights and Sunglasses and adviser to the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation in Miami, Fla. "The pace of change is accelerating and it is coming very rapidly and some schools have made changes and don't have enough energy to keep changing. This is an age that has continuous change."

Schools must keep changing because the same old way of teaching journalism does not fit in the digital age. Methods of researching and newsgathering have experienced revolutionary change and teachers must quickly adapt to the faster pace, he said in an interview last week.

Besides questioning the currency of college programs nationally, Newton asked why few high schools are online with their student news publications. Newton's ebook echoed the findings of an earlier study conducted by University of Kansas researchers. Their survey of 1,000 high schools in 50 states including the District of Columbia found 96 percent offered media opportunities, but just 33 percent had online instruction.

Researchers offered three possibilities to explain why teachers were not going online with their students: a lack of knowledge of technology, lack of resources, or reluctance from school administrators to give students access to a medium where they could spark controversy and reach a wider audience.

"Our conclusion is not enough schools are providing students opportunities to learn about responsibly producing online media." said Peter Bobkowski, an assistant professor of journalism at KU who co-authored the study with two Kent State journalism professors.

Most of the reasons colleges do not keep up with changing times have to do with accreditation and bureaucratic procedures slowing curricular reform, Newton theorized in discussing the slow pace of change at the collegiate level.

"You can find wonderful professors everywhere who are sometimes more advanced than even the local media, Newton said. "So there's lots of variety of different types of teachers. Some are very fast, but the problem is there are not enough of them."

Undergraduates taking my online course last month, called "Youth and the News" at National University, based in San Diego, confirmed many of Newton's key findings including the rarity of quality high school publications online.

Despite the fact that social media use increases student support of the First Amendment, one of my students reported that she interviewed one such typical teen who said he had discussed with his friends the mall shootings . . . in Syria. Such errors show social media use alone does not mean anyone is media literate because friends may not follow a legitimate news outlet, said Mark Grabowski, an assistant professor of journalism at Adelphi University on Long Island, NY. Grabowski runs cubreporters.org, a website that links students to jobs.http://www.cubreporters.org

The gaffe by an 18-year-old high school senior (the terrorist attack was against the so-called "soft" target of a mall in Kenya). Still social media can give young people the sense that they are informed, but the reality is different.

Many teenagers feel informed if they consult Facebook or TMZ on a regular basis, my students found.

Even at the college level, Newton estimated that out of thousands of journalism professors, only 100 are digitally savvy and no school can be considered ideal.

"Technology has made it very easy for people to get into communication fields, he said. The things that used to take up entire buildings now can fit into the palm of your hand."

This has meant that some 18,000 jobs have been lost at daily newspapers, delivering a crushing blow, and the traditional newspaper field has been turned upside down and inside out in the digital age, Newton said.

But he added that most journalism programs have not followed suit. He warned that the same digital revolution will cause cataclysmic changes in education because "you can teach yourself most things without any university helping you at all."

Unless journalism professors accept the idea of constant change, they will be less effective as educators, Newton said.

Another student in my class found her old high school in San Diego seemingly living in a past, pre-digital age when it came to the journalism program. She quoted the current editor*, a senior involved in the paper for the past two years, as saying, "I haven't seen any new funding for the paper since I started helping with it. I would like a set of new laptops that don't crash on us while we are working on a story." Many times the teenager's newspaper The Morse Code would not publish on the expected day because student work would be lost. An old media mentality was obvious in the fact that the hard-copy paper was produced every two months and disseminated during sixth period.

An undergraduate who covered the journalism program at a private school in Fresno found a diametrically opposed situation. This group of award-winning students started a broadcast and newspaper in 2001, ending the print edition in 2009, but their website is a continuing presence. All have access to Macintosh computers and do not seem to lack for anything.

The editor in chief is passionate about journalism at 17. "Through the past four years of my life, nothing else has taught me more about myself than taking journalism," she said. "I can't wait for the rest of this year. This is my last hoorah, so I am going to make the best of it."

*Correction: This post originally misattributed a quote to Arianne Testa. Testa was the former editor of the paper and her name should not have been included in the story, as the author of the piece did not talk to her.