Like many journalism educators across the country, I’ve been teaching more news writing classes online. It’s a challenge, but also an opportunity to connect with students – and to connect them with the curriculum – in new ways.
To be clear, teaching AP Style or lead writing to students I can’t work with in person is definitely different. I like sitting next to students at a computer to go through edits, and I think explaining the nuances of writing and editing are best done face to face.
But teaching news writing online offers unique chances to interact with students, and to connect students to each other at the same time. For my Writing and Editing for Multimedia class at the University of New Mexico, I’ve been using Twitter as a space outside our discussion boards where students can talk and learn about journalism.
These public posts put students in touch with new journalism education resources, they force students to read and analyze current reporting, and they teach students the value of having a professional Twitter account for discussing reporting in a way that a class-only discussion board can’t.
Here’s how I’ve used this approach so far.
A social media presence assignment
It all starts with one assignment that students work on each week throughout the semester. The idea is for learners to have a consistent (at least three times a week) presence on Twitter focused on journalism or journalism education. Students tweet about articles, videos or photos and then talk about the quality of the journalism — not the content. For example: Does their audience think the lead works? Do the photos help tell the story? Do multimedia elements distract from the piece?
This isn’t a social media class, and there isn’t much time to spend on the basics of using Twitter. But to help get them started, I go through hashtags, usernames and other beginner aspects. (I also provide guides like this and other information that points to the usefulness of Twitter in journalism.)
Once students realize we’re not tweeting about lattes and sunsets here, the work begins. Their first concern often is that they won’t have enough to tweet about. I address this by prompting them to post tweets about our weekly topics.
Here’s a lead to start off our discussion this week, #CJ278. What do you notice about the writing? What makes it strong? What specific details help tell the story? https://t.co/fl5FbMjT7n #newswritingonline
— Kate Nash Cunningham (@katenashnm) March 19, 2018
So when they study lead writing in class, they look for story leads, post them and talk about why they were effective. (Or not.)
This is a great example of when you would want to use a delayed lede instead of a direct lede. Here the lede allows the writer to take a more creative approach by setting a scene to tell a short story. #CJ278 https://t.co/Psj8rO2rWq
— Nicholas Aragon (@naragon97) March 22, 2018
When they study headlines, they look for examples and post those.
NPR’s headline in this article is effective. It’s condensed, to the point and follows the rules of headlines. #CJ278 https://t.co/4hJnezSRV0
— Lainey Jameson (@livewithlainey) March 6, 2018
These exercises get them reading news stories and thinking about the mechanics of how those stories came to be, something I think can only help them as they start to write their own stories.
I also tell students they can use Twitter to look for sources or to post their stories once published. To keep this all together (and to make grading easy) students use a hashtag for class. At the end of the semester, students write a short reflection on what they learned, what went well (and didn’t) and how they will continue to use Twitter in the future.
Quickly connecting to outside resources
Twitter users recognize the value of the breadth of resources available on pretty much any topic, and journalism and journalism education are no exception. There are ACES chats on editing to join, Thomson Foundation Facebook Live seminars on mobile reporting to watch, or other resources including the NPR training site to be consumed.
It’s much easier and faster to retweet announcements about those events than going into our learning management system and posting something students might not read in a timely manner. For some chats, I offer extra credit if students participate and tweet five things. This incentivizes students to log on often to see what’s happening and enriches the class beyond the materials posted. My hope is that they follow a variety of accounts they otherwise might not have known about, and they continue to fill their feeds with helpful material well beyond class.
Ten points extra credit if you watch and tweet at least five things you learn, #CJ278 #CJ375 #newswritingonline This could really help prepare you for upcoming assignments. https://t.co/JigkDE0YxK
— Kate Nash Cunningham (@katenashnm) February 12, 2018
Strengths and weaknesses of this approach
One thing I really like about this assignment is that students are learning a few things at once. They are looking for different types of news and thinking about what makes a story strong or a headline weak. At the same time, they also are building their professional social media skills. They also are thinking about appropriate ways to communicate in public forums. As they post, I emphasize that tweets for class should be professional and well-written, and for the most part, they are.
I also like that students who are new to Twitter (and even express reservations about using it) generally come to see the value of it. I’ve had students say they deleted their accounts when the assignment was over, but they still learned something from doing it.
One challenge — and it’s one I have in my in-person classes as well — is getting students excited to use social media for school. To many students, it’s still a place to show off with pics of friends or pets and not something they want their professor to read. I encourage them to create “work” accounts if that makes them more comfortable, and I create lists of each class instead of following each student. To keep students engaged on Twitter, I try to be funny and personable. I also post job ads that require social media skills, so they can see how all of this could come in handy after graduation.
The beauty of having a class hashtag is that anyone can join in the conversation. I use #CJ278 for this class, but I also use #newswritingonline in hopes of connecting to other educators who teach news writing at other institutions.
Kate Nash Cunningham is the social media editor for MediaShift. She teaches digital journalism at the University of New Mexico. Follow her @katenashnm.