Wednesday, March 11, 2009

To Teach or Not to Teach?

Todays Lesson: Henry Ford and Buggy Makers

I cannot get a recent response from a reader of the always excellent Ohio Media Watch blog out of my mind. I have tried, trust me. But this comment simply will not leave me alone.

Responding to a recent post on OMW about declining jobs in broadcasting, an OMW reader named Ann posted this:

"Are there still people rushing to broadcasts (SIC) schools hoping for a career on-air? Is that like studying to become a buggy-maker in the 1920s?"

Ouch. I am one of the nameless horde that has left broadcasting (on a full time basis, at least) for the hallowed halls of academe. I admit this is a question I have struggled with since starting at U.A. in July of 2000, long before the current downtrend began.

Why teach students to go into a field that I left willingly? Why encourage them even though it wasn't until after I was out of broadcasting that I was able to discover the joys of being home on Christmas morning, or of relatively steady cost-of-living pay raises?

Given the recent steady stream of downbeat news about jobs in broadcasting, one might well argue that Ann is only too right. It may be that iPods and cell phones and Twitter posts are the popular entertainments of tomorrow. You may even hear folks arguing that TV will be relegated to a minimized status like the's still out there, but who really uses it anymore?

And if that is the case, of what value is anyone trained to be a broadcaster? Someone who can write, edit, shoot and produce? If anyone can pick up a camcorder and post video to their blog...then why even bother with paying someone to do that work? If major market news product will pop You Tube videos into their mix, why do they need any employees other than engineers and sales folks?

Oh're breaking my heart. Am I guilty as charged? Am I training buggy makers while demand for that skill is about to be crushed by Henry Ford's Tin Lizzie?

I recently read a post from Dr. A. Gordon Ray about this very issue: the failure of companies to innovate and thus risk becoming a relic of the past. Dr. Ray suggests that organizations use the "Three R's" to help avoid becoming obsolete: Review, Request, Restructure. (It should be noted that Dr. Ray is a motivational speaker, so of course there may a be a bit of self-interest in his web posts...but I would argue that his basic premise is sound.)

His basic idea is that your organization should review your mission, request info from your customer base about their needs, and then restructure based on this information. Seems simple.

In our case, the review part is under way. We are already working through a thorough evaluation of what we're teaching based on what the industry tells us they want. We are also conducting other evaluations to meet state mandates for solid data about our program. We have had many lengthy conversations about this very topic. We are reviewing our tails off, and I think our faculty is quite sincere about asking ourselves hard questions about what we're doing and what we ought to be doing.

Ah, but Ann....what am I to do when we have more students than ever coming to us telling us they want to work in broadcasting? Our enrollment growth at U.A. has been astonishing...particularly in our media program. We keep adding sections of required course to "eliminate the backlog" of students who need those classes, and then the need never goes away. Our "customers" want our product.

Do we simply deny them entry? Can we be sure that they will never succeed? Do we know for certain that the industry won't grow again when the economy recovers? The state may see these programs as redundant, serving to train students for jobs that may not exist in ten years, but the students don't see it that way. Who's right?

It seems that the restructuring will come...either intitated by us as innovation, or initiated by the economic woes that will push state funding to U.A. to the point where hard decisions have to be made about programs.

But still....what about what the students want? Lost in all this discussion about what the right thing to do is the simple fact that lots of students still want to work in radio, tv, and film. I dunno Ann...I just dunno. People may see it as building more buggies when the automobile is about to take over...but that's hindsight. We don't know that these buggies are useless just yet. There may still be some life left in them.

Dr. Phil Hoffman is General Manager of The University of Akron’s Z-TV. He is really trying to review, request and restructure.

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