Journalism Education That Succeeds: Students at Tbilisi's Caucasus School Learn by Immersing Themselves in the Skills and Work of Journalism
Idsvoog, Karl, Nieman Reports
Ask about where to find one of the best journalism school educations available, and the answer might be a surprise. It's happening at the Caucasus School of Journalism and Media Management in Tbilisi, Georgia, where a curriculum accelerates learning, truly develops skills, and produces graduates who work in key media positions in three countries. This curriculum also probably has zero chance of being adopted by any university in the United States. Accelerated, concentrated learning does not fit the American model.
I've taught at the Caucasus School and now teach at Kent State University, a school that takes a practical hands-on approach to journalism education. But no traditional American university has the flexibility of the Caucasus School, an institution designed from the ground up to train journalists. To be educated in the United States means students take a boatload of credits during a quarter or semester, rowing through multiple courses toward a fixed destination, all at the same time. What business would schedule all major projects to be concluded simultaneously, as universities usually do?
A Focused Approach to Learning
The Caucasus School of Journalism and Media Management takes a different approach. At the Caucasus School, students don't take multiple courses at the same time. Instead, they focus on specific topics and skills for days and weeks at a time. They learn how to do journalism the same way they learned to ride a bike--by immersing themselves in the doing of it. Topics of focused work included political reporting, business reporting, computer-assisted reporting, radio reporting, newsroom management, photography and television reporting.
As part of their learning, students turn out real-world products. They publish a newspaper and produce radio stories and TV reports. They design and publish an online news site. Academic director David Bloss sums up the school's philosophy this way: "Whenever possible this is a newsroom, not a classroom." I've seen that as a result of this approach students at the Caucasus School learn faster and perform at a higher level more quickly than do students in American-style programs. And they emerge with a clear sense of the valuable societal role that journalism done right can play.
Started in 2002, the school is a joint effort by the International Center for Journalists [ICFJ] in Washington, D.C. and the Georgian Institute for Public Affairs. Founding Academic Director Margie Freaney set the tone for school's educational direction. "We treat students like professionals, like reporters, not as students," she explains. There are, Freaney says, two reasons for the topic-focused curriculum structure, one educational and one practical. As she says, "It's much easier to build upon each class with successively more complicated material when the classes are intensive."
Because the school recruits American journalists with significant experience to train its students, the program's structure is also more efficient. Many of these U.S. journalists don't have calendars with semester-free schedules, but they are able to go to Tbilisi to teach a two-week, month-long or six-week session. Bringing instructors in for these compressed and intensive sessions also saves money. "Having the instructor work all day every day on specific training maximizes the time you have bought," says Bloss, who was an editor of The Providence Journal. This all-day educational structure also provides a more real-life approach to journalism training and eliminates what can be a student's typical excuse for work not done: "I had an assignment due in another class."
Photographer John Smock, who is the school's publication director and layout and design instructor, is a strong proponent of this training model. For teaching practical courses in photography or design, Smock finds that short class periods are "too disruptive to the material." He believes that longer class periods give the instructor a chance to "build the rapport necessary to teach complicated skills. …