Those of you unfortunate enough to run into me often have heard me chirping about “a classroom without walls” for over more than a year now. My vision, simply, is this: In an age of YouTube, social media, and online degrees, the classroom of the future needs to go beyond the brick-and-mortar boundaries and take advantage of community both in the real world and online.

This is why I’m all over social media. It’s a tool my journalism and strategic communication students desperately need to know when they hit the job market even if they don’t quite understand it. But I also am active on Twitter and my blog (in addition to some excellent flash conversations on Facebook groups at times) because I consider the learning environment to be boundless. Sometimes I wonder whether older-style professors think I’m screwing around on Twitter instead of doing things related to my job; my view is that in many ways Twitter is my job, and that everything I do in that medium has a purpose.

So what do I do? I post articles from the news, particularly about things related to my field of journalism. I pass on good information from others. I post internship and job opportunities. All “work related” activities. But I think it’s important to model what the medium is about for my students so they see how regular folks (read: not journalism professor nerds) use it as well. So I crack jokes about what I’m watching on TV. I make fun of the University of Kansas a lot (it’s the Mizzou blood in me). I Rickrolled my students the other night. I retweet their comments. I reply to them. In general, I let what little hair I have down. For me, Twitter is a way to show that expertise in something doesn’t mean losing your personality. And all of this stuff helps teach them about the culture of the Web, and particularly of Twitter.

Last night gave me yet another great example of doing it right. It started with a casual comment to one of my students, who had tweeted that they were studying for my final, that he shouldn’t worry because there is an extra credit question. Being the type-A Lehigh student, he wanted a hint.

Pause.

Hints are easy to give. Learning opportunities (at least good ones) can be hard to come by. This was serendipity dropping into my lap. So I replied with the following:

OK, here’s the deal. If you can get a viral Twitter campaign going, I’ll give out a hint tonight.

So he passed on the message, and a few other students who follow me on Twitter saw it and replied. We had four in about 30 minutes. One was satisfied when it hit 5 because she didn’t think there were many more on Twitter.

Not good enough. I’m an evangelist for using Twitter here at Lehigh. I wanted more, and said so. My secret hope is I’d get some signing up just for the hint, and in turn they’d give the medium a whirl.

More students came out of the woodwork because they found ways to find each other. It was a transmedia campaign, likely using Facebook, email, texts, and phone calls in addition to Twitter. I have been using the #COMM100 hashtag all semester on my own; suddenly discussions using it were breaking out that went beyond the viral campaign. Students were organizing discussion in new ways using virtual tools. One of my journalism students who wasn’t in the class blogged about it because she was intrigued by the mini-movement. Nuts, I tell you.

My goal was 14 of my 56 students in the campaign, which is 25% of the class. Given this is a university-wide course and not a journalism course (where being on Twitter would have been mandatory), I thought it a good target. My students blew me away. By this morning I had replies from 25 students, about 10 of which just signed up as a result of the campaign.

But it got me thinking: I had 15 students in COMM 100 on Twitter, about half of which I knew about before last night. We had a classroom community, but we were not a virtual community until last night. Clay Shirky talks about flash mobs in Here Comes Everybody, how the Web is allowing us to organize ourselves instantly in new ways. Think of the potential that was there but unused this semester: study groups online, asking each other questions, using the #COMM 100 hashtag to discuss the class. Last night could be viewed as how this semester was a waste of this potential because this movement sprang up so late, but I see something else: the students have the template for how to do it again using social media, and they are empowered.

This, incidentally, is exactly what JOUR 325 will be next semester. We’re going to study how groups are organizing themselves online in order to create new forms of action. Interactive media lets us organize ourselves in all kinds of ways. This semester we studied hashtags, Facebook groups, memes, social media, and other things. They are many things, but to me the beauty is that they are tools of organization. LOLCats is kind of ridiculous when you think it’s just a web site. When you consider the LOLCats as a meme, as a way of saying something about yourself when you post it or use the word “haz” in an email or status update, you’ve identified with something bigger than yourself. This is a flashpoint of how society can organize itself in ways we didn’t have 10 years ago. “What does it mean that we have LOLCats?” is a far more interesting question than the site itself.

In short, this experience sums up a main tenet of COMM 100: Networks matter, and the fact they are growing and spreading via digital media is allowing them to change the way society works in innovative and interesting ways. Those of you who participated last night got a taste of that. I hope you’ll try it again, and often.

To my students: I hope that after the extra credit fades, you’ll take a step back and consider what you accomplished last night. And I hope you’ll keep it going. My only carrot is a grade; what you do with what you learn is, as always, entirely in your hands.

Second confidential to my students: Mike Ojo is your MVP for making this happen.

Final note to my students: I had a real loopy day yesterday and found myself wondering (wrongly) whether some of what I’ve been doing the past 18 months at Lehigh was the right approach. I am emotionally attached to what I do and I was thinking about some things that had me down. Yes, professors have mini crises of confidence too. By the end of the night, your viral campaign smacked me back to life and cheered me up, reaffirming what I should have known: we’re doing it right, and this is just the beginning. Call this a note of thanks. Both of my classes this semester had amazing students and I feel much more invested in all of your success with this material than any other group I’ve taught.

And finally, as promised the extra credit hint: We watched a cool interactive music video in class this semester. You should know the music group that made it, might want to know its name, and maybe even watch it once to be familiar with it. Make sure to use Google Chrome, available in any computer lab.

And if you want to crowdsource some ideas, the #COMM100 hashtag is open for business.

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Letter to my students: A classroom without walls

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