Editor’s Note: “Snapshot; A Day in the Life: Storytelling with Snapchat” was selected as one of the 2017 “Top 25” Great Ideas for Teachers (GIFT) entries through the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication.
While certain concepts and theories remain the same, there is constant experimentation with assignments in digital media courses. As a professor of Media Studies and Digital Culture, I’ve wanted to create a project involving Snapchat Stories for some time, but it seemed too gimmicky. I was also unsure of the takeaway value for students.
Yet, as we’ve seen brands emerge and use Stories for marketing and promotion, I saw a way to implement this in my Digital Communications course, a 200-level, hands-on class that is comprised of majors as well as non-majors who are partaking in our interdisciplinary Digital Humanities minor.
The Assignment: ‘A Day in the Life’ with Stories
The premise for this assignment is simple: each student must create a five-minute Snapchat Story themed “A Day in the Life of a Christopher Newport Captain.” I ask them to imagine they are working in the Office of Admissions, and in that capacity, their story should show a prospective student what a day on campus entails. They must use a mix of still photos and video, they must incorporate at least one geofilter and include captions as needed, and it must take place over at least an eight-hour period.
I purposely keep this technologically simple. In class, we discuss how to create a Snapchat Story, how to save it and send the file, and how to add some bells and whistles. I’ve found even some millennials have anxiety surrounding technology use, and not all are comfortable with Snapchat (although out of 40 students this year, only three were not actively using the app).
I’m not concerned with their ability to add “special effects” to their story; instead, I want to see that they know:
- how Snapchat is best used to convey a story
- how to present that story in a persuasive way for a specific audience
Therefore, I focus class time on how to effectively tell a story on Snapchat: what the platform can achieve that others can’t, its strengths and weaknesses, and what makes a good, cohesive story.
Student Surprise to Snapchat Experience
This assignment elicits my favorite reactions as an educator. There is initial excitement at getting to do something that seems easy, fun and different from assignments in other classes. Then, there is surprise at taking such a daily activity and putting parameters on it, while considering it strategically. My students are surprised by how challenging it can be to produce material that seems completely natural, casual and “behind the scenes,” which are components of Snapchat’s aesthetic we break down in class.
Aside from teaching effective communication in this specific medium, I also find this assignment forces students to be introspective about media use. As Instagram and now Facebook have adopted the “Stories” component, this indicates a trend of social and digital media storytelling that deserves its own analysis. In writing a reflective paper about this experience, students often indicate the distinctiveness of creating content for a different audience. They note how using Snapchat in this way made them consider how they typically use the app.
In addition to its pedagogical purposes, this assignment has allowed me to connect with students by understanding a tiny part of their world; they have recorded their experiences in dining halls, in other classrooms, in meetings for organizations and sports teams, at their jobs, and with friends. While this is obviously mediated and purposively showing me what they want me to see, it’s a fascinating insight into the lives of these folks I see only a few hours each week.
In this specific course, students complete the Snapchat assignment, as well as a how-to YouTube video and a podcast, among other digital writing components. At the end of the course, the goal is for students to walk away with tools for effectively communicating in digital spaces, but also the ability to analyze and adapt to new spaces and modes of storytelling using technology that hasn’t yet been created. To that end, this assignment guides students toward considering and analyzing how they’re using such a ubiquitous platform.
Dr. Jennifer Billinson is an Assistant Professor of Media Studies and Digital Culture at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Virginia. Her research is centered around the use of entertainment and digital media in response to tragedies and disasters.