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The Odd Couple: Computer Science Partners with Journalism

At Kent State, students and faculty of different disciplines collaborate on digital news products in a new course, Web Programming for Multimedia Journalism.

By Jacqueline Marino
Hacker Chronicles

On February 8, 2010, I stared at the message I’d found waiting in my inbox. It was from a local company looking for journalism interns. As a summer-RELATED ARTICLE
Course Description: Web Programming for Multimedia Journalism at Kent State University

"Creating Design Teams Out of Disparate Disciplines"
- Jeremy Gilbert
internship coordinator in the journalism school at Kent State University, I’d seen e-mails from many employers looking for student help, but I hadn’t seen a request like this one. A Cleveland company that described itself as creating “a multiuser, multimedia, multitouch digital publishing platform” was seeking interns with a broad set of skills in multimedia journalism including “video, audio, photo, kml/maps, css/html and familiarity with iphone/touch/android devices.” The internship would be paid, and this summer connection could lead to freelance work or full-time jobs.

At the time, I didn’t even know what KML or CSS meant, and I doubted my students did either. This was the first internship listing I’d received that mentioned specific programming skills, but I was certain more would follow. In 2008, Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism had graduated its first group of “programmer/journalists,” students who arrived in class with programming backgrounds on scholarships from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation with the goal of getting a master’s degree in journalism. They were recognized as “newly minted media whiz kids, who mix high-tech savvy with hard-nosed reporting skills” in a 2009 Time magazine article headlined “Can Computer Nerds Save Journalism?” and other digital must-reads about technology and journalism gushed about the influence of gifted programmers who were applying their skills to journalism, such as EveryBlock’s founder Adrian Holovaty.

At Kent State, I felt we needed to get our students—at least some of them—on this new track. Yet, trust me when I say that I’m one of the last educators you’d expect to take on this cause. I teach in the magazine sequence, and my interest is in storytelling, particularly the long-form, narrative style of writing born of print. My interest in computer science began with my study of literature on the Web, where I discovered an entire genre of poetry and fiction called eliterature integrates programming into its storytelling. I found little had been done in my area of narrative nonfiction.

At this point, however, I wasn’t considering teaching my students to code. I was wondering what would happen if they worked with people who could code. After just a few e-mails and phone calls, I found Paul Wang, a professor of computer science with an interest in media. He had helped pioneer a minor with our university’s School of Visual Communication Design (VCD). For more than 10 years, the joint effort had produced designers skilled in programming and programmers with experience in design. One thing that marriage lacked, however, was original content.

Cue student journalists, a.k.a. content people.


Planning the Course

In spring 2010, Paul and I, with the promise of a consult from VCD, submitted a grant to develop a course—Web Programming for Multimedia Journalism. Also named on that grant application was Sue Zake, a journalism professor who advises the online student newspaper, KentWired. Since she trained a new group of student journalists on Web basics each semester, she understood firsthand the need for journalists to receive some training in computer science. Most have never taken a computer science course. Some don’t understand words like “server” and “host.”

By summer 2010, we had our grant. The University Teaching Council (UTC) unanimously approved it. According to the UTC chairperson, “the council was convinced that this would have a major interdisciplinary impact on students in journalism and computer science, as well as on the art of teaching.” No pressure.

The three of us worked through the summer to develop a plan for the course that we’d start to teach in the spring 2011 semester. We addressed the most obvious questions first: How much computer science should we teach the journalism students? How much journalism should we teach the computer science students? How would we interest the programmers in the course? How could we ease the collaborative learning process for two groups of students who otherwise rarely meet? In this class, they’d have to work together in the classroom.

Here’s what we decided: During the first few weeks, the computer science students would learn basic journalism, and the journalism students would learn basic programming (HTML, CSS, some Javascript). Our thinking was that this instruction would help them learn enough of each other’s languages to communicate effectively. By mid-semester, we would bring them together to work on computer science-infused journalistic projects.

Our hope was that students would attempt data-driven interactives and news applications. Their projects would be submitted to professional media outlets or published independently. Student media outlets, such as KentWired and The Burr’s website,, were interested. A few professional publications, such as, Cleveland Magazine and The Plain Dealer, were willing to look at the students’ projects.

Kent in China: Fashion Forward

Teaching Students Separately

The journalism seats in the class filled quickly, but we had only one programmer registered through most of the course-enrollment period. We panicked. We drew up a snazzy flier. We reached out to graduate students. Finally, toward the end of the enrollment period, we had enough computer science students for the class; by the first day the enrollment had evened out with 10 computer science students and 11 journalism students. A few students ended up dropping, but the course enrollment remained strong at 19 students.

That first day of class was exciting. A university photographer snapped pictures as students hustled to find seats in the crowded computer science lab. Aside from being overwhelmingly male, the course had attracted the most diverse group of students in ethnicity and skill level I’ve ever taught at Kent State. Some of the computer science students had design skills and knew Flash and other software that impressed the journalism students. By the end of that class, we’d assigned students to mixed groups, and everyone got to work.

The first four weeks went according to plan. The computer science and journalism students met separately. Given the diversity among the computer science students, some language and cultural barriers became apparent. I had planned to teach these students a modified version of basic news writing in which we’d talk about what news is, how to recognize it, and how to communicate it in the most effective ways. I realized quickly that I had to get more basic. During one of my first meetings with the computer science students, I asked them to give me their sense of whom the news media had to serve above all else. No one responded. I stood awhile in silence until one student, originally from a Southeast Asian country, said “the government” in such a way that begged placing a question mark at the end of his tentative response. I brought copies of the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics to the next class meeting, when we spent most of the class talking about the role of journalism in a democracy.

Meanwhile, Paul was teaching the journalism students how to create websites. In four weeks, they learned the basics of HTML, CSS and some Javascript. Some felt frustrated because it was harder, and the result was more limiting, than using Dreamweaver or WordPress. Still, each had produced a modest website, like the one Simon Husted created.

What's Up? Kent

Bringing Students Together

In week five the separate groups were reunited. Together, they met with Sue or me on Mondays for journalism and with Paul for computer science on Wednesdays. Around this time, they also filed their preliminary project plans. Here’s where our discouragement kicked in. Not one of the six groups wanted to pursue the ideas proposed by the professional media outlets, and aside from two exceptions, all of the proposals lacked journalistic rigor. Most depended on user-generated content, especially Twitter feeds. Only three involved original reporting, and only two planned to integrate data into their projects in a major way.

This wasn’t just disappointing. It was alarming. We had wanted computer science to enhance the journalism produced by the students, not replace it. And it was around this time that we started hearing from students about problems they were having with the course: The groups didn’t have time to meet much outside of class; the computer science instruction was not directly related to the projects; some groups had personality conflicts and language barriers; and plans they had for their projects could not be accomplished in the time they had left.

So we drafted written critiques of the project plans, used more class time as team-meeting time and consulted with the groups individually. We also assigned smaller collaborative projects, such as a deadline map mashup and an interactive timeline, hoping to get the teams accustomed to working together. Still, we had attendance problems, especially among the computer science students. In fact, some journalism students felt their projects had stalled because the computer science students were not as committed to working on them as they were. Nor could journalism students do the work of computer science students; they simply didn’t know how, and so work on the projects was not progressing.

We dealt with these challenges in ways we would in any class where some students pulled more weight than others. In the end, all of the teams produced computer science-infused journalism projects. They would have benefitted from a few more weeks, but we were happy with the creativity and the collaboration that went into the following projects:

  • Discovering the "Rubber City," an interactive storytelling tool that takes visitors through a one-day trip to nearby Akron. With more work, this tool could be used to tell other people’s travel stories.

  • GeeQ, short for “Geek Quotient,” an online hub for self-proclaimed geeks. It includes original multimedia stories, user-generated content, and an online survey that helped the creators monitor “geek” trends at the school.

  • Kent in China: Fashion Forward, a storytelling tool that imitates a scrapbook.

  • What’s Up? Kent, a social media/news website designed specifically for Kent residents.

  • Tech. Ed. Akron, an interactive site exploring technology education in Akron public high schools.

Discovering the "Rubber City"

There were student evaluations of the course, but we also had surveyed the students at the start of the class and at the end so we could assess how their knowledge and interest levels changed. We used a survey developed by Jeremy Gilbert, who taught a similar course at Northwestern University. (He discusses this survey in his article.) As with his students, the results of ours gave us some interesting insights. Here’s some of what we learned:

  • The course succeeded in teaching some basic computer-science skills. Computer-science terms, such as PHP, HTML and Javascript, topped the list of things that the students said they learned.

  • It also may have resulted in a greater understanding of journalism. At the beginning, seven of 15 survey respondents said they knew little or nothing about journalism, and eight were somewhat or very knowledgeable. By the end of the course, only two of 10 respondents said they knew little or nothing, and eight were somewhat or very knowledgable.

  • The number of respondents saying they were interested in both journalism and computer science remained high in both surveys.

From personal interviews and comments on the survey, students shared with us, for example, that taking this course had taught them “a new vocabulary.” Some felt that they needed “regular conferences with all the professors.” Another observed: “I didn’t like the separation of journalism students from CS students.” One computer science student said, “We needed a second CS student on the team.” Another suggested that the instructors come up with “a problem and have us find the answer to it. Don’t just have us create something new.”

The course evaluations the students did provided similar feedback, with them expressing desire for more in-class meeting time and earlier critiques from us. Some felt there is a need to figure out how to connect better the computer science with the journalism. “Very little of what we learned in the computer science portion was helpful to completing the project,” one student wrote.

Unfortunately, Paul is now fully committed to teaching integral courses for majors and graduate students in computer science. But the journalism school will continue to offer the programming class.Its current partner, Kent State’s School of Digital Sciences, is a new interdisciplinary unit bringing together not just journalism and computer science, but also visual design and communications disciplines. We’re excited about the collaborative potential. We decided to make these changes the next time we teach the course:

  • Instead of letting the students decide whether to produce a start-up website, a tool or a reporting project, we will be more specific about the nature of the collaborative projects and make sure they can be completed in 15 weeks.

  • We will try to do a better job of connecting the computer science instruction to the journalism instruction by doing more “dissection” of existing news sites from journalistic and computer science perspectives.

  • We will deal with specific programming problems that the students are developing as they move forward with their projects.

  • Although Kent State Professor Jennifer Terwilliger delivered an excellent design lecture and VCD assistant professor Gretchen Rinnert provided thorough design critiques, we will offer much more Web design instruction and provide critiques at an earlier stage.

  • We will arrange to meet in a longer time block, so students can have more meeting time during class.

As far as we know, none of our journalism students from last spring’s class got programming-related internships since taking the course. But one programming student is seeking work in the journalism field, and a doctoral student in computer science has met with me about focusing his dissertation on journalism-computer science collaborations. Several local news outlets, such as The Vindicator, published stories about the course. And despite the mixed reviews of our first computer science-journalism classroom collaboration, other students have told me they are looking forward to taking the second. We’re planning for that to begin in January 2012.

Jacqueline Marino is an assistant professor of journalism at Kent State University. Her nonfiction stories and essays have appeared in many publications, including Cleveland Magazine, The Christian Science Monitor, and River Teeth: a Journal of Narrative Nonfiction. Her first book, “White Coats: Three Journeys through an American Medical School,” will be published in 2012. She has a special interest in the evolution of narrative journalism online.