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Knight Center tests the use of Second Life in journalism training


The Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas' innovative distance learning program already allows journalists to learn new reporting techniques from afar, but in its most recent course for the first time students interacted with each other and the instructor “face-to-face” through the virtual world platform Second Life.

In the recently finished class “Mathematics for Journalists,” the Knight Center collaborated with the Virtual Journalism Learning Center, an initiative headed by Amy Schmitz Weiss, Ph.D., assistant professor of journalism at San Diego State University. The center is a virtual building within the 3D digital world of Second Life, where journalists, represented by avatars, interact with other students and their instructor.

Virtual Journalism Learning Center
Dr. Amy Schmitz Weiss' avatar in Second Life
at the entrance to the virtual training center

The goal of the experiment was to study the effectiveness of Second Life as a platform for teaching journalists to apply math techniques to reporting in a simulated crisis scenario. The Knight Center and Schmitz Weiss have been interested how simulations in a virtual world can help journalists learn specific techniques and skills.

In the course, participants were given a set of hypothetical crises to review—like covering a natural disaster or a disease outbreak—and then put together a story that used the concepts they learned in the weeks prior. Some of the students participated in the crisis module through Second Life, where they experienced the crisis scenarios first-hand in simulated areas.

“The virtual environment provides a real but safe location for simulated cases or situations that allow the journalists to act and react without anything at stake,” Schmitz Weiss explained, in a recent presentation.

Student Agustín Ortiz, a journalist from Guatemala’s Diario de Centro América, found the crisis coverage module particularly interesting. “At a time when Guatemala has been hit by a series of natural disasters due to an unusually harsh winter, applying the knowledge from the course has been useful to me,” he said. To Ortiz, the course promoted the use of mathematic tools beyond just calculating the amount of damages, “but to also gauge the human face behind crises.”

The Virtual Journalism Learning Center is two years old and forms part of an ongoing research project on the effectiveness of virtual world platforms for journalism education that is being conducted by Schmitz Weiss and Yueh-hui Chiang, a doctoral candidate at The University of Texas at Austin. Over the last two years, Schmitz Weiss has been leading two-hour training modules with Latin American and Caribbean journalists in the Second Life virtual center, with the cooperation of the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas.

“This is a unique approach to journalism education, and I look forward to having the Virtual Journalism Learning Center doing more of these trainings in collaboration with the Knight Center in the future. Exploring these forms of learning and education in journalism demonstrate a different way of thinking about educating professional journalists and journalism students in the 21st century. We need to understand these new digital realms and experiment with them for the potential experiential learning opportunities they can offer,” Schmitz Weiss said.

Both Schmitz Weiss (a University of Texas at Austin graduate) and doctoral candidate Yueh-hui Chiang are veteran Knight Center contributors. To learn more about the Virtual Journalism Learning Center or the research project, please see Schmitz Weiss’ related publications or contact her at aschmitz at mail.sdsu.edu.

The Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas at the University of Texas at Austin was launched in 2002 by professor Rosental Calmon Alves. Thanks to generous grants from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the center has assisted thousands of journalists in Latin America and the Caribbean. For more information, contact the Knight Center’s program manager, Jennifer Potter-Miller at jpottermiller at mail.utexas.edu or +1 512 471-1391.




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