Volume 8 , Issue 3 - June 2013 Print | Email
Instructor's Corner: Let’s #Hashtag That and Come Back to It

Instructor's CornerFirst-year students are all about communication, but usually on their own terms. E-mail is passé, but text messages, social media interaction, and generally life online is their comfort zone. In an attempt to engage these techno-savvy freshmen, we challenged our students to interactively communicate in the classroom using the microblogging platform Twitter combined with Paper.li, a content curation service.  

The idea was to find the best way to foster a sense of community in first-year students arriving at university from diverse backgrounds. First-year experience (FYE) programs have become the norm in American universities to help students promote good study habits and overall wellness, but perhaps more importantly instill a sense of belonging and community which is crucial to keep students motivated to finish their degrees and enhance their overall academic and social experiences. Increasingly, educators are turning to social media to help students make this transition to college. Social media directly addresses feelings of influence and a shared emotional connection by allowing students to create their own content and share it with peers.    

Among the newer social media options is Paper.li, launched in alpha mode April 2010. According to their website, Paper.li is a content curation service enabling people to publish daily or weekly newspapers on topics of their choosing. The editor of the virtual newspaper identifies what information should be included, such as RSS feeds, Facebook content by keyword, and/or Twitter content by user, keyword, or hashtag. Paper.li then collects any content matching the criteria, organizing it into a virtual newspaper complete with headlines, sections headings, and embedded images, video, and audio. Paper.li has caught the attention of the technology community, being featured by PC World Magazine, EContent Magazine, Information Today, Business Week, and The Futurist. The assignment described here employs Paper.li to aggregate social media content in a simple manner with a professional-looking and aesthetically pleasing layout.

The concept of this assignment was for students to either create or find existing web content to be fed into Paper.li. The virtual newspapers would then serve as a basis for class discussions about various topics covered in the course. The Paper.li settings were adjusted to publish a weekly paper by automatically collecting all tweeted links containing a specific hashtag identified for the course section, with the topics for each weekly paper announced in advance.

One version of the assignment involved blogging about concepts from the book Class Matters. Weekly topics ranged from self-identifying their own social class based on the criteria outlined in the book to analyzing the plight of immigrant workers.  Blogs, short for web logs, have previously been identified as a medium for enabling interactions that might not happen in a traditional educational setting, offering opportunities for student independence and deeper interaction with peers.

McFall_image_2Students tweeted links to their completed blog entries resulting in an online newspaper populated with content from each of the student “journalists” in the class. Sharing their views and opinions with peers in the Paper.li compilation not only engages students and holds them accountable for their writing, but it also exposes them to the different views of others in the class.

Another version of the assignment centered on the relationship of current events and the course’s topics of discussion. Incorporating newspapers and current events into university coursework has been shown to promote active learning by relating real-world events important to students with the course material.

This second version of the assignment challenged students to find news articles, videos, images or other web content relating to topics such as the cultural diversity, substance abuse, people acting irrationally out of loyalty to a particular community, or religious beliefs causing conflict in society. Again, students tweeted their content of choice with a specific hashtag, and the results were compiled in Paper.li for discussion during class. These discussions often stimulated dialogue and community building as students talked about their contributions with the class. Questions and open dialogue inevitably ensue as engaged students expand upon topics.

The results of each assignment reflected a strong indication of community-building. For example, during the first assignment, students were asked to share something of a personal interest with the class. One student posted a video of a dancing child from Guyana. When asked why she picked that particular link, she explained that she was from Guyana and she wanted to let everyone know that Guyana is not in Africa, often confused with Ghana. Guyana has a unique culture, reflected in their music and dance. As she talked, the other students began to ask questions about her culture. Then four more students announced they were from other countries including Jordan, Korea, Turkey, and Germany, and began to discuss their cultural differences.

By the second week of class, the students had bonded over common interests and cultural respect and all without the use of formal ice-breakers. In another assignment, students were asked to tweet a personal blog entry that identified their social class based on the criteria used in the common reading Class Matters. That conversation provided more than a class time’s worth of conversation as students debated actual vs. perceived social status, the relation of money contributing to general happiness, and the trauma associated with falling into a different social standing due to economic crisis. Each assigned topic brings together the various perspectives from students as they communicate through articles, images, and videos.

At the onset of the semester, some students were not familiar with Twitter and required assistance setting up an account and correctly tweeting using the required hashtag. The most common problem encountered was Paper.li missing tweets when the URL and hashtag were not separated by a space. Verifying that students had attempted the assignment in good faith despite such glitches was simple since Twitter records and timestamps activity. Despite students’ unfamiliarity with the technology, the McFall_image_3overwhelming majority found it easy to tweet their submissions to Paper.li.

Overall, the students’ experiences with these assignments were positive, with most recognizing the value of relating their personal experiences and current events to the topics covered in class. Paper.li provides an organized and convenient space to begin  class discussions, often on topics students find interesting and relevant.

These assignments engage the students by asking them to provide content for class discussions. A published class newspaper holds students accountable for content, while simultaneously validating their influence in the class. Creating an online  newspaper together with their peers emphasizes collaboration and exposes them to the equally important points of view of others. The use of this assignment in an FYE course helped build a sense of community among new students which in turn hopefully eased their transition to college.

 



McFall_headshotKevin McFall, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Mechatronics Engineering at Southern Polytechnic State University in Marietta, GA, USA.

Kate Morgan is the Director of University Relations and an adjunct professor at the Pennsylvania State University’s Lehigh Valley campus. This essay appeared in the June 2013 issue of Communication Currents and is translated from the scholarly article:  McFall, K., & Morgan, K.  (2013).  Stimulating classroom discussions using an online newspaper created with Twitter and Paper.li. Communication Teacher, 27, 85-89.  Communication Teacher and Communication Currents are publications of the National Communication Association. 

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