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Dr Travis Holland: Let’s develop students ability to produce real work for real audiences.

Dr Travis Holland is Course Director for the Bachelor of Communication and Master of Communication degree sets. He is also a lecturer and researcher in Communication and Digital Media. Travis teaches both undergraduate and masters’ level subjects on digital media, communication theory, and research strategies. In this post he explains the thinking behind using social media platforms for teaching in his subjects.

What’s important about this learning and teaching story?

In Communication and Creative Industries, our students are fundamentally public communicators and storytellers, or intend to be once they graduate. Asking them to use public social networks and other publishing platforms is about developing appropriate skills in a supported environment to prepare them for their post-uni working life. Part of their professional socialisation needs to be about learning to communicate in public. For us, this embodies several CSU GLOs, including Digital Literacies and Professional Practice.

What were you trying to achieve?

If students live in a culture that digitizes and educates them through a screen, they require an education that empowers them in that sphere, teaches them that language, and offers new opportunities of human connectivity. (Pete Rorabaugh)

I’ve often found frustration in our practice of asking students to produce work only to have it locked away for a limited audience, mostly the marker but occasionally small groups of fellow students. We have the technical capabilities and infrastructure to push student work into the world via web streaming, our on campus radio station and national newsroom, and our text-based news website. Developing strategies for students to engage in these spaces and to produce real work for real audiences has to be a fundamental element of our courses.

What did it look like?

In COM112 Digital Media in 2018, students were asked, but not required, to establish accounts and post to Twitter as a way of demonstrating engagement with the content and with each other.

The subject outline included the following instruction:
We will use a blended mode of learning with face-to-face and streamed lectures supported by an online backchannel discussion through Twitter on the hashtag #COM112 and on campus tutorials. Whether on campus or online, you should use the hashtag to find work by your colleagues and provide constructive feedback…

For assessment, students were required to establish a digital public identity and make regular posts in different formats and on different topics, which could be their Twitter account or any other platform of their choosing. We committed to supporting the use of 8 platforms but students could use any other by negotiation.

Each week, the teaching team would post to the subject hashtag with thoughts, links to readings (both those listed in the subject outline and those that emerged during the session), and prompts or activities. These posts were done from our own accounts as a way of living our pedagogy. This was often the same or similar content to that posted in Interact to comply with CSU policies around external educational technology not replacing the LMS. I created a single thread of dozens of tweets to act as a central organising narrative (toward the end of the session, I curated it into a Twitter moment).

How can I make this happen?

Fortunately, establishing accounts and experimenting with these tools is easy. However, their use needs to be planned and staged. I have developed and introduced my methods over several years, each year deepening engagement a little more. And, it is still not directly assessable so students don’t feel pressured into being in spaces in which they’re not comfortable.

A common concern from colleagues is the potential for the use of these systems to attract trolls or abusive behaviour. And, as Marta Burtis notes, well-meaning or risk-averse staff  ‘are concerned about what happens when it breaks.’ However, I’ve rarely encountered the issue of trolling, even with hundreds of students taking part. When it breaks, ‘You tell them: Good! It broke.’ The perceived risk ought to be further mitigated by recognising that, in part, the pedagogical set up to this process involves developing students’ ability to handle negative interactions and unexpected interruptions by doing work on the ethics of blogging, discussing trolling and other negative behaviours, and equipping them to fix things. There is a strong need to have students working with this experience early and developing skills to identify and manage known issues.

The role of educators

Part of our responsibility of care and as facilitators and guides in asking students to do this work is providing extra support for those students. This approach should never prevent private submission (or anonymised accounts) in compelling circumstances. Importantly, we should recognise that technology is not neutral (including the LMS), and temper our enthusiasm for any tools with those considerations in mind. I take my cues from watching and reading scholars around the world.

If you want to develop and use public networks like Twitter, I suggest first following and engaging with the works of: