Incorporating Social Media in the Classroom

By Ronald R. Rodgers, The University of Florida

Let me begin with a recent blog post from one of my Advanced Editing students:

I really feel like there should be some major changes to the curriculum to suit present day journalism's needs. The technology is not going to go away, and the newsroom is never going to stop wanting bigger and better ways to show their news, so why not make it a permanent addition to our curriculum?

Alas, this is a sentiment I have heard here at UF with more and more frequency since I began five years ago. But what forward-leaning thing could I do in my basic and advanced editing classes to nudge us into the 21st century, especially given the fact that my own digital skills set was minimal at best? I left newspapers about eight years ago to earn my doctorate and then begin teaching. In digital terms, eight years is a lifetime. The last newspaper I worked at had only created a Web site to protect its classifieds. And before that, during five years at the Seattle Times, the level of my digital skills had not advanced past shovelware.

Video and audio editing? Slideshows and Flash technology? With the steep learning curves for those things, forget it. Faculty development and the time to learn such technologies did not exist given my teaching load and scholarly research responsibilities. And to teach them without learning them well, I would feel like a fraud. But there was one thing I began to discover that was seeping into journalism as a tool of communication and a method of connecting with readers – the fuzzy notion of the “social media.” This was a digital tool that was essentially consubstantial with the kinds of things I was familiar with from my print newspaper career – such efforts as contact shirttails at the end of stories, coffee klatches with readers, regional correspondents, guest opinion columns, and various permutations of civic journalism. Only now in the shift from the atoms of paper and ink to the pixels of digital media, they have been made exponentially scalable and have created the concept “networked journalism” that the British journalist and media scholar Charlie Beckett promotes.

The learning curve on most of these social media tools is not steep. They are easily learned. The difficulty lies in how they can be applied to doing good journalism that both connects with readers and expands the possibilities of stories by creating a new notion of objectivity grounded in a diversity of sources. Certainly, neither of my editing classes is the place to determine the future of journalism. But I do believe that (1) it is the place to acquaint students with the notion of social media as a tool of journalism and that (2) the future will be determined by students who are now in journalism classes across the country or elsewhere.

But they do need some introduction to these tools. From experience with my students, I have never accepted the myth that they are all “digital natives” who know more than I about the digital world and its tools. For example, three years ago I asked a lab of 20 students how many knew what Twitter was. One student raised his hand. That number has gone up over time, but not much – and many other tools and techniques commonly used by journalists these days are largely unknown to my students. Those include such things as Google Alerts, Delicious bookmarks, search engine optimization, off-site storage sites such as, non-Facebook social networking sites such as Ning, LinkedIn, readers and RSS feeds, Google Documents, and text-analysis tools such as Wordle.

Thus, what tools should I use in class to introduce my students to social media? And a second question – how can I also use them as pedagogical tools to enhance the learning experience of my students? Below are some examples of what I have used and how. But one caveat. I have my syllabi laced with relevant links loaded to a Web site; I have an editing blog I use much as a textbook; students often must create and post to their own blogs; and I use Twitter. I have noticed a strain of pushback from those of my students who have come to expect a lock-step structured environment – especially in an editing course. I have heard the complaint more than once that my classes are too decentralized. My argument in rejoinder is that is the way of the world in the realm of digital media where they plan to one day work.

I have been using Twitter ( in both my basic and advanced editing classes for the past three years as a means of communicating with my students about the class, about journalism, and about possible jobs or internships and as a way of introducing students to Twitter and the possibilities of microblogging. But at its most fundamental, I am using Twitter to teach the problems of editing common to most students. For example, when editing students’ work and I spot a common problem among many of them, I tweet a note – often with a link to further information. Then, at the next class we may have a Twitter quiz on my posts and then a short lecture based on those tweets. I have also taken to writing my tweets in rhymed verse. For example:

My Blog: To begin, I have my own constantly updated blog at that I use in my classes as a kind of living textbook. Explicitly this is a tool for teaching, but the implicit message is that a blog can be used as a tool of communication. My blog includes posts as answers to editing questions; links to editing practice sites; widgets – one that displays my most recent Twitter posts and another that displays my shared Google Reader items; editing worksheets and links to lectures; links to readings and sites about covering such things as cops and courts and several kinds of beats; links to online editing readings and sites; links to readings and sites about social media; and links to career readings.

Student Blog: In addition, in my Advanced Editing class I have my students create their own blog and post to it on a regular basis. My expectation is that they include links and, on occasion, photos or graphics, to give them practice in other than simple text. I find that it is best to have some kind of brief rubric about what I am looking for – and since this is an editing class I stress the importance of flawless posts. The following is an example of a rubric I have used:
You will post to your blog at least once a week for the rest of the semester. The objective? To introduce you to blogging as a form of journalism – or more specifically as a form of networked journalism.

I will grade this by considering:
  • Your regularity of posting.
  • The quality of your content and writing.
  • The quality of your links – and yes, you need to provide links.
  • Whether your posts are flawlessly edit – and yes, this is important even in the sometimes wild West of blogging.
  • Whether your posts are simply pontificating on your part, which is not good, or your posts reflect your deep and critical thinking about the news surrounding your topic, which is good. Think of these like op-ed pieces across from the editorial page.
  • And finally, whether you avoid issues of unattributed plagiarism.

Here are two items on blogging rubric that I have found helpful:

* * *

I have found that incorporating social media tools into my classes has helped in teaching the skills of editing, which is essentially a skill that can only be learned through increments and repetition. Tools such as blogs and Twitter create new ways of presenting and even repeating information students have heard from me and from their readings. I have also heard from many students that they appreciate this introduction to various social media tools, which, despite the myth that they are “digital natives,” they knew little or nothing about.

And a familiarity with these tools has helped my students find work after graduation. I like to point to the example of one of my Advanced Editing students who had applied for a management-training job with Geico. She had a 30-minute interview scheduled with several Geico execs that turned into more than an hour interview once she began talking about all the social media tools she had been working with in our class. It seems these execs knew nothing about these tools themselves, and were so captivated by her explanations that they kept here over – and then hired her.


i Charlie Beckett, Supermedia: Saving Journalism so It Can Save the World. Malden, MA: Wiley, 2008.

ii See, for example: The net generation, unplugged: Technology and society: Is it really helpful to talk about a new generation of “digital natives” who have grown up with the internet? The Economist, March 4, 2010. Accessed at:

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