Professors are commonly stereotyped as people who know more about books than technology. But as classrooms are now filled with a generation who grew up with computers, iPods and the Internet, more and more professors are starting to experiment with new digital learning tools.

At last week’s Convergence and Society conference at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, academics from across North America shared how they were venturing into the land of the digital native. The ideas ranged from using geo-tagging in reporting to using wikis for collaborative storytelling.

The geo-tagging experiment came from Emerson College, which sent 33 students and two professors to China to cover the Beijing Olympics. During the two-month trip, students chronicled their experiences and impressions by posting text, photos, audio and video on a Google Map of the Beijing area.

Prof. Janet Kolodzy explained that they faced a mountain of unknowns before heading out — they didn’t even know whether they would have reliable Internet access in China. The team left for Beijing before the website was ready and without giving the students any training, but much of the technology, such as Flip cameras for video, was easy to use. It also meant, as Kolodzy put it, that the students could look like tourists but think like journalists.

Journalism schools are exploring geo-tagging and mapping as a new form of digital storytelling. In my presentation, I showed how students at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver used a Google Map of the city as an index page for stories about its ethnic, social and cultural diversity. It is a different way of looking at news, providing a geographic perspective to stories about a city.

Students and Wikis

Other web-based tools are also making inroads in the classroom. Some classes have begun using wikis to create sites that can be edited or appended by any student. Assistant Prof. Jeremy Sarachan of St. John Fisher College described an assignment he gave students to use a wiki to write a collaborative story. The results were surprising, not so much because of what the students did, but more because of what they didn’t do. While students added to each other’s work, they were reluctant to delete any of their colleagues’ text.

This resonated with the audience, with other academics sharing stories of how their students were reluctant to edit their colleagues’ words. Assistant Prof. Gregory Scranton of Ursinus College explained how he used a wiki as a way of sharing feedback on ideas, but his experience was similar to that of Sarachan. With students unwilling to write over the contributions of others, the wiki ended up resembling a blog.

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While many J-schools already use blogs for assignments, lecturer Jessica McBride of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee has gone one step further. At the South Carolina conference, she described how she used BlogTalkRadio in her class on opinion-writing. BlogTalkRadio allows users to create free online radio stations just using a phone, rather than any expensive broadcasting equipment. McBride had her students host talk shows on the service, which can host up to five callers. One of her students even scooped local media by hosting the first debate between the two candidates for the Wisconsin State Supreme Court.

Cell Phones as Learning Tools

Professors are also thinking about how to use the devices that students carry around with them as educational tools. Margaret Achterman, a doctoral student at the University of Washington, explained how her students were finding ingenious uses for gadgets. For an interview assignment, one student used a cell phone to record the audio, while another used the video function on a digital camera.

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At Abilene Christian University, professors Kenneth Pybus and Cade White are taking this even further by studying the Apple iPhone as a new platform for news. The university was the first in the U.S. to give freshmen either an iPhone or iPod touch, seeing it as a converged media device that could be used by students to receive homework alerts, answer in-class quizzes or get directions to their professors’ offices.

Pybus and Cade told the Convergence conference that they were surprised at how many news outlets already had a specific iPhone or cell phone site. In a time when few young people will bother to pick up a print newspaper, the researchers are looking at how news organizations can reach students through these new devices.

The educational projects showcased at the Convergence and Society conference offered just a snapshot of what is happening in classrooms across North American universities. They serve as an example of how new technologies are being used to teach new media, tapping into the habits and interests of a digital generation of students. I’d be keen to hear of other examples of new technologies at work in the new media classroom. Please share your experiences in the comments section.

Alfred Hermida is an online news pioneer and journalism educator. He is an assistant professor at the Graduate School of Journalism, the University of British Columbia, where he leads the integrated journalism program. He was a founding news editor of the BBC News website. He blogs at Reportr.net.

Photo of iPhone by Christopher Chan via Flickr.

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