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Journalism for Social Change

An analysis of the first Massive Open Online Course dedicated to the practice of solution-based journalism.


In March 2015, Journalism for Social Change transitioned from an on-the-ground class – teaching graduate students how to use solution-based journalism to positively impact the United States child welfare system – into a MOOC, or Massive Open Online Course.

Results after two offerings of the class suggest that the Journalism for Social Change (J4SC) MOOC was successful in delivering journalism instruction; informing a disparate range of students about U.S. domestic policy focused on vulnerable children; and in leading students to produce high-quality, solution-focused journalism.

They also point to barriers inherent in education delivered in a Massive Open Online Format; shortcomings in the design of learning elements; and issues in retaining engagement over the seven weeks that each online class was offered.  

But, before launching into a discussion of the outcomes, it is important to discuss J4SC’s history as a brick-and-mortar class, and how its learning goals were translated for the eventual MOOC.


In the spring of 2012, Fostering Media Connections, a journalism non-profit based in San Francisco, launched a class called Journalism for Social Change [1] at the University of California, Berkeley.

The course, which is currently offered at the Goldman School of Public Policy, attracted graduate students from Goldman, the School of Journalism and the School of Social Welfare. Students were trained on what solution-based journalism is, how it can be applied to the field of child welfare, and were then tasked with producing solution-based news stories in the medium of their choice for publication in an online news site published by Fostering Media Connections called The Chronicle of Social Change.

Every week students heard lectures by top experts in journalism, public policy and child welfare research. The course was immediately followed by a paid summer fellowship for top students from the respective schools – who spent 10 weeks covering the foster care system on state and federal levels.

In spring 2013, Journalism for Social Change came back with a broader and more ambitious focus. The course and subsequent fellowship examined child maltreatment as a public health issue and examined ways journalism can be used to hold those charged with protecting children accountable.

In addition to new subject matter, the program expanded to the University of Southern California’s Sol Price School of Public Policy with graduate students who hailed from Price, the Annenberg School for Journalism and the School of Social Work.

In fall 2013, a variant of the program was taught to undergraduates in San Francisco State University’s Department of Journalism.

By 2014, J4SC had trained nearly 150 students in the classroom, and its parent organization, Fostering Media Connections, had hosted more than a dozen summer fellows.

Those students and fellows produced hundreds of stories that appeared in The Chronicle of Social Change to then be followed by top-tier media outlets. This sustained coverage has repeatedly influenced public policy.

Student coverage that appeared in The Chronicle of Social Change sparked follow-up stories and segments in The National Journal, The Associated Press Roll Call, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Contra Costa Times, San Jose Mercury News, KPIX TV, KGO Radio News, KFBK Radio, The Sacramento Press, EdSource and Witness LA among others.

In California, student coverage has been instrumental in preserving educational provisions for foster youth in the state budget, and strengthening services available to transition-aged youth as California rolled out extension of care to age 21. On the federal level, J4SC fellows detailed the unintended barriers to the educational achievement of foster youth created by the Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), which coincided with the introduction of legislation to amend the law. In 2013, President Barrack Obama signed that legislation into law.

And most recently, student coverage on the application of predictive risk modeling in assessment of the risk of child abuse has garnered follow up coverage in far-flung publications including Forbes.com and Bloomberg News among others. This coverage has helped drive a high-level policy conversation about the use of “Big Data” in child abuse prevention.

In the winter of 2015, the designers of J4SC would go on to launch an online variant of the course. It was quite possibly the first MOOC dedicated to solution-based journalism in existence.


In June 2013, U.C. Berkeley’s provost sent out a request for proposals for a new project, initially bankrolled by the school and Google, called MOOCLab.

Berkeley had signed a contract with a consortium of elite universities partnering to provide courses on the edX [2] online learning platform, and was intent on attracting a handful of classes to compete for grants to build online variants of brick-and-mortar offered by MOOCLab. Journalism for Social Change class was one of three to be awarded a grant to become a MOOC.

In January 2014, the J4SC team began working alongside the Berkeley Resource Center for Online Education (BRCOE) and the California Social Work Education Center (CalSWEC) [3] to build learning modules and map out a plan to evaluate student engagement in the course.

The learning goals of the course spanned comprehension of what solution-based journalism is to instruction on how to report a news story and finally mastery of the major themes in child welfare.


MOOCs, or “Massive Open Online Courses,” became popular and available en masse circa 2012, with a strong initial focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) courses. This was not coincidental; any course with thousands of students enrolled cannot be heavy in instructor-student interaction.[4] In fact, much of the initial attention among the inner circle of those teaching or providing MOOCs was on automating teaching and learning [5] in STEM courses. As a greater array of subjects began to appear as MOOC offerings, questions surrounding how to teach non-STEM courses began to seed discussions about effective teaching methods for humanities courses at scale. [6]

Enter J4SC, a course seeking to inspire civic engagement in its students and based on an interdisciplinary humanities foundation. While some best practices for teaching things such as writing methods had emerged, there had not yet been a MOOC asking students to apply journalism skills to highlight and impel policy solutions to endemic problems facing American children. Additionally, no other MOOC had offered the opportunity and incentive to students of having their final project, which in the case of J4SC was a solution-based article, published.

These factors make the J4SC MOOC a very interesting case because they both address student motivation and the notion of service learning, grounding the often-lofty study of humanities in an applied, pragmatic and progressive experience. For the burgeoning field of MOOC research, the question of motivation and J4SC’s design was most important. Student retention and engagement are the two most frequently cited problems in any course. So the question of whether, or to what extent, the course structure acted to intrinsically or extrinsically motivate students to persist through the final project demanded further study.

Converting the J4SC face-to-face course into an online course open to the masses was guided by several factors: funding constraints, purpose to serve potentially thousands of students and technical limitations of required platforms.  

The course conversion process was underwritten by a grant, which pre-assigned funds for course development. As video production is costly, and the instructional content of MOOCs is weighted heavily in favor of audio-visual media, there was little funding remaining for other non-text instructional media (e.g., interactive infographics or simulations).

Second, the course was offered via the edX consortium,[7] who have developed their own proprietary Learning Management System of the same name. The structure of the edX LMS in part determined the structure of the online J4SC course. The LMS is built so that concepts are explored laterally, with different types of content (e.g., videos, quizzes, discussions, assignments) all added in click-through frames to each specific topic. The LMS also impacted the way students could, or could not, be assessed or interact as peers. The instructor thus went through a development process of adjusting his materials to the communication medium. 

Finally, research on student persistence in MOOCs has shown that the shorter the course duration, the more likely that students will complete it. [8] Like advice from course developers resulted in a compression of the total amount of content in and duration of the course. It also reduced the amount of instructor interaction, both automated and manual. The course was organized into seven units, corresponding to seven weeks, with each week beginning with lecturettes, readings, assignments, quizzes, or guest speaker videos. Because MOOCs can have thousands of students enrolled, the instructor also had to choose teaching methods heavily leveraging peer-to-peer interaction and methods that reduced didactic feedback (e.g., grading written assignments or offering personalized critiques).

Given a different platform and a narrower intended audience, other types of rich instructional media and online teaching pedagogies could bolster the content.


J4SC was first offered as a small, private online course (SPOC) on the edX Edge platform. This more-intimate setting allowed the instructor to test student reactions to the course design and work out kinks with the technology. The MOOC began just after the SPOC had closed. Multiple methods were employed to measure the impact of the course on students in both iterations of the course.

Pre- and post-course surveys: For the SPOC, 77 students completed the pre-course survey and 12 completed the post-course survey. Both pre- and post-course surveys contained several attitudinal items that measured respondents’ self-efficacy, personal motivation and comfort with online learning (see Figure 1). With such a small sample size, it was not possible to check for significant demographic differences between those who completed and did not complete the post-course survey. 

In the MOOC, however, numbers were larger; 1,244 students completed the pre-course survey and 72 completed the post-course survey. Those who completed the post-course survey had significantly higher ratings of self-motivation and personal responsibility at the start of the course (see Figure 2).

Qualitative coding: The course assistant assessed all assigned discussion posts for quality on a three-point scale. This scale matched the rubric students were given for self-evaluations (see Figure 3).

Student reflections: The final assignment in the course was to post to the discussion board with reflections on J4SC. The course assistant read each of these, looking for common themes in the most substantive posts.

Limitations: Additional usage data for respondents was not easily available from edX. In the future, it would be useful to have these measures (e.g., course completion or time spent on online materials) to develop measures of engagement.


SPOC survey results

Students in the small private online course (SPOC) were recruited through Listservs, Twitter and Facebook, focusing largely on audiences connected to social work. It is thus not surprising that two-thirds began the course with a background in child welfare. Nearly equal shares of respondents rated themselves beginners (35%), intermediate (35%) and expert (30%) in the field of child welfare at the start of the course. Smaller shares reported backgrounds in public policy (40%) and journalism (35%); more than half assessed themselves beginners in these fields. These self-perceptions did not change in the post-course survey.

Three-quarters had at least a bachelor’s degree, and the majority was relatively early in their careers (ages 23 to 35). Of those beginning with a bachelor’s degree, one-quarter also had a master’s or doctorate. Eighty-six percent were women. “Personal enrichment” was the main motivation for 74% of the respondents, followed by a desire to “improve their occupational skill” (39%).

MOOC survey results

Students for the MOOC were recruited much more broadly, including the SPOC channels but also via public listing on edX.org. It is not surprising, then, that they had less previous experience with the topics. Prior to the course, more than 50% of students rated their expertise as novice or beginner in child welfare, public policy and journalism. 

MOOC participants had more formal education. A majority had an undergraduate degree, and of those, 36% had a bachelor’s degree and 33% a Master’s. In terms of age, 16% were college-aged (18 to 22), 65% were under age 35, a larger share of young adults than the SPOC. A smaller share of MOOC students (64%) than SPOC students were women. A share similar to SPOC participants, 69%, took the course for “personal enrichment.” About half were taking the course to “improve their occupational skills” and 8% for college credit (an option not available in the SPOC).

Post-course, more MOOC participants rated their expertise in child welfare, public policy and journalism as intermediate and expert than they had pre-course. As a result of JSC4, students were more comfortable contacting leaders and conducting interviews (see Figure 1). Most importantly, they were more interested in changing public policy and more likely to believe that they could change public policy.

Student perspectives

The course was designed with three modules in each unit: journalism, social welfare and public policy. In final reflections, students recognized changes in their attitudes in each of these areas.

Journalism. Many cited activities practicing interviewing skills and evaluating data for stories as useful for their own work as journalists and as readers of news. This is reinforced by survey data (see Figures 5 and 6). At least three students started blogs as a result of participation in the course, and more than a dozen stories that began in the course were published online (see Figure 4).

Some students said the course gave them confidence in their potential in journalism: “This course has encouraged me to go ahead in my career with the purpose of addressing journalism toward social change,”[9] one wrote. Another said that “interviewing people for the main story ... made me realize that I can be a reporter.”[10]

Others made specific mention of the skills they gained, connecting them to a career goal: “I plan to take [these] new skills and practice by writing more on children of prisoners.”[11] “I intend to write for newspapers and magazines about the ill treatment of children .... Interviewing children was a wonderful experience for me.”[12]

Several reflected on their changed views of the role of journalists in society:

It has been an eye-opening course ... [I am now] thinking about the power of journalism to make a difference. (MOOC student discussion post)

Moving forward I will read the news in a more analytic way. Even though the subject matter was very focused, I believe we learned skills to apply to anything. (MOOC student discussion post)

This course has renewed my faith in journalism as a profession. (Yay!) [SPOC student discussion post]

I have learn[ed] what it takes to become a journalist. ... I have more respect for the work they do and what they do to put a story out there on paper for the public. (MOOC student discussion post)

Child welfare. In general, MOOC students ended up learning more about child welfare than they expected. Many reported that the topic is not one that originally interested them particularly, but their views changed as they engaged with debates in the field. Several reported their intention to work with specific child-welfare organizations in their communities as a result of the course.

My own views of maltreatment of kids [have] been increased to say the least. I am more sensitive to this subject and whenever I get a chance to talk about the matter, I will without reservation. (MOOC student discussion post)

At first I was kind of reluctant to deal only with the single topic. As a French [student] I felt I could be lost. ... But then I realized that in order to produce ... solution-based journalism, you need to be expert in your field. (MOOC student discussion post)

Public policy. Finally, students gained an understanding of public policy mechanics that they planned to apply in advocacy. They valued demystifying the policy process and were likely to also see these skills as transferrable to other policy areas. This echoes the finding that MOOC students gained confidence in their ability to conduct interviews, contact leaders and change public policy.

Earlier, I had an impression that journalism was meant to mirror exactly what is happening in the society, giving people a reflection of what they’re doing. This course has made me realise that there are always solutions ... and writing about such stories can make journalism a tool for social change. (MOOC student discussion post)

I have gained a wealth of knowledge from both the legislative and journalistic perspectives and I intend to use the knowledge to voice various challenges that should be addressed by the government. (MOOC student discussion post)

I intend to continue to speak out against child abuse .... I believe that this new knowledge can help me in addressing policy makers. (MOOC student discussion post)

I started the course with very little interest in doing a deep dive on the subject of California’s child welfare system. Yet I was reminded ... any policy topic has multiple layers and complexities. The layers offer the opportunity for many different kinds of stories, but also demand writers who can also move from specific to the larger story. (MOOC student discussion post)

I think I have become a more critical thinker and ... observer. (MOOC student discussion post)

Students’ active engagement with the material and one another helped them practice their critical thinking, writing and reading skills while they updated their beliefs about social policy.


While both the SPOC and MOOC were well-received by students, and their performance showed promise, the course instructor and assistant learned several valuable lessons through this experience that are likely to be useful to humanities or advocacy-focused online courses.

1. Learn from your students, and engage them personally.

The instructor and course assistant made several changes to structure and pacing of the MOOC in response to SPOC student experiences. These changes anticipated the challenge of running a course with hundreds more students, many from countries outside the United States.

Students in the SPOC had to submit three pitches; MOOC students submitted one. Fewer pitch assignments made it possible for the instructor and assistant to give feedback to each student, something SPOC students had said they valued. Even short or boilerplate replies from staff in the MOOC appeared to be valuable to students.

Course material in the MOOC was released one week at a time rather than all at once as it had been in the SPOC. Putting students on similar timelines encouraged them to interact with one another in real time. Both SPOC and MOOC students reported forming relationships and collaboration with other students via the discussion board:

Networking and interacting with other students is also a positive experience that I will keep with me. The mood was really good among students and I think there is a great potential to strengthen the bonds created so far and make new ones in the future (MOOC student discussion post).

The course assistant and instructor also engaged students by replying to discussion posts with further questions. This initially took a significant amount of time. For the MOOC, the instructor and assistant developed boilerplate responses. Students did not seem to notice (or at least to complain) about these somewhat generic responses, but instead reported that they felt more engaged by the staff than in other MOOCs they had experienced.

2. MOOCs can inspire significant changes in attitudes and beliefs.

Although the response rate for the MOOC was low, respondents showed significant changes from pre- to post-course, indicating that J4SC had a positive impact on their attitudes and beliefs. A follow-up survey could be sent to respondents to get a better sense of what they are applying from the course a few months out.

As shown in the student perspective section above, even the process of acquiring skills can shift attitudes about a topic or an entire field. While some students were frustrated by the United States focus of the child welfare topics, others saw it as a training ground for coming to understand how much a solution-based journalist needs to know about the issue they would like to impact. The variety of final stories’ topics and settings highlighted just how broad the subject could be in practice.

3. Some students are motivated by publicity.

The courses each culminated with an 800-word story assignment on a child welfare topic. Students were promised a shot at publication in The Chronicle of Social Change, a leading outlet in that field, if they submitted their stories by the deadline. While a small share of total enrollees completed the story and had it published, the ones who did were significantly more engaged in the course throughout. In turn, their visible participation online was a resource to other students in the course.

At the end of the SPOC, several students who had published stories participated in a live, 30-minute video chat online. MOOC students were invited to watch as five SPOC writers discussed their subjects, from the juvenile justice system to a profile of a foster youth mother. This recording has been viewed more than 1,265 times in three months.

Three students from the MOOC participated in a live video chat at the end of that course. They included a 19-year-old home-schooled student living in Malaysia who wrote about child marriage in Malawi; an Italian freelance journalist working for a human rights organization who examined “rehoming” in Arkansas; and a college student in New Delhi, interested in the child welfare focus, who wrote about child abuse in India. The recording had been viewed 439 times just over two months later.

Two students who appeared in the video chat have continued to write for The Chronicle of Social Change, an indication of their continued interest in the subject matter and the practice of solution-based journalism

4. Set expectations early and often.

Some students felt overloaded with or intimidated by the course work. Many assignments involved reading that took longer than estimated, especially for those who were not as fluent in English. Those with limited background knowledge about child welfare or the American context generally reported that they were reluctant to join discussions with their peers. However, among those who mentioned this as a barrier, all also said they gained confidence as the course progressed.

In each of these cases, setting clear expectations up front can encourage students to participate at a degree they are comfortable with. Clarity about self-directed learning as a benefit and not a restriction seemed to improve attitudes among individual students who were frustrated by the pace.

5. Ensure your platform can provide the data you need.

The absence of data from edX limited evaluation. Data from edX specific to students’ actual engagement in the course (e.g., time spent or completion) was unavailable. Such data could be linked with students’ attitudinal data and would better address the change going on as a result of the course. The data currently gathered speak to respondents’ reactions before and immediately after the course. A follow-up survey, which addresses application of learning and change in behavior as a result of the course several months later, might be an informative next step. 


Taking an in-person class and converting it into a successful MOOC is a difficult task. While certain aspects of the Journalism for Social Change class were degraded in the conversion, others were augmented.

For example, the semester was condensed into seven weeks. While this required a lessened workload, it also required the instructor to synthesize lessons into a much shorter format, which as evidenced by the survey, seems to have proven successful. This unexpected result will help inform future iterations of the Journalism for Social Change on-the-ground class.

But the through-line is that there is a global community of people interested in solution-based journalism who are willing to apply the skills J4SC trained to help solve endemic world problems. If this program could be expanded to other subject areas, and the class itself could be streamlined, there is the potential to train an army of solution-based journalists empowered to produce stories that can change the course of public policy.

Such potential warrants further exploration and study.



FIGURE 1.  Changes from pre- to post-course survey of MOOC students.

Means are presented from the 5-point scale from 1 (Strongly Disagree) to 5 (Strongly Agree). Higher means indicate greater agreement. (n = 72)

FIGURE 2. Significant differences on the pre-course survey between those who did and did not complete the MOOC post-course survey

Means are presented from the 5-point scale from 1 (Strongly Disagree) to 5 (Strongly Agree). Higher means indicate greater agreement.

FIGURE 3. Journalism for Social Change Discussion Rubric

FIGURE 4. J4SC MOOC and SPOC Student Story Headlines (Partial List)


  • Arkansas Becomes Fifth State to Regulate Re-Homing In Wake Of High-Profile Case [13]
  • Prosecuting Youth as Adults Fails to Address Trauma [14]
  • Legalization Without Citizenship for Stateless Children in Sabah, Malaysia [15]
  • Child Safety Versus Family Preservation In Sierra Leone [16]
  • Bill to Expand Foster Care Benefits for Probation-Involved Youth Clears Key California Senate Committee [17]
  • The Crime of Punishment [18]
  • Seven Years Later: States Working Toward Promise of a Medical Home for Every Foster Youth [19]
  • Discontinuing Solitary Confinement in Juvenile Facilities [20]
  • The Unanswered Question [21]
  • UK Report Says British Government Fails Homeless Youth [22]
  • Journalism Can Incite Social Change: Here’s How Media Coverage of One Awareness Campaign Made A Difference! [23]
  • The Vaccine for Pollyanna Attitudes Toward Public Health and Religious Beliefs [24]





[1] CBS SF Bay Area (Jan. 2012), UC Berkeley Class Promotes Journalism for Social Change, Link: http://sanfrancisco.cbslocal.com/video/6661720-uc-berkeley-class-promotes-journalism-for-social-change/

[2] edX is a consortium / a group of elite universities partnering to provide MOOCs.  Harvard and MIT developed the edX learning management system(s) as the ‘open source’ vehicle through which to offer the massive courses.  Any person offering an “edX” course is required to have that course built and hosted inside of the edx LMS.  Berkeley is the third partner in the edX consortium and, instead of directly funding the consortium via membership fees, it contributes in-kind services such as engineers to work on code development projects.

[3] CalSWEC provides curricula and training to 21 graduate and undergraduate schools of social work throughout the state. They are a key partner, not only in regard to the research, but also in helping with the overall expansion of the J4SC program.

[4] Ho, Andrew Dean and Chuang, Isaac and Reich, Justin and Coleman, Cody Austun and Whitehill, Jacob and Northcutt, Curtis G and Williams, Joseph Jay and Hansen, John D and Lopez, Glenn and Petersen, Rebecca, HarvardX and MITx: Two Years of Open Online Courses Fall 2012-Summer 2014 (March 30, 2015). Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2586847

[5] Yudelson, M., Hosseini,R., Vihavainen, A. & Brusilovsky, P. (2013). “Investigating Automated Student Modeling in a Java MOOC.” In the 7th International Conference on Educational Data Mining. Veletsianos, G., & Miller, C. (2008). Conversing with Pedagogical Agents: A Phenomenological Exploration of Interacting with Digital Entities. British Journal of Educational Technology, 39 (6), 969-986.

[6] Reichard, Cara. (2013). “MOOCs face challenges in teaching humanities.” The Stanford Daily.

[7] Harvard, MIT and UC Berkeley are founding members.

[8] Ho, et al.

[9] MOOC student discussion post

[10] MOOC student discussion post

[11] MOOC student discussion post

[12] MOOC student discussion post

[13] https://chronicleofsocialchange.org/news/arkansas-becomes-fifth-state-to-regulate-re-homing-in-wake-of-high-profile-case/9901

[14] https://chronicleofsocialchange.org/analysis/prosecuting-youth-as-adults-fails-to-address-trauma/9525

[15] https://chronicleofsocialchange.org/news/legalization-without-citizenship-for-stateless-children-in-sabah-malaysia/9881

[16] https://benjaminstephensmedia.wordpress.com/2015/04/11/child-safety-verses-family-preservation-in-sierra-leone-the-failings-of-a-single-solution/

[17] https://chronicleofsocialchange.org/news/bill-to-extend-foster-care-benefits-for-probation-involved-youth-clears-key-california-senate-committee/9924

[18] https://chronicleofsocialchange.org/opinion/the-crime-of-punishment/9559

[19] https://chronicleofsocialchange.org/analysis/seven-years-later-states-working-toward-promise-of-a-medical-home-for-every-foster-youth/9551

[20] https://chronicleofsocialchange.org/news/discontinuing-solitary-confinement-in-juvenile-facilities/9544

[21] https://chronicleofsocialchange.org/opinion/the-unanswered-question/9548

[22] https://chronicleofsocialchange.org/research/uk-report-says-british-government-fails-homeless-youth/9982

[23] https://fishershannon.wordpress.com/2015/04/04/journalism-can-incite-social-change-national-sexual-assault-awareness-and-prevention-month-unite-against-rape-shannon-fisher

[24] https://verdict.justia.com/2015/02/12/vaccine-pollyanna-attitudes-toward-public-health-religious-beliefs