Key issues

Journalism Capstone units

The evidence – In 2010, I co-authored an article in the Australian Journalism Review that examined online descriptions of 29 undergraduate journalism courses offered in Australia. My analysis found that more than two thirds of universities clearly linked journalism study with a career as a journalist in their promotional material, as if the course was a ticket to employment (Cullen, Callaghan, 2010, p. 126). An analysis of the same promotional material in 2012 revealed that little had changed (Cullen, 2012). Moreover, a closer look at journalism programmes in Australia reveals a wide degree of discrepancy in content and the measurement of graduate capabilities. Currently, it is difficult for news editors to measure a skill set from a graduate’s journalism degree or major, and for graduates to demonstrate evidence that they have acquired skills and competencies for employment.

I discovered more data when undertaking an audit of all undergraduate journalism degrees and majors in Australian universities which was part of an OLT 2011 Innovation and Development Grant into graduate qualities and journalism curriculum renewal. The study revealed not only a wide diversity of units on offer (17 in all) but also differences in content, emphasis and delivery. Some courses were more focused on theory-based units while others opted for mainly practical skills building units (Cullen, 2014).

In a tertiary journalism curriculum, there must be a way to identify the minimum standards and test capabilities to be met by a graduate from a Bachelor level degree or enrolled in a major in the field of journalism. This was partially attempted in 2011 with a Special Initiative OLT Grant entitled: Discipline Network: Journalism, Media and Communication. One aim was to develop systemic discipline standards for undergraduate and postgraduate courses in Australia that encompassed Journalism, Public Relations, Media and Communication Studies, and thereby provide some form of benchmarking across the universities in Australia. While this was an important aim, the outcome was difficult to achieve because of the immense variety of views from educators across the three disciplines, and there were no disciplinary guidelines with which to measure standards. Besides, Teaching Learning Outcomes (TLOs) provide a guide but do not define the content, teaching and learning approaches used to achieve outcomes (Romano, 2014). This lack of specificity is supported by the findings of another OLT project on graduate outcomes. “While many such lists are now available as external reference points for developing statements of outcomes, regardless of the ‘outcomes’ included on the list, evidence of the standard of their achievement requires assessment of students’ (or graduates’) abilities (Barrie, Hughes, Crisp, Bennison, 2014).

This Fellowship builds on these efforts, but has a more focused, practical and achievable aim – to deliver a series of agreed criteria, strategies and standards to guide teachers in the design and implementation of a final-year journalism capstone unit that measures graduate capabilities more effectively.

The 2011 OLT Innovation and Development Grant included interviews (conducted in 2012 and 2013) with 50 tertiary journalism educators and 50 news editors across Australia. There was broad agreement among the educators that journalism education should aim to achieve three key outcomes – build a broad knowledge base, develop research and analytical skills, and teach core media and communication skills. However, in terms of the last outcome, there was a common view that Professional Industry Placements (PIP) were problematic for testing graduate capabilities as not only were they decreasing in number, but students enrolled in PIPs did not necessarily have the required skills and often ended up performing menial tasks in the newsroom. Interviews with 50 news editors revealed that most of them perceived graduate students enrolled in a PIP as being generally competent with digital media, but often lacking in basic general knowledge, and essential newswriting and grammar skills (Cullen, 2014). In fact, a PIP often exposed a graduate’s lack of ability rather than improved it. Besides, editors and journalists are often far too busy to instruct, monitor or assess their work practice skills. Industry placements are useful, but they do not provide an adequate measurement of graduate capabilities. Billet (2011) in his investigation into Curriculum and pedagogic bases for effectively integrating practice-based experiences, stresses the need to be clear about what needs to be learnt and to consider options other than supervised placements to secure intended educational purposes (Billett, 2011, p. 20).

A more recent development in journalism education has been the use of journalism capstone units at several universities in Australia. Universities increasingly offer capstone subjects as part of curricula to prepare final-year undergraduates for employment and bridge the gap between academic learning and professional work. A recent article in Higher Education Research and Development argues that “there is a clear need for the capstone experience to be tailored suitably to student (and workplace) needs (Thomas, Wong and Li, 2014). This point is reiterated by a previous OLT National Senior Teaching Fellow, Professor Nicolette Lee, who notes that while the capstone curriculum has become increasingly important in Australia to assess discipline standards and AQF levels, the capstone curriculum is extraordinarily diverse and “must meet an array of student, institutional and sector needs, including threshold standards” (Lee, 2013). However, there is agreement that, if effectively designed, capstone units can improve students’ learning and experience and enhance graduate employability.

As noted earlier, there are seven universities that offer a journalism capstone unit; however, all vary in content, delivery and learning outcomes. Some opt for research projects while others offer professional placements or a selection from a list of core units. Hence, it is difficult to define exactly what a journalism capstone unit is from what is currently on offer. There is much to be gained from collaboration to develop consistent assessment criteria and standards.

For example, at Swinburne University, the final-year journalism capstone unit is divided into two sections: Capstone A – JOU 30002 and Capstone B – JOU 30003. The description of learning outcomes for Capstone A, which involves a journalism project and reflective essay, state that the students will gain experience, complete a journalism project and reflect on ethical and legal issues connected with the practice of journalism. The description of learning outcomes for Capstone B is similar, and the learning outcomes include the ability to identify audiences, gain experience in building audiences, become part of an internet based platform and be able to reflect on journalism practice and the ethical, legal and practical problems encountered. There is an absence of phrases like “measure” or “demonstrate” capabilities. “Should” is preferred to “can”. It is a similar story at Monash University. The final-year journalism unit is in fact a PIP unit where entry depends on negotiation with the unit Coordinator. Learning outcomes are expressed with phases like – “students should be able to”. The journalism capstone unit at the University of Canberra is basically a PIP but it is the only University to state in the learning outcomes that students “will be able to demonstrate ability.” This offers concrete learning outcomes while the more optimistic modal verb “should” creates an impression that it is more aspirational than actual.

While these journalism capstones vary in their preference for either a research project or a PIP, there is still the basic issue of how to measure graduate capabilities. As stated before, Professional Industry Placements are problematic as there is the presumption that graduates have actually acquired a certain level of capability. They could form part of a journalism capstone unit but only as one of a number of other measurement activities. An initial list of core skills that a journalism capstone unit needs to measure (judging from existing capstones) includes: research, writing, grammar, digital and social media, video, communication and team skills. Yet, there is an inconsistency regarding the inclusion, importance and assessment of these skills.

Therefore, the Fellowship will draw on previous research that uses rubrics to assess and measure communication skills and capabilities and design one specifically for journalism educators in Australia to use in the new capstone unit. The rubric provides detailed explanations of an assignment for students and allows educators to assess graduate work with quick and insightful feedback (

Relevant academics from all the journalism courses which currently have capstone units have all agreed to work with me in this programme. Working with these key contacts, the Fellowship will investigate what substantive components need to be in a journalism capstone unit and will develop guidelines to assist educators to develop a strong capstone for their context, especially one that measures and demonstrates graduate skills and capabilities more effectively and accurately. This endeavour does not involve designing a standardised unit, but instead offers a series of criteria, strategies and standards to guide teachers in the design of a journalism capstone unit. To achieve this, there will be a wide
consultation and the circulation of an interim discussion paper for consideration by key stakeholders, together with a Q and A discussion and review panels at two national and one international conference on journalism education to evaluate the main features of the proposed capstone, and for the first time, consultation with editors will form an integral part of the development phase.

The Fellowship will draw on findings from the 2013 OLT Fellowships on Capstone curriculum across disciplines, and the 2009 OLT Fellowship on Improving graduate employability by implementing subject benchmarks research. Also, the 2013 OLT study on Capstone courses in undergraduate business degrees: A good practical guide.

Another issue concerns the lack of consultation of journalism educators with industry. This was evident in the findings of the 2011 OLT Innovation and Development Grant that involved interviews with 50 news editors across Australia. These key industry employers were chosen as they routinely select and employ graduate journalists. However, the majority of editors had little or no knowledge of these journalism degrees or major programmes even within their home states. This might explain why the Australian tertiary journalism courses are not officially accredited by industry with editors preferring to interact with known individuals rather than institutions. Encouragingly, the 50 academics and 50 news editors who were interviewed for the 2011 OLT project were in agreement that industry and universities need to work more closely, with a belief that industry could have broader input into programme design and revitalisation of the journalism curriculum (Tanner, Green, Cullen, O’Donnell, 2014). This idea is re-echoed in a 2014 OLT study on WIL impact: “Industry and universities should collaborate on curriculum development and design, supervision of students and feedback on assessment” (Ferns, Smith & Russell, 2014, p. 8).

This Fellowship will, therefore, engage industry (who are often overlooked as important stakeholders) so they can have input into what the graduate capabilities might be and the standards that are deemed appropriate. This idea builds upon the work by OLT project on Work Integrated Learning (WIL) undertaken by Freeman and Holmes (2013) that stressed industry needs enhanced collaboration and support from tertiary institutions in order to implement and maintain effective WIL activity and to build WIL capabilities of staff, including supervision. Industry’s participation in the discussion and consultation process of this Fellowship will have two beneficial impacts: improve the “distant” relationship between academics and industry (Tanner, Green, Cullen O’Donnell, 2014), and potentially revitalise the process of industry accreditation for journalism programmes in Australia, which is currently at a standstill.

Finally, the problem of measuring graduate capabilities in journalism education in Australia has been debated for well over a decade. A research paper presented at the first JourNet international conference on Professional Education for the Media in 2004, described journalism education in Australia as fragmented.

TAFE, private institutions and universities provide an unpredictable mixture of craft skills and professional concepts, ranging from the intensely practical to the abstractions of communication, media and cultural studies. Cadetships range from sources of cheap labour to pedagogical excellence. There is therefore no guarantee that Australian journalists are trained and educated for their role as disseminators of accurate information and informed opinion. For journalism to benefit society, journalism education needs to move, towards a more formal agreement between the news industry and the academy on a desirable journalism curriculum.


The authors of this paper proposed that all journalism education programmes should be accredited by industry. This recommendation has not been taken up and it is unlikely to be implemented in the near future. This Fellowship will reinvigorate this debate and seek to establish accreditation for journalism programmes that embed the journalism capstone unit.


Barrie, S., Hughes, C., Crisp. G., & Bennison, A. (2014). Assessing and assuring Australian graduate learning outcomes: principles and practices within and across disciplines. Final Report. Office for Learning and Teaching, Department of Education, Sydney.

Billett, S. (2011). Curriculum and pedagogic bases for effectively integrating practice-based experiences. Final Report. Department of Education, Sydney.

Cullen, T. (2014). News editors evaluate journalism courses and graduate employability. Asia Pacific Media Educator, 24 (2), 1-16.

Cullen, T. (2014). Industry needs and tertiary journalism education: views from news editors in Western Australia. Peer- reviewed paper presented at the Teaching and Learning Forum 2014, University of Western Australia, Perth, 30th January.

Cullen, T. (2012). Is it time to review and rewrite what Australian universities promote as selling points to journalism students? Paper delivered at the Australian Journalism Education Association conference, Deakin University, Melbourne, 3rd December.

Cullen, T. & Callaghan, R. (2010). Promises, Promises, Promises. What Universities promise journalism students. Australian Journalism Review, 32 (1), 117-130.

Ferns, S., Smith, C. & Russell, L. (2014). Assessing the impact of work-integrated learning (WIL) on student work readiness. Final Report. Office for Learning and Teaching, Department of Education, Sydney.

Lee, N. (2013). Capstone curriculum across disciplines: Synthesising theory, practice and policy to provide practical tools for curriculum design. OLT National Senior Fellowship. Office for Learning and Teaching, Department of Education, Sydney.

Oliver, B., Bethell, P., Fernandez, J. M., Harrison, J., & Breit, R. (2011). Benchmarking journalism courses with a focus on graduate employability: Case studies from three Australian universities, in AUQF 2011: Proceedings of the AuQF: Demonstrating Quality, Australian Universities Quality Agency, Melbourne, Vic., pp. 1-6.

Romano, A. (2014). Threshold learning outcomes for Journalism, Public Relations and Media & Communication Studies. Conference paper delivered at the Australian New Zealand Communication Association conference, Swinburne University of Technology, Melbourne, 10th July.

Tanner, S., Green, K., Cullen, T., & O’Donnell, M. (2014). Journalism Curriculum renewal: balancing tertiary expectations and industry needs in a technological environment.


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