Journalism Program Earns Top Online Honors
Although it remains young as academic programs go, UMass Amherst's Certificate of Online Journalism Program is already packing a real punch with a first-rate faculty and a far-flung student body—and, now, with a top award in innovative continuing education. The University Continuing Education Association (UCEA), the nation's oldest and largest organization committed to supporting the advancement of continuing education, has honored the Online Journalism certificate with its Program of Excellence Award in the new program category. The award, The UCEA Award, considered "the Heisman Trophy" of distance learning, was announced at the UCEA annual conference in San Diego in April, and will be celebrated at UMass Online award ceremonies in Shrewsbury on May 11.
The 15-credit online program was started four years ago by Professor Norman Sims (journalism) and Art Clifford, former UMass Amherst director of web development and co-director of the certificate program. "It's been exciting to be part of this program as it has gained momentum," said Sims. "We realized early on that there was an audience for these professional skills and for a program that is both interesting and academically well-grounded. Art is very good at marketing, and the response has been terrific. The program is both successful and self-supporting."
In the beginning Sims wasn't immediately sold on the notion of an exclusively online program, especially since the journalism program at UMass Amherst is well-known for nurturing the talents of its undergraduates with a good deal of hands-on experience and faculty face time. "What we found, though, was the students are often more engaged and motivated online than they are in the classroom," says Sims. "It's almost counterintuitive, but there is more personal contact because the students actually generate their own sense of community. Everybody is in the same boat online. If you don't speak up, you disappear. You simply don't get your money's worth." Travel writer Karen Skolfield, for example, asked her 20 students for a written introduction and was deluged with 90 responses, according to Sims. Most were the product of dialogue among the students themselves.
Part of allure may be that many of two dozen courses offered online—and the instructors who are offering them—are not available on campus. Alan Hall, for instance, who teaches Covering Science and Technology, is a former executive editor of Scientific American. Frank Faulkner, who teaches International Perspectives in Journalism and who covered the Vietnam War on the ground for UPI, lives in Ireland. Jill Lang teaches Citizen Journalism and the Web from her base in Maine. Students also have access to on-campus stars like Journalism Director Karen List, a winner of the 1998 Freedom Forum Journalism Teacher of the Year award, who teaches Journalism Ethics.
And just who is the typical UMass Amherst Certificate of Online Journalism student? "They tend to be 35-45 years of age, live outside the Amherst area, and ready to make some kind of change in their lives, or to improve job prospects," noted Sims. Beyond that, he said, it's anybody's guess. Some have studied journalism in the past, and want to return to the profession. Others come from fields as varied as school administration, health care and the military. A majority of the students in Alan Hall's Science and Technology class during one session already had doctoral degrees. Five sessions of UMass Amherst Online Journalism Certificate Program courses are offered each year. For more information, contact Professor Norman Sims, 108 Bartlett Hall, UMass, Amherst, MA 01003; 413.545.1376.
—by Wes Blixt, UMass Amherst Office of Outreach
May 1, 2006