It’s end of the semester time for J198 and after last week’s presentations I’ve been going over the sites as the students have been pushing out links to social media.

Presentation Day is one of my favorites. This year, with help from my colleague Wally Trimble, we set up a screen next to the main screen so we could have a #J198 hashtag stream using Twitterfall.

What I really liked about the Twitterfall experience is that it didn’t just have people in the class. People in the community (both local and at Lehigh) who have followed and helped my students all semester were contributing to the #J198 stream. With every group I posted the link to their site and each group’s hashtag and the discussion that took place online was coming from all over the local community. It was a cool experience.

This is, in a nutshell, my classroom without walls. The local community has been an amazing resource for my students and it was fun to have them in on the discussion during Presentation Day. We’re going to make this even more the case next time I teach this class (more on that below), but it’s nice to keep adding layers to this experience.

I do want to talk briefly about the projects, but first some business. As some of you might know, I had the local community vote on the top blogs for this class. The students were blogging three days a week on a topic of their choosing and local folks were reading and retweeting: Here are the winners:

1. Callie’s Culinary Corner (Callie Burrows)
2. Antoine’s College Thoughts (Antoine Williams)
3t. A Chick Who Digs The Baltimore Ravens (Taylor Boyd)
3t. The World: A Classroom And A Playground (Christine McLaren)
5. Love is a Battlefield: How To Survive (Alyssa Gutjahr)

So thanks to all the local folks who voted. This is the first time we’ve done a “community’s choice” blog selection and I intend to make this a part of every class from here on out. The blogs, in general, were better than we’ve ever had. I focused a lot on finding your tribe and connecting with communities of interest, and I think that helped the students envision both the audience and the community in which their blog was embedded. Mostly I wanted to get rid of the feeling that they were blogging on an island.

OK, on to the six microsite projects. For those unfamiliar, the students produce multimedia sites that explore a topic or issue in depth. There are several multimedia requirements and a few optional ones from which they pick.

Bethlehem Coffee: A site that examines the local coffee scene in South Bethlehem, with a twist on how these local businesses also help serve the arts scene. Their documentary short on the Terra Cafe is funky and informative; lots of good (and bad) music. From top to bottom, this site is well thought out in terms of design, with a brand that reflects the project focus all the way through. Hidden gem: Check out their Gowalla trip of the different places they covered. Location plus story!

Serving South Bethlehem: One of my favorite projects in three J198 semesters, the students decided they wanted to tell a rich story about a local issue that shows the good things being done on the South side. They cover local volunteer efforts. Check out the documentary video on New Bethany Ministries; it’ll make you tear up a little bit. This project is the closest yet to hit the mark of what I want this class to be eventually. Real reporting and lack of fear in tackling an issue that has some good and bad. Hidden gem:If you’re looking to get involved, they have a nice interactive map on the site. If you click on the pins, it gives you information on how to volunteer. Journalism you can use.

Affordable Bethlehem Dining: Last semester I had a group cover fine dining in the area. This group focused on how to eat on a more modest budget. Coverage of a lot of local favorites such as The Goose or Johnny’s Bagel, with a couple pricier options like Apollo mixed in (their definition of affordable is a little more broad than mine, I think!). I like the obsessive linking in this project where you can get more information, such as restaurant websites or menus. The site is very well thought-out in terms of design and architecture – logical entry points and clickthroughs. Hidden gem: Love the video about Tulum, which gives you reviews through the eyes of the customer. Also, all of their videos have a nice casual feel in terms of voiceovers that reflects the site’s focus.

Hidden Lehigh Valley: A guide to some of the lesser-known things to do in the Lehigh Valley. Knowledgeable locals might find the locales not so surprising, but this is a great guide for newbies to the area or the college student crowd that struggles to find things to do outside of the university zone. But even for those who know these places, stories such as the one on the Allentown Farmers Market capture a lot of the sights and sounds. Hidden gem: Check out Morgan’s summer guide, one of the few items in these class projects that is forward-looking and intended to live on past the end of the semester. Good stuff there.

Lehigh Valley Fitness: Like the coffee group, this group took a topic and added a niche twist to separate it from other sites out there. Fitness, sure, but also with an eye on affordability. This group wanted to show you how to get out and get active without busting your budget. Very cool idea. Lots of good “If you go …” information in this project, with custom map work and slide shows of running trails. Hidden gem: I hesitate to promote this one because apparently it’s a well-kept secret here, but their coverage of the Yoga Loft is good and has gotten good reviews from locals on Twitter.

Inside Bethlehem: Another good “things to do” site that focuses on lesser known events. Check out their documentary short on “Spring On 4th” which is notable for a couple reasons. First, they shot and produced that thing in two days, which is incredible given how well done it is. Also, it features original music from Adrian Velazquez, one of the group members. Beat that, royalty cops. But seriously, check out the Spring On 4th video, it’s really great. Hidden gem: Check out their great Resource Guide page that gives you links to all the interesting things to do in the area..

What I find interesting about these projects is that so many connect together. The first couple terms of J198 were about learning about the community; these seemed to take this a step further and help teach new residents and students about things to do. I could see 3 or 4 of these collapsing into a killer metasite that can live on past this class. Which gives me ideas …..

All of the students did self-evaluations for the end of the semester, and as is my practice I made a Wordle word cloud from an aggregate of their 12 posts:

These things are always interesting to me because it lets me match perceptions of what I think the class did and learned to reality. It makes me smile that words like “skills,” “social,” and “community” are bigger than “individual.” And the word “people” being so prominent makes me grin. Journalism is about people. The exercise in Wordle lets me go back and locate emphasized words and read with a little more clarity because I can ask why they stand out.

In a word, this class came in either terrified or ambivalent about the material, especially some of the younger ones. Which makes sense, because I find that younger students don’t always know what they don’t know and it’s the job of the professor to help them not only learn new skills but also to see the practical value of what they’re learning. It seemed to work: lots of students reported having emerged with skills they will take with them to internships and the next class, and others really grasped the main reason why we use Twitter. We’re building relationships and reconceiving both community and the role it plays in the reporting process.

The projects and blogs were a step forward. We did a lot of the same things we’ve done in past terms, such as experiment with forms such as podcasting and custom maps. We added a lab on Storify that went so well that I’m going to use it the whole semester next time.

Which leads to where we go from here.

J198 Multimedia Reporting has been an experimental course for three semesters now. We launched the class in Spring 2010 as my first foray into adding multimedia to the curriculum after being hired. Next year, the class will formally enter the curriculum as J230 Multimedia Storytelling, part of an exciting curriculum revamp that launches next fall. I prefer the “storytelling” to “reporting” in the name because it gives us a broader starting point and lets students enter without preconceived notions built on the word “reporting.”

The other change that’s happening is that much of what we have done in J198 is getting moved into other classes. Basic video shooting and editing, basics on Twitter, basics on blogging …. all of these were designed to be modules that could be pulled out. The video and web-building stuff will move into Visual Communication, our rebranded Publication Design course. Twitter and blogging will move to News Writing. So J230 will be a deeper more project-oriented course.

The upshot is we’re looking at a couple ways to move forward. First, we’ve been stressing free tools and thus using things like MovieMaker over Final Cut as we work multimedia in. Now we’re talking about keeping MovieMaker in the Visual Comm course and opening up J230 to more advanced tools such as Final Cut (because, after all, holy cow the new price on FCP looks amazing). This has been a natural progression for us, but we’ve been measured in the steps.

The second thing is how to go deep. So the projects this term inspired me to think about building just a few microsites rather than one for each group of two, but build them early. Then we spend the semester adding content. In other words, we’d build a publication. Rather than one documentary short, they’d add several. The students would blog, add resources to guides, and constantly improve things like maps.

Connected to that, I’m trying to figure out how to fit blogging into the course. I could continue as is, or I could try to build the blogs into the microsite publication. Not sure where I’m going with that, but I have some time to think on it and would welcome ideas.

Finally, I’m hatching an idea to make a service-learning project a part of the course. My idea is to spend a day with students from an underserved school, working with them to teach them how to make and produce their own videos. This class flips the notion of producer-consumer on its head and teaches conversation; perhaps the best way to model this is to flip the notion of teacher-student on its head too.

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To all the local residents who continue to take part in this class, you have my ongoing thanks. I know the students say they learn so much from you all, not just little factoids but also how to behave and act in virtual spaces. I hope they’re helping you learn things too. We are building a little slice of community online and I like the progress.

And to the students, just know I’m proud of your work this term. This class is a lot of work and you’ve risen to the challenge. You don’t remember a time when we didn’t have things like this in our journalism community, and I hope you appreciate how far our little-program-that-could has come in this area in a couple years. I know from getting to know my colleagues that Lehigh journalism has always had world-class faculty, and I’m continually pleased by the chance to contribute another layer to this great tradition.

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J198 spring projects: Steps forward
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