« « Women with coding skills are no Passover miracle

Data Delver: Paul Monies, The Oklahoman » »

Columbia’s new joint MS: Good start, but no panacea

We’ve been retweeting it and raving about it all day in the data community – Columbia has made a big, big step forward in data journalism education by offering a new joint masters in journalism and computer science.  We can add modules to existing curricula all we want, but this is a giant leap.  There is a subset of journalists who need to learn to code.  This certainly can’t hurt, and can only help journalists, right?  What will be interesting is what the graduates actually do with the degree.

I didn’t retweet it for a few hours, because, for once, an opinion didn’t jump into my mind.  If you were in my classes at Medill, watching me wince in pain every time we stopped short of delving as deep as we needed to, complaining about the pervading fear of code in journalism, if you knew me, you’d think I would jump up and down, and say, “Now, why couldn’t I have that?  It would have been awesome!”  People are saying it helps people who aren’t coders become coders.  While some pointed out that Medill had this first, our program was for programmers to become journalists.  And how does that serve liberal arts majors who want to code for journalism?  Why isn’t it listed as a course option?  Wouldn’t this Columbia program make life so much easier?

Let’s put my biases out front: I’m a recent Medill grad.  I am a programmer-journalist.  I do not hold an interactive concentration from Medill.  I took no programming classes within Medill.  I did not participate in the programmer to journalist program. I didn’t get that tuition-free deal. Medill had this first, but didn’t have a curriculum for turning liberal arts majors into journo-coders.  And, you know what?  I don’t think they should.  You get something from pushing through it, pursuing your own interests, learning how to learn.

Sorry, I’m just not on board with a joint-degree program.  Take a few coding classes, but that can be done by cross-registering outside your department at many schools.  But understand that any coding you’re taught may be replaced by a new language years, weeks or days later.  We shouldn’t be taking too many classes in coding, but learning how to learn quickly from the Internet.  If, let’s say, you need a JQuery library to perform a certain task, know how to adapt tutorials, don’t think, “Now, this wasn’t in that degree I got, what do I do?”

As Poynter’s Dave Stanton pointed out, there’s a lack of statistics in this curriculum.  This is absolutely essential for people who will be concentrating in data mining, or data-driven app creation.  Perhaps this is easily remedied.  But it signals to me that there are probably similar holes elsewhere in the curriculum, holes I don’t understand as well.  Hopefully, these will be patched in future iterations.  I do have some concerns about the first class to go through this program, though.  But we must change curricula, or die.  And there will be some successes, and improvements to be made, with each new attempt.  Kudos to Columbia on taking a chance!

I also hope there’s a way to pick a specialization within the program.  This is a tall order to complete in a year, and you may excel at data analysis, or visualization, or automating news aggregation, or something else.  But they require a distinct set of skills.  I would approach this as I would a general journalism curriculum.  Get familiar with all the different options, figure out what you love, and get really good at it.

And perhaps the biggest problem of all is the misconception that by putting computer science and journalism classes next to each other, even with integration, we’ve created a recipe for programmer-journalists.  You don’t need to struggle to figure out what to learn, we can do it for you.  I can’t help but feel that this encourages complacency.  If I just listen to my advisor, and follow the steps laid out for me, I can do it.  But you must never stop learning.  What do you do when the syllabus runs out?  It’s essential to learn to learn what you need to know, and then do it.  If students don’t search beyond the curriculum, we may stop moving forward.  The world is moving too fast to create a finite cs roadmap at this point.

There’s something to sitting down and hacking something out.  Part of the beauty of coding is that anyone can do it, follow the steps, learn the language, and you WILL get it.  This program may give students a push, but it’s by no means essential.

So, sure, let’s encourage journos to take cs classes, talk to cs professors.  But gaining a masters in both fields, in little more than a year?  It’s a good option, but far from the only one.  It is only the beginning.  If you go to another school, you could make your own program, take classes in both departments.  This is formalizing what some of us are already doing.  If you enter this program, remember to push your faculty resources even further, and don’t believe it’s a panacea, cure-all, complete road map to what we need done.  This is the first rung up the ladder. There are other ways to climb, and even once you get to the first rung, in the end, it’s up to you to go ever higher.

« « Women with coding skills are no Passover miracle

Data Delver: Paul Monies, The Oklahoman » »