By MARK PEARSON Follow @Journlaw
Griffith University doctoral candidate David Costin recently interviewed me as part of his research into engaging with the online environment in higher education and has kindly allowed me to reproduce sections of that interview transcript in my blog. Here, in the first edited installment, we discuss my design of an online / on campus course in media law.
Q: In the online environment, what theory and pedagogical knowledge do you draw upon when you’re operating in the online environment?
A: I can mention a principal theory that’s driven a lot of my career and I carry into the online environment… My first major point is that I believe theory and pedagogical understanding and approaches are crucial to teaching in the online environment. But they are not necessarily something that you are conscious of every day of your teaching. I think it’s fundamental to your learning in the area, it’s fundamental that you revise that occasionally, revisit it, but my own experience is it’s not something that is at the forefront of your mind as you’re teaching every class. So, the main pedagogical approach which is entrenched in a theory that I’ve used since the 1980s and have carried into the online environment is Donald Schon’s work in teaching – The Reflective Practitioner. My area of journalism education is very much about preparing students to do what Donald Schon called ‘reflect-in-action’, which is basically when they are confronted with new situations in the newsroom (or these days in various professional communication environments), that they will also be able to reflect, sometimes innately (like I do on pedagogies and theories). In that same way, one should be confident that they can reflect on what I have taught them and be able to solve their own problems, whatever they may be, technologically and ethically and professionally in changing environments. So to my mind, if that is done properly, then you effectively have someone who is a change agent and is able to reflect in action upon their education, no matter how long ago that may have been, to shape and be able to come to a consciously right decision in their work in a new context. And that’s my take on the Schon approach.
I have something to add to that though and that is in more recent years, since 2013, I’ve developed what – I’ve worked with colleagues and have coined the expression ‘mindful journalism’. Because in my undergraduate years, I did explore some Eastern philosophies and so on and in more recent times I’ve used meditation practises for various reasons in my life and have rediscovered Buddhism, but from a secular perspective. So in other words, some of the foundation stones of Buddhism are actually very secular, reflection in action practices. So mindful journalism is something I’ve actually built into my media law classes, teaching students how to reflect in action because my biggest worry in teaching media law is that a graduate who may have only passed with 50 per cent result, may not be able to recognise in the newsroom the legal risk that should be apparent to them. So I’m using this as a way of embedding an approach that hopefully deepens their knowledge at the tertiary level enough to be able to carry with them into the workplace.
Q: So your basis, then, is working from that practical on-the-ground reflection status, would that be correct?
A: That is correct. Obviously media law has two major components to it. One is enough knowledge about and familiarity or literacy to do with the language of law, to be able to understand what defamation or contempt of court or confidentiality, these sorts of things are. And the second element is the actual putting that into practice, to be able to navigate those laws effectively in a highly competitive, under resourced, time poor, stressful news environment where there are other imperatives, in fact there are very significant rewards for pushing the boundaries of the law in a technological era based on clickbait and page views. So the challenge within that is being able to do that both in the classroom environment, but also in an online environment, so there’s no reason why media law, from that content end of the equation, can’t be taught very effectively both in the classroom and online or in a hybrid way.
A: It’s only recently we’ve really ramped up the online offering of the course and so I’ve had to encounter the challenges of being able to capture that for students just working in a fully online environment as well. …So the course, as I’ve redeveloped it for this year, well for the past few years, but I’ve really refined it for this year, has a dovetailed knowledge-problem based approach. So it’s textbook driven. The Journalist’s Guide to Media Law is the main textbook used in the field throughout Australia … which has little exercises and things in the back of it. Clearly in law you just have to cover certain topics, but unlike a standard legal text, you would already see in the textbook itself, being The Journalist’s Guide, a handbook for communicators with the chapters and headings reflecting – it’s not what they – typically a law textbook is what they call black letter law. … It’s multi-dimensional.
So the second element is a problem based approach and it used to be we had a problem a week that they were dealing with a scenario and now we’ve narrowed that down so they are having more time to work with particular problems and they’re getting guidance within that. So there are, over the course, four or five problems that they work with over the 12 weeks and the first three are submitted as a learning journal approach to the problems. Not learning journal as in “what did I learn from it?”, but learning journal as in a record of their answers to key newsroom law questions that they would need to answer about these things. So if you go to the actual course itself, all of this material is available to the students who are on campus and online.
A: And I mean we have a very good – within our group here, we have a very good blended learning team based out of Mt Gravatt and they run various courses and a couple of years ago I did the online learning course. A lot of this has been developed with their curriculum design assistance. But the idea is that the students – there’s a certain suite of activities and a lot of it is to do with developing their understanding of reflecting on their learning, even from the very early stages. So in the early slides, it explains the actual – this is just the mini lecture, so there are only three slides here, but it has the study plan of what they’re expected to do as part of their course.
Q: Yeah, yeah.
A: So it’s a little, just like a five to 10 minute mini lecture, there’s a learning problem that they preview early on and there are online discussion boards or tutorials or both that they can attend. They read the relevant chapters and the study guide and earlier on it was starting to get to the point that even the textbook talks about mindful practice and the textbook navigates what I call the “legalities and the realities” of media law. In other words, it’s not just about what’s legal and illegal, it’s about how one might navigate legal risk within a work environment and not just for journalists but for public relations practitioners, other new media entrepreneurs, those sorts of things. So they read the chapters, there’s an online study guide as well …
Some people prefer the print material, so they get just a basic run through the main areas. The learning problems are set up with each learning problem the student having to consider the scenario that is put to them in the terms of what are the main media law issues arising in this scenario, what laws and defences might apply, what cases or examples would you draw upon or talk about or to make your decisions there and assuming your goal is to publish as much of it as is legally allowable, you know, what are you going to do in this situation. Or there’s a longer one here, the really prickly things that we normally really hone in on are ones to do with situations involving defamation and contempt of court. There should be really problem two here somewhere, it was like the arrest of a sex murderer on Moreton Island, … – with little study tasks for the online students, which are normally quite similar to the ones at the back of the textbook chapters, although there are a couple of variations in there. So they answer the end of chapter questions, the study guide and the textbook, complete the formative quiz, so that’s something I picked up from the blended learning people, that the – and also just a bit of reading around that area of knowledge, because there’s that knowledge base component.
At the end of each of the five modules, there’s a 20-question quiz. On the actual substantive knowledge where the students have 30 minutes to be able to look up the textbook to get their answers as to what defamation is and that kind of stuff. But what I learnt through my reading around this kind of thing was that the learning is embedded more in that context if the students are presented with the same question again and so for the more important topics like defamation and contempt, those questions are geared to repeat in the later formative quizzes and the formative quizzes are non-assessable but the final one is worth 20 per cent of the assessment and is done in a single hit of 20 randomly generated questions from the others with no backtracking allowed.
Q: The thing I like with what you’ve just done is that you’ve actually, in some ways, you’ve talked about your problems and then how you’ve set it out, in some ways you’re actually catering for that diversity of the learner too. …If they don’t want the audio, they can go to this to look at the problem or they’ve got that visual …
A: Yeah and that’s something that’s been drilled home by our blended learning people through the various online development courses, is to try to cater to those different learning styles. And so while on the slide I’m saying they should do all of these things and always return to the learning problems, so preview the learning problem, come back to it later, engage in the tutorial discussion or discussions about it and find and reflect upon the recent readings. Because in media law there’s always new cases unfolding and stuff, people find and so we share that on our Twitter, #MLGriff Twitter feed, which is just a hashtag that people put on it. So this Rebel Wilson’s in the news, all the students are throwing that there. I tweet to that when I’m at seminars and things like that. And you know, it becomes almost like a really useful summary of media law because there are more than 400 students [per year] doing this course … and I’ve got them all integrated into the same program. OUA is a different site just because there’s just slightly different terminology and everything that they use.
Q: Yeah, that’s right, yeah.
A: So at any one time, through some of the activities such as the discussion board, you’ll get three of those four cohorts all there on the discussion board, discussing the learning problem or having general course questions or the tutors are engaging with them in their discussion about the answer.
Q: Okay, so it’s practical – so I suppose what you’ve done is you’ve set up so it’s a practical, interactive course with reflection at the same time, which would then assist them in their development down the track with it, I suppose.
NEXT WEEK: A mindful dimension to the media law course
Disclaimer: While I write about media law and ethics, nothing here should be construed as legal advice. I am an academic, not a lawyer. My only advice is that you consult a lawyer before taking any legal risks.
© Mark Pearson 2017