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Follow Along With My Students’ Work This Semester

This semester I’ve created a web space (http://jmc3433.adamcroom.com) to aggregate all of the student’s blog posts for my PR Publications course (JMC3433 in the University of Oklahoma Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication). The idea is that the students (and really anyone) can follow along as they (for the first time–mind you) begin to understand design technique and execution as it relates to public relations publications highly targeted at specific publics. Students are now required to standup an instance of WordPress on their own server space at the beginning of the semester, and they will use the site to 1.) document their semester progression through blog posts on assigned book reads and completed design assignments and 2.) create a portfolio website that can live on for them well beyond the 16 weeks they’ll spend in my JMC3433 course.

In previous semesters, I’ve had them write one page reflection papers to go along with their design assignments. But in early December, I was fortunate enough to attend the MOOC Research Conference in Arlington, TX and was inspired by what keynote speaker Jim Groom was doing with his DS106 digital storytelling course at the University of Mary Washington and how his students use blogs to not only document their own work but write create new assignments for future students. I wish I had a link to that specific keynote, but just watch his recent TEDx Talk to see how exciting this guy is:

His talk was convincing enough to make me move students off of reflection papers and onto the blogosphere, as well as leverage the blog RSS feeds through a plugin called FeedWordPress to create the aggregated version. The syndicated blog is the first step in moving all content elements of the course into an open, digital environment.

I will admit that this blogging format might not work for every course in every discipline, but I’ve adopted it JMC3433 for a few reasons:

1. Content creation has evolved beyond print.
Previous versions of this course have traditionally focused on print design, which is an excellent starting point for any designer. All design principles were essentially created and are rooted in this medium. But the late 20th century brought the rise of marketing public relations (MPR) and PR practitioners are leveraging online tools like blog and social media channels more and more to become real-time, vocal “brand ambassadors with a real understanding of their brand’s value proposition.” [ref]Apasolomou, I. & Melanthio, Y. (2012). Social Media: Marketing Public Relations’ New Best Friend. Journal of Promotion Management, 18 (3), 319–328.[/ref] I’m not saying anything that is earth shattering, but direct content creation no longer only takes place in a print design realm. But almost all of my students have never touched WordPress before, so the practice of that in and of itself is a valuable experience since it’s the content management system that powers close to 20% of the web and will likely be the platform most will use out of college to management websites.

2. Students get an e-portfolio out of the deal.
The content my students create (newsletters, post cards, business cards, etc.) naturally lend themselves to a blog structure and e-portfolio since they are visually stimulating. Educause has been a huge proponent of e-portolios and says faculty should encourage students to post samples of written work and projects (among other things) as a way to showcase their work for potential employers. I’m all for anything that puts my students ahead, so we make sure everything they produce for this course (and others) has the opportunity to broadly be seen.

3. Part reinforcement. Part self evaluation.
Student’s self reflection blog posts are essentially the students going through the motions of walking others through their thought and creative process. They are also able to tell me what they were attempting to create in the event it didn’t turn out they way they had originally planned (and in turn we can have conversations about what went wrong and how they might have got there).

4. To show that we are all in this together.
Last, I simply want the students to know they aren’t alone in this endeavor. At first, this course puts most of my students in an incredibly uncomfortable and vulnerable position since they have little-to-no computer design experience. The aggregated blog allows students to watch everyone else walk through the fire with them.

The first set of student posts are reflections on a book titled “Designing for Emotion” by Aarron Walter, from A Book Apart, a series of short books for web designers. As mentioned above, PR publication design focuses heavily on how to create targeted pieces for publics who share characteristics and interests. Emotional design, a term made popular by Donald Norman‘s book of the same name, speaks to how beautiful design can actually evoke a position emotional response to the brain, which is a response PR tends to constantly trying to elicit. While this book’s focus is primarily web design, we’ll be using the principles to thinking broadly about design beyond web. I picked this book in particular because it has some great modern examples of design application and it’s available in both ebook and paperback form. Students even get a decent discount if they wish to have both to fit multiple learning styles. Through the Gaylord College, several students have been given an iPad mini as part of a small scale tablet initiative, so I’m hopeful the ebook will be a viable option.

In the spirit of the idea, I’ll also be blogging about how the course is going and what the student response to the project is, as well as how the book adoption is going. I’m particularly interested in how many students like the shorter format, how many have opted for the ebook version, and how they are primarily reading the book (tablet, desktop, printed out, or print-on-demand by publisher). Until then, enjoy watching the class at http://jmc3433.adamcroom.com!

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