Why Canadian J-Schools are experimenting with 360० videography.

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It was an overwhelmingly humid summer day in Hong Kong when Adrian Ma, professor at the Ryerson School of Journalism, found himself sitting at a plastic table, crammed in next to his students, receiving a slew of free dishes from an elderly woman cooking at a dai pai dong street-side restaurant.

As dish after dish emerged, Ma’s students tried to capture the entire experience on a 360 camera – the sense of excitement, the surrounding chaos of the street, the pride the chef took in her work.

This was, in fact, the goal of every project that Ma’s 10 students took on during their six-week intensive trip to Hong Kong (a course titled “Hong Kong 360”): To capture moments, people, and places, and translate them to audiences through 360 storytelling in unprecedented ways.

“This woman wasn’t sending us food because she wanted a glowing review,” Ma said. “She would probably never see (the student’s) reporting or watch the video. She was doing this because she took immense pride in her work and she wanted to share it … It was a moment that made everybody remember that being able to tell people’s stories is such a privilege. And we were determined to get it right.”

A number of journalism schools across Canada have been exploring 360० videography in their classrooms, encouraging students to expand storytelling skills using new formats and technologies. The goal is to allow students to experiment with specialist skills that will give them an edge when they enter a journalism industry where innovation in visual media is increasingly at the forefront.

Humber College’s School of Media Studies and IT forayed into the world of 360० video in fall 2017, when professors Dan Rowe and Jessica Duffin Wolfe tasked each student with documenting a location in Toronto that was once the site of activism through 360० photography. The photos were then used to create 36TO.ca, a VR map of activism throughout the city.

And the University of British Columbia Graduate School of Journalism will begin its third annual 360० video and virtual reality course in January 2019, according to Mike Lakusiak, member of the teaching staff at UBC’s J-School.

Lakusiak was a member of the first ever international 360० video reporting course in 2016, which created Hidden in Plain Sight, an immersive VR project on HIV/AIDS and migration in Chile. The UBC journalism alum said the goal of the course is to equip students with cutting-edge tools to compete in the journalism industry after they graduate.

The popularity of 360० photography and videography is due, in part, to its unique storytelling abilities; the nexus between photojournalism and video allows for a journalist to provide a level of immersiveness and nuance often unavailable to either medium on its own. A 2013 study from the University of Lisbon, for example, found that 360० videos gave sampled users a multisensory experience when watching videos, which increased user satisfaction and immersion in the information and created a more emotionally impactful experience than standard video would.

“Whenever I show someone some of our Hong Kong footage using a VR headset, they almost always go, ‘Whoa! It’s like I’m actually there,’” Ma said. “I think that kind of experience can be incredibly engaging, especially when its married with good reporting. I know that some studies suggest VR can increase feelings of empathy among viewers. When done well, I think it can be a very powerful way to engage people in a way that more traditional video may not be able to.”

And with the growing popularity of these tools across outlets like the Globe and Mail, NPR and the New York Times, it’s up to journalism schools to ensure that their students have the knowledge to meet the demands of modern newsrooms, explained Lakusiak.

“There’s a lot of freelance journalists out there and a lot of people who go into masters programs for journalism, and any skill that you have is a differentiator,” Lakusiak said. “The way we approach our students with it now is if you have this in your toolbox as a storytelling tool, it’s going to be something that you may not be specifically doing in your daily work, but if you’re kind of fluent in these skills … that’s only going to be a help to you.”

To Duffin Wolfe, equipping students with 360० photography tools in an accessible manner is essential. While Humber has a vast library of tools and resources for classroom use, she and Rowe taught the course using a high-level, yet affordably-priced camera – one that students would be able to purchase after graduating without breaking the bank.

“We wanted to teach the students how to do something that would be accessible to them on their own, even without the support of a big institution. When they graduate, they’re not always going to have access to your fanciest … 360० camera,” Duffin Wolfe said. “So, I’m really interested in trying to help young journalists access new technologies in ways that are going to be feasible for them on the ground outside of school, too.”

And for all of the accessibility issues that come with 360० video creation, an equal number apply to 360० video consumption as well. All professors who spoke with J-Source agreed that tools like VR headsets, used to view 360० videos, have yet to be adopted universally across mainstream audiences.

“The sense I get at the moment is that the audiences aren’t quite there yet. It’s still all very experimental and exploratory and people aren’t quite saying, ‘I want my VR, where are my VR videos?’” Ma said. “I think we’re seeing that VR/360० is making its way more into daily reporting now as opposed to just the realm of special projects. So we’ll see where the technology takes us.”

The element of the unknown inherent to teaching this and other cutting-edge technologies means that these courses are highly experimental. Duffin Wolfe, for example, admitted that she and Rowe “didn’t really know how to work with 360० photography” going into teaching their course at Humber. But their unfamiliarity with the medium only enhanced the learning experience for their students.  

“I think sometimes in educational settings, you must teach what you already know, and that can end up going down very well-trodden paths,” she said.

“To discover things on the fly alongside students does keep things fresh, but I also think that students relate to novelty really well, and that’s partly because we’re immersed in digital culture – we expect things to be fresh and new all the time. It just feels more real and more relevant to the moment to … teach in that way.”

Editor’s note: This piece was updated Friday Dec. 21, 2018 at 3:36 pm ET to clarify that the UBC Graduate School of Journalism will administer its third annual 360० video and virtual reality course starting in the new year.