Almost 20 years ago, I used to work in Windhoek as an instructor and consultant for the Namibian Broadcasting Corporation (NBC). It was shortly after the country became independent and apartheid ended. With international assistance, the former regime’s state broadcasting service was now supposed to become a public broadcaster for a democratic nation. The old propagandists were to be replaced by new editorial and administrative staff.
The NBC management called in consultants to help make the necessary changes. It sent editorial staff and heads of departments to Europe and North America to receive additional professional training. Moreover, donor agencies held media workshops in Windhoek, the capital, and even at the NBC offices. The hope was that the young black journalists would acquire new skills and fresh insights. Bit by bit, a democratic and independent media landscape was supposed to emerge.
The big question
The training programmes were popular with the journalists. Sometimes, the newsroom was so short-staffed that broadcasting operations seemed at risk. At first, I thought that this was something we had to accept in the short term in order to get the results we were hoping for. After a while, however, I saw that I had been wrong. The journalists would proudly return to their desks and show off their training certificates, but the quality of their work did not get significantly better. News reports often were just as sloppy and full of mistakes as before. But why?
This important question still preoccupies me. After all, a lot of money is being spent to train journalists from developing countries in international seminars and workshops. And just like in Namibia 20 years ago, there are reasons for results often remaining unconvincing.
- Some training programmes are plainly not good.
- Sometimes journalists are sent to seminars on topics that have little to do with their daily work.
- Sometimes the participants are not interested in what is being taught at all; they just want to get away from the daily grind and collect per-diem allowances.
All too often, however, journalists return from their training with great motivation, only to be thwarted by higher-ranking colleagues, who – because of habit, political considerations or other reasons – do not allow them to implement new ideas.
The latter experience is the more likely the less a training course is designed to make a lasting impact. E-learning offers new ways to rise to this challenge. This opportunity is not being grasped nearly enough.
Generally speaking, training providers pay too little attention to what impact their courses have. In their eyes, a course was successful if the participants’ feedback was positive at the end. At that point, they consider a programme completed. The organisers leave the task of modernising daily work routines at home institutions and applying newly-acquired skills entirely to the course participants. This is actually a huge challenge, and many participants are overwhelmed.
Aware of such problems, some development agencies have decided to offer more in-house consultations and on-the-job training. This decision makes sense. That was my experience in Namibia. Nevertheless, industry-wide workshops have an intrinsic value, and that is especially so if they are international. Workshops bring together participants with a wide range of experiences, and they network people who develop a loyalty to shared values and professional standards.
Supplementing international courses with e-learning components makes a lasting impact more likely. This approach is called “blended” or “hybrid” learning. The didactic process begins during the workshop and later continues at home and at the individual workplace thanks to digital tools.
In journalism, as in many other sectors, new skills and approaches are often taught in three steps. First, instructors provide input. Next, participants apply the new ideas and insights in exercises. Finally, the instructors tell them what they did well and where they see room for improvement.
A lack of time
During workshops that are limited to face-to-face interaction, there is typically not enough time to repeat the exercise-feedback loop several times. Time is short; time is money. The problem is that, many participants discover that they have not sufficiently mastered the new skills when they try to apply what they learned back on the job.
In such settings, e-learning offers a valuable opportunity. Using the internet, participants and instructors can stay in touch long after a workshop has ended. For obvious reasons, instructors who stay available to offer individual advice have a more lasting impact.
Their advice helps when a student has forgotten what clicks are needed in what order to use a new computer tool. It similarly matters when journalist wants to approach a research project strategically or simply wants to prepare for an interview systematically. E-learning can even be helpful in regard to media ethics. After discussing a pertinent question in the face-to-face seminar, participants can research similar cases at home and post the results online for further discussion.
E-learning is a very broad concept and can refer to many things: sending texts electronically, massive open online courses (MOOCs), completely automated distance learning and so on. There is a sense of optimism in the industry, and the number of solutions and learning platforms is expanding so fast that it is hard to keep track (see box). However, it takes tailor-made approaches to improve the impact of workshops. What began in the seminar room continues in virtual reality with the same participants. The sense of continuity inspires trust.
People who know their colleagues personally and share the experience of valuable mutual criticism are not afraid to post their work online. Moreover, participants who know each other deliver feedback with greater sensitivity. They are also more open to suggestions. The continuity of the relationships matters. And so does interactivity. The main advantage of e-learning is that the group, including the instructors, can share ideas after an attendance phase has ended. Staying in touch is lively and fun. In regard to journalistic exercises, moreover, all participants benefit from interactive feedback.
Success depends less on the specifics of the digital platform than on whether instructors want to use the platform and understand how to do so. If instructors approach e-learning half-heartedly because they just see it as annoying extra step, participants will not fully engage either. Indeed, the instructors must consider the blended-learning approach with face-to-face and online phases as an integrated whole. E-learning is hard work. The approach requires instructors’ attention and hours of work. Time and money are needed. If either is in short supply, the work that was begun in the face-to-face seminar will not continue online in any meaningful way. Therefore, blended-learning courses do not cost less money than conventional ones. Their advantage is that they are more effective.
The quality of the feedback is essential. Instructors must deliver it sensitively, precisely and honestly. Such care is especially important online because instructors cannot react to participants on the spot when using an e-learning platform. They cannot see if their criticism has upset trainees or even caused tears to flow, and they cannot spontaneously modify their remarks accordingly. Utter sensitivity is required particularly when feedback is made visible to all course participants.
The process of assigning exercises and providing feedback can be repeated multiple times online. Participants complete assignments on their computers whilst keeping up with other personal and professional obligations. A great advantage of e-learning is that it lets participants log on at home and work their own pace. It allows people to reconcile their desire for further education with their other duties concerning family or employment.
The important thing is to add e-learning phases to face-to-face workshops in order to help students make full use of what they learn and incorporate it into their daily routines. People who spend a month acquiring new skills and ideas are certainly more likely to apply them consistently than those who are only exposed to a week of training.