In 2015, Wes signed up for my Mass Media course, hoping to learn about journalism, broadcasting, graphic design and film. He discovered a passion for film and graphic design and he quickly rebuilt his Twitter to follow writers, directors, producers and filmmakers. This feed provided more films to watch, more critics to read and more directors to emulate, which in turn inspired him to start experimenting with iMovie and Photoshop, and later Premier and After Effects, in order to create and share his own films and designs. At the end of the course, I asked students to upload their favorite projects to a digital portfolio. To this day, Wes still updates his digital portfolio!
In talking to Wes recently, he mentioned how important reforming his social media feeds was in helping him realize and pursue his passions. On many of his accounts, he stopped following “friends” and began learning, critiquing, emulating and collaborating. At first, he blogged about horror films on Tumblr, then he produced his own film reviews on YouTube, and now he’s analyzing and critiquing films on Letterboxd with other film buffs. Wes said he felt fulfilment when he applied for a job and the interviewer had seen his work online!
If you’re like me, you get frustrated that despite our best efforts, students continue to encounter and share misinformation, use poor sources on assignments and post inappropriately on social media. Over many conversations with students, I realized I’m struggling with this because I’m trying to teach media literacy skills in a “lab” environment with artificial conditions. There’s a big difference in showing something to a student and saying “Is this a good source?” or “Should you post this?” and actually having students regularly ask those kinds of questions in the course of their own social media networks. To address this, I decided to build instruction around student interests so that students can interact with media in a network that matters to them. I thought that if students started from a place of genuine interest, they would be more likely to consume and create media intentionally and skillfully. And this learning will have “real-world” impact for them. I’ve been experimenting with this instruction for several years in my my history classes, my media classes, and now in my social media elective. Here’s how I did it.
Consuming Quality Content
Building a personal learning network starts with social media. First, I work to pique students’ interest in a topic, then help them connect with professionals and organizations that are producing quality content about that topic on social media. One tool I use repeatedly is the “list” function on Twitter, which allows me to curate a collection of public figures and organizations that my students can follow. Here’s an example of a list focused on journalism and current events for students in my Mass Media class, and here’s an example for my Contemporary World History students to keep up with global news and developments. I built a website for students to build their own personalized learning networks for interests that span beyond the content of my course.
In addition to following these lists, students work to build their own. One student emailed me after class to tell me that on her school account, “I only follow newsworthy feeds… about human rights, international news or politics.” Perhaps the best thing about helping students build their network is that the learning continues every time they open their social media apps. A number of my students continue to check the international news list from our class two years after the course.
Producing Quality Content
Locating and consuming quality content is just the beginning of creating and joining a personal learning network. We also need to empower our students to produce quality content to inform these networks. For example, I hosted a class blog, YouTube, Instagram, Twitter or Soundcloud account where students share articles, podcasts and videos. Producing content for these shared accounts can be a jumping off point for contributing to students’ own personal networks. For instance, here’s an example of a student who chose to repost her work onto her own digital portfolio.
When assigning media creation, I embrace student choice. In my social media elective, I ask students to demonstrate progression through a course skills chart. They can do so in any medium. A student can write (like this student who wrote well-researched social justice posts); record a podcast (like these students who wanted to help their peers understand climate change); or even create a model (like this student who wants to be an architect). When evaluating, I look for argument, evidence and some fluency (and creativity!) in the medium they choose.
In the same way that consuming quality content becomes self-sustaining, this effort to create also becomes self-sustaining. As a teacher, I work to help students create and share their first piece of original, informative media. Over time, I can step aside and let them develop proficiency in their mediums as they work to improve their networks, which is essential. Because it’s not enough to learn online, one has to be understood as such, and the only way to do this is to contribute thoughtfully. Ideally, each student’s network will act as an authentic audience that gives feedback. At the least, the professionals and organizations in the student’s network can serve as role models to emulate when it comes learning and sharing online.
In order to graduate media literate students, let’s allow them to follow their interests online. That way they experience online spaces with the interest, critical eye and collaborative mentality of a responsible digital citizen. Savvy media consumers build large networks of professionals and organizations that deliver quality content. Skilled media producers contribute meaningfully to that network, emulating professionals and creatively including their voice. We can mentor our students through this growth and watch them as their participation in networks launch academic, civic and professional opportunities delivering fulfillment to their lives.