Social Media in the Classroom

By Marsha Ducey, The College at Brockport (SUNY)

Being able to use social media well is critical for journalism students. Ask college students if they are good at social media and most say yes. Ask them if they use any social media BESIDES Facebook and suddenly a new picture emerges.

I start my online journalism class by taking a poll of what social media students use. No surprise, Facebook is used by almost all. The same goes for YouTube. But when it comes to Twitter, blogs, wikis, social bookmarking, Linked In and other social media, few students have experience creating something in these areas. They use Wikipedia, but they don’t give any thought to the fact it is user-generated content and that they can contribute to the knowledge.

Here are the main exercises I use to integrate social media in my journalism class:

Exercise 1 – We sign up for Twitter together and tweet from the class. Despite the perception that college-age youth are tech savvy, some are downright afraid of it. This is why no matter what social media tool I’m introducing (blogs, wikis, Delicious, Linked In), we go through signing up for it and how to use it together.

When dealing with Twitter, we talk about why Twitter is needed in journalism and focus on three reasons: connecting with your readers and/or viewers; finding story ideas and/or sources; and promoting stories (occasionally). The resources I refer them to include:

a) Veteran journalist Gina Chen’s entries on journalists and social media use on her blog, Save the Media. Chen now writes for Harvard University’s Nieman Journalism Lab, another great resource. The URLs of the Save the Media posts I refer students to are here: and .

b) Darren Rowse’s blog, which not only features a “starters’ guide” for Twitter, but also offers excellent advice. One of my favorite posts focuses on creating your own top list of “must-follow” Twitter users ( Rowse’s work is a social media gold mine. I also encourage my students to check out his

Exercise 2 – They “tweet report” together. I read a post from University of Minnesota at Duluth Journalism Professor John Hatcher on the Poynter Institute’s web site in which he describes having his class tweet about people parking illegally in handicapped parking spaces ( I tell my class about this, and ask them for ideas about what they could “tweet report” as a group. This semester, my class of 20 decided to look for violators of the college’s “no smoking” policy. Smokers are not permitted to smoke within 25 feet of any building on campus, yet when the snow and rain come, smokers violate the rule, often without punishment. The campus is currently assessing whether to become completely smoke free, and, as you might imagine, it is a topic dividing smokers and non-smokers. The students wanted to see if, in the middle of debate about this hot topic, smokers were violating the current policy. They set out in groups of two to “stake out” their assigned buildings and found evidence of cigarette butts next to buildings, one smoking employee who ran away and two students violating the rules. When all groups returned to the classroom, we talked about what each group had found and what they tweeted, including pictures to TwitPic.

Exercise 3 – They “tweet report” individual assignments. This semester, I had them report from a variety of presentations at the college’s Scholars Day event. They could choose from more than 50 presentations. When I contacted the college’s marketing department to find out if there was going to be a designated Twitter hashtag for the event, the department’s web writer told me what it was and promoted the fact that my class would be reporting from the event. My 20 students generated more than 80 tweets from Scholars Day. Many of those tweets were retweeted by other college students unassociated with the class and by the college’s marketing department. One Twitter user and Scholars Day presenter tweeted a thank you to my student for covering her talk. The student did not know her except for her presentation. Students learned that not only could they cover an event through Twitter, but they also could get instant feedback from those they cover via Twitter.

Exercise 4 – They set up a blog with a partner. They can choose any topic they’d like. Each member is responsible for posting new content once a week. The goal of the assignment is three-fold: Get them experience with a Content Management System (Word Press), have them generate their own post ideas and get them to see how self-disciplined one must be.

Exercise 5 – Their final project is to create their own news site on Word Press and report a story that integrates social media. For example, they can write about social media or they can use social media to reach sources. Three of the best stories I’ve seen so far were the following: a story about the Top 5 You Tube videos about our college that students need to watch; a story on a Facebook movement to legalize euthanasia; and a story about a local effort to rescue abused dogs that utilized video from YouTube and Facebook page information. If chosen, I’d be happy to show one or more of those projects. If I were to provide you with the URLs, it would give away what school I am at and who I am, so I won’t for this entry.

At the end of the semester, I give them an anonymous survey to assess what they learned and how they felt about it. I tell them that I will not look at these surveys until after grades are filed. The responses so far have been excellent. Students unanimously said they thought they’d be using social media tools at their jobs, even if they didn’t like it. The general handbook for the class is Mark Briggs’s Journalism Next. I would encourage other journalism professors to do a little hand-holding with their students. They will be amazed at what their students do.

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