Remix is a segment of education content on MediaShift, featuring interesting and innovative journalism assignments, courses and curricula. Writers detail their ideas and work and, where possible, provide links and materials, so other educators can adapt them in their own programs. If you’re interested in sharing your approaches to be remixed at other schools, contact education curator Katy Culver.
It’s no secret that journalism schools across the country are struggling to keep up with the changing landscape of media. It seems like every conference I go to includes a therapy session of professors who are the sole person in charge of digital at their institutions. Or worse, their institutions have no one dealing with digital.
That’s one reason I consider myself so lucky to teach at Texas State University. Our digital team consists of four full-time faculty members, led by Cindy Royal. We’ve held rogue “digital sequence meetings” for a few years now – without a true digital sequence. (Those meetings went from just the four of us to 15 or so at the beginning of this past semester.) We transitioned a Fundamentals of Digital and Online Media class from an elective to one of four core classes in our curriculum. We’re in the final stages of approval for a digital media innovation major. This past semester, we launched a new short course series featuring one-hour classes that focus on emerging and niche topics (like digital ethics, drones and sensors). And faculty members are constantly pushed to create new courses – like I did this past semester.
Creating a new class
The process for creating my first class from the ground up began around Spring Break of 2014. In conjunction with the proposal for the new digital media innovation major, I submitted a proposal for what would eventually become the Advanced Social Media and Analytics course. We wanted our students to have a secondary social media class, a follow up to the FDOM class mentioned above, much as we do with Web design and advanced coding. We also wanted this class to focus on the importance of analytics and data.
I got word in early 2015 that the course had been approved. It was added to the fall schedule, and we intentionally capped the class at 20 to keep things manageable. As you might imagine, those spots filled up immediately. After discussions with the assistant director of our program over the summer, we increased the class to 35 students. Once again, those spots filled up immediately with no advertising. The demand for these types of courses is insane.
Much like Field of Dreams, we built it – and the students came. Now began the challenging part.
I originally pitched this as a regular lecture course. But that never really felt right. Much like coding, you can’t learn advanced social media techniques by listening to someone talk about them over and over. At some point, students have to get their hands dirty. This had been weighing on me for several weeks when I sat down to meet the new social media coordinator at our university, JS Stansel. He had just arrived in San Marcos and reached out to some of the more digitally focused faculty on campus to set up introductions. As we were talking about the challenges of keeping a watchful eye on hundreds of social media accounts from student groups, campus organizations and departments, the light bulb turned on. This is what the class needed. Clients. And we had a ton of them right on our campus.
JS put together a list of campus groups that would likely appreciate help in getting their social media accounts in order. So I pitched the class via email to 15 of the groups on the list. All 15 were interested, and I set up meetings with them.
Once I started meeting with the groups, the course was an easy sell. Over the span of two weeks, 14 of the 15 signed on. (One group opted to wait until next time.) We had campus departments (Student Health Center, Housing and Residence Life, Learning Living Communities, Study Abroad, Intensive English, University Archives and the International Office), student groups (Veterans Alliance and Non-Traditional Student Organization) and five residence halls ready to learn from our students.
So everyone was on board, but I then had a horrifying realization: I’ve never taught a campaigns-style course. What was I getting myself into? Thankfully, other faculty members stepped in to help calm those fears. I met repeatedly with three fellow professors – two in public relations and one in advertising – along with the director of our School, and they provided an insane amount of valuable information. We’re talking about stuff like how to build the client project, how to grade the client project, and what students should have to show for the project.
Structuring the class
It finally was time to meet my students. On the first day of class, I explained this was a brand new course and asked them to be part of the process of making it better over time. We spent the first week discussing the current state of social and best practices. Then JS came in to talk with them about Texas State’s mission, voice and brand on social. This was important, since they would soon be using that mold to consult with clients.
Students then got to actually meet the clients. We had a speed-dating round of client pitches. Clients had five minutes to explain what they do, their social strengths and weaknesses and what they hoped to get out of student consultations. Students then signed up for their three favorites – and I tried to honor those wishes when assigning them to a group.
Right off the bat, something great happened. One of the clients, the Student Health Center, wanted to hire one of the students to run its social media. That’s always a sign a class is headed in the right direction – when a student gets a job from it one day in.
As for the project itself, students were to meet with their client at least once a month. The first meeting had students do simple Facebook optimization for the clients — fixing things like profile photos, cover photos, about information, page admins and proper page type. The second meeting focused on social content. We had students explain the delicate balance of everyday content and call-to-action content, using terminology from Gary Vaynerchuk’s book Jab, Jab, Jab, Right Hook to guide them.
One thing I was very clear with, though, was that students would not be handling day-to-day posting for the clients unless they were hired for a job or an internship. The goal of this project was to help students and clients both. Clients would get nothing out of this if they turned everything over to the students. They’d be in the same place when the class ended a few months later. The third meeting had them answer any questions regarding Twitter, and the final meeting focused on breaking down the walls of emerging networks like Snapchat. Clients weren’t forced to join Twitter, Snapchat or Instagram, but we wanted to at least make sure they understood the pros and cons of each. As a wrinkle, the International Office group had to learn about non-western social networks, since its target audience likely doesn’t use Facebook.
In addition, students were responsible for monthly analytics reports. The reports focused on Facebook Insights, and the students tracked page likes, total reach and post comments, likes and shares. They were also responsible for helping the clients understand which posts got the most engagement and the time of day the client’s audience was using Facebook.
Grading the project
At the end of the semester, students had two final tasks regarding their client project. One, they had to take part in a mock job interview with JS. It was just him, the student and myself in the room during these interviews. I gave the students three minutes to discuss the positives they experienced with their client, improvement that could be made and an innovative idea that should keep them working with the client in the future. JS then had two minutes to ask them questions, and he graded these interviews on a rubric that consisted of knowledge of the topic, body language, vision and overall impression. Even though it was a mock interview, it was interesting to see how nerves played such a big role. There were hands shaking and voices quivering – but the students all did a great job. The goal was to get them some real-world interview experience and get those nerves out now rather than when it really counts.
In addition, they needed something to physically show for the course. So the second part of the final equation was a two-sheet portfolio that reflected their semester of work with the client. One side was a final analytics report that compared the four months of data from the clients. On the other side of the portfolio was a one-page written assessment of the student’s work during the semester.
Feedback from students
One thing that was very important to me was utilizing the students to make the course better. This meant asking for feedback often. Unsurprisingly, all of them said the best part of the course was working with a real client. (Not sure what that says about my lecture skills, but I’ll take it.) For example:
“I really value having a client and actual work that I can show future employers.”
“This is the first time I’ve had to ‘work’ with a client and had to reorient my thinking and communication in a professional manner.”
“The best thing about this class is that it exists. These are skills that every student in our program NEEDS to know.”
Feedback from clients
I also asked the clients for feedback after the semester wrapped up. Here’s what just a few of them had to say:
“The students were patient, very informed and helpful when it came to organizing our Facebook page. They taught me about analytics and how to use Insights. This experience completely exceeded my expectations.”
“It is has been a very exciting semester for us as we finally started to get into a social media presence. We could not have done it without a dedicated student worker, and are now even thinking about how to expand our efforts in the future. So glad your class prompted us to focus on this.”
“I would absolutely recommend this to other organizations/departments on campus. This was very helpful and insightful. Also being able to work with students was awesome.”
Hindsight is 20/20
When you’re creating a class from scratch, there’s always going to be a few things that don’t go as smoothly as you hoped – or maybe even flat out go wrong. I made a couple of mistakes this semester that I will learn from moving forward.
The biggest problem was that I expected the students to turn in analytics reports and just assumed they knew how to build them. The students let me know quickly that it would have helped to spend a day going over what goes into a report and how they’re styled. I’ve added that to the schedule for next time. I’m also going to work on finding a better platform for the students to produce and publish these reports. We used the free version of Piktochart the first go-around, but I’d like something more standardized and customizable.
Another challenge was being as clear as possible as to what was expected of the students. I didn’t spend enough time at the beginning walking them through the process of meeting with the client and what needed to be covered. I sent them into this incredibly foreign territory without the full amount of direction they needed. Thankfully they alerted me to this – and I made sure to give them talking points to focus on for each meeting from there on out.
Opening up that dialogue with the students worked. Not only did it improve their experience in the class, but it also helped me improve as an instructor.
Walking the stage
Like a proud father, I got to watch several of the students from the course walk the stage at graduation this past semester. One landed a job at a social media agency a few weeks ago. Some of the underclassmen have since emailed to let me know they landed internships at some of Austin’s biggest PR firms. One said the agency told her she was ahead of all the other applicants because she already had experience with analytics reports.
And that’s what this is all about – giving students valuable experience that leads to employment at innovative digital media companies. It makes all the hard work that went into this class worth it in the end. I can’t wait to do it all over again.
Dale Blasingame is a lecturer in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Texas State University. He teaches courses on social media, web design, drone journalism and mobile storytelling, among others. You can view his course syllabi and schedules, including those for this particular class, at his website.