Forward think | on education for the future

Follow my work at Discourse Media

DIS_Logo_300dpi-CMYKFor the past 18 months, I (along with a small but determined group of journalists) have been working away to establish a new sort of newsroom. The fruit of our efforts is Discourse Media, an independent production company that produces in-depth journalism about complex challenges facing society.

So far so good! Our data journalism project Moving Forward, about transportation in Metro Vancouver, was finalist for the international Best Data Journalism Website of the Year given by the Global Editors Network. Discourse Media co-founder Christine McLaren and I were named Ashoka Canada’s first-ever solutions journalism fellows, to further our research into how collaboration can support public interest journalism. I was also honoured this summer to receive the Canadian Journalists for Free Expression’s Bob Carty fellowship to support our team’s work building connections between journalists and underrepresented communities. Our pilot project is a collaboration with Maclean’s associate editor Nancy Macdonald investigating how indigenous Canadians are impacted by systemic racism in the justice system.

With all of this work on the go, I’m no longer regularly updating this website. Follow along on my new adventure at where we’ll be announcing many new exciting developments over the next weeks and months.

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Why I need your help to fund independent data journalism about transportation in Metro Vancouver

One year ago, I joined forces with some journalist colleagues who, despite reporting in different subject areas than I, all shared a similar problem.

Having reported on education for over a decade I believed that we were in desperate need of a deeper understanding about how to better educate young people to succeed in today’s world and tackle the daunting challenges facing us. And yet, too often my reporting was forced into typical news narratives focused on conflict (ie. parents are angry about some change to curriculum) or politics (ie. the teachers’ union is squaring off with the province). What I wanted to produce was forward-looking, serious journalism that applied a critical eye to possible solutions to the wicked problems facing educators. But this sort of journalism takes a lot of time and resources and doesn’t fit neatly into the editorial mandate of many publications.

My colleagues, in particular urban development reporter Christine McLaren, were struggling with similar challenges. We needed a new way to produce ambitious, forward-looking projects. So we launched Discourse Media to experiment with new ways to do journalism about the complex  challenges of our time, and to innovate new ways to fund journalism. (Check out Deeper Than Knowledge to see my first major solutions journalism project on education.)

So this is why we’re asking you to support a project we’re set to launch on March 11. We developed Moving Forward, an independent data journalism project about transportation in Metro Vancouver, because we believe there is a desperate need for journalism that digs beyond the politics and opinions surrounding the upcoming transportation referendum into the messy, complex data that describes how our transportation system functions and how it might change in the future.

Next month, citizens of Metro Vancouver will be asked to make a decision that will radically shift the future of the region. The outcome of the referendum on funding improved transportation infrastructure and maintenance will impact the economy and urban development for decades, changing how we work and move through the region.

But what does that really mean? How will this, in the most concrete way, affect our lives?

We’re told many different things by the yes and no campaigns, but actually understanding how the outcome of the vote will change our region is a daunting and complex feat. And, so far, news media haven’t provided much insight beyond reporting on the competing claims of those with a vested interest in the outcome. Despite some laudable efforts to break down the issue for readers in an evidence-based way, the coverage is dominated by opinions and reporting on the politics of TransLink’s leadership.

For example, let’s take a look at the coverage on one day, February 19. Here are some headlines: “Only BC Transportation Minister Todd Stone can fire TransLink’s appointed board” (Surrey North Delta Leader). “Yes or no, TransLink needs fixing” (Tri-Cities Now). “City to spend $20,000 to sell Yes campaign” (Royal City Record). “High school student urges voters to say YES in transit plebiscite” (CKNW 980 Online). “Mayor Derek Corrigan says he will likely vote no” (CBC Radio One). The Vancouver Sun, the closest thing we have to a regional newspaper of record, published an editorial by Stephen Hume titled “Facts don’t support anti-Translink ranters.” The headline almost makes it sound like the piece might get beyond opinions by analyzing evidence, but it only deals with the compensation of Translink’s executive.

This sort of reporting is important; we need journalists to hold highly paid bureaucrats to account and to report on the opinions of Burnaby’s mayor or CKNW’s high school student. But none of this offers a deeper understanding about what transportation in the region looks like or what we stand to gain or lose by the outcome of the referendum. We believe journalists have a responsibility to inform our readers about the complexities of the system and issues, and so far we’re falling short. There are so many claims made by those on the yes and no side, and we need clear-eyed, evidence-based investigations of those.

(I should note that this problem also lies with TransLink itself, which, as a public body, is not as forthcoming with data as it ought to be.)

So for the past few months we’ve been working hard to obtain data about the system and collaborating with smart data scientists who understand complex statistics and modeling in order to produce content that make the complex system understandable to normal people. We will launch the project, which we’ve dubbed Moving Forward, on March 10 on a dedicated website and in partnership with media outlets.

We’re inspired by the great data journalism being done by projects like FiveThirtyEight and the Guardian’s DataBlog. The first phase Moving Forward will dive into questions including: Where does the revenue to fund transportation come from? What trends are impacting those sources of revenue, and why do we need a new source of revenue? How do people move through the region? What research exists about how that might change with the proposed investments? How much does it actually cost to travel from point A to B by different modes, and who pays? We’re producing animated videos, written articles, infographics and interactives in an effort to make the available data meaningful to regular people.

This is why we’re asking for your support to make Moving Forward happen. In order to stay true to our editorial vision, the project need to be independent. We think people in the region want this sort of evidence-based reporting, and we want to show our colleagues in media that our audience will support independent, clear-eyed data journalism.

Please visit our Indiegogo campaign to contribute.

Fixing a critical eye on Canada’s universities

For the past five years, I’ve worked with the Globe and Mail on the Canadian University Report. With this an annual publication, we aim to go beyond typical university rankings to provide a more nuanced picture of how Canadian universities are equipping undergraduate students to succeed in today’s world.

Clair Parker works as a waitress at a local restaurant in Ottawa. She is a graduate of the political science program at Carleton University in Ottawa. (Dave Chan for The Globe and Mail)

Clair Parker works as a waitress at a local restaurant in Ottawa. She is a graduate of the political science program at Carleton University in Ottawa.
(Dave Chan for The Globe and Mail)

In the 2014 report, I looked at the gap between students’ expectations after graduation and the realities of the labour market in The Expectation Gap: Students’ and universities’ roles in preparing for life after grad.

I found that “too many young people flounder around the margins of their chosen field, bouncing from unpaid internship to short term contract to coffee shop job. Youth unemployment continues to hover stubbornly around 13 per cent, only 2 per cent lower than its peak during the recession and double the national average. And the unemployment rate doesn’t tell the whole story. According to a recent report published by the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC), the rate of those underemployed − people stuck in part-time or low income jobs, unable to secure full-time work related to their field − is double the unemployment rate.” I investigated what Canadian universities were doing to address this challenge.

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An experiment in branded content

A screenshot of the innovative website for The Spirit of Discovery, a branded content product created with Cossette Vancouver and the University of British Columbia's Sauder School of Business

Media organizations are increasingly looking to branded content — material that blurs the line between advertising and traditional editorial — for new sources of revenue. At the same time, the internet has created new possibilities for digital storytelling and audience engagement.

So when I was approached by the communication and marketing firm Cossette Vancouver about developing branded content for the University of British Columbia’s Sauder School of Business, I saw an opportunity to explore both this branded content trend and new interactive multimedia storytelling formats. [Read More...]

What’s stopping us from transforming schools?

New technology is common, new thinking is rare. – Sir Peter Blake

poster_frame_stories_20100409In 2006 grade seven teacher Mitch Breton was only six months into a new gig at the Canadian International School of Hong Kong (CISHK) when principal Dave McMaster announced an ambitious initiative. McMaster wanted CISHK to be a little more like the real world; students would be given tablets and laptops, be permitted to bring their own devices to school, and have access to wifi everywhere. Teachers were encouraged to integrate technology into their classwork at their own pace, with the help of dedicated coaches.

Breton had moved to Hong Kong with his wife in part for the adventure, but in part because he was frustrated with teaching in the Ontario school system. He felt like too many schools in Ontario were stuck in the past, unable to evolve or improve despite his and his colleagues’ best intentions.

So, when McMaster announced the 5-year plan to modernize CISHK’s approach (which would also include more project-based and community-connected learning), Breton was enthusiastic, but also apprehensive. “I wasn’t sure how I was going to do things,” he told me. “I didn’t know how to control kids with unlimited wifi. I didn’t know how to make the best use of these thousand-dollar machines.” Many of his colleagues shared his apprehension.
[Read More...]