Practitioner Researchers needed! – filling a hole in the knowledge base

Andrew Chitty, MD Illumina Digital

My concern is the education of those who work in the media. When you’re running a digital media business your primary asset is the knowledge, learning and creativity of your own staff. Not just what their education has provided them with before you meet them, but how you can support and develop their continued learning. To add value to their own careers, and yes I admit it, add value to your own business – be that creative value or commercial value or, ideally, both. And for me that concern spreads out beyond my current staff – we hire people, and when we do its often because we’re developing into new areas so like most creative businesses we’re interested in the education and development of the wider workforce. This is not altruism; it’s about creative and educational capital across the network.

A significant part of the media industries educational capital is of course acquired through school and universities programmes – but it’s a stark fact that 85% of the media workforce of 2021 are already in the business.

And the more digital your media business the more obviously it’s changing. Future practitioners will be largely today’s already highly skilled and motivated people. We can’t just rely on the new entrants however brilliantly educated, to sustain our creative sector. So our current workforce will need to learn a lot of new tricks and that means a huge ongoing need for education and development.

You’ll notice I said education and development – not training. Because training to me implies we know exactly what they need to know, how to teach and apply that knowledge. And that’s way too definitive for me. We may have some ideas, a sense of different traditions they need to be exposed to, new conceptual and analytical frameworks that might be useful, even some skills and processes that might be important. But there’s no readily available upgrade that we can install to reboot the workforce, whatever our neighbours in the technology sector might think.

Instead I think we need to think about three things –

What do we need a) to teach and b) to learn?
What is the research base we’d use to decide?
How does this teaching and learning happen?

The big one is obviously the first, so in a rhetorically traditional way I’ll take them in reverse order and see if I can get over the first hurdle without tripping up and then see where we get to.

How does teaching and learning happen?

Well first I’ll say what you’d expect from a digital practitioner. Online (and socially) it’s amazing that we don’t use this stuff to do this stuff. That we haven’t captured the potential of social and online learning through communities yet. Later this year I’m hoping we’ll be able to announce a platform for professional development that will link with MT Rainey’s brilliant Horsesmouth online mentoring network. Time and again mentoring comes out as one of the most effective supports for practice based learning but most mentoring schemes just don’t scale. Horsesmouth does.

Having got the obligatory online promo out of the way let’s turn to the more substantive point.
So (drumroll) should teaching a learning be vocational or theoretical?

And the answer is … neither … or both. Can I suggest there’s a real need to move on from this dichotomy? Why? Because as digital disruption rolls out I think the craft skills many media professionals need are changing and the theoretical frameworks practitioners need to draw on extend far beyond traditional media studies. We need to teach and learn more widely

What should we teach and learn?

Let’s take the vocational approach first – in the ‘traditional’ or ‘established’ media by which I mean journalism, film production, broadcasting or publishing, it’s still possible to identify craft disciplines which can be taught in the traditional way – writing, producing, directing, camerawork, sound, design maybe even commissioning. But even these disciplines are starting to fray around the edges – where does publishing begin and end – certainly not with books. Future media practitioners need to engage with much wider references and be exposed to far wider disciplines if they’re to understand their practice in the digital landscape. If their practicing in a purely digital space it’s hard to be sure that today’s ‘craft discipline’ will have developed any core body of practice before it morphs into something else.

Many of tomorrow’s media professionals (and not forgetting that the vast majority are today’s media professionals) will be working in teams drawn from very different traditions and they’ll need to understand and work with the fundamental practices of those different disciplines – computer science, software development, innovation practice, product, user experience and service design, audience and user behaviour, business studies and aspects of economics and certainly elements of IP law. They’re craft skills Jim, but not as we know it. Or rather knew it.

The craft/theory split just doesn’t work at the digital, converging end of the media business. The crafts aren’t solid and slowly evolving and we’re all educated in different traditions not just one. It’s a perfectly valid approach where the fundamental creative structures and values of a discipline aren’t changing rapidly – the most obvious example being perhaps film. But even here there’s a bit of digital disruption in the value chain to think about. It’s not as if you can rely on DVD sales in Turkey any more..

Thinking of any part of media education as fixed or traditional is potentially dangerous with a risk of preparing emerging practitioners for a world that no longer exists. Particularly if those teaching these ‘practical’ or ‘production’ courses left the business they’re teaching some time ago, before the changes in creative practice, production and business took hold. Something that I think is an ongoing concern in the UK particularly in the television sector.

But if the craft model of education has some digital challenges what does that imply for the academic approach to media education? At the risk of alienating everyone it seems the needs to open up our thinking is at least as large.

The theoretical frameworks of media studies, deriving from textual or discourse analysis have been very powerful in analysis and occasionally useful to practitioners. Sociological approaches to media (especially to new media) have delivered new insights into the modes and meaning of consumption to viewers and users. But they have focussed on the social relations arising from the consumption of media rather than those in its production. One of the exceptions of course was the late Roger Silverstone. I first read his book ‘Framing Science’ as a graduate student looking to understand documentary production and see if it was a career for me. A few years down the line, when I joined BBC Horizon, working for the very same producer featured in the book, I realised just how useful Silverstone’s insights into the constructed nature of factual television could be to a practitioner but also how little shared they were by the community he had reported on.
Today’s media practitioners can benefit from textual and sociological perspectives but in the digital media other frameworks are equally if not more useful – perspectives from design and information theory, behavioural and cognitive psychology, certainly economics and business studies, computer science and commercial and IP law. Oh and public policy.

You can maintain the division between theoretical and vocational approaches to media education if you want to but either way you’re going to have to change, both what you teach and how you teach it if you’re going to support and development the media practitioners we need.

But we still need more. Because there seems to me a great big hole in the middle of our understanding of contemporary media. A great big hole where research should be. Where is the research base on the developing practice of contemporary media; its production rather than consumption? Who is doing what I found so useful in Roger Silverstone’s work 20 years ago?

Where’s the research – a call for Practitioner Researchers

The immediate reaction will be there’s lots of research on the contemporary media. But is there a real body of high quality, quantifiable evidence and analysis of the production of media?
It’s an oft quoted statistic that 54% of all TV formats traded worldwide are created in the UK. But where is the academic study into the creative, cultural, economic or even regulatory environment reasons for this?
Where indeed is the series of monographs that examines globally successful formats and looks at them as creative products – their origins, development process, innovations in form, in production methods, in distribution and their performance in business terms? Not Big Brother as a social phenomenon but Deal or no Deal as a creative product.

Where is the work that examines the development of geographical clusters of creative businesses, for instance in the computer games sectors and explores that in terms of a creative and business ecosystem with educational, technological and financial inputs, talent and business development strategies that could challenge the idea that everywhere can become a media city?

Who is studying the remarkable growth of the independent TV sector with a critical eye and wondering for how long it can continue to develop creatively and indeed stay British?

Where are the in depth independent studies of the BBC as a creative business – looking at everything from its creative decision making to its changing investment in different genres across time to how (or even if) its unique public purposes impact on or are reconciled with the content it commissions and the services it provides?

The data and indeed the contexts needed to develop this research are hard to gain access to for those outside the media businesses and that might be the reason why this research gap exists. Why the academic perspective regards the media from outside.

That’s why we need a new generation of practitioner researchers and a different relationship between experienced media practitioners and educational institutions. Instead of practitioners entering academia to passing on their production skills we need to create opportunities for them to inquire, analyse and reflect on the changing nature of the contemporary media and work with those who have the analytical frameworks. Researcher practitioners will bring the necessary access and know where the bodies are buried.

You might think this doesn’t matter. It’s neither interesting nor important; perhaps that it’s not really research at all but a sort of business school lite approach to media education. Or even that the research exists. But having spent a bit of time working with government policy on the Digital Britain Report I really felt the lack of high quality independent academic insights. Reports from consultancies are just not an adequate substitute. Like dodgy dossiers they’re normally created to argue a case rather than analyse and enquire.
Only with a real research base can we make the right choices – to develop our professionals and to develop our media. Public policy isn’t everyone’s cup of tea but if we want to maintain a vibrant and economically successful UK creative sector that attracts and brings out the best in creative practitioners we have to fight it out with the likes of the pharmaceutical and finance sectors and that means develop powerful arguments backed up with credible research. And by the way that means numbers as well as words.


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  1. Krishan Arora says:

    Very clear-sighted (and funny) piece Andrew, I agree with you that creativity seems to be an area we take for granted…and yet is the skill/function/asset that’s most difficult to identify. And ‘Practitioner Researcher’ is a good and necessary approach – wonder how we could make that work?

  2. Richard Wallis says:

    I concur totally. As a media practitioner with an interest in education, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to help teacher educators use media more effectively. But one of the impressive things about teacher education is the emphasis there has been for many years on reflective practice: an alien concept in our industry. As a young post-graduate research student, I remember being frustrated by what I perceived to be an academic community completely disconnected from the ‘real world’ of the media industry. More than two decades later, the academy has moved a long way, but I’m not sure I can say the same for the industry. Some distance, analysis and reflection are badly needed, as Lord Justice Leveson’s inquiry is currently reminding us.

    Richard Wallis
    Head of Twofour Learning

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