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Teaching Twitter: Strategies and Outcomes

By Sue Burzynski Bullard
Journalism educators use Twitter in a variety of ways in almost every kind of journalism class. Here are some examples:

Alfred Hermida, who teaches at the University of British Columbia, introduces graduate students to Twitter as part of a beat reporting assignment. There, they post story pitches, so students are forced to boil them down to 140 characters or less. Hermida believes that this requires them to really understand what their story is about. “It’s focused. It tells you what the story is,” he said. Hermida also believes that by making pitches public students learn to be transparent as journalists. Hermida’s students also use Twitter to connect with sources on their beats. They also tweet about events happening in their area, find and follow 10 people who are tweeting about beat-related material, and solicit story ideas. Those students who are skeptical come to realize how Twitter can be a useful part of their journalistic toolbox. “The more they immersed themselves in it, the more they found people they could connect with on their beats,” Hermida said.” It complemented other sources on their beats.”

Stephen J. Fox, who teaches at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, uses Twitter in multimedia journalism classes.  His students tweet live coverage of speakers or events, an assignment that he feels helps them understand the nature of Web reporting. Often, the exercise leads to a discussion of slowing down to add context to their reporting or tweets. “It’s a great opportunity to say to them, ‘listen, just because you can tweet it out doesn’t necessarily mean you should,’” Fox explained. His students also look at how breaking news is reported on Twitter. With some stories, like the Fort Hood shooting, the Twitter feed can provide more accurate information than second-hand accounts they hear on cable news broadcasts. “At least initially you have that breaking news moment where people on the scene are telling you what they’re seeing and what they’re doing,” Fox said.

Kathy E. Gill, who teaches at the University of Washington, has students in her digital journalism class follow 10 journalists or journalism organizations on Twitter. Later in the semester, some of those journalists speak to her class. Her students, who also create blogs about topics they are interested in covering, absorb the value of sharing links on Twitter. She calls this exchange “mind-sharing.”  Those she teaches, Gill said, have to “find a nugget of information and express that in an interesting way quickly.” Just as in headline writing, the goal is to get readers to click on their links. “Journalists are preachers of ideas, “ she observed. “And this is a great place to share ideas.”

B. William Silcock, who teaches at Arizona State University, uses Twitter with students in several small seminars. In terrorism and the press, for instance, Silcock requires students to tweet links to news stories, editorials or other material related to the topic.  In a graduate boot camp, students tweet their opinions about the day’s lecture or might even tweet questions about homework. Using Twitter helps students build connections with each other and introduces them to course material they can find outside of what he assigns them. Students use hashtags (# followed by a name) to designate a topic, and at times non-class members join the conversation. In doing this, students find out the best strategies to employ when sharing and gathering information. It’s good for focus, too.

Cindy Royal, who teaches at Texas State University, uses Twitter in her Social Media at Work course to help students learn the value of establishing personal brands.  They tweet to promote blogs they’ve created for the class.  As part of an assignment, they also study how musicians use Twitter to engage fans and promote their music.  Students also use Twitter’s search function to find current tweets on particular topics. “My goal is for students to leave with an appreciation for Twitter's value and effectiveness and its role in developing a personal brand and engaging with others.” Royal said.