Teaching Online Skills: Journalism Prof Wants Ideas

MSU prof Dave Poulson wants to lead his students into the murky waters of online media.

(NOTE: I’m cross-posting this from Poynter’s E-Media Tidbits, since I thought Contentious readers might find it interesting as well.)

Today I received an intriguing query from my colleague Dave Poulson, associate director of the Knight Center for Environmental Journalism at Michigan State University. With his permission, I’m excerpting and answering it here.

Poulson wrote: “…I’m going to take your concept of coming up with a toolkit of basic online stuff a reporter should know and turn it into some class assignments. I’ll have them pick a beat and set up Google Reader to [subscribe to] relevant feeds. I’m not sure how I’ll evaluate the result.”

That’s a great idea, Dave! Make sure they practice subscribing to search feeds (about topics), as well as feeds from specific sources (like blogs). And here’s a short video tutorial on Google Reader I made for one of my clients. The first half of it is the bare basics, most applicable to what your students would be doing.

To evaluate this assignment, you could have student export their feed list as an OPML file and send it to you. In Google Reader, that’s under “manage subscriptions,” then “import/export” (choose the “export” option there.) You can then import that OPML file into your Google Reader (or many other feed readers) to see what they’ve subscribed to.

Poulson continues…

“Maybe the assignment will be simply to list the feeds and produce three story ideas that came from them. I already have an assignment where they must join and monitor a [discussion forum] for a week and produce three story ideas and a posting that they made to the [forum].”

That’s also a great idea. Of course, focusing on a single post doesn’t capture the core value of conversational media. Maybe in addition to asking students for story ideas, you could ask them to summarize the value of one or more discussion threads, or the culture of that forum, and to explain what they learned by participating actively. This would include links to a few posts they’ve made, not just one. Ask them to initiate threads as well as respond to threads. Get them to consider the nature of an ongoing conversation, not just treat posting as a writing assignment.

Poulson also asked for assignment ideas related to commenting on blogs. I’d recommend combining this with the Google Reader assignment — making an effort to comment on blogs they’re subscribed to. Ask them to actually read comment threads, not just blog posts. On the environment beat, Treehugger and Inhabitat often feature very lively and thoughtful discussion in the comments.

Furthermore, learning to track online conversations is very useful for journalists. You can ask students to use the dead-easy tool Co.mments to track the blog comments they make, and the responses they get. They can subscribe to their own Co.mments feed in Google Reader to easily see when their comment has received a response. (Here’s my own co.mments feed, as an example.) They can also give the instructor their Co.mments feed so the instructor can easily watch for activity.

Again, making a lone comment really doesn’t give you a sense of participating in a public conversation. I’d expect at least 5-10, personally. Probably making at least three to the same blog (even in the same thread, if it’s a lively thread).

Dave wrote, “I could have them write a wiki entry for any wiki, including ours. Is that relevant to journalism? We’re running a wiki, but I would never let a student cite a wiki as a source in a news story. I would allow them to use a wiki as a way to find links to original source material that they used in a story. Maybe that’s the assignment.”

I think you answered your own question there, Dave. However, I do think that learning how to contribute to a wiki — and use ancillary information like discussion or revision histories of specific wiki pages can impart journalistically useful context. Maybe even let them play with WikiScanner, see if they turn up any intriguing conflicts of interest.

…Those are my ideas for Dave Poulson. Do you have suggestions for him? Please comment below. And thanks for starting this discussion, Dave.

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