We were three days before deadline for an article in our Writing and Editing for Media class when a student was starting to panic. Her topic was gluten-free dining around campus, but she knew no one who avoided gluten and querying every restaurant felt daunting.
She asked for advice, and I had just one piece: Turn to Twitter.
A tweet seeking sources, which included hashtags for #ohiostate and #buckeyes, was sent. By the next class, she had three strong source ledes, and her article was well on its way.
Welcome to the new world of journalism — in 140 characters or less.
While some may dismiss Twitter as just another social media time suck or a place to post mundane activities (case in point @layla4president’s post: “Wiping off good eye makeup makes me feel sad.”), more and more journalism educators are using it as an unparalleled communication device that can connect students within class, to the real world, and to their personal branding.
The Ultimate Hub
“Twitter is the ultimate hub for centralizing a topic,” Karen Freberg, assistant professor in strategic communications at University of Louisville, said. “It’s also the gateway to networking with the outside world. The possibilities are endless. It’s a window into the classroom. What other platform can you have real-time interaction and be able to participate and observe in the classroom and connect with individuals and conversation outside?”
I first taught Twitter in my journalism classroom in the fall of 2010, and I was not actually sure for what we would use it besides combing though posts for story ideas. All that changed the day we tweeted at renowned magazine writer Scott Raab, who at the time was researching his book, “The Whore of Akron” — and he tweeted us back, actually asking to come visit our class.
I was hooked.
We start in our classes by taking attendance with Twitter using a class hashtag indicative of our subject matter (#osunewsclass, #medialawmovies, #osumagazines). The task for every student is to post something relevant and interesting from each class session with the goal of engaging someone in class or the outside world.
We build from there to interact with sources using Twitter, pitch story ideas, promote our work and communicate with each other. We build study guides for exams using Twitter (which we then gather onto a Storify) and drive discussion around a given topic by finding online examples we then tweet out to our class hashtag.
I am clearly not alone. Numerous professors have used Twitter to build a communications scaffolding across courses, one that reaches across time and space and into the world.
Jake Batsell, assistant professor of journalism at Southern Methodist University, said he introduces the social media platform with his Power Tweets Assignment, commanding students to “commit at least one act of journalism on Twitter” per week that shows “curiosity by documenting something interesting, newsworthy, or artistic through original text, images, sound or video.”
Students also commit at least “one act of engagement” on Twitter by either introducing followers to articles on digital journalism or technology, “or engaging another digital journalist through an rewteet (RT), modified tweet (MT), or @-reply,” Batsell writes in his assignment
“It can be a great tool to facilitate class discussion, especially for students who may not be as naturally gregarious in person,” Batsell said.
But Twitter isn’t just for student instruction.
Mike Mills, an assistant professor at the University of Central Arkansas teaching courses in classroom management, assessment, and technology, said he uses Twitter primarily to connect with other educators, particularly those interested in transforming their classrooms through engagement and collaboration.
“I feel my use of Twitter benefits my students through my sharing the many varied insights and perspectives of teachers from all over the world and helping my students connect with these diverse voices,” he said in an email.
Many professors are finding, as I do, that Twitter is also a big part of communication with students, who seem far less likely to invest time in email than they do on a tweet. They ask questions on Twitter that allow classmates to engage in the answer, and also express concerns, confusion and fears that will rarely come out in person.
Not Quite Native
But Twitter can lead to other fears about making student activities public, and the risk of students using Twitter in a less-than-professional manner. There are also students — more than you might think — who buck the digital native ideal and are both unfamiliar and uncomfortable with constructive social media interaction.
Both Freberg and Mills said they work with those students, helping them understand the principles of Twitter and what their personal brand will mean when they are seeking a position in the working world.
“I’ve had several students in my classes who stress that technology frightens them and that if they were just a bit younger, they’d be more able to engage in the technology,” Mills acknowledged. “That’s not a sentiment that I allow students to have unchallenged. I stress to them the myth of the digital native and explain that technology, and social media in particular, is simply another means of engagement.
“There may be a learning curve but no different than with anything else.”
The Ultimate Reward
For Batsell, using a public social media account in class is mandatory — much like it is in a media or communication career.
And it has its rewards.
He cited the case of a student who created a Twitter handle in his class and linked to it her e-portfolio. She used her account to follow people for whom she wanted to work and corresponded with them using retweets and @-message responses.
That got the attention of a CNN producer who checked out her e-portfolio before sending a direct message about a position for a production assistant on a CNN show, for which she was soon hired.
Twitter didn’t get her the job, but it got her the attention of a powerful person who was hiring.
Freberg calls Twitter her “rolodex for contacts,” who she shares with students and monitors conversations relevant to her class content.
“With Twitter, content is your biggest asset,” Freberg said. “People connect based on what you share and your perspective. People see what content you are willing to give, what opinion you have. It ties back to your brand. It’s about content creation and curation of relevant information, paying it forward. It lets everyone see what you are doing and be transparent.”
Nicole Kraft spent 20 years as a journalist before becoming an assistant professor (clinical) of journalism at The Ohio State University. Her focus is on news writing and reporting, feature writing, social media, digital media creation, and media law and ethics. She was recently named a 2015 Apple Distinguished Educator. Nicole’s most recently paper is Making Mojos: How iPads Are Enhancing Mobile Journalism Education, published in Journalism and Mass Communication Educator.