The most interesting turn my classes have taken this semester has been the step up in collaboration. Both my J198 Multimedia Reporting and my J325 New Media & Social Change courses have been made more use of collaboration in projects outside the bounds of the class itself. This has been my “classroom without walls” vision on steroids.

In J325, my students are collaborating on a social change project with students in Kjerstin Thorson’s class at the University of Southern California. This has been interesting to watch mostly because my main rule for myself has been to stay out of things. It’s in my nature to plan and micromonitor the learning process, but Kjerstin and I both have made the committment to let these projects develop organically. In plainspeak, it means I’m staying the hell out of it and being more of a guide and sounding board. Their pitches are due this week, with only one guideline: we want you to wow us.

In J198 we’ve always used community folks to help us build stories. The new wrinkle this semester has been the expansion of the classroom in a cross-university partnership with classes doing something similar to what we’re doing with multimedia. It began with a Twitter scavenger hunt, set up by Carrie Brown at the University of Memphis, which had students at LehighMemphisWest VirginiaDrury, and Oregon all doing the same assignment and following one another’s class hashtags.

The cross-university thing worked so well that it has led to other things. We’ve done two web chats that brought the classes together, and last night we livetweeted the Oscars. What’s cool about the Oscars exercise is that it brought in new people, including journalism educators and students from other schools who had not been a part of the original scavenger hunt. I had former J198 students chiming in, and folks at other schools were contributing as well.

It feels like we’re at the start of something big. Our field has long needed something like this, some way to model networks for students that opens them up to the wide world. When I was at Missouri it was great because the internal social media discussion is so good there that you have a model right in front of you for how to integrate this with a media career, but it’s more of a challenge here at Lehigh because I’m trying to help build the network while exposing students to its value.

Here at Lehigh we’re getting to critical mass territory. There are probably 300 or so folks on Twitter here, so that’s enough to start having a discussion. I’m finding it’s widespread enough that my students are having more trouble finding external networks this semester; it’s that need to stay in the safe space and be insular, to go with the network you know. So things like our cross-university partnership are big, because participating in these bigger more connected assignments lets them see the possibility of what happens when you seek people in other spaces.

My favorite moments as a professor come when I see a student’s light switch on with Twitter. Students often are on it for a year or so and using, but it takes time to really get it because there are so many layers to using Twitter that are hard to explore without having a well built network that is strong both internally and externally. Usually it’s that chance meeting that takes place because of a weak tie or something similar, but when it happens it’s dramatic. The student at that moment sees that when I’ve been talking about the value of networks here I am not just blowing smoke. Something like this happened last Friday, when one of my students got introduced to someone in the local community for the first time; they both had similar interests and struck up a Twitter friendship based on mutual interests that otherwise would not have existed if not for the medium.

Such moments should not be rare. We need more of them. Lots more of them. They are part of both the learning process and the hard work of forming partnerships and networks in a world that is headed more toward that kind of setup every day. It’s time for us professors to have a discussion about creating a formal open-to-all alliance across universities that teach journalism and mass communication. I don’t know what form it will take or even whether it should have a structure at all, but we need more ways to collaborate on the following:

  • Assignments
  • Chats for student journalists
  • Connecting students who are blogging about similar topics (tribe-forming)
  • Professional advice and developments
  • Events that lead to the “getting Twitter” moment, such as award shows or national news events

In short, I think we need a space to share both assignments and ideas, but also to make weak-tie connections between our students. And I’m thinking about how to make this a formal part of our classes so we can plan for it, but also have the flexibility to do things on the fly when someone has a really great idea. This is our future; the classroom can no longer be a self-contained thing in an era of networks and YouTube education.

Carrie, Bob Britten, Jen Reeves, and myself are hoping to start this conversation with our teaching panel on location and journalism at AEJ this August. We’ve envisioned a Web site for people to share ideas and such. I consider that the starting point, with the topic of location being a piece of a bigger social media puzzle.

So where do we go from there? I propose a summit of sorts a AEJMC. Wait, that’s too official. What about a tweetup of people interested in doing something with this and building the loose structure of an organization? We’ve been talking about classroom collaboration at these conferences for a couple years, but it’s time we did something about it. Leave a comment if you have ideas or thoughts on this, or if you’re interested in participating.

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Journalism education: More community of collaboration needed
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