University of Kansas Media Innovation Lab: bringing students, professors and industries together for media innovation
The lab, which incorporates students, faculty members and other external organisations, combines teaching, research and production of projects. It provides both support and advice for project ideas and prototypes that target issues in the contemporary media.
The Media Innovation Lab was launched in 2011 by Michael Williams, Director of the lab, after completing a three-year stint as Chair of the News and Information track at the University of Kansas. Located in the William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communications, University of Kansas’s Media Innovation Lab is a “project-level research lab” which focuses on studying, developing and creating new tools and solutions for media innovation.
Its goal is to upgrade and update the university’s journalism courses and to teach students journalism based on current society and industry trends. “We’ve got to quit worrying about teaching 1980 journalism and really start to think about what we’re going to do in 2020,” said Williams.
Thanks to funding of approximately $50.000, collected from university investments and research grants from the Knight Foundation, the Media Innovation Lab was built as a research facility focused on turning projects from ideas into reality by providing aid, advice and support for their development.
Those students who go through the lab work out of the university’s Information and Telecommunications Technology Centre ITTC and encounter a range of disciplines “in an independent space and organisation in the sense that it isn’t directly tied to an academic unit”.
“The lab is there as a place to find mentors, a place to get guidance towards funding and that sort of thing and so, in many ways we could call it the catalyst as much as a lab and that’s kind of where we’ve gone with it.”
The lab is also intertwined with a Media Innovation class for the undergraduate journalism course dedicated towards getting students interested in thinking innovatively about media questions and issues.
Initially just a small department with only four journalism faculty members as the core team, the Lab has steadily grown into a multidisciplinary and collaborative conglomerate through connections with students, academics and other external organisations.
The Media Innovation Lab has strong ties with many academic departments within the University of Kansas, including the Sociology, Psychology and Engineering departments, often bringing professors from these faculties as mentors and working on joint projects that revolve around all areas of study. Undergraduate and graduate students from various university departments are also a core and constant part of the media lab, who work for project ideas started by either the unit or their own ideas out of the ITTC centre, which is the largest research centre in the University of Kansas..
The Media Innovation Lab often collaborates with other external startup industries in Kansas City, including the Kansas City Tech Council.
“It’s a cluster of collaborators: two or three of us in the journalism faculty frequently get together, just sort of imagining what’s next, another larger circle around that group that includes folks from the computer side and engineering area, the psych folk, the sociology folks.”
Williams suggests this network of collaboration is an intersecting Venn diagram that includes “friends and colleagues in some of the startups and bigger industries over the Kansas City area that I know I can call and say ‘Hey, you know, I’ve got somebody that wants to do something like this, what do you think?’ and there’s two or three organisations over there.”
One of University of Kansas Media Innovation Lab’s successful projects is the Avershield software, launched in October 2015. The software was created to maintain the anonymous nature of the sender and receiver of data and maintain the integrity of the data travelling from a point to another through networks.
“In its simplest terms, it’s a little piece of software that first confirms that it knows the computer it is talking to, and that’s how in some ways, you don’t have to worry about whether you’re on the other line or not, it knows that your computer is the computer that my computer trusts, but then it layers on top of that this ability to authenticate data before it’s broken into packets as the packets go out across the network.”
Other previous projects of note include:
- SimpleHelp app: a micro-philanthropy application conducted by undergraduate students which provides opportunities to prospective donors and volunteers to connect with local agencies that are in need of money or help.
- The Virtual Town Project, a civic participation application to allow citizen input and media oversight of local government meetings and operations which was discontinued in September 2012.
In terms of the approach used to foster and develop media innovation, Williams does not feel constrained by any requirements and does not follow any specific metrics besides those regarding the maintenance of the academic quality level that needs to be met and delivered for the media innovation class.
“From the lab’s perspective, I never really was given any specifics except for what might have been attached to funding that I gained for the lab. In other words, the university kind of gave me pretty much free reign, and that was a splendid place to be. Some of the funders, of course, they have their metrics for what happens.”
Nevertheless, Williams suggests that the Knight Foundation was very much about learning, and this encompasses both successful and unsuccessful projects. It’s the learning from the process that was key for them. And he maintains the same open policy, without any demands or restrictions when it comes to the products launched by the lab:
“I don’t limit the students to create the next greatest app any more than limit them to simply doing a research project that compares multiple new things that are out there, I allow a little bit of both those things and that’s important, partly for my students, but also for my faculty who collaborate with us,” he added.
“The world here has changed in the sense that post-election and as we’ve survived the first 123 days of Donald Trump, awareness of media and its value to our society, at least certainly in this country, has really spiked upward, people are suddenly realising again that the news media is the really critical part of our society, so in that form, you know, it’s opening up some other doors in some other research areas” says Williams.
For the future, he expects the interest in media and its innovation to continue to rise and is determined to maintain the same work approach and continue to develop other projects, while also upgrading the media innovation lab’s facilities..
Acknowledging the Trump administration’s fundamental shift of American politics, he does suggest that “from the stand point of perhaps breathing life back into the American media, it’s been a godsend, because it really has raised awareness of the value of media in our society.”
Michael Williams, Director, KU Media Innovation Lab
Journalism student at UCLan and intern on the Media Innovation Mapping project (summer 2017).