Social Media in Classroom: Using Google Tools

By Ingrid Sturgis, Howard University

Teaching writing and reporting in the digital age has moved far beyond demonstrating how to craft an inverted pyramid story structure. Today’s always-on student is wired to friends, family and classmates via cell phones, Facebook, Twitter and Google Buzz. They write and send assignments on their Blackberries and Twittered the news of Michael Jackson’s death to their friends via iPhone before ever reading a complete news article about it.

Despite their aptitude in using social media to connect with family, friends and peers, students still need guidance on how best to use those tools as a professional journalist. Journalists are now finding sources through Facebook groups and Twitter followers. They are using Foursquare as a tool to engage their readers and help their news organization build their brand. Many students will never work for what we once called a traditional newspaper. With a media world that erupts in major changes nearly every six months, or less, today’s student must graduate with digital competencies that focus on creativity, skill and the ability to turn on a dime. In the class, it’s imperative to figure out to keep students engaged and not distracted by their personal devices or Facebook pages.

Having recently taken a weeklong Web 2.0 workshop at the Knight Digital Media Center's Web 2.0 Training for Journalists at the University of California – Berkeley, I was excited to apply some of my newfound skills in the classroom. To prepare students taking Reporting and Writing, an upper-level journalism course, for the digital news world, I decided to focus on competencies in reporting, data visualization, research and photography using a suite of free Google tools: Gmail,, Picasa, Google Maps and Google Groups. I also introduced Twitter and Yahoo Groups. I chose Google tools for several reasons. First, because with a single registration, students have access to a powerful suite of tools that can be used for a variety of purposes, including blogging, as a feed reader, for data visualization, word processing, as a group, calendar, email, instant mail, and more. It is a great introduction to using Web-based tools for personal organization and creativity. In addition, is an easy way to quickly monitor the blogs created by each students.

Gmail: During the first week of class when beats were assigned, I had all the students sign up for Gmail accounts so they could have access to and become familiar with all of the Google tools. I showed them how to set up alerts to receive news that could help with researching stories on their beats. In-class Exercise: How to determine reliable information when searching for background information and sources online? Set up the Gmail address; pick a topic and set up alerts to receive news related to beats; set up mail forwarding to receive university news. What kinds of information are you getting from the alerts? How would you rate them? The students in Reporting and Writing were assigned to cover one of the eight wards of Washington or election districts in Maryland. In order to make sure the students started with the same set of skills, I had them sign up for Gmail accounts and blogs in class. Because I am a believer in learner-driven content creation and collaborative knowledge building (McLoughlin, C. & Lee, M .J. W. 2008), the students were encouraged to blog about their behind-the-scenes experiences in getting the story. They were required to comment on another’s student’s blog a well. This was conceived as a way to give strategies to other students that could help in their reporting assignments. The blog also served as the students' portfolios, which were graded at the end of class. Each student was required to publish 15 stories a semester in campus publications and they were allowed to use their personal blog to publish three of the 15.

I chose because it is easy to use and easy for me to monitor several blogs at a time using a Reading List of “blogs I am following.” The blog was also a tool to get students to do more writing. They were to write one post each week and include an interview with at least one person to practice their interviewing skills. Some students were very active bloggers and they linked to other students in the class. They were encouraged to use their cell phones or digital phones to take pictures while they were on their beat. A photojournalist instructor gave them tips about taking good pictures. Classroom exercise: Set up blogs, add classmates to “blogs I am following.” They were encouraged to set up themes and add widgets, photo and links to related articles to get them accustomed to the blog content management system.

Google Groups: The students were required to sign up for Google Groups so that they could take advantage of the group email, which allowed them to ask questions and get feedback from their peers as well as the professor. One question: Was that assignment due on Wednesday or Monday? Through Google Groups, I posted extra credit assignments, information about internships, jobs and campus events. The students posted interesting articles they’d read and their reactions to them.
In-class Exercise: Sign up for Google group; add profile, upload a picture, and link to blog, add a post and respond to someone else’s post.

Google Maps: Use of Google Maps was included as part of their reporting assignments. The maps allowed them to play with an easy-to-use data visualization tool. They took photos on their beats and uploaded them to their blogs and linked the photo to Google Maps, which has a share function that allows the map to be public and private and allowed the students to create a collective map. The first assignment was to pinpoint their beat, upload a photo taken on their beat and collaborate with other students to build a shared map of their beats. The map was updated each time they wrote a beat story.

Picasa: Photos taken were placed in Picasa (or Flickr), which was used to link to some of the images because Google Maps requires photos that were uploaded to the Web. Exercise: Watch Google Maps video about how to create a map. Then pinpoint a spot on your beat, take a picture, link to the picture from the map. Collaborate with the group to place all the maps on a single map. Allow others to edit the map.

Day in the Life Assignment: I gave students a question to ask someone during spring break: What would you do if you could not fail? Then they had to take a picture of the person and create a map of where that person was when they answered it. It was another exercise to get students to use Google maps.

Twitter: The one non-Google tool used as Twitter. Students were encouraged to sign up for Twitter accounts and to follow each other and me.

Books and other reading
  • Be the Media. David Mathison. natural E creative (2009)
  • Reporter’s Guide to Multimedia Proficiency, Mindy McAdams. Download it at
  • Journalism 2.0: How to Survive and Thrive, Mark Briggs. Download it at:
  • Journalism Next: A Practical Guide to Digital Reporting and Publishing. Mark Briggs. CQ Press (November 24, 2009)
  • Online journalism: Principles And Practices Of News For The Web. James C. Foust. Holcomb Hathaway Publishing (July 2004).
McLoughlin, C. & Lee, M .J. W. (2008). Mapping the digital terrain: New media and social software as catalysts for pedagogical change. In Hello! Where are you in the landscape of educational technology? Proceedings ascilite Melbourne 2008.

Baird, Derek E. and Fisher, Mercedes. (2005-2006) Neomillennial user experience design strategies: utilizing social networking media to support "always on" learning styles. Journal of Educational Technology Systems, Volume 34, Number 1.

Online Resources:
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