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Class Act: Educating the Next Generation of Online Media Makers

This installment of Paul Riismandel's Class Act column appeared in the October/November issue of Streaming Media magazine. Click here for your free subscription.

When it comes to the foundational innovations of our modern internet, the schools responsible for them are well-known. The creators of Yahoo! and the Google guys came out of Stanford; the browser was invented at the University of Illinois, where two of the YouTube guys got their degrees; and MIT produced the founders of companies such as Intel that create the hardware that makes the internet go.

This list barely scratches the surface of the top engineering and computer science universities in the country that continue to educate the next generation of innovators who will lead the next big startup or invent the next transformative internet technology. But who’s educating the future online media innovators?

Clearly, there’s no college degree requirement to get started in online video. The democratization of production tools has lowered the barrier to entry like never before. While there may always be demand for videos of singing cats and funny pranks, the maturation of online media will demand an increasing level of sophistication in production, design, and distribution. It’s not only a matter of production values but also understanding the medium, the audience, and the technologies that drive online media.

There’s no shortage of first-rate programs across the country teaching television, film, animation, design, and digital arts. Journalism schools also are adapting to the new media world, adding digital media training and experience to a solid foundation in reporting and writing. Taking courses in these areas or finishing a degree go a long way toward providing students with the fundamental skills necessary for careers in online media.

What I’m wondering is how well these types of programs prepare students for such careers. Success in the internet environment is often based on having a broad skill set and the ability to serve multiple roles, especially when one works for a small internet company. At a large broadcaster or major film production company, one can afford to specialize in writing, editing, or cinematography. But that luxury doesn’t exist at startups, and it’s already disappearing at larger companies.

It’s not just about traditional production skills. There’s an increasing need for online media producers to have design expertise, business acumen, and some essential understanding of IT, especially internet and networking technology. Indeed, it may be asking too much for any single program of study to integrate training in all of these areas into a single coherent whole. Yet we’ve seen business schools bring the study of innovation, entrepreneurship, and technology management into their bachelor’s and MBA programs, and computer science and engineering schools similarly incorporate business skills into their curricula. So what about media?

For me, the most promising models are interdisciplinary in nature, recognizing the multitasking inherent in this landscape. I recently met Shaun Slattery, the director of the new media studies program at DePaul University in Chicago, which prompted me to look into the school’s master’s program. It joins together the departments of English, communication, and art, and while not an explicitly online media program, it focuses on production combined with design, history, and criticism.

According to the program’s website, among its goals are that students gain "[a]n understanding of the technical and practical necessities (planning, budgeting, scripting) of moving a project from idea to completion." Importantly, graduates should be able to "compete for employment in contexts defined by new media design, production, and criticism."

I like that emphasis on the practicalities of completing projects and getting a job combined with the study of the history and theory that deepen the understanding of new media. I can say that my ability to manage projects and finish them has been fruitful for my career, and I learned most of it in the school of hard knocks. I can only imagine how helpful it would have been to get a bit of a head start in that arena.

Just like innovation in the business world, creating new programs and departments in academia is a risky endeavor. The comparatively slow rate of change in the academy is balanced by the responsibility to ensure that students still are receiving a thorough education worthy of their time and money.

I’m curious to know what the readers of Streaming Media think about this issue. What are the most important skills for the next generation of online media workers to have? How can schools, colleges, and universities better prepare students for careers in online media? Drop me an email (mediageek@gmail.com) or comment on this column on StreamingMedia.com.

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