Wednesday, July 27, 2011...2:59 pm

Using Posterous as a first-year student journalism teaching tool

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It may be only July, but online journalism lecturers are eagerly preparing for the next intake of wide-eyed undergraduates in October.

There has been a lot of change on the online journalism course at UCA in Farnham. For example, we’ve started using a group news site based on WordPress for first year students in semester 2. Look out for a more extensive write-up about the pitfalls and lessons learned from this (as well as its successes) in a future post.

However, there’s more change to come in our first semester unit – an introduction to multi-platform journalism.

This unit is only two or three years old and aims to introduce students to the idea of publishing and repurposing content in different ways on different platforms – ie video, radio, print and online. So far, so unexceptional.

However, the speed of change of online communication means we have to continually tweak the tools and focus of the unit to keep up with current practice.

Up to now, students have used Blogger as a publishing tool for this unit. It’s a perfectly good tool – easy enough to use, free (usefully), able to handle multimedia (video directly, audio via a Soundcloud embed) and customisable, so students can enjoy designing their web sites.

However, it has its problems. It’s still too much of a standalone web site. Students often noodle around with their site as a personal project, not really using it to engage with the wider world. Given that blogging is well past its sell-by date as an interactive communications tool, students need to think about social media as part of their professional web conversation.

This is why next semester we are planning to use Posterous instead of Blogger as the first web publishing tool used by our first-years. Here’s why:

Posting by email
The fact that you can post to your site via email is useful. The fact that you can do it from any email device is more useful. So the plan is to encourage students to upload photos or video direct from their phone via email. Will it encourage mobile journalism and reportage? I really hope so.

Group posting via email
Because Posterous can accept contributions from anyone via email – either with pre-approval, or using post-submission moderation – the aim is to encourage group working, maybe by covering a live event simultaneously by different participants. Getting journalism students to report live – and to work together – can be tough. If the technology doesn’t stand in their way, so much the better.

Multimedia
Like Blogger, Posterous can accept video directly. Unlike Blogger, it can also accept audio directly. And you can embed from other sites. This is an excellent feature. There is also good photo handling, with automatic gallery creation of multiple photo uploads. (It’s also easy to subscribe to Posterous audio content via iTunes – another excellent feature.)

Syndication
But the killer app of Posterous is its controllable automatic reposting to a wide range of services, including Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and blogging platforms. One of the key abilities for journalists now is to communicate to different audiences on different platforms, and Posterous allows this easily.

Crucially, students have historically been weak at understanding the connection between their own social media activity (wittering constantly on Facebook about their workload and the parties they go to) and their journalism studies and practice (rushing out a few “newsy” blog posts at the last minute on their Blogger site for assessment). Now they will use Posterous to autopost their journalism work to their Facebook profile and start to think of it as a professional communications tool as well.

It’s true that some of our students are beginning to use their Facebook networks for research and story-gathering. With luck we will be able to make this second-nature.

Students will also be able to set up Posterous to post updates to Twitter and even an existing blog or Tumblr site if they have one. One problem students can face is that they are active online publishers with an existing blog, but we ask them to set up a rival for their class work. As a result, they sometimes fail to keep up either. Now, with luck, we can enable students to keep a personal site ticking along with syndicated content while they are getting to grips with class assignments.

Workflow simplicity
Let’s face it, keeping up with a multitude of online platforms is tiring. Tools like Tweetdeck and Seesmic can help with social media – but Posterous offers a very useful springboard to a nice combination of long-form and social media platforms, and looks to be a good publishing tool in its own right.

One click reblogging from Google Reader and the web
Google Reader is a very useful tool to let students gather research material and keep up with current debates. Posterous allows you to reblog material from Reader easily, allowing students to use their site as a note-taking environment. A simple browser bookmarklet also does this for web sites, including video – and does it well. 

It’s new
Importantly, Posterous is new and niche enough that students will probably not have come across it before. This is more important than you’d think. Some students come to university having used Blogger or Tumblr before, so they think they know it all. With luck, Posterous will be a new adventure for everyone. They will also have fewer pre-conceptions of its capabilities.

All in all, Posterous is a very strong candidate for an online teaching tool. However it does have its downsides.

Lack of easy design/theme customisation
Posterous sites do look a bit boring, and there isn’t much you can do with the sidebars. Although journalism shouldn’t really be about fancy web design, students often really want it to be, so they may get discouraged.

On the plus side, you can customise Posterous using real HTML and CSS, so adventurous and capable first-years may get a head start with these techniques. I’m actually hoping Posterous’s simplicity is a feature, not a bug. Students get obsessed with how web sites look and don’t focus on content or audience – Posterous is a good antidote to this, if they can grasp the key message.

Lack of widgets and plugins
As above – you can’t do a great deal with your Posterous site beyond posting and syndicating content. This is a good thing – but students will probably not recognise it.

Does not accept RSS feeds
Posterous is great at feeding content out – not so hot on feeding content in. It’s the one thing I’d ask of it – how hard is it to import an RSS feed?

Basically, however, Posterous looks like an ideal tool to prepare journalism students for the reality of online communication. Online journalism these days is about sharing, collaboration, conversation and multi-purpose communication to different networks and interest groups. It’s getting more difficult to demonstrate that with Blogger – I’m hoping Posterous will help.

[This thinking was inspired by Paul Bradshaw’s very useful post on blogging platforms on the Online Journalism Blog – which is well worth reading]

4 Comments

  • Vivienne DuBourdieuNo Gravatar
    July 27th, 2011 at 4:01 pm

    Thanks for the low down on this site. You make some excellent points. Journalist ‘trainees’ aren’t the only ones having trouble getting the balance right with web posts, social networking, etc. Journalists who once worked with manual typewriters need help as well. You probably mentioned it on Monday – the front page looks familiar – and I’ll mention this post to everyone who might not otherwise see it.

  • Google+?

  • Posterous tends to be my first choice when working with any group which is new to online publishing. That said, this year I’m turning things on their head a little and asking students to choose a platform and justify that choice with reference to their audience. Rather than them always reaching for WordPress/etc. I want them to think a bit more critically about what’s best for the audience and objectives. Will see how that goes…

  • Freelance UnboundNo Gravatar
    July 29th, 2011 at 9:03 am

    Hmm – maybe a tactic to take with second- or third-years…

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