Social Media Challenges in the Journalism Classroom

By Bob Britten, West Virginia University

The typical student in today’s college classroom is a more frequent user of social media than the typical educator; sometimes that use literally takes place in the classroom (say, during the lecture). Students use it to keep up with information that matters to them, to pass notes, to make plans, and to stay in touch. They are experts at using social media in their personal lives, but not necessarily in their academic and professional work.

On the other side of the lectern, faculty, too, are coming to grips with the use of social media in their classes, whether through lectures incorporating it or syllabus policies penalizing it. Due to their area of emphasis, instructors in journalism and mass communication may have a slight edge in social media familiarity compared to their colleagues in other departments. On the other hand, traditionalists in the field can be less accepting of changes in their profession than are those outside of it.

Both students and faculty come to the table with ideas about what social media is and what it can do that may be overly limited. This is why I’ve started to incorporate what I call “social media challenges” into my classes. Although the name may perhaps sound overly game show-y, there’s a reason for it. The idea is to take social media applications that students think they are familiar with and challenge them to use them in new ways. The results are revealing, often collaborative projects that show students how their Facebook addiction can translate into work of interest outside of themselves and their circle of friends. Here are some examples that I have used.

Sample Social Media Challenges

Facebook. Just a few years ago, I would have to ask a class if everyone had a Facebook account. Today, they all do (it’s Twitter you need to ask about now), and most of these students have a few hundred friends. What they may not realize, however, is that these friends are an engine of potential energy – like Yahoo! Answers, but with identifiability and accountability. Here’s the assignment:
  • Pose a question. It shouldn’t be something Google-able, but rather something that depends on individual experience. You might seek reviews (“What’s the best pizza in Morgantown?”), advice (“What’s the best apartment complex in this town?”) or even something more newsworthy (“What do you think of the campus smoking ban?”). The important thing is that you phrase it as a question, not a statement about you (e.g., “Man, the smoking ban is stupid!”) so as to invite depth of conversation.
  • Experiment with day and time. When you post makes a difference. You’ve all made some brilliant posts that get no comments and wondered why. Try the same question in the morning, afternoon and evening. Do you get different results?
  • Try some different subjects. Just like day and time, you all have some concept of subjects that people are more and less likely to respond to. Personally, I know posts about pets, babies and pop culture seem to get the most responses. Try different subjects at the same time of day – do different people respond? More or fewer?
Google Maps. Most students have used this application or others like it (e.g., Mapquest) to get from Point A to Point B, but few have considered it as a means of communicating with others. Yet Google Maps is a fantastic data visualization tool that can be used even by those with no experience in information graphics. Combine it with some public data, and you’ve not only got a great visual supplement for your story, you’ve got the beginning of multiple new stories that you’d never have noticed if you limited yourself to text. Try these approaches:
  • Go public. Your city, county, and state have mountains of data available to the public for free, and these are typically as close as their website. Ever noticed those health inspection reports that run every week in the newspaper? What patterns would be revealed if you mapped them out over time? Sex offenders are required to report their addresses; where do they live in your community, and what’s nearby? And perhaps most disturbing, how many of these addresses are actually mappable?
  • Collaborate. There’s a wonderful little button in the top left corner of every map you create: “Collaborate.” By clicking it, you can open your map to anyone you like (or to everyone). For one assignment in my class, students create a map of federal ratings for nursing homes in West Virginia. Each student gets 3-4 counties, and by the end of class more than 100 homes have been mapped, color-coded for rating, and identified as private or non-profit. The result is not only compelling, it encourages new stories (Why are there only three 5-star homes? Why are so many poor homes in the south of the state?).
Blogs and Commenting. Despite their seeming social media savvy, one of the most difficult things for students to grasp is the two-way nature of longer-form (and older) versions like blogs. Students who have no problem commenting on status updates or retweeting others’ words can be baffled why no one is reading or responding to their blog entries. The understanding that the blogosphere is a community rather than a crowd that exists solely to hear your brilliance is one that comes only with experience. This experience can be encouraged, however, with some relatively simple assignments.
  • Find a focus. Require students to write and post a mission statement on their blogs. Be tough about this. You will get a lot of “sports” and “pop culture” statements, but make them go deeper. “Sports” is okay, “soccer” is better; “pop culture” is fine, but “movies” has more potential, and “classic science fiction film” could be a real gem (but also more difficult to maintain). Make them explain not only the subject but also how they’ll be covering it. Why should someone read them?
  • RSS synthesis. Introduce your students to Google Reader. Drawing on their stated focus, have students identify a list of blogs that seem like kindred spirits and start following them. Require a synthesis post or two – how can they bring together ideas from a few of these blogs to say something new? The tricky part here is getting them to go beyond simply linking to other blogs and summarizing their posts.
  • Start contributing. Once your students have started reading their influences, the next step is to get them involved. Require a flurry of commenting – substantive contributions to the blogs they’re following – and have them report on any comments they receive in reply. Here’s the catch, though: They need to understand that the process doesn’t end when others start commenting on their posts. They will start to get feedback when they make themselves part of a community, and this requires engagement. Once they realize that their comments aren’t just “bait,” they’ll start to participate as part of a community rather than as a simple pageview seeker.
Bringing Them In

These challenges are simple things, not high-technology master classes. The point is to take toys and show students how they can become tools. The greatest compliment I’ve gotten from this approach is the student who comes to me after class and says “I never thought I could use Facebook like that.” Most social media applications are massive-yet-untapped engines of community response for the majority of their users. Students who realize the potential of these devices are often amazed, or feel like they’re getting away with something. In reality, they’re learning the power of the crowds they’ve assembled around themselves on Facebook, Twitter, blogs, Foursquare, and the rest of the multitude of social media applications that swirls around us.

The first journalists walked the streets, building contacts over time to the end of finding out about their world. Today’s students collect contacts, friends, and followers without necessarily having a conscious reason beyond the desire to aggregate and be plugged in to the feed. Where the former had a job to do and “collected” relationships in order to do it, the latter starts out as a collector and needs to be taught that those collections can work for them. Instructors probably aren’t going to understand social media in the way that younger, more frequent users do, but they do understand journalism and communication. Challenging those students to apply their social media skills to doing a job helps both sides use their strengths to create something new.

No comments: