By MARK PEARSON Follow @Journlaw
This is Part 3 of my interview with Griffith University doctoral candidate David Costin, who recently interviewed me as part of his research into engaging with the online environment in higher education. Over the past two installments we have discussed my design of an online / on campus course in media law and have examined how principles of ‘mindful journalism’ have influenced the course design. This week we explore some strategies to embed media law learning.
Q (David Costin): Obviously you’ve thought about that end point [of students applying their media law knowledge in the workplace].
A: (Mark Pearson) … I have the opportunity and the good fortune as a consultant to be able to train some journalists in the workplace … and I’ve done that for more than 20 years …. That feeds back into the loop because quite often in the class are my own students from these classes and it’s interesting to see what they do or don’t remember, although I haven’t actually formally tested that. So what niggles away at me, at this late stage of my career, is that I haven’t seen many of my graduates – I can’t recall my graduates getting into actual legal trouble and that would be one sign, but nevertheless, I sort of say ‘there but for the grace of God walk I’, you know, because you do know there are those 50 per cent students and they might have been away the day we did defamation (although it’s very unlikely, there’s a fair bit of it in the course).
A: And these days they’re often, you know, going to be contractor workers rather than fully employed by an organisation, perhaps running their own blog. And so in the area of contempt, jail is a possibility, a substantial fine, certainly professional disgrace and in defamation there’s huge damages; they can lose their family home. And thankfully I haven’t seen that happen to my students, but it’s an area where if they were away the day they did one of those important things, then it’s a risk. So what is the retention of this knowledge in the workplace? That would be a wonderful research project to go back and revisit some of these people years on or whatever. I mean you know, media law training session only last year I had one of my students from 20 years ago at another institution, you know, so there are people there that would provide data for it I suppose.
Q: Yeah, yeah.
A: But I mean maybe I’m half scared to do so because it’s a worry, the extent to which they may not actually retain much of that knowledge (laughs).
Q: But you know, I can see, you know, that again, that reflective stance drives, you know, I suppose where you want and it’s also updating that course at the same time, because as you said, you know, this area’s changing so much all the time.
Q: And I suppose it also feeds into the question of, you know, what do you see is effectiveness in this environment.
Q: So what you just indicated a student from 20 years ago, came back and came on the course, but is there other things that you see, other than the stats at the end of every semester, as being effective in this environment when you’re teaching in the online environment?
A: Well I remember an earlier lecturer I worked with in my career talked about seeing the ‘whites of their eyes’, you know that expression?
Q: Mm, yep, yep.
A: And there are moments where you see that, that you know the knowledge at least for that one student is deeply embedded and has made a real difference. And from time to time you get that – I had that only yesterday, right? It was only a very small moment, but I’m very conscious of mindful practice being dismissed or being looked at sceptically as sort of some new age thing or being dismissed by other academics or whatever or students thinking I’m pushing some religion on them or something like that. So when I tell them about that, I frame it in terms of both the Buddhist principles – meditation and mindfulness – but also (Donald) Schon and reflective practice, but I’d also introduce them to a term that rarely any of them have ever heard of which is form the psychological and educational literature called ‘metacognition’. And I talk about that as either thinking about your own thinking or reflecting upon your own learning, depending on whether you’re looking at it from psychology. So in this particular class yesterday, I had an African law student in the class and I’d done that early in the – like week one or two of the semester – and yesterday (in the final week of revision) we were just talking about something, I can’t even remember what the topic was, and she said, “Ah yes, that’s metacognition. I’ve just practised metacognition.” And so to me, that’s a success, that’s just a skerrick of evidence of someone having learnt something in the course.
Q: The ah-ha moment.
A: Yeah, yeah. But the very important change we’ve made with the course this semester meant that I was getting that feeling a lot yesterday in my lectures as well and that’s because I’ve gone from, partly through very pragmatic and practical reasons, I’ve gone from a sit-down final exam in a lecture theatre – open book but handwritten into exam books – … I’ve gone from that to a take-home finale difficult problem, take-home exam over 10 days; 1500 words, written in exam style, loosely referenced but just so as answering those same basic questions, but a finale problem. And they submit it via Turnitin, plagiarism detection and all of that. And in the lectures yesterday, it hit home how important that is. Because I read somewhere some time ago that there are all pros and cons to, you know, obviously there’s security issues with take-home exams …
Q: That’s right.
A: That may happen. But in the lectures yesterday, here was a fully engaged class, many of whom I’d never seen before. They may have been following it on Lecture Capture or whatever, but here they were, for Professor Pearson to walk them through the take-home exam problem and to speak – I spoke in what you might call cryptic or code terms about the issues that were arising and highlighting on the screen the things that they might identify, without spoon-feeding them and giving them all the answers and reinforcing the fact that the students who had engaged in all the learning activities will know what I’m talking about here, that this word, confidential source here means certain things, it means things from different parts of the course, (etc). Well, they were just fully engaged because they had a vested interest in embedding this material for 40 per cent of their overall grade for the course. Now the difference is that the sit-down exam tests the level of knowledge that they know at that point for whoever knows how long afterwards, that they may have crammed for that two hours in week 12 or 13 or whatever it happens to be. This one is – if they’ve done the course, it’s designed so they shouldn’t take more than a day to do it, but some of them have the chance to actually engage with all of that over those 10 days, if they’ve never even come to a class, and I’ve got much more hope because the test mainly drills defamation and contempt, which are the two big ticket areas and it’s my way of being a little bit reassured that people would get over the line with their final take-home exam are at least familiar with those terms and understand a bit of their operation in a hypothetical newsroom environment.
A: So there are pros, there are cons, but I could see learning happening in a traditional lecture yesterday, which is somewhat unusual, sadly.
A: Yeah, yeah.
Q: Okay, so two questions. You’ve established then your own benchmark, using that process, you’ve got your own type of benchmark in the back of your mind, as to what you want the students to achieve using this process?
A: The take-home exam?
Q: Yeah, yeah.
A: Yeah, well yes, we still have to have a final moderation meeting for the tutors for the marking of the exam, but the pass point will be a demonstrated ability to identify those key issues of media law and to come up with a plausible navigation of those issues in such an environment and showing a basic knowledge of some key laws and cases that would inform that decision.
Q: Okay. So then the other part of the question is, where did you come across this idea or have you adapted along the way or it’s been an experience, you know the take-home exam experience has been something that you’d wanted to try, or you’d read about it or you’ve adapted it before over the period of time?
A: Well as long as I remember, there have been take-home exams in some university courses and I’m wracking my brain, thinking of one I’ve ever done myself as a student. I can’t think of one right now. It’s a small extension of a more intense newsroom exam situation that I’ve run at an earlier institution with my media law students, which was the sit-down open-book exam where it’s actually given to the students and then they can either sit there or go away, phone a friend, do whatever they like, as a journalist would do in that environment and come back in two hours with their answer. So it’s an adapted version of that which I hope is actually going to work better. But a point I was going to make earlier about the design of online and everything is that there’s a lot of pragmatism and there are a lot of sort of constrictions or institutional boundaries that you have to work within while you’re still trying to engage with students and enhance their learning and cover the appropriate content. And I mean luckily journalism doesn’t have some industry accreditation as well, you know, because I’d hate to think in accounting or law you’d also be managing those external – or psychology – you’d be managing external requirements as well. So the design of such courses is kind of its own cryptic crossword because for every decision you’re making about a certain format or learning tool, you’re having to think, is this going to work on the Nathan campus, is it going to work on the Gold Coast campus, how does it operate with OUA, what are the online students going to be able to do with this, what are the institutional rules around this? Because the institutional rules have things like no more than 20 per cent of online assignments in the course, you know, that kind of stuff. And so how do we navigate all of these things but still come up with a coherent, meaningful curriculum and pedagogy that’s actually best practice? That’s the challenge, I mean I don’t know whether I’ve achieved it here, but it’s a work in progress.
NEXT WEEK: Strengths and pitfalls of online courses
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