By Sandy Mui
Published: May 9th, 2018
How do we continue to support technology, media and democracy in a time when these fields are increasingly under attack? That’s the question six universities in New York City tried to address, by partnering for a first-of-its-kind course.
The graduate-level course, called “Tech, Media & Democracy,” is a collaboration between Cornell Tech, Columbia University, the City University of New York (CUNY), New York University (NYU), The New School and Pratt Institute, in partnership with the NYC Media Lab. Though the future of the course is up in the air and the course has faced many challenges in its launch, both the students and faculty members involved believe the course has been highly rewarding.
Technology, media, and democracy are rapidly changing as a result of the 2016 presidential elections and “fake news.” This was the inspiration behind the “Tech, Media & Democracy” course, and through their backgrounds, the faculty members involved had personal connections to these issues.
“The field of journalism has been in a state of transition in a number of different ways and has been subject to a wide range of controversy,” Jeremy Caplan, the director of education for the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism said. “It’s been subject to attacks from various quarters of the political realm, so I felt a sense of renewed urgency about the importance of defending the role of journalism in a democracy, in clarifying the role of journalism in democracy and in helping students understand the broader political and democratic context that we’re working in as entrepreneurial journalists and journalists the group at large. So, the timing for this felt really right to me in terms of thinking about taking a step back from the day-to-day work we do as journalists and thinking about the broader context in which we’re working and how various forces have the potential to impact the work we do.”
Caplan had known Mor Naaman, the leader and brains behind the “Tech, Media & Democracy” effort, for years. In the past, they had spoken about doing a collaboration between the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism and Cornell Tech, where Naaman teaches. Naaman reached out to other faculty across NYC to help get the project off the ground, and discussions began as early as March of 2017, according to Caplan. Also among the faculty involved is Justin Hendrix, who is the executive director of the NYC Media Lab and a faculty member at NYU.
“We were able to put together the skeleton of the idea then,” Hendrix said about Naaman’s faculty recruitment effort. “It took us some time to develop the idea into a set of public lectures, and ultimately into the course.”
In the spring of 2018, the class met weekly on Mondays, with classes generally running from 7 to 8:30 p.m., occasionally longer. The location of each class rotated between various campuses since six different universities are involved, according to Colum Murphy, a student pursuing an advanced certificate in entrepreneurial journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.
Each week, the class typically had a theme — for instance, privacy concerns amidst the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica fiasco. (In March of 2018, Cambridge Analytica, a political firm hired by President Trump’s 2016 election campaign, was discovered to have used private information on more than 50 million Facebook users.)
Each class would begin with a presentation from a speaker(s), who could be a core professor involved with the course and/or an invited speaker who isn’t affiliated with the course. Either way, all of the speakers are experts in their respective fields.
“It’s just the best minds and the experts,” Murphy said. “Not just one, not just two, but… whatever the number of professors.”
Following the speakers’ presentations, there would be a question and answer session in which students ask the speakers questions about the topic of the week.
The exception to the general class format was when the class met immediately before a hackathon, an event that took place at the NYU Tandon School of Engineering in which groups of students met to engage in projects related to computer programming. During those classes, some class time was devoted to brainstorming hackathon ideas and arranging the teams. There were two hackathons during the semester; the first occurred in the first half of the semester, while the second occurred in the second half of the semester.
In the first hackathon, Murphy worked with a team of students on a national newswire service for high school student journalists. The inspiration for this project came from the recent school shooting in Parkland, Florida, a tragedy that encouraged many students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School to speak out against gun violence.
“We wanted to elevate the student voices, give them a solid gateway to local and national media outlets and offer opportunities for them to cross-pollinate across the country on the issues they’re writing about,” said Jessica Brockington, a graduate student in the social journalism program at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism who led the team on the newswire.
Though these projects at the hackathons resulted in tangible things the students created, Douglas Rushkoff, a media studies professor at CUNY Queens College, placed more weight in the level of thought and conversation that takes place during regular class sessions.
“I wouldn’t want to judge their merits of the course or the experience people are having based on just output that they’ve had in the first six weeks,” Rushkoff said. “And what I’ve seen in this course that I think is one of the best things that my students have gotten so far out of this course is to see that, ‘Oh my god, people really don’t know what’s going on. Nobody’s thinking clearly, nobody is looking at this situation in an appropriate way, and it’s going to take us maybe a couple of months to solve a problem that’s been years in the making.’”
By all means, a brand new course doesn’t lack flaws. Caplan cited three specific challenges faculty members faced: logistical challenges to coordinating a class that involves the collaboration of numerous schools and nearly 100 students, the broad topic of “Tech, Media & Democracy” that in actuality covers a lot of ground, and getting students to collaborate across schools while balancing their own responsibilities at their particular campuses.
All of these issues have translated in different ways for students. Murphy recalled one particular week when the class was discussing the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica fiasco. The story broke on a Sunday, and the class met the very next night. Because of that, instructors did not provide much advance notice for the material they would be discussing in class that day. Murphy clarified this was only a “minor” criticism he had for the course, since “it reflects the fact that we’re getting almost real-time analysis and inputs based on what was happening around us,” he said.
The “real-time” nature of the course also brings into question the future of the course.
“This is a singular effort at five or six schools to address the immediate problem of how technology might be able to come to the rescue of journalism and as a society making fake news,” Rushkoff said. “So it’s a highly topical thing, but my guess is that it’s one-time only, that this is it.”
Hendrix, on the other hand, is more optimistic.
“Our hope is that the course will recur in future years and that we will be able to continue to refine the curriculum and produce ideas and prototypes that address the myriad problems at the intersection of our technology and media habits and how we create an informed electorate, drive out some of the worst aspects of the internet such as hate speech and propaganda, and protect privacy,” he said. “We’ve learned a lot in running the course just this once; I think we have an opportunity to continue to refine it and use New York City’s wealth of expertise and diversity to address these crucial problems.”
However, students and faculty agree that if the course does not continue, future collaboration and conversation between different universities would still be beneficial.
For students like Murphy, it’s the conversations in the classroom about the issues plaguing tech, media and democracy that have been invaluable. The different disciplines represented by the students from various universities have also helped him see these issues in a different light.
“Every school has its strengths, and by bringing these diverse groups of people together, you really get to network with people you wouldn’t otherwise meet,” said Murphy.
Murphy’s vision for a bright future for the course involves students engaging in discussions about these tech, media and democracy issues outside of the classroom, which hasn’t happened that often.
“That’s the challenge — how to make communication among students more fluid when they’re not in the classroom or at the hackathon,” he said. “You don’t see people at the water cooler [and] you don’t see them at the cafeteria because they’re all at different universities, so that’s something that is a challenge for these types of courses.”
For faculty members, even if the specific subject of tech, media and democracy is no longer the focus, they’d love to see the course be the beginning of a trend where multiple schools team up. After all, it’s this collaboration that made “Tech, Media & Democracy” a “first-of-its-kind” course.
“That’s really one of the most important and exciting things about this experiment,” said Caplan. “This notion that we are all teaching and learning in New York City, where we have this vibrant educational community that is very often siloed. These are really fantastic schools that are running are in parallel to one another, and in many cases students are not afforded the opportunity or don’t have the opportunity to cross-pollinate and to roam across boundaries in terms of connecting with students at other schools… even though we’re in the same city. [What’s] really exciting is this idea that we can start to erase some of the artificial boundaries that exist because people are enrolled in different universities or colleges and start to explore how students can collaborate and how they can kind of benefit from other areas of expertise.”
Correction: Jessica Brockington did not work alongside Colum Murphy on the newswire service for high school student journalists. Brockington led the team, while Murphy quit on March 19. The article has been updated to reflect this. The Excelsior regrets this error.