Journalists who also teach will know that one of the challenges of teaching a large, undergraduate class is the sheer number of students. It can be hard to foster a discussion in a lecture hall, where many students may be too intimidated to speak up. So instead the lesson often becomes a lecture, as the professor stands up in front of the class and talks at them for the best part of an hour. In this instructor-centered model, knowledge is a commodity to be transmitted from the instructor to the student’s empty vessel.

There is a place for the traditional, one-to-many transmission. This is the way the mass media worked for much of the 20th century and continues to operate today. But the emergence of participatory journalism is changing this. Most news outlets, at the very least, solicit comments from their online readers. Others, such as Canada’s Globe and Mail, use the live-blogging tool CoveritLive both for real-time reporting and for engaging readers in a discussion, such as in its coverage of the Mesh conference in Toronto.

Tools such as CoveritLive or Twitter can turn the one-to-many model of journalism on its head, offering instead a many-to-many experience. The same tools may also have a use in the classroom, as a way of turning the traditional university lecture into a conversation.

From a lecture to a conversation

Live-blogging and lecturing might sound like an odd combination, but I recently brought the two together in a new undergraduate foundation concentration in New Media and Society at the University of British Columbia.

As I teach the journalism component of the concentration, it seemed only right to bring some of the ideas from new media into the classroom. And the right time seemed to be the week when we were looking at the concept of participatory journalism, with guest speaker Michael Tippett, one of the founders of citizen journalism site NowPublic.com, based in Vancouver.

For the experiment, I set up a class discussion page using CoveritLive. The page was projected onto a screen in the lecture hall so that students could see the conversation unfold. Tippett’s presentation was projected on a second screen.

Michael Tippett
Michael Tippett explains how NowPublic works

As he addressed the students, they were able to submit comments and ask questions via CoveritLive — these comments then appeared on screen. I did some comment moderation, but I tried to give students as much freedom as possible to ask or say anything. Although we asked students to use their names in the comments, some still preferred the anonymity of the “guest” handle.

The result was a mix of the insightful, the impish and the inane — from “who has the right to call himself a journalist?” to “this almost feels like telepathy! lol” to “stop blowing ur nose it’s annoying.”

The very first question was completely unrelated to anything about the class or the even course. Instead a student asked Tippett if he had ever been in the Mondo Spider, a walking mechanical spider partly created by his brother Jonathan.

Mindcasting in the classroom

The class turned into a living example of what happens when we use new forms of media. Whenever we start using new tools of communication, such as the cell phone or Twitter, we spend much of our time working out how we should be using them. This is exactly what happened during the lecture.

Many of the initial exchanges on CoveritLive discussed whether an online chat during a lecture was more distracting or less disruptive than asking verbal questions. In a sense, the students were negotiating the social practices around this type of participatory lesson.

“It’s like being on Facebook chat and writing a paper at the same time. We’re good at multi-tasking,” commented one student, while another noted that “people that don’t normally talk in class are talking here…wow.”

But for some, it was “very distracting.” One student found that “it is kind of difficult to split my attention like this, but I imagine I could get used to it pretty easily. New media is changing how we think.”

There is no doubt, however, that the CoveritLive format was somewhat distracting for the speaker, with Tippett trying to talk while at the same time keep track of the chatter going on about his words.

The classroom experiment opened up the lesson in a unique way, providing a live insight into what New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen calls mindcasting. Rosen used the term to describe how Twitter offers a new way to conduct a real-time, multi-way dialogue with thousands of people. In a sense, this is what our use of CoveritLive did, although in a much more limited way.

I only tried out this experiment once over the course of the semester but am looking forward to trying it again. It won’t work for every topic or with every speaker, but it seemed to work in a class about participatory journalism and in the wider context of a course on how new media is changing the way we study, work and play.

The lesson offered a new media twist on the notion of community-centered education, where students are expected to participate as they take responsibility for their own learning. Rather than simply being empty vessels to be filled with knowledge, the students had collaborated on distilling and creating the knowledge.

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.

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