Are Online Journalism Certificates Worth the Paper They’re Printed On?

By Yael Grauer April 11th, 2014

Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication recently announced an online graduate certificate in business journalism, to be taught through the Donald W. Reynolds National Center for Business Journalism.

The question remains: Is such a certificate worth $7,230?

The 15-credit course, billed at $482 per credit hour, begins in August and will last six months. Senior Associate Dean Marianne Barrett expects both assignment editors and freelancers looking for a specialization to register. “A freelancer who’s looking to be able to do reporting on business, on money, on the economy would benefit from having this certificate,” she said.

The credibility question

While Barrett believes a graduate certificate has more credibility than one from an (often unaccredited) online course, that hasn’t stopped thousands of students from signing up for massive open online courses (MOOCs), such as those offered through the Knight Center of Journalism in the Americas at the University of Texas in Austin. Classes are free, but students who meet certain requirements are eligible for certificates of completion for a $30 administrative fee.

Richard Ray, Community News Manager at Aggrego, took a MOOC on social media for journalists despite already owning a journalism degree from DePaul University. “The people teaching these classes are really impressive individuals in the industry. They’ve got people from the New York Times, ProPublica, Milwaukee Sentinel-Journal, University of Chapel Hill,” he said. “It was really worthwhile.”

There’s no doubt additional knowledge from post-graduate programs and conferences can be beneficial for the gainfully employed.

But do online certificates actually help journalists find work?

While the Pew Research Center has statistics on the benefits of degrees organized by subject matter, including work-life earnings, their research does not include post-bachelor’s certificates related to occupational training. However, in defense of journalism certificates, higher education consultant Dianna Sadlouskos wrote on MOOCNewsReviews: “Enrolling in a MOOC demonstrates due diligence in acquiring necessary skills to be successful in your career. This also shows you have a proactive approach to expanding knowledge base.”

Whether the certificate itself leads to employment or better compensation is still up for debate, and causation will always be tough to prove. However, the qualitative benefits of learning new skills can at the very least increase efficiency and open up new career paths. For example, finance and technology writing often pays better than lifestyle journalism, and for people without the appropriate background, a MOOC can be a cheap entry point into a new industry.

The benefits — and drawbacks — of a free degree

Students looking for increased cost-benefit may opt to participate in a free or nearly-free MOOC rather than a graduate certificate, but completion rates for MOOCs are fairly low. Many students dabble without intending to finish. Others get lost in the crowd of participants. Completion rates currently hover below 7 percent, according to research conducted by Open University doctoral candidate Katy Jordan. And Dr. Amy Schmitz Weiss, a MOOC instructor and associate professor in the School of Journalism & Media Studies at San Diego State University, also estimates less than 20 percent of students participate fully in the online courses.

Critics of MOOCs, which sometimes have as many as 5,000 students, point toward the limited interaction with instructors as a key drawback. Schmitz Weiss, who was one of five instructors in the Knight Center’s MOOC on data-driven journalism, read forum posts daily, but couldn’t respond to everyone individually. Instead, she posted overviews each week based on observations, calling out specific examples from student comments. Regardless of effort, there is still no way to replicate the classroom experience of a typical graduate school course.

“I found the forum aspect of having to ask questions or engage with other people taking the class was kind of noisy,” Ray said. “Maybe people were just doing that in kind of a perfunctory manner, because they had to, to get through the class.” He did, however, find it easier to engage with instructors on Twitter.

MOOCs may not be the future of learning, but they’ve become part of the equation. “I think we’re just at the beginning of understanding the possibilities of how teaching and learning can be done in the digital era,” Schmitz Weiss said.

According to The Digital Revolution and Higher Education, a 2011 Pew Research report, college presidents who thought preparing students for the work force was the most important role of secondary education were more likely to believe online courses offered the same educational value as in-person schooling.

If the material learned is more important than the certificate, perhaps the courses are best suited for those who don’t need instructors to reiterate or explain basic information. Ray, for example, already knew the basics of his MOOC and was challenged by the final lectures, which were cerebral and very applicable to his job. He later shared them with his entire team at work. And though Ray is aware some MOOC participants may coast through the course or stop paying attention entirely, he is unconcerned.

He believes his portfolio — and his certificate — speak for themselves.

Image by Bank Phrom for Unsplash
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