The Hero Project: A media engagement experiment

Many student journalists choose the field of journalism and public relations because they want their life to have an impact. And teaching about engagement can help them in their desire to create change.

Research examining engagement tends to fall in three areas: 1) civic engagement, 2) student engagement and 3) employee engagement. Research definitions of engagement tend to reflect the aim of helping people to develop identity, learn how to participate and flourish as a community.

  • “…having both a behavioral component, termed participation, and an emotional component, termed identification” (Finn & Voelkl, 1993; p. 249).
  • “Civic engagement is any activity where people come together in their role as citizens” (Diller, 2001, p. 22).

In the field in journalism, educators have been criticized about teaching students about newsroom socialization rather than teaching them to tailor information to encourage citizens to participate. The intent of a liberal arts education was designed to nurture students to be problem solvers, creative thinkers, and critical scholars (Higginbotham 1961; Wick & Phillips, 2008).

As educators, we should critically evaluate whether our teaching efforts are helping to empower students to create public action and awareness. When teaching engagement, students should be asking themselves whether their efforts reflect a world they want to make and whether their efforts accurately represent people. Engagement has the potential to create a sense of connectedness and self-efficacy among humans, which can lead to loyalty to an individual and organization.

The cultivation of intellectual and critical thinkers starts with encouraging them to connect to people outside their usual social circles. Several organizational leaders are encouraging news reporters to connect their social media identities to stories, post requests for story ideas on social media channels and meet with online community members in a F2F environment.

The line between public relations and journalism is blurring. Both fields recognize the importance of relationships for future sustainability, however many public relations professionals understand the significance of relationships better.

Journalists often view themselves as serving specific communities. Researchers have often referred to community as a physical location. However, a community can refer to a geographic area or refer to a group of people with similar interests. The process of sharing information allows journalists to be more aware of the diversity of communities that exist.

It is important to have a plan in mind when crafting exercises that teach students about media engagement. I had spent fall semester 2011 structuring assignments for my spring 2012 honors Online Media class. I hope that sharing my plan will help or inspire other people to experiment.

In my Online Media class at Arizona State University, I taught social media, visual communication and coding… and time constraints would not allow the full experiment to take place. Time constraints are a common problem for educators who are digitally literate. In this post, I will discuss how I envisioned the assignment, what actually happened, and what how I would like to expand upon this experiment in the future.

The class final project theme centered on examining the meaning of hero. I specifically wanted students dissect the construct of hero. The group discussed and focused on nine sub-themes: 1) the philosophical dissection of the construct, 2) why we needs heroes, 3) superheroes, 4) video games, 5) children’s definition of heroes, 6) how other cultures define heroes, 7) musicians, 8) celebrities and 9) villains.


Plan for Engagement Experiment

First Day
I asked the mostly sophomore-level students to post their thoughts and reactions about The Hero Project to a Tumblr blog. I envisioned students sharing their personal thoughts on this blog throughout the semester. Blog posts can encourage classroom community and topic reflection. And I planned to share this blog on the final project website.

Second Week
Each student was to be responsible for a social media channel and one person was responsible with commenting on sites related to our niche. They were required to set up a social media profile, market the project, create content, connect with others with similar interests and promote the project following publication via their assigned channel. The setup portion of the assignment was to be due during the second week of the semester. The social media sites chosen were Tumblr, Twitter, Facebook, G+, Pinterest, Quora, Flickr, Delicious, and blog comments.

Third Week
On the Tumblr blog, each student shared the best practices for engagement related to their social media channel.

Sixth Week
We discussed the creation of a promotional video related to the project. I showed examples of videos in class for inspiration: Jacob’s Story, Will it blend?, Free Hugs and Bad Project. Based on Jacob’s story, the students thought it would be engaging to bring a white board to the streets asking people who their hero was and why. Two students did shoot the slideshow, however it was created at the end of the semester.

Eighth Week
The class of nine students was required to create a multimedia piece summarizing the effect their personal hero had on them. They were asked to interview their personal hero and/or interview themselves talking about their hero. I graded them on creativity and focus, rather than production quality. You can view their videos on their class Tumblr site. The majority of the class members voted that this were their favorite assignment of the semester. Here is some of their feedback:

  • “Making this personal hero video was a very cathartic experience … I think it communicates the message I was going for and I would love to make it longer.”
  • “We don’t often get the chance to express ourselves personally in journalism class, and I enjoyed being able to tell my own story for a change. I can’t wait to share this video with my dad. He had no idea while working on this that I was calling him my hero.”
  • “No matter what grade I get, this will probably end up being my favorite assignment of the semester. It was deeply personal, and dug at the core of what makes who I am.”

I encourage educators to allow at least one assignment that challenges students to apply a different or more personal lens related to the class focus.

Fifteenth Week
The crew coded and created a website called The Hero Project. And they posted their final thoughts about the project on the Tumblr blog. Ideally, I wanted them to interact more in social media spheres, however I am quite proud of what they did accomplish.


The Future

Ideally, I would like to teach a class called “Engaging Communities.” In such a class, I would like teaching crowdsourcing/curation, engagement, search, alternative forms of storytelling, verification and much more.

My students did begin to understand that they need to learn how to connect their content to people in the online environment. I wanted students to post suggested hashtags, live Twitter feeds, live chats and Ustreams, social media share buttons near stories and create a resources page and sidebars to encourage people to engage the content offline and online.

I have accepted a position at Michigan State University’s School of Journalism for fall 2012. I am co-teaching and helping design a journalism capstone class in this department. Based on my experience with this experiment this past Spring semester, I am inspired to continue. Here are some of my plans for the fall semester course:

During the first week students, students will search social media channels and search engines for story idea inspiration around an assigned theme. Sites could include:

Students will pitch their ideas on a G+ class circle. They will then vote (+1) and comment critically on the ideas. They will be required to observe and create content for niche communities throughout the semester. Team members will also be required to create crowdsourced stories, experiment with storytelling and engage in niche communities throughout the semester.

When I taught at Bloomsburg University in PA, I noticed that students would grow creatively and intellectually when given the opportunity to express themselves. Several academic studies show that the desire to be creative is a top reason why many journalism students choose the major of journalism. This fall semester, I am assigning every student to visually summarize their interpretation of the team’s topic using multimedia. The multimedia piece could be a montage of feet or it could be them expressing their thoughts to the camera about the niche topic. The more creative projects will receive higher grades. They will embed the SEOed video on the team’s Tumblr blog. And I also plan to still have them create promotional videos.

My goal ultimately with these assignments is to send a message that I want them to approach journalism from different angles. Many educators spend a great amount of time telling them what is and what is not journalism. In my class, I want them to take risks that reflect their desire to inform, help and motivate people. Research in political communication and other fields has shown that mobilizing efforts do influence positive behavior within individuals. Thus, I want them to also think about how they can mobilize the public for civic good. To find inspirational examples of mobilizing efforts, one should look at historical newspapers of the underground press in the 1960s.

Some syllabi suggestions would be to: 1) assign a social media editor to team projects, 2) require research of a social media channel and formulating story ideas within the channels, 3) assign a crowdsourced assignment, 4) embrace personal expression and interpretation and 5) require public and private reflection.

To learn more about engagement, I suggest reading posts from Steve Buttry, Knight Foundation’s Engagement Commons or Howard Rheingold. And of course, here is my presentation and visit my teaching page for updates on my classroom experiments at Michigan State University.

And if you have questions or comments, please comment or email me at carp@msu.edu. And I want to thank the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication public relations and communication technology divisions for the speaking invitation (#AEJMC12 #prprofs) and my co-panelists @PRvolsProf, @jizaks, @abbylovett, @marcusmessner, @RedClayHound, Charles Lubbers and moderator @Gallicano.

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