Over the last seven years, my students and I have covered South By Southwest Interactive, the massive media and technology conference held in Austin every March. At Texas State University, we are lucky to be proximate to such a major event, giving students an opportunity for experiential learning that started with a simple blog in 2008 to testing Google Glass this year.
In the beginning, students wrote about their impressions of the panels they attended, but the project has since grown into an extensive reporting activity. We have implemented a range of social media tools in executing this project and try to add a new dimension each year – self-hosted WordPress installation, social networking promotion, multimedia, Storify, group messaging, an Ushahidi location-based project, and this year, we experimented with the wearable technology Google Glass. You can see all our coverage over the years at SXTXState.com.
Based on this experience, I’ve learned a few things about leading this kind of experiential learning project. Here are a few tips and suggestions:
- Select an event with content that can complement student learning: Find a conference or event in your area that deals with media or technology issues or another topic relevant to your curriculum. If you don’t have one specific conference or event, consider having students cover meetups in your region throughout the semester. This will give them access to the local community and help them begin to network. SXSW is fantastic, and if you can raise the funds to bring students, I highly recommend it. However, travel and funding may not be possible. Look for campus activities or seminars. We do a similar reporting project around Texas State’s Mass Comm Week.
- Choose an appropriate group of students to participate: The event can be covered by an entire class, a recruited group of students, as an activity for a student organization or one that is engaged by student media. Be sure that students have the proper background and preparation to cover such an event, based on the subject matter. This may require prerequisite courses for participants. In its current state, the SXTXState project requires that students competitively apply for five spots. Most participants have taken one or two previous courses on digital topics or have demonstrated subject-matter knowledge in their application.
- Seek press access or raise funds: These projects don’t have to be costly. Apply for press credentials for the event or contact the organizers to see if they will partner with you on the project. If the press route isn’t possible, seek sponsorships from local businesses. You can also apply for teaching grants that might fund credentials for students to attend an event. Or try using a crowdfunding platform like Kickstarter to raise funds and awareness for your activity. But many local events, like technology or professional meetups, are free or charge a minimal fee.
- Be innovative with your use of social media platforms: Make use of every relevant tool, including WordPress, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, and pay attention to new, developing platforms. Most are free to use. But have a strategy for how these tools will be managed and whose responsibility it will be to maintain your social media presence. Social media tools help you promote and share the students’ work with a broader audience.
- Make students active in the planning process: This year, I am in residence at Stanford University on the Knight Journalism Fellowship. I was able to have weekly meetups with our SXTXState team via Google Hangout. Students had assigned readings and previews before SXSW. We discussed their progress each week on the Hangout and sought their input on project execution. See the course site at sxproject.cindyroyal.net. Often, alumni of the project joined us on the Hangout to offer their impressions and advice. Provide access to information about previous events. Have students work out their schedules and set up interviews in advance. Make sure students have access to and know how to use any equipment they will be using for their coverage.
- Set clear expectations, but encourage innovation and creativity: Students were given goals for content before and during the event. But the expectation was that they find ways to exceed these goals and exercise innovation. Students created videos on the best SXSW advice, SXSW in One Word and daily recaps of their observations. These activities were not specific course assignments.
- Recognize when students need help with a particular aspect of the project: The professor’s role may be to suggest interviewees, make introductions to event organizers, assist with interviews and demonstrate equipment. Have students work in teams for particularly challenging aspects of the project, such as a time-sensitive interview. Events of this nature can be stressful and fast-paced, so be prepared to provide moral support when necessary.
- Get photos and videos of students in action: Students will be using multimedia to cover the event, but the instructor should be documenting the project by taking photos and videos of the students in action. This will be helpful in describing the project in the future and continuing to justify its existence. View photos from the SXTXState project on Flickr.
- Plan follow up activities after the event: For this project, students are now required to develop their own panel proposal for the following year’s event. Two of last year’s participants had their panels accepted for this year’s SXSW. Students also work on a presentation of their impressions to be given to other students and faculty.
- Have fun!: Amidst all the chaos of an event of this nature, make sure that there is some fun. We hosted an invitation-only party for students to meet informally with visiting professionals. We had wrap-up dinners or attended other meetups together most evenings, so we could decompress as a group. Adding fun elements to an experiential project can help students feel more comfortable with their role in the event and community at large.
Assessing an Experiential Learning Project
The level of student involvement will vary depending on how you design your experiential learning project. Students can participate as passive observers blogging about impressions or become active and competent participants, mastering a range of skills. Participants in the SXTXState project provide input in both self and peer evaluations that contribute to their final grade. Ideally, participants experience the transformative effects of such an activity, where students gain confidence in their accomplishments and assimilate into the professional environment. Graduates of this project have gone on to become presenters at SXSW, interns and employees of SXSW and award winners in the local community. The majority have found careers in a range of digital media roles and organizations.
Benefits of Experiential Learning
Experience learning projects offer a number of benefits. This approach is consistent with the “teaching hospital” model that has been suggested in media education, in which students work on public, professional projects to complement classroom activities. Students emerge with strong portfolio items, an extended professional network and a vast knowledge of new topics that they can discuss during interviews and networking situations. In these collaborative, interactive experiences, the role of the instructor transforms from one-way lecturer to coach, mentor and co-learner. Projects of this nature can bring attention and recognition to the activities in your program and facilitate connection with the professional community.
Cindy Royal is an associate professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Texas State University, where she teaches Web design and digital media topics. During the 2013-2014 academic year, she is in residence at Stanford University as a Knight Journalism Fellow, working on a platform to teach programming skills to journalists. In 2013, she was awarded the Charles E. Scripps Journalism and Mass Communication Teacher of the Year, presented by the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication and the Scripps Howard Foundation. More information can be found at cindyroyal.com.