Members of many professions seek continuing education courses to sharpen or update their skills. But in a profession like editing, where contract or freelance work is very common, and where employers have drastically cut training budgets, attending conferences or in-person seminars is not always possible. What’s an education-hungry professional editor to do?
Turn to eLearning, of course.
Editing is an applied skill; the learning must go beyond presentation of concepts and facts. Learners must practice, get feedback, and apply that feedback to new editing assignments. It’s the only way to improve, whether that practice occurs in class or on the job. Thus asynchronous eLearning and offline exercises, while essential, could be only a partial solution. Live lectures and discussions held in a virtual classroom, as well as individualized instructor feedback on editing projects, complete the eLearning picture.
This case study presents a blended solution—the product of a veteran institution dedicated to educating journalism and media professionals, The Poynter Institute, and a professional organization for copy editors, ACES—that can assist others in developing similar solutions for a variety of professions.
The Poynter Institute, in St. Petersburg, Florida, was long renowned for its in-person training seminars for journalism and media professionals. A gorgeous location right on Tampa Bay; top-notch instructors, both permanent faculty and guest instructors flown in for the seminars; sumptuous meals; networking opportunities … then came the early 2000s. As the age of legacy media—newspapers and television—gave way to the digital era, media organizations no longer had training budgets that supported sending staff to week-long seminars in Florida. Poynter had to change gears; it began to offer seminars within newsrooms, and it created training models that combined online or independent study with short on-site seminars.
And Poynter moved into eLearning in a big way.
News University, or NewsU, was born in 2005. The eLearning division of The Poynter Institute, NewsU is a pioneer among professional development organizations, notable for the depth and breadth of its offerings. NewsU produces dozens of webinars each year as well as offering replays of previous webinars; it offers hundreds of asynchronous eLearning courses, many available free of charge, and several certificate programs. And, increasingly, NewsU and Poynter pool their considerable expertise to offer what they call OGSs, or online group seminars.
An OGS is a blended solution that includes synchronous and asynchronous elements. The synchronous elements are often live lectures and chats; sometimes a webinar or two is added to the mix. An OGS might last anywhere from three to six weeks; some feature a short (two- or three-day) in-person session at the end or one-on-one coaching from instructors.
An additional element of NewsU’s success strategy is partnerships. This is where ACES, the American Copy Editors Society, enters the picture.
ACES is a professional development and networking organization for copy editors. Its annual conference and regional workshops provide education and problem-solving, space to discuss issues of concern to editing and writing professionals, and advocacy for editors of all stripes.
ACES and NewsU worked hard to put together a roster of asynchronous eLearning courses to teach and drill participants on various editing skills. In 2013, they launched the Poynter ACES Certificate in Editing, aimed at professional editors, freelance writers and editors, and journalism students who are looking to polish their editing skills. The emphasis is on foundational editing skills: grammar, punctuation, and clear, concise writing.
When working editors, including many members of ACES, expressed a desire for advanced training, ACES and NewsU created a second certificate, the Poynter ACES Certificate in Accurate, Audience-Focused Editing, in 2016. But ACES board members Merrill Perlman and Sue Burzynski Bullard wanted more depth and substance than they thought a purely asynchronous certificate would provide. They also wanted to serve a growing membership of editors who were not journalists—academic authors, technical editors, and marketing writers, for example.
“Our goal was to provide advanced training for editors who wanted to hone their skills or move to a new level. We wanted to focus on substantive editing and critical thinking skills across multiple platforms and disciplines,” Burzynski Bullard said in an email interview.
Simply teaching skills and concepts in asynchronous online courses was insufficient; substantive editing is a tough subject to teach online. The advanced study program had to include the applied practice that is so essential to editing—and projects had to go beyond mechanical skills, teaching editors to look at longer pieces of writing more holistically. In-person seminars are costly and can be hard to find, but this type of editing and feedback is not possible with an asynchronous eLearning course. A blended eLearning seminar was the ideal solution.
OGSs take editing training to a new level
NewsU and ACES decided to build a training package for advanced editing professionals. It would include the new certificate and add an OGS where substantive editing projects would be assigned. The capstone course in the Advanced Editing Certificate Training Package is the In-Depth Editing OGS, a four-week blended eLearning solution that teaches in-depth structural and substantive editing.
“The key goals were to advance the attendees’ editing skills with a focus not on grammar, spelling, or the usual subjects taught in editing courses, but on a broader-based and more advanced level, focusing on critical thinking skills, organization (of pieces and work), editing for multiple platforms, and working with tools and writers,” Perlman said, also in an email interview.
The OGS challenges participants to think about editing in a bigger-picture way and share their experience. “We encourage students to look at one another’s work and our comments, not to critique but to see different approaches,” Perlman said.
The content encompasses disparate skills that editors need: technical skills, like editing for SEO and tailoring content for different digital and non-digital platforms; guidance for editors who coach and provide feedback to writers; and a deep dive into structural editing—making sure that a piece of writing is complete, logically organized, well-sourced, and clear. The first OGS was held in August 2016; the second seminar starts on January 20, 2017.
Challenges and opportunities
The blended eLearning format offers both benefits and challenges when compared with either a face-to-face course or completely asynchronous eLearning.
“The online format does pose different challenges. I think it’s important to reinforce the learning goal in different ways,” Burzynski Bullard said. “As an example, in addition to reading lessons in text, we provide short videos to make points. I think when you’re teaching online you have to really think about how a student receives the material—you need to chunk it in digestible pieces. You can’t expect someone to sit through a 45-minute video lecture. But you might reinforce a point you’ve made in text with a two-minute video.”
Besides presenting learning in different ways, teaching online requires a different type of commitment from both learners and instructors. “Blended online formats are useful and can be effective when dealing with disparate, scattered group of students. By moving the learning to ‘on your own time,’ students must commit themselves, since only one hour a week is group time,” Perlman said. “The downside [for instructors] is that it’s more imperative to keep an eye out for students who might be struggling or not attending any of the sessions.”
Perlman also said that the “sense of isolation when you’re not seeing students” is a hazard of eLearning. “Having other means of discussion can help that: a discussion board, a Facebook group, or some other ways that the members of the group can interact among themselves and with the instructor can make for a much more coherent class and engaging content.”
Advance preparation is an important element of any eLearning. Burzynski Bullard said that being well-organized is essential, especially for a fast-paced course like this one, and instructors have to “invest time before the course starts in its organization and planning.” The OGS is four weeks long, with one live session per week, along with online readings and assignments. The instructors have to respond quickly to assignments so that learners can use the feedback to improve their next assignment.
Along with the challenges, blended eLearning offers opportunities. Among them: It makes live training available to far more people than could attend an in-person seminar or multisession synchronous eLearning course. “The idea is to create a sense of community with the live sessions and reinforce the lessons, but recognize that the attendees are mostly full-time workers, and so don’t have the luxury of a lot of specifically timed in-person sessions,” Perlman said.
Burzynski Bullard noted that it’s easier to deliver lessons in a variety of formats in a blended course, which better serves learners who have different learning preferences. The blended format, she said, “serves as almost a check on the messages that have been delivered asynchronously. The live sessions allow us to check in and say, ‘Do you understand this? Is this murky? Does this live explanation help?’”
Getting learners to engage—with the material, with the instructor, and with one another—is a challenge in any class, but more so online. “My gut feeling is that I can always get better engagement face-to-face. But I do think the live sessions really helped increase engagement in this course,” Burzynski Bullard said. “Students were overwhelmingly positive about the live sessions. … Students were not only responding to the instructors but also to each other. I do think students were feeling like a learning network, particularly in the live sessions. That’s one more reason to keep a blended format.”
“We had a lot of engagement from this initial course,” Perlman said. “To me, the live sessions are always the most valuable. Besides reinforcing the lessons, they advance them, and give attendees the chance to ask questions and express opinions and frustrations. In this initial session, a lot of the attendees offered their own advice and resources, which enhanced everyone’s experience.”
Improving the course
As the instructors head into the second OGS, they are planning some changes, Burzynski Bullard said. Despite their planning the course for editors who work in a variety of settings and industries, most of the examples and assignments in the first seminar were from journalism. “We are tweaking the second round of the course to ensure that we really are looking at editing across disciplines,” she said. Participants might have fewer assignments, but those will be more targeted to editors with different areas of focus.
“In the second version, students will be able to choose which kind of story they want to edit depending on their area of interest. If you’re an academic editor, you can edit a piece of a research paper. If you’re in marketing or public relations, your assignment might focus on a press release,” Burzynski Bullard said.
Another change will be to offer more ways for learners to interact with one another. The instructors added a discussion board to the first OGS, but, Burzynski Bullard said, it didn’t get much of a response, possibly because it was added on as the course progressed. They’re considering adding a Facebook group or some other social networking area.
The group encountered some minor technical issues, and the instructors decided not to use timed assignments for the second OGS after experiencing glitches with that feature. The instructors used the Adobe Connect virtual classroom platform, which NewsU uses for all of its OGSs and webinars.
A final, and important, area of improvement has to do with communication. “I think in an asynchronous course, you have to have detailed and clear instructions on everything. We found some areas that were problematic,” Burzynski Bullard said.
As an experienced educator, Burzynski Bullard is always on the lookout for ways to improve her teaching. She provided this advice for instructors preparing blended eLearning:
- Be absolutely clear in directions and in the organization of your course. It’s important to establish a rhythm and to spell out expectations clearly.
- Be involved in discussions so the students know you’re present. Students have to see you and get to know you (e.g., use an introductory video). Bring the best of what you do in a face-to-face course into the online environment.
- Deliver lessons in multiple ways. Use different formats. Think about how you would like to receive the material if you were a student (you’ll quickly decide that “long videos” is not an answer).
- Provide feedback in multiple ways, too. Consider short videos to provide one-on-one feedback.
- Think about what your objectives for the course are. Make sure all of the material you’re delivering aligns with your objectives.