What It Takes to Go ‘Digital First’ in Communication Law
“For our semester project,” I announced to my SP402 class last spring, “you will plan, create multimedia content for, and launch a website dedicated to a shared topic.”
The students of this upper-division course — mainly juniors and seniors — looked at each other and then me, bewildered. Evidently that was not what they expected to hear on the first day of a course in communication law.
I’d been inspired to break away from the traditional “write a paper” approach in my communication law courses when I attended Teachapalooza at the Poynter Institute in the summer of 2013. One of the featured speakers encouraged us to create more opportunities for students to practice their digital skills in concepts and theories classes. After all, we tell our students in courses focusing on skills that online tools are excellent opportunities to engage in some fantastic storytelling. Why not encourage students to use those tools to tell the stories of communication history, theory, sociology or, yes, law?
I was sold, but my students were slow to warm up to the idea. When one student asked if she could put a link to her part of the site on her digital portfolio, however, I knew I had them hooked. The end goal — a multifaceted exploration of the Times v. Sullivan decision of 1964 — challenged them to not only learn the material, but also present it in a way that others could understand its significance.
As an added bonus, it was far more enjoyable to grade. As Michael Scott (or President Obama) would say, win-win-win.
My semester was most definitely not unique. Faculty around the country are bringing digital tools into their concepts courses, and just as I did, they are taking valuable insights away from their experiences.
Greater integration into the degree program
In 2009, the students in University of Oklahoma Professor Robert Kerr’s mass communication law class were putting their digital and major-specific skills to work in a creative semester project that blended legal knowledge and communication practice. In a submission to the 2009 AEJMC Law and Policy “Best Ideas in Teaching” competition, Kerr wrote that he created the project not only in support of the College’s increasing emphasis on multimedia skills, but also to help “students to think of law less as abstract rules and more as an organic and dynamic element in society and in their respective professions.”
Kerr’s assignment tasked students to create a major-appropriate project that would help explain the relevance of pre-selected legal concepts. For example, he wrote that public relations students could develop a campaign for a client who wants the public to urge the Obama administration and Congress to enact the proposed federal shield law that is stalled in Washington. Students were graded equally on the quality of their professional product and their effective use of the law.
The project, Kerr wrote in his 2009 submission, allowed students to see law as an integrated part of their overall learning experience, rather than a separate element from the skills they are acquiring in other classes. By requiring students to use the tools and technologies appropriate for the communications professions in which they hoped to work, his assignment encouraged students to see the direct relevance of law and ethics on their future careers.
Enhancing relationships with new technology
Clinical Assistant Professor Nicole Kraft from Ohio State said she sees the integration of new technologies into her media law and ethics classroom as a must for continuing students’ understanding of the range of digital tools.
“A lot of students still feel if they have a laptop, they’re technologically savvy,” she said in an interview. “Many still have a hard time seeing their phone as a tool or their tablets as something other than a place to watch Netflix.”
Kraft uses iPads and iTunes U in her law and ethics class to help solidify the link between tech tools and communication opportunities, and requires her students to use Twitter to engage people in and out of class on class topics. She brings the dual goals of increasing media law knowledge and productive digital tool use together under a single guiding principle: to help her students see how both are relevant to their lives going forward.
“These students are different learners than ever before. If we can stimulate them to use these devices in a productive way, I think we’re teaching them to be learners all the time,” she said.
Creating new media habits with new media platforms
Berry College Visiting Assistant Professor Matt Duffy said he wants to see more students on Twitter.
“Many of my students don’t use it — they’ve moved on to other things,” he said in an interview. “But the companies that they’ll work for are going to expect them to have that skill.”
Duffy requires the students in his mass communication law course to use a course-specific hashtag and post at least three substantive tweets within a specific time frame. The hashtag is active over the entire semester, and he uses it regularly to not only post articles relevant to the class, but also to show his class the bigger conversation occurring in the world of media law through a Twitterfall feed.
He said the assignment reinforces the basics of Twitter for students who do not regularly use the site, and creates new communication opportunities for those who do. At the same time, it strengthens the concepts discussed in class.
“When students are discussing a subject matter, it’s better than just hearing about it or reading,” Duffy said. “And when you join that discussion, it makes the value of the exercise higher. You’re not just watching them tweet, you’re engaging.”
A shared note: Plan to invest
A common thread shared by Kerr, Kraft, Duffy and my own experience was to expect a certain investment of time and energy to make the assignment a success. In skills courses we expect students to come in with varying degrees of tech competency and interest. In concept courses, our focus is more on our topics. Creating a digital skills project introduces new competency requirements that the instructor needs to account for and accommodate. If the course is open to non-majors, as mine is, that investment may be higher. The end result, though, is students engaging with your topic, the creation of some respectable portfolio pieces and a graded element that integrates well into your overall degree program.
That’s three wins.
Dr. Erica Salkin is an Assistant Professor of Communication Studies at Whitworth University, where she teaches media writing, interactive journalism, PR and media law. Her research interests include educational speech law, student speech in the digital age and student press.