The Teaching of Social Media: A Cross-Curricular Infusion Approach

By George Daniels, University of Alabama

From teaching an introductory course in journalism to leading a graduate-level seminar on the role of mass media in society or facilitating an advanced public relations writing course, social media can be a part of your teaching strategy. As facilitators of professionally-oriented courses of study, our goal is always to produce critical thinkers with a skillset that enables them to be “ready to work” in media environments that require flexible, forward-looking employees. What better way to be “forward-looking” than to see not only how social media have evolved in recent years, but how audience use of these social media is changing the way traditional media operate. Structured around five “core principles” presented as 140-character tweets (like those found on Twitter), this essay reviews teaching approaches by a journalism instructor whose core teaching area is cross-platform/multimedia reporting, but who also teaches a freshman-level introductory course in journalism, basic news reporting as well as a junior/senior-level course in media management for students studying in all areas of mass media.

The subject of social media is one that belongs in virtually every course in a journalism and mass communication curriculum.

From Day One, students can be introduced to social media as a place that is much bigger, more robust than student’s own Facebook page. In the freshman-level journalism course, I explain how social networking is a vital part of a journalist’s job in 2010. Logging into my own Facebook account, I allow the students to walk me through their own “Facebook-checking” strategy as my account is shown on the big screen. What do they read the most? How do they know what is going on in the world by checking this page? In the Spring 2010 semester, I assigned them to read Bret Schulte’s “The Distribution Revolution” (in the Winter 2009 issue of American Journalism Review), which acquainted them with HOW reporters have to take an active role in promoting and connecting communities to their journalism. Later in the semester, as part of a unit on the “Future of Journalism,” as a class we read “The YouTube Factor,” an AJR column by NewsLab Executive Director Deborah Potter who connects the top online video site with how traditional broadcast TV stations are distributing their content. The goal at this freshman-level is awareness, planting the seeds for skills instruction in coming semesters. In Fall 2010 semester, we will transition to the SECOND Edition of our main course text, Tim Harrower’s INSIDE REPORTING, which includes an updated chapter on web journalism that shows how Twitter updates are a part of one’s blog.

As we teach what journalists or media practitioners do, it’s also useful to bring in perspectives like those found in a great Feb. 10, 2010 USA TODAY cover story- ‘Friends no more?’ that spotlighted those who left social networking Web sites and the services designed to make that step easier. This can provoke a discussion about the consequences of the “always-on” lifestyle that often is playing out in our classes as students on laptops are sending tweets, checking Facebook and texting even during class.

Social media can transform a traditional course in media management both is how “media” are defined and companies researched.

After teaching our basic course in media management for more than six years, I have refocused this survey course on the “business side” of various traditional media introducing social media as a MUST-KNOW for media managers. As part of the audience research component of the course, students will be listening to “Social Listening for New Product Development,” a webinar published online in April 2010 by Nielsen to introduce its social listening framework. It reviews a much-talked about Tropicana Case Study where data from social networking (rather than surveys) helped detect passion consumers’ opposition to a change in the Tropicana Pure Premium packaging. Along with listening to the webinar, students for the first time in Summer 2010 will incorporate Twitter into their research skills for their SWOT Analysis assignment that requires them to research a media company. Part of the required research will be “Following online chatter” about their assigned company AND finding the Twitter handles of at LEAST FIVE subsidiaries of their assigned company and following those Twitter accounts. Yes, this forces the media management students to get on Twitter, something I have previously not required.

Most students’ social media literacy is based on applications they use to socialize, not those applications’ value to the media production process.

When polling students about their social media uses, I find they are far less familiar with Twitter or LinkedIn than they are with Facebook. The above assignment forces them to see how media companies are viewing social media as a necessary tool for doing business, just like companies in other industries. Professionally, social media are being used to network those in one industry for possible employment. Along those lines, I have partnered with our University’s Career Center to adapt an assignment already being done in the College of Business to our basic reporting class this summer. Each year, when I teach basic reporting, I require students to learn how to write a basic cover letter and develop a resume. A representative from my University’s Career Center comes in as a guest speaker. This year, that speaker and I will require students to post the resume information on LinkedIn, learning how to use the social networking medium, at first to link up students within our reporting class. Students will do this at the BEGINNING of the course, then report back at the end of the class on how LinkedIn helped them build a network in just three or four weeks of a summer reporting class. Our hope is this exercise will gently cast them into a “professional role” with social media, a role that will help them as they land an internship or job.

Even though YouTube has its motto “Broadcast Yourself,” most students are consumers NOT contributors.

Unlike LinkedIn or Twitter, YouTube is one social media outlet with which students are typically familiar/ But when I ask in class, “how many of them have their own YouTube Channel,” maybe one hand will go up. This was, in part, what prompted me last fall to incorporate YouTube into a basic video assignment that has students setting up a camera to either conduct a video interview or shoot themselves in a one-minute or less “stand-up.” In order to embed the video on a WordPress blog, students have to upload the video to their own YouTube Channel. I utilize Chapter 4 “Creating Your Very Own Channel” of Alan Lastufka and Michael Dean’s 2009 book, YouTube: An Insider’s Guide to Climbing The Charts. While basic video production and editing the soundbite or stand-up on iMovie is now considered a basic digital skill, posting such video online using a social media outlet like YouTube is ALSO part of digital media literacy.

The same students in cross-media reporting, who have already taken basic reporting were required to do a two-stage assignment that involved reading Paul Farhi’s “The Twitter Explosion” or a July 2009 A.P. (Associated Press) Story “Is Twitter the News Outlet for the 21st Century?” After reading the article, the students had to make a list of ways the article did THREE (3) things: 1) Influences/Changes to the News Reporting Process 2) Connects Social Networking/Social Media to Old Media (i.e. newspapers, broadcasting) 3) Reflect the Future of Journalism. In the second stage of this assignment, they had to identify a developing story within the past days and use Twitter’s search function to study the kinds of information coming in tweets about the story. In their write-up of the assignment, students were expected to talk about how news organizations were using Tweets (on that developing story). In the process, they learned the Twitter lingo (i.e. tweet, re-tweet, hashtag, follow, direct message & tinyURL)

A cross-curricular social media strategy must have a means of assessing its effectiveness in making students “digital ready.”

The aforementioned examples are just some specific teaching strategies that I’ve used or am presently using in current courses this summer of 2010. Two years ago, I developed a “digital readiness” rubric whereby students could identify how prepared they are for the world of multimedia journalism in four areas: 1)multimedia awareness & understanding, 2)multimedia writing & reporting, 3) web development & multimedia production and 4) Web 2.0 social networking socialization. At the end of the Fall 2009 class, 10 out of 14 students rated themselves as “Competent” on Web 2.0 social networking socialization while 2 indicated they thought they were excellent in this area. One student admitted he/she “needs work” in this area and one did not complete the rubric. I like to administer this at the beginning and end of the cross-media reporting course. The criteria for the “Web 2.0 social networking socialization” dimension of the rubric are listed in the box the right.

PERSONAL NOTE: All the above recommendations aside, for many journalism/mass communication professors who came out of the traditional media, social media have evolved while we were teaching. In other words, we did not grow up in the world of Facebook or Twitter. We gathered news for the next scheduled newscast and prepared stories for the next day’s paper. We were not expected to send Tweets and post updates on Facebook as we gathered news. Social listening was not a part of our advertising research on a brand that we were pushing for an upcoming campaign. Thus, several books are helping me to feel more competent as one facilitating journalism/mass communication learning in an age of social media.

Rahaf Harfoush’s (2010) Yes We Did: An Inside Look at How Social Media Built the Obama Brand explained how the president’s 2008 campaign used 16 different social networks to get out his message. In John Hendricks and Robert Denton’s newly-released edited volume, Communicator-in-Chief, Frederic Solop did an analysis of tweets in a way that helps me explain to students different ways Twitter can be used. Lastly, there is always the question of when it comes to social media, do you teach HOW TO USE or WHY THEY DO IT? I believe a mixture is best for students, depending on the level of course you’re teaching. As a great reference, Lon Safko & David Brake’s (2009) 821-page Social Media Bible lists 15 categories of social media in its “Social Media Ecosystem.” For each category, the Social Media Bible provides at least one chapter on tactics and one chapter on the tools for that medium.

One other resource that I have adopted for use in the Fall 2010 cross-media reporting class is Mark Briggs’ brand new 2010 book, Journalism Next: A Practical Guide to Digital Reporting and Publishing. Instead of using articles as I did Fall 2009, I will be able to point students to a full chapter on just “Microblogging: Write small, think big.” In the final chapter of the book entitled “Building a digital audience for news,” Briggs explains how important is for journalists to build “SOCIAL CAPITAL” or becoming the trusted center for a community by communicating on various social media channels. This follows a nuts-and-bolts discussion of what SEO (search engine optimization) is and why journalists need to know how it’s done.

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