When the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas launched last October the first Massive Open Online Course (or MOOC) in journalism, “Introduction to Infographics and Data Visualization” with Instructor Alberto Cairo, it was also the first time the Knight Center invited people from every occupation and from all over the world to participate in its Distance Learning offerings.
The Knight Center is a pioneer in online journalism training, but its courses have almost always been organized in small classes and restricted to journalists from Latin America and the Caribbean. Last year, the Knight Center decided to go beyond its original scope and participate in the MOOC phenomenon. This was the first time a journalism workshop was offered massively and, as opposed to other massive courses that just record videos of college-level classes, the Knight Center’s MOOC has put a strong emphasis on student-student interactions and providing general feedback.
The experiment was a success. More than 2,000 students from 109 countries participated in the first MOOC, and 5,000 more, from 133 countries, are now taking the second edition of the same course that started this weekend, on Jan. 12.
The Knight Center recently interviewed some of its first MOOC’s alumni to hear about their experiences with the course and how they’ve used their new skills in their professions. Student reviews seem to both validate the Knight Center’s unique approach to MOOCs and point to a growing interest in infographics that is quickly expanding around the world and beyond the field of journalism.
“The best thing about the MOOC is that it’s not limited to a specialization,” said participant Saakshita Prabhakar, a visual designer in India. “You have engineers, you have statisticians, you have journalists who are giving you (comments) about your work (…) That’s what really helps you grow and realize what you’re lacking and what is the actions you should be taking.”
Participant Saakshita Prabhakar, a visual designer in India.
Participant Hernán Restrepo, Internet content director for RCN in Colombia.
Participant Natalka Zubar, chairman of transparency non-profit Maidan in Ukraine.
Participant Jerry Vermanen, a data journalist in the Netherlands’ news site NU.nl.
Participant James Breiner, director of the Global Business Journalism program in China.
Cairo said participants also included health care professionals, scientists, business administrators, market analysts, people working with non-profits and employees of the U.S. census bureau, among other occupations. Many students used their final projects in their jobs.
“What surprised me the most was the variety and the creativity of the projects. In that sense it was very enriching,” he said.
Hernán Restrepo, Internet content director for Colombia’s biggest broadcast company RCN, said he enrolled in the course because of the growing popularity of infographics among his audience and wanted to learn more about how to do them professionally.
“As an editor I feel that I have more ideas to share with my team, especially with designers,” he said. “After the course we started doing three infographics at the same time because I had so many ideas that occurred to me while doing the projects that Professor Alberto Cairo sent us in the course.”
Restrepo published some of the infographics he produced during the course in RCN’s website, including a chart showing the correlations between the monetary value of soccer players and the performances of their teams.
Natalka Zubar, chairman of Maidan, a transparency and accountability non-profit in Ukraine, said the skills she learned during the course have helped her organize large sets of government data and present them in easy-to-understand formats.
“My infographics had a very big impact actually because I was able to present the data,” she said. “They had influence with members of the central election committee. […]They were able to see irregularities in the data thanks to those visualizations.”
Zubar said she is working on a new data visualization project on parliamentary activities. Five other members of her organization have enrolled for the second edition of “Introduction to Infographics and Data Visualization.”
Others, like Dutch journalist Jerry Vermanen, did their final projects on hobbies. Vermanen recently put his infographics in a website, whowonoscars.com, which show which characteristics often define an Oscar winner for best picture, including the type of film genre, the time duration of the movie and its release date.
For Cairo, the interest across fields in infographics responds to a growing understanding of their power to tell stories and people’s desire to know how to operate the tools to create them.
“We’ve known for a long time that there are certain types of stories and contents that you communicate better with graphics and diagrams than with text,” Cairo said. “What’s taking place now is the democratization of the technology that allows you to create these types of graphics, and you can obtain the technical knowledge (to use them) with ease. But the conceptual knowledge on which graphics adapt better to each thing and on how to construct narratives with numbers isn’t. And that’s what the course offers.”
The second edition of Cairo’s six-week course in English started on Jan. 12 and will conclude on Feb. 23. The Knight Center more than doubled its student capacity for this second course, which registered more than 5,000 students.
Just like the first edition of the course, Cairo’s second class will focus on how to work with graphics to communicate and analyze data. With the readings, video lectures and tutorials available, participants will acquire enough skills to start producing compelling, simple infographics almost immediately.
Cairo is a renowned expert in the field of infographics. He is currently a professor at the University of Miami’s School of Communication and has taught several regular online courses at the Knight Center’s distance learning platform. Chapters of Cairo’s new book, The Functional Art are used in the course. He also uses his Twitter account @AlbertoCairo and the hashtag #iidviz to complement class discussions. Hundreds of students have also created a closed group on Facebook called “Introduction to Infographics and Data Visualization,” like the MOOC.
The Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas was created in 2002 by Professor Rosental Alves at the University of Texas at Austin School of Journalism thanks to a generous donation from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, which has been supporting it continually. The Center also receives major contributions from the Open Society Foundations and The University of Texas at Austin. The Center’s main goal has been to help journalists in Latin American and the Caribbean to improve the quality of journalism in their countries.