Michelle Barrett Ferrier

New online textbook is comprehensive resource for teaching media entrepreneurship

This Q&A has been edited for space and clarity.

An evolving online textbook, written and reviewed by entrepreneurs, student innovators and educators, prepares journalism students to take entrepreneurial work from “idea to implementation.”

Co-editor Michelle Barrett Ferrier, 2016–17 RJI Fellow and an Ohio University professor, says “Media Innovation and Entrepreneurship” was born out of the need for a comprehensive tool for teaching innovation and entrepreneurship. It is also intended to help prepare students to enter a rapidly changing media industry where professionals are creating their own startups as legacy media continues to downsize and digital media grows.

During her fellowship at the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute, Ferrier surveyed faculty nationwide who felt ill-equipped to teach entrepreneurship because they didn’t have entrepreneurial experience themselves. They also lacked comprehensive teaching materials.

Ferrier and co-editor Elizabeth Mays, of the Rebus Community for Open Textbook Creation and professor at Arizona State University, sought out the help of 20 contributors.

Chapters include “Developing the entrepreneurial mindset,” “Customer discovery for content and tech startups,” “Business models for content and technology ventures,” and “Writing a business plan and budget.”

“The modular way in which the textbook has been built has been designed to mirror the structure of a potential online accelerator model, as well as provide just-in-time education to startup projects,” says Ferrier, who has created her own media and tech companies, as well as taught media entrepreneurship classes. 

The duo also tasked faculty and students with beta-testing and peer-reviewing the textbook in the fall of 2017 to make sure it met people’s needs.

I interviewed Ferrier for this Q&A.

Why is there such a need? Why haven’t others tackled a textbook like this?

While entrepreneurship has been taught in the business school for many years, media entrepreneurship is very different. It’s not like there aren’t resources out there, but you are pretty much cobbling them together yourself. There’s an article here. A case study from Harvard Business Review over there. We wanted to structure a textbook for educators who are also new to this material. Many are not entrepreneurs themselves. We structured the textbook as a 15-week college course or an accelerator program, taking the students from start to finish. The textbook really helps bring structure, first and foremost, to the classroom experience.

Because of the complexities of media — with business-to-business and business-to-consumer models, as well as the dynamic nature of what’s happening right now with the digital culture — we found that no one person or even two people had expertise enough to tackle a textbook on their own. So, what we did was crowdsource using social media and Facebook groups, as well as our cohorts of educators who have gone through the Scripps Howard Journalism Entrepreneurship Institute or people who have participated in CUNY’s Entrepreneurial Journalism Summit.

These were people I reached out to and asked, “What do you need?”

I also reached out to the entrepreneurial community — student entrepreneurs, whom I was familiar with; professionals; and others who have taken entrepreneurial paths. I asked them, “What would you have liked to have known before you embarked on this process?”

This was really a crowdsourced book and a collaborative process of brainstorming what our needs are as educators and what students needed. Elizabeth Mays and I decided on this structure of creating a book like an accelerator but bringing in specific expertise in each of the various areas. We also wanted to include multiple voices through the sidebars of students who have done the work, as well as professionals who have done the work.

I’ve heard this textbook referred to as an open textbook. What is an open textbook?

Open textbook has been a movement for several years, particularly out of the digital humanities, which has really encouraged reducing the cost of textbooks in the classroom and creating open knowledge bases and information that can be shared freely. It’s really culling out the knowledge of the institutions. The material can be licensed under a variety of Creative Commons licenses.

The one we did is a CC-By license, which means the content is free and available to download in a digital format for students and can be remixed with attribution. It’s available in multiple formats: PDF, e-book, a mobile version. If students do want a physical copy, they can print it, for a cost.

The CC-By license allows professors to take any chapter they want and add it to a completely different e-book. It allows people to update the textbook for themselves and their students or just use a chapter and alter it mid-semester. Doing this doesn’t affect the rest of the universe that might be using that particular textbook; it can be customized to your own local condition. It allows us an open framework to be nimble, to be agile, to continue to update this text while keeping up with a very fast-paced world.

By going through the open textbook route, we made the text accessible and dynamic. Since the content is online we can update it, make corrections and add material. But it really is a new process, and we had to really think about “how do we update the text?” If we updated mid-semester, students may have printed it out earlier and then the online doesn’t sync.

Can professors or students who didn’t see the textbook during the beta testing continue to share their feedback with you? If so, how do they do that?

Absolutely. Because the Rebus Foundation is an open source publisher, they are doing interesting innovations and creating a community around supporting these textbooks on an ongoing basis. We get no money out of this effort. It is a labor of love. We are constantly looking for ways to improve the text. I think ultimately that feedback goes right back into the textbook and feeds and drives our own innovations.

Also, if you go into each of the chapters, there are feedback tools within the chapters. There’s a bookmarking tool that allows students to collaboratively mark up the text and add notes. I believe those can be shared with others, so we can really bring a conversational space to each chapter.

We did a beta test during the fall with over 40 educators and opened up the textbook for feedback from both students and faculty members. It was a very different process. I cannot tell you about any other publisher or anyone else I know who has produced a textbook that has actually solicited students’ feedback. Because this is an area that requires a different language, a different mindset and posture of coming to the material, we wanted to make sure it was clear for the students and the faculty members. We used a feedback system that allowed us, during the beta period, to continue capturing questions, typos, ‘It’d be really nice if you did this,’ or ‘Wait a minute, you repeated the same thing in three chapters.’

Could working professionals benefit from this book as well? If so, in what way?

We designed it as a workbook for anyone. We really attempted to make it accessible and wrote the material for professionals who also might be interested in creating a startup and nurturing them as they build their business.

What are your future hopes and dreams for this book?

We would like to develop an instructor’s guide that will include materials from my RJI Fellowship. The guide will help people look at how to build an ecosystem at their own institutions and how to create relationships both inside and outside that can help sustain their student enterprises. We’d also like to provide instructor materials like PowerPoint decks, exercises and reading quizzes to help bring this into the classroom and create a dynamic hands-on lab.

The goal of your fellowship was to create a media innovation hub as a way to support innovators. Can you tell me more about what that is and if it’s still moving forward? How does the textbook fit into all of this?

I’ve been in communication with several schools who are interested in a consortium or collaboratory to create an online media innovation hub.

The media innovation hub, which is still in development, would provide student teams, faculty, and outside mentors with an online education portal and social space where teams could talk about their ideas, get support remotely from experts and get the coaching they need.

The educational resources from the textbook will also be split up and made accessible in a way they can get the just-in-time education that they need through self-paced modules.

One of the key insights that I received from my fellowship experience was understanding — from my own personal experiences as well as the students themselves — that time is critical. You’re trying to not only go to classes and do homework, but run a business on the side. So providing just-in-time learning is a key value I hope to bring to the media innovation hub. We want you to have a hub and a place that you can go to refresh your information or do a deep dive and connect with a resource to help you along your journey.


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