Social Media in the Classroom

By Brian Carroll, Berry College | |


To help my undergraduate journalism students begin to appreciate the capacity and proper roles for journalism of social media tools such as blogging and microblogging software, wikis and geomapping, I assign my students several exercises, one for each of these tools. I’ve included in this submission the assignment instructions and a listing of suggested resources. I’ve also included sources for the instructor, to be used as readings, background and historical context.


Clearly social media, or “we” media, are re-shaping the journalistic landscape. Natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana and Mississippi in 2005, the Myanmar uprising in 2007, a catastrophic earthquake in southwest China in 2008, and the Virginia Tech shootings spawned several citizen journalism initiatives that have shown us how social the news can be. Disaster “coverage” now includes Twitter tweets and Wikipedia entries. Text messages, instant messages, microblogs and blogs provide a visceral source of firsthand accounts of these disasters.

The shootings at Virginia Tech in April 2007 really showed the power of crowdsourcing, albeit in an unlikely place for original reporting. Wikipedia’s entry on the shootings was immediate, and the entry grew exponentially in the days and weeks following the horrific day in May. In this event, crowdsourced, distributed, networked journalism had another defining event, and the Wikipedia entry reflected it, with more than 2,100 contributors to the post as of late May and 119 footnotes. As an artifact of journalism, the online encyclopedia entry succeeds in providing a useful account of what happened at the university and how people were reacting to those events, and in the days just after the shooting, modeled for the world how crowdsourced reporting and editing can produce smart journalism. The more people contributed, the smarter the entry got, generating yet better contributions and links from those who followed. The entry became its own filter, or in some ways its own editor, as contributors self-screened and added yet more nuance, layers of information and perspectives on the events and on coverage of the events.

The Exercises

To explore these new roles of and for social media, my journalism students do a liveblogging exercise one week, then another four mini-exercises the week following, all as part of a unit on pro-am journalism and participative media. For the liveblog assignment, I ask them to liveblog something – an event, a trip, a conference or a meeting – and in so doing, to take their readers there. I am looking in their accounts for immediacy, vicariousness, texture, reflection, and a sense of what happened and what the student thought about it. I ask each student to think of this assignment as visceral, immediate, on-site reporting from a particular point of view – his or her point of view.

Liveblogging here means merely blogging while the event is happening, using multiple brief posts to give readers an account of that event. Students are asked to hyperlink where appropriate. There is no minimum or maximum for the number of posts. Total word count of all posts should be no less than 700 words, but the students are encouraged to blog on. Some real world examples are provided:

The following week, I ask students to generate a map using any Web-based mapmaking software, such as Google Maps ( or Map Builder ( They are instructed to use Chapel Hill, N.C. as the locality (zip code: 27514). The map they build shows site visitors where in the city there are wifi hotspots for wireless Internet access. I then provided them with ten street addresses to plot on their maps, which are entitled, “Wireless Access Points in Chapel Hill.” Finally, they are asked to publish the map to their personal blogs, which they set up in the first week of the course using Wordpress.

That same week, they are asked do amend or edit a Wikipedia entry, choosing a subject about which they have expertise, and to sign up with Twitter ( to “tweet” a news event, concert, meeting or conference. The point of this last exercise is simply to get students to experiment with Twitter, to become familiar with it and its 140-character format. Everyone in the class signs on to everyone else’s account, so we all gain experience frequently, briefly posting to readers we know are immediately receiving the information. This assignment is also designed to underline the fact that there are often cases where much longer, far richer prose is necessary.

For an example of how Twitter can be used, I point them to “How Twitter Finally Taught Me to be an Editor,” by Craig Stoltz, from May 2008, available: Also of interest might be TwitterLocal (, which can be used to find local tweeters, and TweetScan (, which can be used to check up on breaking news or events.

Online resources for the social media exercises

Barista of Bloomfield Avenue (
Hyperlocal blogger Debbie Galant of New Jersey.

BrooWaha (
Online collection of news, reviews and opinion pieces covering LA

Chi-Town Daily News (
Hyperlocal news by Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism students

Northwest Voice, Bakersfield CA (
Citizen journalism site

NowPublic (
This site describes itself as “fresh, crowd-powered media”

Syracuse Goldring Arts Journalism program(
Backpack journalism master’s program covering the arts and architecture

WikiNews (
“The free news source you can write”

You Witness News (
Reuters and Yahoo News effort to create international multimedia news agency

Instructor sources for social media exercises

Chris Anderson, The Long Tail (Hyperion Books, 2006).

Mark Briggs, Journalism 2.0 (Knight Center, 2007).

“Creative Destruction: An Exploratory Look at News on the Internet,” Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy (August 2007).

Cecelia Friend and Jane B. Singer, Online Journalism Ethics (Boston: M.E. Sharpe, 2006).

Rich Gordon, Beth Lawton and Sally Clarke, The Online Community Cookbook (Arlington, Va.: Newspaper Association of America, 2008).

John B. Horrigan, “Seeding The Cloud: What Mobile Access Means for Usage Patterns and Online Content,” Pew Internet & American Life Project (March 2008).

Jeff Jarvis, “Argue with me,” BuzzMachine, November 2004, available:

“The Latest News Headlines – Your Vote Counts,”, September 12, 2007, available:

Charlene Li, “Social Technographics: Mapping Participation in Activities Forms the Foundation of a Social Strategy” (Forrester Research, 2007).

Jay Rosen, “The People Formerly Known as the Audience,”, June 27, 2006, available:

Tom Rosenstiel and Bill Kovach, The Elements of Journalism (Three Rivers Press, 2007).

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