Gettin’ Social in the Classroom

By Bret Schulte, University of Arkansas

This is the way stories used to be written in the University of Arkansas journalism department: The student banged away in a computer lab. The student printed off the story, and the student turned it into the instructor. The instructor wielded a pen and slashed the paper with great red strokes (of enthusiasm, naturally) and returned it to the student. The student revised (with equal enthusiasm). The story was graded – and the story was never seen again, most likely.

This is not how it’s done anymore. My students no longer publish on paper. They no longer write for an audience of one. They no longer consider the written word their only storytelling format. They no longer practice a craft in which their work has no bearing on anything but their grades. In fact, students are not even doing assigned readings on paper anymore (at least, not all of them), because paper just can’t keep up. We’ve changed it all through social media sites and a commitment to technology.

In my reporting classes, which include basic reporting, feature writing and multimedia classes, the business of the classroom has been almost entirely overhauled. The new classroom model helps to eliminate waste – of time and paper – to increase the readership of student stories, to increase the accountability of student reporters, and to introduce students to the realities of the modern workplace. Social media tools have reshaped the way I teach, comment, evaluate, and the way we spend class time, and have brought new platforms for multimedia work.

Starting in the fall of 2008, my students stopped printing on paper or submitting via email and started publishing online. Every story. The reason was simple. In the media today, nearly every story goes online for the world to see – that means wonderful reach and feedback, but also criticism and scrutiny. Students need to get used to that. To accomplish this, I decided to use social media sites, but I wanted to move beyond Facebook, which didn’t offer much new to students. (Plus, every time they got on Facebook, it became a distraction.)

I require them to create their own blogs on WordPress. (I began with Blogspot, but it was buggy and they need to be familiar with WordPress, which is quickly becoming the industry standard for easy Web publishing.) Because my students can now submit their stories from anywhere, I’ve moved their deadlines to 6 p.m. Saturday, which gives me till the next class on Tuesday to critique, which I also do on their blog pages in the comments section.

To boost the audience size for each story, I divide students in my classes into groups of three or four “assistant editors” and require them to comment on each other’s stories. Routinely, they not only respond to the story, but to my suggestions and each other’s.

In class on Tuesdays, I pull up the stories on the computer with the overhead and we workshop together the ledes, nut grafs, style and grammar errors, kickers, videos, slideshows, whatever. Already, the number of readers/viewers for a story has multiplied exponentially from the days of teacher as the sole audience. Students tell me that they try harder and put more into their stories when they know their classmates will see them and remark on them in front of everyone. Exposing themselves to the judgment of peers can be a wonderful tool. (It’s like the Facebook of the analog world.) Students also “follow” each other with their blogs and become fans.

Students are required to submit a revised version on their blog pages. And what follows might be the most important part of the whole process: They are required to email the link to their stories to all their sources and cc me. Initially, I required this because I wanted to simulate a real-life publishing experience as much as possible. It’s turned out to be the best accountability I could have asked for. Behind all this, of course, is the idea of distribution. For decades, the distribution of stories was handled by delivery trucks and paper boys. Now, reporters bear just as much of the responsibility, using the digital tools at their disposal to create buzz for their work and a brand for their employer and themselves. These new tools are also forcing reporters to interact with their audiences like never before – to explain what they’re covering, and why, and how, as well as to use their new familiarity with readers to dig for new story ideas and gain accessibility.

In my classes, sources do respond (usually via email, alas, not on the blog pages) and usually with positive remarks, which builds student confidence. But it’s also helped me fact check student stories and catch egregious errors or downright fraudulent facts, sources, and quotes. Unfortunately, students have submitted phony email addresses, which I discovered by hitting ‘reply-all.’ And I’ve discovered fabricated quotes by following-up with sources.

Students also receive points for creating multimedia packages by posting photos and videos with their stories, which many do. I’ve also encouraged students to run their Twitter accounts through their blog pages – though perhaps only four or five have done so. (Many of our journalism students don’t care much for Twitter, though they do use it when required.) The students who do like Twitter use their accounts to announce when new stories have been posted to their blogs. The best work that’s produced in the journalism department goes on a blogspot page I created, which operates as a public trophy case.

In the future, I might return to Facebook and use an application that connects it to WordPress. That way all WordPress posts will be automatically fed into the class Facebook page. Next semester (Fall ’10), I will also require all News Reporting I students to cover a city council meeting via Twitter. Those feeds will go to their individual blogs.

In the classroom, I assign textbooks (which vary depending on the class) and plenty of examples of real-life journalism. In the old days, I used to peruse the Web for stories and send out links, or require my students to read “the paper.” They do still study print products, but I don’t ask them to seek out specific stories there. Now, I use another social networking site, It’s a terrific system for sharing with friends (or students) favorite bookmarks. For me, those bookmarks are typically great (or not so great) pieces of journalism I find online. Delicious allows me to tag stories by categories that I create, so I can go back and find my favorite examples of a “trend story” or “Flash journalism” or “anecdotal lede” any time. My students find the assigned stories, which I’m continually updating, on and read them online. They also create their own accounts and are required to find certain types of stories throughout the semester (e.g. “human interest”), tag and share them.

I take a slightly different approach with my multimedia class. Co-taught with the art department, the class focuses on the use of slideshows, video and incorporating them with the animation software Flash.

For video, we use the hosting and social media site Vimeo. It’s a favorite of professional and amateur videographers, who use it to post and share and comment on each other’s work. We created a class profile on Vimeo and required each student to make their own page, upload their videos and tag them so they can be easily found on searches. For this class, we do have a Facebook page, on which we post the videos and other projects. The settings are open, so the public can take a look. We also have a number of people who are “friends” of the class, and the page is also used to make announcements about class and as a recruiting tool.

Overall, social media tools have opened my classroom to the world. They’ve introduced my students to the concepts of audience, accountability, distribution, and networking – all of which are increasingly intertwined with the social media revolution.

Examples and readings:

A story on social networking I wrote for American Journalism Review:

Online News, Stuart Allan – a good look at the rise of the Internet as democratization tool for journalism.

The forthcoming Yahoo! Style guide, of which I have a galley, is an excellent road map for writing online.

Sample student blog page:

Class Vimeo page:

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