Teaching Ideas To Help Students (and Professors) Blog, Tweet, and Friend Their Way

By Rick Kenney, Hampton University


I began teaching social media in an online journalism course a little over a year ago. I determined from the outset that I would make ethics the linchpin. I incorporated readings and discussions about core values of traditional media and conventional reporting. Because of our curriculum’s emphasis on ethics and neglect of multimedia skills, the students caught on quickly to the theoretical but needed help with the practical. We stumbled together toward the semester’s finish line, leaving me thinking they knew how and when to use social media but not what to do with it. Still, it was a start for them, and it was progress for me.

I moved to another university this year and feel confident now about what I know – and what the industry wants – by way of social media instruction. I have tracked trends and soaked up what I could from a variety of sources, many available free to any professor. I availed myself of everything Poynter.org’s News University had to offer, live and archived. I found the $20-$30 sometimes charged worth it. I also paid my way to an APME NewsTrain’s multimedia workshop; between an educators grant and generous expense reimbursements, it cost me nothing. I got two days’ expert advice and hands-on training, much of it in social media. I also benefited from weekly webinars put on by Scripps Howard’s knoxville.com exclusively for our faculty. But it’s common these days for professors to share what we know. That’s why I’m answering this AEJMC call: to pay forward what I’ve learned to do successfully incorporating social media in the classroom and ensuring our grads are proficient.

Social media across the curriculum. I teach two classes at either end of their journalism skills sequence: Intro to Media Writing and Senior Capstone. I also teach two case-based conceptual courses: Media Law and Media Ethics. In all four courses, I have incorporated social media as an essential tool for journalists and as a potential problem for reporters, sources, and audiences.

I introduce first-year students to the epistemology and ontology of social-media skills – to the extent that any of us are yet able to frame profound ideas about emerging and rapidly changing technologies – and have them practice things the elemental things, such as constructing a cogent and responsible message about breaking news in 140 characters or fewer. Most of these students are 18 and not savvy about the collateral issues surrounding social media. Most of them admit knowing next to nothing about social media at all except their own immersive experiences as users. The first challenge, then, is to get them to begin thinking critically about a social interaction enabled by a technology they don’t understand. We begin at the beginning – This is a mobile device, this is a computer keyboard, these are the words you just typed, this is the send button ... – and we begin again. We think, we debate and discuss, we decide. Then we type.

Most of the capstone students have naturally been communicating via social media for a longer time, and maybe even reporting already; so, my work is more urgent, more compressed, even desperate because of our limited time. We require internships, so some seniors have had semi-professional experience with social media. But it’s impossible to trust the quality of the training, if any, they’ve received about social media or whether they used social media on the job. I require them to create social media sites and join networks under a new, “clean-slate” professional identity, and to keep it that way. An early assignment requires them to create their “professional” accounts – or show me proof of an already-existing account – in three virtual social networks: LinkedIn, Facebook (with professional-grade profile picture), and Twitter. Additionally, they must create a WordPress blog focusing on a journalism topic; begin to follow three professional journalists on Twitter; and join three serious, journalism-related Facebook groups. For an acceptable example, I show them http://bloggasm.com/, by a 25-year-old who focuses “on the media, with an emphasis on online media and journalism.”

Assuming, though, that seniors have thumbed a Blackberry or iPhone often enough and figuring they’ve been using FaceBook or mySpace and maybe even blogging for some time, in capstone, I emphasize the ethics and legal considerations of social media, rather than the tools of it. Here’s where I found the Internet a much better resource for developing lesson plans than can be found in any textbook because of the publishing lag that consigns textbooks about new media to obsolescence by the time they’re printed.

Social media as instructor’s resource. A plethora of web sites offer teaching ideas, both in skills and in concepts. Many of these are shared freely by professors, such as Mindy McAdams at Florida, an online journalism pioneer 15 years ago – or by cutting-edge groups. I introduce freshmen and seniors to Mashable’s guide to Twitter (http://mashable.com/guidebook/twitter/). Training sites such as Poynter’s NewsU (http://www.newsu.org/) and the Online News Association (http://journalists.org/?page=studentseducators) offer either training straight-up or links to other sites where you can find more. I direct students only to free lessons; and I’ve sometimes paid a nominal fee to have my class learn from an archived webinar.

In addition, web sites such as Poynter’s Romenesko blog link almost daily to media industry articles that present good cases I’ve used for students to consider and critical issues for them to discuss. Although an educator could find enough material at any given site or from any legitimate critic’s blog, I find it best to look around for diverse points of view; Richard Prince’s “Journal-isms” (http://www.mije.org/richardprince) is invaluable in this regard. Here, however, due to space limitations and the vast amount of help on the Internet, I will describe mainly the diverse offerings from Poynter.

What’s on the web. NewsU offers some free courses; others cost you. For all, an educator must register (that’s free) with NewsU, as must students who are assigned to complete courses there. For example, NewsU is currently offering “Online Media Law: The Basics for Bloggers and Other Publishers.” Additionally, web sites offer live video of social-media discussions I’ve replayed for students, sometimes for free. Poynter.org curates these well; both their own and others. In late April 2010, it was offering archived webinars on social media from 2009: “10 Things You Can Do For Free on Your Web Site,” “Facebook for Journalists,” “Managing Comments on Your News Site,” and “Building a Twitter Strategy for Your News Organization”; and one more recent from April 1, 2010: “Location-Based Services are Changing the News.” It was also promoting a forthcoming conference, “The Power of Tablets: How the iPad and Others are Reshaping the Digital Revolution,” coupled with the seminar “Going Mobile with Your News.” That same day, poynter.org posted links to video discussions held that week at http://www.milkeninstitute.org/events/, such as “Digital Swarms: Social Media, Social Responsibility and the Power of a Crowd”; “The Future of Journalism: Who's Going to Report the News?”; and “The Amazing Multitasking Mobile Phone.” Romenesko linked to the video “Report: Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg Doesn’t Believe In Privacy” at http://www.wired.com/epicenter/2010/04/report-facebook-ceo-mark-zuckerberg-doesnt-believe-in-privacy/ and “Jamie Mottram, Sportif Yahoo Bloglord, Pushes ‘Portal Power’”

Most of these run 60-90 minutes; so, it’s up to the individual instructor to determine which content is useful. There’s much to be learned in screening them for oneself, so I always take notes. That way, I can offer commentary on the video if I show it or synthesize a lesson plan (with full credit, of course). But the videos, featuring industry experts, provide both practical advice and valuable grist for discussions.

Ethics matters. I have worked into classroom discussions and assignments the articles that Poynter contributors curate with links, but some of the best writing about social-media ethics comes from Kelly McBride, Poynter’s ethics group leader, who has blogged, for example, “Obama on Kanye West: Is the President Ever Off-the-Record?”; “Dowd Could Learn from the ‘Retweet’ Ethic, Giving Credit Where It’s Due”; and “Here Come the Interns: What’s Your Blogging Policy?” The latter should be required reading also for interns (it was for my seniors) and faculty who supervise interns or who want to help students understand potential consequences of their personal use of social media.

The best Internet piece about social media that I’ve incorporated into my capstone and ethics classes was McBride’s blog “Poynter, Newsrooms Develop Social Networking Policies for Journalists on Facebook, MySpace, Twitter.” She described how she worked with journalists from The Roanoke Times – a newspaper in our own state – to “produce the skeleton of a guideline for journalists everywhere” working with social media.

For a “talking points” assignment required in my 400-level Media Ethics course, I instructed students first to read “A Bloggers’ Code of Ethics” (http://www.cyberjournalist.net/a-bloggers-code-of-ethics/) and to connect it to an ethical theory they had already learned. Next, they were to read McBride’s blog on the Roanoke guidelines and to connect that, too, to an ethical theory. Finally, they had to read case-study articles – the Colorado funeral tweeting incident and the Fort Hood coverage provide strikingly different examples along Aristotle’s continuum of virtue and help students better understand the concept of the golden mean – for which I provided links. For this talking point, they were to consider the principles in the CyberJournalist code or raised by McBride and to critique by way of connecting the cases normatively to theory.

Lighten up … a little. To ensure that it isn’t all heady talk about duty ethics and social responsibility, I try to leaven the lessons with a few surprises from youtube.com:
  1. Steven Colbert’s “Word of the Day” feature on “Wikiality” (http://www.colbertnation.com/the-colbert-report-videos/72347/july-31-2006/the-word---wikiality?videoId=72347).

  2. Samantha Bee’s assertion on The Daily Show that “Twitter has become such a big deal because it’s awesome and our rotting corpses are grabbing for its glimmer (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=etUpcOc_Bwc).
And it should go without saying that teaching social media presents what should be welcome challenges for the instructor: to follow the same good practices being taught, and to be fully transparent by networking with the students via social media. This can be controversial and even disastrous if not handled professionally. (I use it for demonstration purposes only and never reveal anything personal.) But that’s perhaps the most teachable moment in the enterprise.

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