A Tale of Technology & Two Organizations: CNN vs Education

I would not suggest that higher education institutions need to operate like CNN, but I find it fascinating to read Elliot Masie’s observations of how CNN dealt with the flow of content and information in the wake of Hurrican Katrina. In CNN Newsroom in the Midst of Katrina – “Rapid Development… Content Objects… Learning Implications”:

There were some incredible learnings and observations as I quietly watched the news gathering and assembly process and interviewed the Learning team at CNN. Many of these items relate directly to how organizations will be assembling content in the near future.

The question is, will educational institutions be one of these organizations? Below I have take some of Maise’s descriptions of CNN and put them besides a gross and likely over generalized observation of higher education. Yes, there are numerous exceptions and counter examples to every one of my points, but as a whole, when you read how CNN operates and put it besides how your higher education institution operates, the contrast should be rather vivid.

CNN: Content From Multiple and Unconventional Sources: The nature of content in journalism is changing dramatically as media flows from non-traditional sources. CNN calls an aspect of this “Citizen Journalism” as they receive pictures and video feeds from digital cameras and even mobile phones.

Education: Content comes nearly solely from instructors and “trusted” resources like publishers and “refereed” journals. And content from students would be suspect or written off as “cute” but not useful. Is there an equivalent of Citizen Teaching? If so it is the inspired individual’s effort of placing a tutorial or resource on the net.

CNN: Content To Multiple Formats: As content was created in the CNN newsroom, it flowed to multiple formats. Content started as video feeds, became streamed video, text on the website and even a mention for a scroll at the bottom of the screen. Each piece of content was “tagged” as it came into the newsroom, timecoded, meta-tags were added with context and it could be viewed by CNN staff around the world in low-res format. The concept was to see each media object as being highly reusable and redeployable.

Education: Content primarily text, email, PDFs to print, hand coded/Dreamweaver-ed HTML, and.. PowerPoint. Media objects are un-reusable, un-findable, and in-redeployable and would never be available in this kind of time frame.

CNN: Digital News Gathering: The footprint and format for news production is changing radically as the size and mobility of equipment evolves radically. I watched newsfeeds coming from CNN reporters using satellite phones (after the cell network dropped). They were even feeding content that was edited on laptops in the field using Final Cut Pro.

Education: Not much to compare except we do not think of educational content being created “in the field” or with portable devices… while some are moving towards laptops in place of desktop computers, they are used primarily in the same vein (a laptop on the desk). We still print a lot of material or offload this printing to students– we do not “think”/”operate” primarily in digital, and much of what we do digital is the digital equivalent of print.

CNN: Content Repository: CNN operates a content and media repository that is quite impressive. The content objects are viewable, editable and sharable. Key levels of data is kept for how each object is being used and deployed. Digital Rights Management is tracked, to honor the appropriate use of each media object. I was struck by how easily every CNN staff person could access and work with this content repository.

Education: This is still a dream, despite years of wrangling over “Learning Objects” and the construction of numerous “repositories” few if any that have the features described above AND as much content. Data on the use of objects is absent and DRM is spotty.

CNN: Rapid Development: While CNN clearly has a breaking news model, it was fascinating to watch this process in action, including use of templates, collaborative and team-based editing and content refinement, focus on content ethics, standards and legal/compliance issues. I witnessed a team of professionals, drawn from a wide set of backgrounds, deeply focused on producing content that had value for viewers and the hurricane’s victims.

Education: The development cycle is measured in months, perhaps as summer projects or long term grants, and is pretty much an individual cottage industry. Editing and development are solo projects.

So, how does Big U stand up to CNN?

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Profile Picture for Alan Levine aka CogDog
An early 90s builder of the web and blogging Alan Levine barks at CogDogBlog.com on web storytelling (#ds106 #4life), photography, bending WordPress, and serendipity in the infinite internet river. He thinks it's weird to write about himself in the third person.


  1. Alan, this is a really good piece, and people like Elliot are invaluable for higher ed, as they bring in perspectives from outside the academy on how some of these issues are dealt with in other industries. The sad reality is, we are not really keeping up, but then some allowances do need to be made for the fact that many higher ed organizations don’t have a chance to operate with budgets or business models similar to what you see in big media. Clearly, that in itself isn’t a good enough excuse, as we are seeing more and more examples of small, unfunded or not well funded groups doing profoundly good things outside the academy too. But it has to be part of an explanation.

    We saw this last year in an edutools project where we were looking at LOR technologies. One of the groups had to deal with large amounts of video content and did have good experience as a video production outfit, so they pushed us to look at a set of technologies roughly categorized as ‘digital asset management’ software. It was an extremely revealing investigation – in many ways one could cover the entire use case of learning objects/repositories with this software, but you could also do much much more. The packages are incredibly mature and full featured. But (and here’s the rub) the price tags are astronomical, and the workflows and business logic they support aren’t like higher eds, in part because they have been rationalized to reduce costs and streamline workflows. How would you like to stand up in front of your faculty and explain that they are going to have to change the way they work because of costs and efficiencies? Hence time and time again we invent our own way of doing things to support our ways of working.

    I’m not smart enough to tell you if these ways of working need changing; apparently lots of people within the academy feel not, that education (and higher education) is something extremely distinct and that the processes that have evolved throughout the last few hundred years shouldn’t be disrupted by technology or anything else for that matter. Yeah, and you should just be able to keep selling expensive CDs full of filler music to support your one ‘hit’ until the end of time too! Trust me, the pile of sand is big enough for many heads to be buried under, and maybe it won’t be until the lion is gnawing on their butts that their heads will emerge.

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  3. Scott,

    I realized at the time of writing this was an unfair comparison… CNN is well funded and can more directly “mandate” a way of working, and I was comparing all educational institutions to one media organization. CNN is much mroe focused on a “product”.

    Still just the sheer effect of reading Maise’s points rung clear like a bell of how far down a different track education rolls. Maybe it does not matter, and maybe there is a lot of innovation that can brew from the free wheeling enterprises within education (can we think that private business would ahve come up with something like Mosaic?).

    It just makes for some interesting thinking, and while education is still a unique environment, in the networked fast paced world of the present, it cannot be just a thing unto itself.

    Hmmm, maybe I can become a One Trick Pony?

  4. How you gather information doesn’t mean a lot when your final product is just the latest gossip on Michael Jackson, Natalee Holloway, or Laci Peterson. Using CNN, MSNBC, or Fox News as an example for anything related to journalsim is a scary thought. The old school reporters on 60 Minutes are still doing it better than any of the fast paced 24-hour news networks.

  5. Randy,

    You miss the point widely, and sadly as now you lump Katrina in with Michael, Natalee, and Laci. The original article by Maise had nothing to do with arguing over what is “journalism”

  6. Definitely a provocative post.

    I’m a member of my campus Institutional Repository working group, which oversees a fledgling D-Space project. Comparing that to CNN is like comparing Champaign-Urbana to New York City, a completely different scale of operation. So, apart from our comparative poverty within Higher Ed, as Scott Leslie points out, we are probably way too disaggregated to be efficient at information ingest. Why most research universitites have their own IR project rather than participate in some more aggregated repository project is beyond me.

    On the other hand, I do think CNN and other News organizations have it much easier on the filtering of content question. The IR project is charged with collecting the scholarly output from the campus community. How one determines whether some artifact is suitable for collecting or not is a fairly difficult issue and our kludge solution is to make the faculty brokers – they can submit their own content without it being scrutinized elsewhere and they can vouch for content by peers, students, or the man in the street. But I really can’t imagine that content produced by “average citizens” will find its way into the repository this way. They wouldn’t know where to begin.

    For determining what is newsworthy, however, an editor or a small editorial staff can make those calls effectively. So individuals can be empowered to act like reporters and the filtering process is sufficiently efficient that it is not inundated with complete junk. Furhermore, news happens somewhere so there is an obvious efficiency in empowering locals to report it. The entire News organization can then market this idea so individuals do know where to turn when they find themselves in a position to report something.

    Is this in itself hurting higher ed? At present it seems to me only very informed insiders worry about this stuff.

  7. The point likely not made clearly enough in my original post is NOT to stack CNN and Education side by side, but to ask, “What can educators learn from CNN in terms of how it manages and uses digital content?”

    I question the assumption that citizens are unable to provide quality content. Does not WikiPedia, WikiTravel, Wiki_____ counter that? I cannot tell you how many times I have found crucial helpful information, how tos, resources in my area (instructional technology), NOT from the “approved” sources of information (publishers, software vendors) but from free web sites created by individuals motivated by their own good nature to share their corner of expertise.

    I wouls say everyone has some piece of expertise worth sharing, but then again, I believe in the tooth fairy ;-)

  8. This is a great point to make. Too long have we been trying to make the technology fit our traditional view of education. The wikipedia is a perfect example of how ‘open source’ information can sometimes be better than the so-called ‘authority’. Although I am still deeply suspicious of the spin that news organisations put on what they broadcast (especially those promoting the Bush propaganda), the point about changing the paradigm is what’s important.

    I’m reminded that (apparently) it took thirty years to realise that movie cameras could be used for more than just filming stage productions, and that they could taken outside and used in a completely different context. It has taken ten years to get used to the Internet becoming a ubiquitous tool (in the developed world, anyway). The impact of video phones will change that even further, in ways that we can’t imagine at the moment.

    Tooth fairy or not Alan, I’ve sent a link to this blog around to all the members of our Flexible Learning team. It’s drawing a long bow to suggest that we’ll get our educational beaurocracy to buy into the idea that students can educate themselves, we do have to become more creative about the ways in which we allow them to participate more in the process of learning.

  9. Alan, on Wikipedia specifically, it might be useful to compare it to the Open Directory project, http://www.dmoz.org/, since to a certain extent Open Directory has similar goals to Wikipedia but uses different (older) technology and relies on a different organizational approach, with editors who act as screens. I don’t know if wikipedia has surpassed open directory, not sure how one would measure that (and a directory is different from an encylopedia so not sure it is even a sensible question). But in casual conversation these days I never hear about open directory while wikipedia comes up fairly often.

    Yet those community centric efforts probably are a drop in the bucket of the scholarly actiity at colleges and universities. Most of what my campus and similar campuses do in terms of managing and utilizing digital content is done on behalf of the creators (the faculty in the main) and a narrower community with whom the faculty are in direct communication. The essence of this is peer review and the Darwinian process that drives it is publish or perish.

    That you find good and useful information for instructional technology on individual Web sites that have not been reviewed doesn’t in itself mean the traditional publishing process should be modified or ended. It just means it should not have a monopoly on the use and management of information. It never did.

    That more effort should be put on creating and managing information that can benefit the broader community is probably right. But for all the talk about greater accountability to the public, it is faculty who rule the realm so I think the right question is how to make that broad mission in their interest. Then we might be ready to learn from CNN.

  10. I’m from the secondary sector of education and I like your comparison. I have been doing some thinking about various stages that an organisation could be in the electronic publishing spectrum. Some of that is here http://waraku.blogspot.com/2005/09/electronic-publishing-paradign-shift.html

    CNN was already publsihing in the electronic sphere – they are ‘changing hands’. I do not think it was such a big shift for them. Education on the other hand has a looooong history with paper.

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