What do a tiger, a badger and a duck have in common?

Throughout February, they’re helping demonstrate the power of networks and social media in teaching news and strategic communication. As students in journalism courses at the universities of Memphis (Pouncer the Tiger), Wisconsin (Bucky Badger) and Oregon (The Duck) joined the annual International Collegiate Twitter Scavenger Hunt, they met up with students from across the United States and five other countries. Together they hunted for and shared key facts and insights on their campuses and along the way, learned about the extensive, real-time reach of global social networks and the power of community and engagement online.

The exercise opened up tremendous learning opportunities, including collaboration with students from American University in Cairo, thanks to radio journalism professor Kim Fox. Students learned from counterparts who are experiencing first-hand some of the most dramatic roles social media can play in social change.

The scavenger hunt is composed of 10 items students can “collect” on campus with interviews and photos, and then share on Twitter using a common hashtag, #JRLWeb. Students then interact with other students from around the country and world.

Items to collect include things like asking how fellow students get news, uncovering a little-known fact about their school, and taking a photo of a favorite spot on campus. Students engage their counterparts, ginning up conversation and friendly competition. Many classes work in teams of two, sometimes pairing students with more social media experience with those with less. At least one member of each group has to have a smartphone although in recent years, almost all students do, so this is less of a concern. The students have the following basic instructions:

  • Think like a reporter. Have an eagle eye for the interesting, the important, the relevant, the unique, and the immediate. Double check your facts.
  • Think like a public relations professional. Use your persuasive skills to show people what’s cool or interesting about your school. (Some of the participating classes had a combined group of majors/emphases that included persuasive communication students in addition to the journalism students.)
  • Think like a storyteller. You may only have 140 characters in each tweet, but you can say a lot in a few words or an image.
  • You may use more than one tweet for each of the items. Don’t overdo it, though. Less is more.
  • You will want to offer an introductory tweet or two explaining what you are doing and introducing yourselves. You may use either or both of your accounts for this assignment.

Students generally get one standard class period to complete the hunt. Although classes at different universities meet at different times, we aim for some broad coordination. Most schools participate in a similar timeframe, and students are alerted when other classes will be conducting their scavenger hunt.

Learning objectives

As most journalism professors know too well, so-called “digital natives” may be pros at consuming digital media, but they are not necessarily adept at producing it. As Twitter’s popularity and visibility have grown, students are increasingly aware of how to use it, but a surprising number still know little about how they should use it professionally and why they would want to. This assignment helps get the newbies familiarized with the basics and gives them an idea of its potential value. As new tools emerge, we incorporate them, so Vine is now part of the hunt.

The scavenger hunt can help reinforce the importance of basic reporting skills – being observant and alert, interviewing, verifying information, getting correct names and titles of sources, etc. Like any good beat reporter, students need to become familiar with the people and places they will be covering.

Most importantly, journalists are increasingly striving for engagement and conversation with their audiences and sources in an effort to build loyal communities. It can be difficult to show students the power of online conversation in the short time frame of a single semester. Audience and virtual community take time to develop, even more so for those new to journalism. The scavenger hunt assignment gives students a real-world glimpse into how productive give-and-take can develop even among those who have never met face-to-face.

Sue Robinson, associate professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s School of Journalism & Mass Communication, has 24 students who took their school-supplied iPads out in sub-zero temperatures to participate in the hunt this month.

“The collaborative hunt offers hands-on, experiential learning about the power of social networks and teaches them fundamentals about digital media engagement via content production,” she wrote via email. “The assignment demands on-the-spot creativity and deadline writing so important for reporters and communication professionals. Plus, it’s just fun to display our Badger mettle while many other schools are posting Vines with birds chirping and the sun shining.”

 

Students network with other journalism students and professors, as well as journalists and community members who take an interest in what they are doing. Our local media in Memphis often notice and applaud the hunt, giving the students extra attention, mentions and retweets. In many cases, the group hashtag begins to “trend” locally.

“It’s not about Twitter, per se. It’s really about doing networked journalism. I think we — faculty and students — still tend to fall back on teaching and talking about journalism as if it’s just mass media-based, not network-driven,” said Hans Ibold, an assistant professor at Indiana University, in an email exchange. “If we apply more of a network logic to teaching and learning, as you did with the hunt assignment, then it kind of forces a re-think of pedagogy. The teaching and learning process become slightly more collaborative, participatory, distributed and less top-down.”

Memphis student Hannah Giles said, “I think the biggest lesson I took away was learning to use Twitter intentionally. Most of the time tweeting isn’t prompted by topic-specific questions, and it’s just kind of an ongoing roll of random thoughts, news articles that come along, and interaction with others.”

Best practices

The scavenger hunt is customizable, and some professors want to adjust it for their classes — simple to do since we have no hard-and-fast “rules.” Often, students are encouraged to use an additional hashtag unique to their class. For best results, all students should work on the scavenger hunt during as compressed a time period as possible, such as during a class or lab session, boosting their enthusiasm and the level of community engagement.

Have students use Storify to curate their tweets and others they find interesting and submit it to you — an extra benefit at grading time, so you don’t have to search for your students in the hunt.

The scavenger hunt may be most obviously useful to a social media class but has been used in reporting, news writing and other kinds of journalism classes, as well. Kim Fox recommends students read this primer on Twitter writing tips by Mu Lin first.

Going forward

Ideally, the scavenger hunt is just the beginning. In some years, students later came together for hour-long live chats on Twitter. Professors offered discussion questions, often asking students to think critically about the role of social media in journalism and world affairs. Some classes also participated together in extra credit assignments, such as live tweeting during the Academy Awards or the Super Bowl, using the hashtags #jOscar and #jSBowl.

We’d love to have other schools join us. This is an informal process. Decide when you want to assign the hunt and let me know via Twitter. I’ll add you to the list, and we’ll embrace the power of networks together.

Carrie Brown, PhD, is an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Memphis, where she teaches and does research on newsroom change, digital and social media, and entrepreneurial journalism. You can find her on Twitter @brizzyc.