The social revolution: A new approach to teaching

The social revolution: A new approach to teaching
Social media has taken over the world, so it’s not surprising that it’s now become a teaching tool.

 Social media has taken over the world, so it’s not surprising that it’s now become a teaching tool.

the social revolution aut social media project

PHOTO: Tony Nyberg

Not that long ago, it was journalists who went out into the thick of things and brought back news of what was happening in the world. Today, thanks to Twitter, YouTube and blogging, anyone can tell a story and report or comment on events going on anywhere in the world, as they happen – and frequently before the mainstream media.

To keep pace, news organisations have had to modify how they communicate. Adapting to these new channels has largely been a learn-on-the-job experience for journalists, but this, too, is beginning to change.

Helen Sissons, senior lecturer at the School of Communication Studies at Auckland University of Technology, has joined forces with colleagues Thom Cochrane, Richard Pamatatau and Danni Mulrennan to introduce social media into teaching. It’s part of a larger initiative, the Social Media Project, being run out of the University’s Centre for Learning and Teaching (CFLT).

“In the past 10 years, the journalism industry has transformed completely,” says Sissons. “To survive, media organisations have had to innovate and they’ve looked to their newest recruits to do this.”

Today’s journalists are expected to work across several platforms. They have to interact with their audience more and be multi-skilled to provide rich content to enhance their stories – taking photos, recording audio clips and repurposing stories for the web.

“Training journalism students to be all of these things puts significant demands on educators, and our curriculum has to develop almost annually with the changes,” says Sissons.

Before introducing the programme, she researched journalists’ use of social media. She spoke to journalists at the BBC (where she used to work), and visited the LA Times and the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University, as well as several newsrooms in Auckland and around New Zealand.

Young journalists know how to use social media tools in their everyday social lives, says Sissons, but few have any idea of how to use them in a professional way.

“We became involved in the project in order to combine what journalists needed to know on the job with our roles as journalism educators. The aim is to teach through [itals] social media, rather than about [itals] it. This helps students know and avoid the pitfalls. We’re giving them an authentic modelling of the technology they’ll use when they graduate. The more they can be across everything that’s expected of them before they go out into the workforce, the better.”

Working as part of a ‘community of practice’, Sissons, Cochrane, Pamatatau and Mulrennan each have a different but complementary focus. Cochrane, who is also assisting three similar groups at AUT, acts as technical steward, providing input about relevant technologies and platforms. Sissons is trailing various ways of bringing authentic learning into the classroom using social media, while Mulrennan has been collaborating with undergraduate students at AUT and universities in New Jersey, Canada and Denmark on a Skype-based programme called The Global City. Pamatatau runs the Pacific Journalism programmes and is working to plug technological gaps and prevent students getting left behind.

Sissons initially introduced Twitter and then blogging to her students, encouraging them to share their learning experiences, and use Twitter to ask questions during lectures and to do news quizzes.

“Twitter is a great way to sharpen their thinking – if you can’t tell your story in 140 characters, you really don’t understand what it’s about.

“Because it’s a public communication tool, it’s not something you can keep within the classroom. Being open to the world and to outside discussion makes it a great lesson on the importance of responsibility when you’re talking publicly.”

Most of her students hadn’t blogged or tweeted, but Sissons says they liked that it allowed them to ‘talk’ without interruption, and gave them time to formulate their ideas and respond to each other.

 She says another interesting exercise was the use of multimedia story-telling in the post-graduate Media Relations class using storify.com. The goal was to replace the traditional written essay format with a richer medium. Storify.com allows the writer to embed things that have been published on other platforms – blogs, tweets, journal articles, photos, YouTube clips – into their essay.

“It’s a lot more creative and allows students to engage with the story on a deeper level,” she says.

While the programme is still in its infancy, having run for just a year, Sissons is delighted with the results and feedback from all quarters. 

“We’ve already given two conference presentations and have a couple of journal articles about to be published. We’re also presenting at a symposium in Wellington. People are really interested in this and we’re one of just a few groups who’ve actually done it and analysed how it is working.”