Social Media in the Classroom

By Jeremy Harris Lipschultz, University of Nebraska at Omaha

A few years ago, my students in Computer-Mediated Communication began using their Facebook “walls” as examples of the core concepts in the course: identity, interaction, community, power and culture. I was intrigued but felt the need to remain cautious. Facebook seemed to belong to them. News reports about faculty members joining students in the social space raised ethical questions. I was not ready.

A year ago, as a 51-year-old school director, I could wait no longer. I was in the midst of developing two new courses for our journalism program: Online Media and Social Media Metrics. The first course was scheduled for fall of 2009 as a pilot workshop to encourage development of professional blogs. The second course, scheduled for summer of 2010, would seek to extend the traditional Mass Communication Research course to an applied and online context.

The time was right.

I applied and was accepted into Edelman’s New Media Academic Summit in Washington, D.C. I felt confident in that I had worked on a series of election night blogs with our students, managed my own blogs and learned the joy of Flip cameras.

Then came the follow-up email from Edelman. We would be using facebook and twitter! It was May, and I did not have much time to dive into these, so I just did. Within a month I was learning the subcultures of each social space, “friending,” following and even getting some followers. By the time that I followed the Iranian uprising in June, I was hooked. The Edelman summit connected me with old and new friends, and I found myself tweeting about the speakers in the Georgetown University auditorium.

Back home in Omaha, it was time to make decisions about the Online Media course. Colleague Sherrie Wilson came back from AEJMC with copies of Be The Media – this and a Flip camera became required “texts” for the new class.

In Online Media, each student develops a blog around her or his interests, becomes expert in the latest issues and seeks to attract and maintain an audience. This is a hybrid online course meeting once per month face-to-face at UNO’s new KANEKO Library space in the Old Market downtown. In these meetings, I brought in Omaha experts, encouraged recording their talks and editing these for possible use. The online sessions were split between video conferences – the full class in Adobe Connect and individual meetings with Skype – and Blackboard postings, discussion and assignments. They also needed to work with audio and video, including through YouTube, Vimeo or Facebook. In order to receive full participation credit in the course, each student was required to tweet using the #jour2200 hashtag and post items for discussion on the private class facebook page UNO Online Media (JOUR 2200). I created a class portal with links to all of the blogs and encouraged students to read all postings and comment as colleagues.

I learned a lot in the first semester. Students new to social media are often shy, timid and confused. Twitter does not make much sense until you are following the right people and gain enough followers. Building identity, interaction and community is challenging in this environment. My students had a greater comfort zone with the more familiar and interactive facebook.

By the time of my spring, 2010 UNO Media Regulation & Freedom (BRCT 4340/8346) Facebook group, I realized that this hybrid course had more opportunities for following current U.S. Supreme Court and FCC decisions, reading articles, posting and commenting. This is the only course I have taught at UNO for all 21 years, but it has changed in dramatic ways over the years. The potent issues and our guest speaker – David Mathison from – energized the students. At the same time, the availability of book chapter authors and other experts was more encouraging for student use of #BRCT4340 on twitter. My issues blog,, was more relevant for these students trying to learn law and regulation.

Along the way, I gathered more than 1,300 Facebook friends (this followed a literal race to 1,000 one night and early morning), created a School of Communication fan page and was encouraged at how social media was forcing me to re-think my 6-year-old Tuesday Morning Update blog that features school news items (

As my first year in social media comes to an end, I am preparing to learn more by teaching the Social Media Metrics course this summer and attend my second NMAS, this time in New York. I have been preparing all year by posting reminders to myself at #JOUR 3300 and developing the UNO Social Media Metrics (JOUR 3300) group. I am excited about data collection from fan pages and analyses, such as

The technologies are not all that is converging. My teaching in these three courses is blending. Facebook allowed me to develop communities of interest that include students from the earlier courses. The interaction continues, and identities shift with increasing levels of expertise. Omaha social media experts are a valuable resource. The ongoing conversation produces a high level of engagement that is now feeding back into curriculum discussions that will continue this fall. More than 7,000 tweets later, I feel that I have scratched the surface of what is possible. I see this evolving into national and international communities of mutual of interest and common purpose.

The use of iPhone Ustream video, iPads and other emerging technology means that the coming academic year promises to be even more dynamic than last. The challenge remains to utilize technology in the development of storytelling and purposeful communication.

Our goal in the School of Communication remains to offer a liberal arts education with a balance between theory and practice. Learning to use and judge the value of various hardware, software and site alternatives produces critical thinking skills and professional judgment through creation of best practices.

I am thrilled that our methodical approach to media change is leading to thoughtful approaches that are student-centered. One of my Online Media students from the first class has landed summer hours at both the Omaha World-Herald and a newcomer – The old and the new are indeed converging toward an online future. My students and I will be right there with them.

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