Journalism program earns top online honors

Although it remains young as academic programs go, the Certificate of Online Journalism Program has won 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, honored the Online Journalism Certificate with its Program of Excellence Award in the new program category. The award was announced at the UCEA annual conference in San Diego in early April, and will be celebrated at UMassOnline award ceremonies in Shrewsbury on May 11.

The 15-credit online program was started four years ago by Norman Sims, professor in Department of Communication’s Journalism Program, and by Art Clifford, former director of Web Development and co-director of the certificate.

“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. We’re both successful and self-supporting.”

The UCEA Award, he noted, is “pretty much the Heisman Trophy of distance learning.”

Sims wasn’t immediately sold on the notion of an exclusively online program, especially since the Journalism Program is known for nurturing the talents of its undergrads 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,” said 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 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 being offered online — and the instructors who are offering them — are not available on campus. Alan Hall, for instance, who teaches “Covering Science & Technology,” is a former executive editor of Scientific American. Frank Faulkner, who teaches “International Perspectives in Journalism” and who covered Vietnam 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 faculty like Journalism director Karen List, a winner of the 1998 Freedom Forum Journalism Teacher of the Year award, who teaches “Journalism Ethics.”

Students enrolled in the online program, said Sims, “tend to be 35-45 years of age, live outside the Amherst area, and tend to be ready to make some kind of change in their lives, or to improve job prospects.”

Five sessions of the Online Journalism Certificate Program courses are offered each year. For more information, contact Norman Sims, 108 Bartlett Hall, at 545-1376 or by e-mail sims@journ.umass.edu.