Remix: 11 Ways to Integrate Social Media into J-School Classes

    by Kelly Fincham
    July 7, 2016

    Remix is a segment of education content on MediaShift, featuring interesting and innovative journalism assignments, courses and curricula. Writers will 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.

    From journalism to public relations to non-profits, if our students work in any form of communications, they are going to be working with social media. However, with social still a relatively young form of media, many journalism faculty are themselves still learning how to best prepare their students for future newsrooms. Many faculty aren’t sure where to start, especially those who left the newsroom before 2004 when Mark Zuckerberg, Dustin Moskovitz, Eduardo Saverin, Andrew McCollum and Chris Hughes launched Facebook and helped usher in the disruptive and transformative era of social media.

    Photo by FACEBOOK(LET) on Flickr and used here with Creative Commons license.

    Photo by FACEBOOK(LET) on Flickr and used here with Creative Commons license.


    This Remix, aimed at helping faculty incorporate social media into their curriculum as part of both the learning experience and the assigned work, brings together suggestions and assignments from some of the leading social media educators in the U.S., along with general advice on how to best integrate social media into each story that students produce.

    Think beyond Twitter and Facebook, for example. Aaron Chimbel from Texas Christian University says the social media elements should be specific to each assignment, “so not necessarily just a tweet, but Instagram or Vine or something else that’s most appropriate for the story.”

    Leigh Landini Wright at Murray State University assigns to students to tweet headlines and leads as part of a writing and editing assignment; Mindy McAdams at the University of Florida has a detailed live-blogging assignment; while Jake Batsell’s students at SMU do a semester-long assignment writing 20 power tweets. Rob Quigley goes a little further (OK, a lot further!) and has his students build an entire social network across multiple social media platforms over the course of a semester.


    Additionally, other faculty such as Staci Baird at the Global Press Institute and Herbert Lowe at Marquette use social media as part of the learning experience by using Twitter for class conversations and one-minute papers.

    The key takeaway is that all journalism faculty should incorporate some form of social media in either the class process or assignments. What could this look like? Just like this curated list of 11 social media assignments or topics to help faculty bring more social into the classroom.

    1. The one-minute Twitter paper

    The one-minute paper is a staple of active learning in higher education, with professors asking students to take one minute to let them know what they learned in that day’s class or what might still be confusing. The feedback for educators is immediate, and the practice helps with the reinforcement of key concepts for students. Lowe requires students to post a minimum of one tweet within a set time frame reflecting on what they’ve learned in that class with a specific hashtag. It’s a simple and elegant way to help students start thinking about Twitter as a professional communication platform rather than a personal network.

    2. Use Twitter as a classroom

    Borrowing from the flipped classroom method, Baird moves one class a week to Twitter and uses that class session as a real-time lab in real-time social media communication. The assignment is easy to follow and was inspired by the regular #wjchat chat about web journalism. Working in teams, students pick a social media topic that is then the focus of the online class chat. Students must DM their questions in advance to Baird, who then shares them with the student chat hosts during the class time. Using Twitter in this way helps students explore Twitter and see how hashtags, MTs, RTs, replies and favorites are used in a professional setting.

    Using Twitter chats can work even on a one-off basis. Carrie Brown, director of the social journalism MA program at the CUNY graduate school of journalism, says chat participation helps students get started on Twitter, particularly if they are new users. “I had my students participate in a chat the other day, and I had forgotten how simple and valuable that is to get them going,” she said during a Facebook chat.

    3. Tweet leads and headlines

    Landini Wright uses the 140-character restrictions on Twitter to help students practice concise writing in a class session. The fast-paced assignment requires students to find — and, more importantly, read — five national news stories using local or national news sources such as the New York Times, the Washington Post and NPR. Once the students are familiar with the news stories, they then write five 140-character summary leads based on those stories and post them on Twitter (with the proviso that they don’t steal the actual leads!) Landini Wright offers real-time oral feedback in class on the tweets as the students post them and follow-up feedback in a Storify. Jeremy Littau at Lehigh University does something similar with his more detailed “optimized tweets” assignments, which sees students work through different types of tweets. The directions and examples are detailed and can be used at the start of the semester to help students understand best practices for journalists on Twitter.

    4. Pin the Tail on the Campus

    This is a games-based social media assignment from Nicole Kraft at Ohio State University which gives students an engaging experience in social media and storytelling. It’s a team assignment and starts with students pinning a tail on a map of campus and then heading off to that location, armed with only their iPads (or smartphones) to find a story. Students have an hour to research sources and story ideas at the specific locations and then tweet those ideas back to a specific class hashtag. The games format at the start helps engage students in what can often be a daunting task for new reporters — finding story ideas and talking to sources. Kraft keeps an eye on the Twitter feed and sets up a Storify to collect and curate the story ideas as they develop.

    In a digital media curriculum, students would use blogs, Twitter and Storify for mobile reporting projects. Photo by David Nolan, Texas State University.

    Photo by David Nolan, Texas State University.

    5. Curation

    Curation is a key skill for journalists, but it’s a tough sell to students who can find it hard to find story ideas that are worth curating. Storify is still the go-to curation platform for most faculty and journalists, but there are other options. For example, Lowe is using Medium so students can “concentrate on the writing,” while Amara Aguilar at USC Annenberg is using the Steller app.

    But whichever app students use, the main challenge is figuring out how to use curation to add value to a story. Some ideas are better suited to curation than others (see Mallary Tenore’s advice) and a good way to introduce students to curation is to use this assignment by Rowan University’s Mark Berkey-Gerard which uses class-time to work on specific story ideas selected by the instructor. Supplying the story ideas frees the students up to experiment with the curation, and Berkey-Gerard’s assignment includes simple directions to help guide students.

    6. Verification

    Anthony Adornato at Ithaca College’s Roy H. Park School of Communications drills his students on verification with an amazingly simple class-based project. The verification exercise should be standard operating procedure in college classrooms because, as Adornato’s research has found, a third of respondents in a survey of local TV news directors, “indicated their stations have reported information from social media that was later found to be false or inaccurate.” The exercise breaks students up into teams to work with sample scenarios (see Adornato’s here) to see which is the real deal or fake. How do you know which is which? Also, First Draft News runs an excellent verification quiz and a monthly Fake News Quiz, which can be used in classroom exercises.

    7. Break it down

    Once students get into the idea of sharing particular content on social media, Aguilar uses a post-production checklist at the JEDI desk (think: journalism innovation plus Star Wars!), which asks students to think about how they use social media as a platform. The checklist prompts students to describe their approach and discuss if the format and platform worked for their particular story. JEDI, formally known as Journalism, Emerging, Digital, Innovation, is a completely new class aimed at teaching students how and why to produce content for social, mobile and emerging platforms. Sample questions include:

    • How did you tailor the content for this platform and audience?
    • How did you choose visuals and other info to include?
    • Describe your sources?
    • How did the content do as far as engagement?
    • Do you have analytics?
    • What were some takeaways from this assignment?

    This checklist is useful in helping students understand the whys and hows of using social, mobile and emerging platforms. Aguilar also makes all the course content and resources available at their Facebook group page.

    8. Analyze this: NPR

    Mindy McAdams at Florida requires students to think about the way news organizations actually use social media sites such as Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Instagram, Pinterest and Snapchat and write up daily summaries. Her assignment specifies NPR but this could easily be switched to another, perhaps local, organization. The goal is to get students thinking about the daily application of social media, write daily summaries (with links to examples) and report on whether NPR is being “smart, or stupid, in their efforts.”

    The idea is that students “try to learn from what NPR is doing. Are they using the different platforms wisely and well? Why or why not?” McAdams also requires that students review the main website at npr.org to understand what stories NPR prioritizes on social media and why. She tasks students to “think about what NPR is doing and how it’s different from other news sites like The New York Times or CNN (or whatever your personal favorites might be).” Again, this is moving students on from the how of social media and more into the why.

    9. Analyze this: BYO news org

    Joy Mayer, formerly at Missouri, also assigns a social media analysis, but this one asks students to find their own news organization, albeit one that needs improvement. The assignment is split into five parts, with the first three aimed at getting the students to do initial research, such as identifying the organization’s primary audience, mission statement, social media presence, frequency, content and types of posts, and then looking at the frequency, content and types of posts from actual members of the organization. Once those three sections are completed, students move on to exploring possible strategies for the organization’s social media activity and ways to improve it.

    10. Social media activism

    Peg Achterman at Seattle Pacific University goes old school to introduce students to the hard thinking behind social media campaigns. Each student gets a notecard to write down the thing they’d most like to change “on campus, in the city, in the state, in the country, in the world,” and ideas have ranged from healthier food on campus to pay equality. Students are then organized into groups of four to five and negotiate down to one issue “they can all get around,” before spelling out their idea’s selling points on white boards in the classroom.

    Then comes the social media activism part. “Then they list all of the ways they can think of to make their idea go viral on social media. They also think about next steps — when do they have to talk to the food service, for instance.” After about 10 minutes on this activity, Achterman moves the groups on and they each have to add more ideas to ideas of the first group and so on until all groups have contributed to all ideas. The exercise (see the powerpoint here) is simple but effective. As Achterman says, “It points out the thinking that must go into a ‘campaign,’ so it makes them aware of how social media marketing works in general.”

    11. Create a social news network

    Once students are fully versed in the how and the why, it’s time to let them create their own social information network. Robert Quigley at the University of Texas at Austin created the Social News Network — which lives on multiple social media platforms — rather than a standalone website. Working in shifts, students post content to their news, sports and entertainment sites on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Pinterest and Snapchat with a target audience of fellow college students. Quigley says the students enjoy Twitter and Snapchat the most while also learning about the analytics behind content.

    “They are encouraged to check Facebook Insights to see what works and go from that.” The students post “without prior restraint,” but Quigley hands out detailed tips and examples before publication and offers gentle coaching in the event of any inappropriate content. The students keep track of their work in a Storify and do self evaluations after four-week rotations, and you can see their work at https://www.facebook.com/socialnn

    Kelly Fincham (@kellyfincham) is an assistant professor of journalism at Hofstra University. She is the founding editor of irishcentral.com and was named one of the 50 most influential Irish women in America. She is a frequent contributor to Poynter and founded Hofstra’s Long Island Report.

    Tagged: assignments curation j-school new media social media twitter

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