By Jess Freedman
It was a week in which academics wrote poems with ChatGPT and learned computational methods to collect data from thousands of online news sites. Rhodes University's School of Journalism and Media Studies (JMS) hosted the DigiMethods 2023 event from 19 to 24 June 2023. Academic staff and postgraduate students came from as far as Uganda and Kenya to attend the event, which included a winter school on digital research methods and a colloquium on future-proofing the media and journalism curriculum.
The DigiMethods Winter School was a hands-on event. Media researchers and postgraduate students worked in small groups to explore various research questions about digital media. While doing this research, delegates also learned digital methods to explore their research questions. These included innovative methods to study online news websites, social media, and mobile apps. International and local experts in computational methodologies helped each group produce actual research findings in three days.
The groups employed cutting-edge research methods in their work. Under the leadership of Dr Dennis Nguyen from Utrecht University and Dr Dani Madrid-Morales from the University of Sheffield, two groups conducted computational analyses of news websites using the programming languages Python and R, respectively. Erik Hekman, from Hogeschool Utrecht, guided his group in using Python to create a research tool for analysing TikTok data.
Twitter is a crucial site for public debate in South Africa and was the focus of more than one research project. Jean le Roux from DFRLab, Eileen Carter from the South African Human Rights Commission, and Professor Herman Wasserman from Stellenbosch University facilitated a working group that analysed xenophobia on Twitter. At the same time, Dr Henri-Count Evans from the University of eSwatini and Yossabel Chetty from the Centre for Analytics and Behavioural Change worked with their group to statistically analyse how emojis are typically used on Twitter by different language groups in South Africa.
Zara Schroeder from Research ICT Africa guided her group in using a qualitative visual method called photovoice to implement two research projects. One team used photovoice to explore how young people from the Joza Youth Hub experience digital inequality, while another used this method to investigate the DigiMethods delegates' experience of the winter school. Nawal Omar, also from Research ICT Africa, did a virtual presentation on Geoplotting data on a map using the free software Tableau Public as part of the working group that also explored photovoice.
After three days of hard work, the winter school groups presented their findings. The joy, engagement, and relief in the room was almost tangible as everyone reflected on their learning experience. Dr Jeanne du Toit, head of JMS, shared her experience of the week: "What I loved most of all about the DigiMethods Winter School was how it made the whole Africa Media Matrix building come alive. When you walked around the building, there was a wonderful electricity everywhere, with people in each seminar room talking and laughing. And it was a different kind of sound to that of seminars in progress. There was a kind of contented buzz. I think it had to do with the fact that people were not just presenting ideas, they were making things and learning and producing knowledge together. The space felt happy. I think we should do it all again soon!"
Following the rigour of the Winter School, the delegates had to step into their role as educators for the Colloquium. The DigiMethods Colloquium invited digital media and journalism educators to talk about curricula that meet the challenges and opportunities of teaching digital media in Africa. Running over two days, the programme was packed with panel discussions, keynote speakers, and times for the participants to discuss and reflect on how to practically collaborate and best use their new knowledge.
Organiser of the Colloquium, Kayla Roux, found it an enriching experience: "I think holding the Colloquium directly after the Winter School worked very well. Participants were encouraged by their experiences with putting cutting-edge digital research methods and tools into practice and brought this newfound self-confidence to the Colloquium to discuss the future of journalism and digital media education.
We discussed practical examples of doing things differently in our classrooms, challenges we face, and the consequences of new technological advances such as generative AI and the mobile revolution. It was invigorating to see trepidation and anxiety about these changes turn into excitement and optimism."
Panel topics included navigating fake news in the landscape of artificial intelligence, information literacy, innovative approaches to teaching media and journalism in the 21st century, and the place of multimedia in journalism education.
On the first day of the Colloquium, Dr Ranjit Singh from the research institute Data & Society delivered a keynote speech on artificial intelligence, democracy, and human rights. Professor Mindy McAdams, from the University of Florida, delivered the second day's keynote address, closing the eventful week by prompting the DigiMethods delegates to engage in lifelong learning.
The week ended with delegates planning to collaborate on further projects and stay in touch. Dr Alette Schoon, convenor of the DigiMethods Winter School, is committed to making this an annual event: "I see the DigiMethods project as a pathway for African Media and Journalism researchers into the digital humanities. As big data and algorithms become more important globally, it is increasingly important for researchers not just to understand these theoretically. They also need to be able to master computational methods and data analytics themselves - and that is what DigiMethods is all about. We are currently actively pursuing potential partnerships to ensure that we can continue the project."
The 2023 DigiMethods events form part of the Media, Sociality and Digitality research project, led by Professor Anthea Garman and funded by the Mellon Foundation.
Learn more about DigiMethods at https://digitalmethods.ru.ac.za