Online master’s program bridges the digital divide

Fall 2015 edition

Associate Professor Doug Ward created the online master's program in digital content strategy, which launches this summer.

Associate Professor Doug Ward created the online master's program in digital content strategy, which launches this summer.

The William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communications is launching its first online master’s program, and students will be able to earn certificates in data communication and social media strategy.

As journalism has shifted into the digital world, so has education. Undergraduate students in the School of Journalism are taught to embrace social media and digital-first publishing, which allows them to explore how the Internet is changing their profession. Beginning in June 2016, students seeking a master’s degree will have the same opportunity.

The details

Eligible students must have a bachelor’s degree and ideally will have some work experience. They do not need the GRE to apply but will eventually need to submit GRE scores. All students must complete the introductory summer course and may then begin coursework on either or both certificates. Coursework for both the social media certificate and the data certificate consists of four eight-week classes. Students who want to earn a master’s degree must complete both certificates and a capstone course, which will include two additional weekends on the Lawrence campus.

The online master’s degree in digital content strategy will be divided into two certificates, one in data interpretation and communication and the other in social media strategy. Students can complete certificates independently, but those who fulfill the requirements for both will earn a master’s degree.
Associate Professor Doug Ward has been working on the program for more than two years with the help of other journalism faculty and associates. The goal was to develop a program that would focus on digital skills students could use immediately.

“The program kind of started from the idea that there’s an abundance of information available in the world, but you have to be able to understand where to find it, what to do with it, and how to put it together into something meaningful,” Ward said. "We identified two areas that are especially relevant right now. One is data, and the other is social media."
Each of these certificates will require the completion of a hybrid summer course and four additional eight-week courses online. All students will begin in June 2016 and certificate-specific courses will begin in August 2016. Students who want to complete both certificates and earn a master’s degree are encouraged to do so in two years, unless they are prepared to work full time on the coursework.

The initial summer course, called Information Insight I, will include two in-person sessions, with online work in between. Students will meet on the Lawrence campus for those weekend sessions, which are intended to introduce them to the program, the faculty and their peers. 

“Those weekend sessions will help humanize the program,” Ward said. “Personal interaction is an important component of all learning, and it’s especially important to have that human connection when students work online.”

Yvonnes Chen is an associate professor of strategic communication who will be teaching courses in the master’s program. Although she will be working primarily with students in data courses, Chen says research is essential throughout the entire program.

“When it comes to social media strategy, it’s so important to speak to our consumers. We’ve got to know what audiences are like,” Chen said. “But also there should be a strategy behind everything. The strategy hopefully will be guided by research. After that we need to evaluate messages, and that’s why social media metrics is so very important.”

The J-School has also been working closely with KU Libraries to develop the program, and most classes will have a journalism faculty member and a library faculty member working together. Ward views journalism and libraries as natural partners in that both institutions are concerned with synthesizing information and catering to changing audiences.

KU librarian Julie Petr has been working with Ward to integrate library services into the program. In the past she has served as a liaison between libraries and the J-School and has taught library instruction classes within the J-School. She says several librarians will contribute instruction to the certificate classes.

“We have a librarian who will be available to help students find secondary and data resources,” Petr said. “Another librarian specializes in helping students organize data files, and we have a librarian who is an expert in GIS, which is one part of data visualization. It’s all about helping students organize their information so it’s easy to retrieve and present.”

Petr also said she will be available to help students access basic research and investigate data and information.

“Some of these students may not have been in school for a while and may not realize how to best search the databases,” Petr said.
Although the program is open to students who have just graduated and want to continue their education, Ward said much of the courses’ content may be more meaningful to individuals who have already been in the workplace and have different experiences.

“We really want people to bring in problems and questions that they’re having in their jobs,” Ward said. “We’re encouraging people to bring their data in to make this very practical. That way, not only are you pursuing education but you’re also working on problems directly for your office.”

The curriculum for both certificates is about problem solving and using information to create greater breadth and depth of understanding. As the program evolves, it may add certificates relevant to the continually changing world of journalism.

“It’s about the process of understanding information,” Ward said. “Where it is and how to access it, how to create it, and how to communicate it.”

— Matthew Clough is a junior from Wichita studying news and information.