Mass Communications Students use iPads for Social Journalism Class

Students partner with WTVR-TV to prepare multimedia reports

In the blink of an eye, cell phones and social media sites have helped ordinary citizens become journalists. And now a class at VCU is helping advanced mass communications students embrace iPad tablet computers and social media as they prepare to join the new wave of tech-savvy journalists.

“iPads are changing media,” said Marcus Messner, Ph.D., assistant professor in the School of Mass Communications. “Students already understand that an iPad is a cool device but I wanted to show them how to adapt the journalism skills they’ve learned from other classes for social and mobile media using iPads.”

Messner said the idea for a social media class conducted completely through iPads came out of the Iraqi Young Leaders Exchange Program class he’s taught for the past two summers with Jeff South, an associate mass communications professor. Students in that class learned about the importance of social media as part of a communications strategy to help promote nonprofit groups.

Messner thought it was time to consider the importance of social media in journalism and pursued an opportunity for financial support from the VCU Center for Teaching Excellence.

“The CTE attempts to explore emerging technology with educational support from faculty,” said Jeff Nugent, Center for Teaching Excellence co-director. “And as we were considering where there was a compelling case for iPads in a classroom setting, Marcus contacted us with his proposal.”

Messner applied for a small CTE grant to purchase eight iPads for mass communications students. But the CTE ultimately supported efforts to provide iPads for an entire class of 16 students for the semester in what would become Mass Communications 491: Social Media Journalism.

Using iPads, the students have created multimedia news stories from campus and the surrounding community. The stories are turned in for a grade, and they also are submitted to WTVR-TV for inclusion on the station’s web page, http://wtvr.com/.

“They (staff at WTVR) are fully on board with this. The students pitched their stories to (WTVR Director of Interactive Media) Scott Wise and he has been very active in giving them feedback,” Messner said.

The first assignments included the Center for Conservation Biology’s eagle project, a community garden on the MCV campus, Gov. McDonnell’s ideas for education reform, the importance of cleaning up social media platforms before beginning a job search and personal safety devices at VCU.

Audra Shreve, a senior student from Richmond who is majoring in mass communications and English, is one of two students who worked on the story about the safety devices, which was the first piece posted on WTVR’s website.

Shreve said the class has taught her how quickly and easily iPads can be used in newsgathering. At the same time, journalists from WTVR and elsewhere are becoming acquainted with her work, which will be helpful when she starts to look for a job.

“This class is different from all my other mass comm classes because we are actually expected to be on social media platforms during class, instead of being scolded for it,” said Shreve. “It's also unique because instead of learning about how social media will help us from our professor, we are learning from professionals in the field who actually come into class as guest speakers and show us how they use social media in their careers. It's a great way to network in our field and to create partnerships with professionals that we hope to emulate.”

Shreve isn’t yet sure whether she’ll launch her career or continue with her studies in graduate school. But she said either way this experience will allow her to offer knowledge that others may not possess.

The iPad student journalist stories are available at http://wtvr.com/tag/ipadjournos/.

This small-scale implementation of iPads in the classroom has allowed IT staff to work out a program for managing and supporting iPads that are issued to students.

“It was an experimental partnership with a range of players which were able to come together to pull this off,” Nugent said.

Nugent said the CTE will evaluate the class to determine what kind of impact the devices had on learning. 

Another mass communications course employing the iPads is scheduled for next fall.

And the CTE is looking to establish a pilot program to provide up to 20 iPads to classes within a school or department.  The CTE is accepting open calls for proposals from the university community through April and in May will announce pilot projects for the fall semester. For more information, visit http://www.vcu.edu/cte/programs/instructional_technology/I3/iPadPilot.html.

Professor Marcus Messner, Ph.D., standing, explains the ground rules for use of the iPad tablet computers with students in his social journalism class. Photos by Mike Porter, VCU Office of Communications and Public Relations.
Professor Marcus Messner, Ph.D., standing, explains the ground rules for use of the iPad tablet computers with students in his social journalism class. Photos by Mike Porter, VCU Office of Communications and Public Relations.
The iPads were available through financial support from the Center for Teaching Excellence.
The iPads were available through financial support from the Center for Teaching Excellence.