Ever since I took up my post at LJMU, I have been teaching an optional second-year module on social media and communication skills as part of the department’s dedication to maximising its students employability. It’s not the kind of module that students or parents expect to see as part of an English degree. Sure, they can see why we offer the opportunity to gain work experience in the USA, or why we have a module specifically for those who are considering going into teaching after their degree.
But giving English students the chance to develop an ability to use social media platforms in a professional way has lots of benefits, and that our students recognise this is evident both in the steady increase in the number of those who choose the module each year, and in the impact the module has on their careers after their degree.
So, what are those benefits? Why should English students – and their lecturers – spend any time at all thinking about blogging, Twitter, and LinkedIn?
That today’s young people are digital natives is a, for the most part, a myth. Teaching them how to use social media allows those students who are already confident, and those less comfortable with technology, to develop skills that have become essential in many jobs and that are expected by many employers in today’s professional world. Whenever I speak to students about the module and why they may (or may not) want to choose it, I make it clear that it isn’t something that’s just for those who are already highly able users of platforms such as Twitter and WordPress, but that it’s also designed to build the confidence of those students who hardly engage with social media, and who lack the basic skills required in the digital universe. And no matter how technologically and digitally (un)skilled my students are when they begin the module, they all have lots to learn when it comes to using social media for professional purposes; that is, to enhance their career prospects and present themselves as an employable individual with valuable skills.
Many of the skills that we try to teach as part of our degree – in the classroom and through traditional assessments such as essays – can be developed and refined even further when they are used in the context of social media. To create a successful blog, students have to learn to write in a shorter format, in a different, looser structure, and they must be able to adjust their style and vocabulary according to their target audience (who, on this rare occasion, isn’t their lecturer or tutor).
At the same time as blogging can diversify and refine their writing, though, students also have to employ skills on which they have long worked in their traditional assessments, such as critical analysis and research. But for this module, they have to apply these abilities to a topic of their own rather than to a neatly defined essay question or wider topic. Their blogs can be on whatever topic they feel they can write three posts, as long as they provide a critical, analytical angle on their subject. This in itself is a creative and intellectual challenge that many of students respond to in impressive and original ways, and that allows them to think about their interests and potential careers beyond the material they study for their other modules.
Of course the challenge of blogging and tweeting is that it’s very public, and that’s part of the point and part of why this module lends itself to the work-related learning agenda. We teach students how to strategically select the best social networking platforms for their purpose and according to the industries in which they are interested. By making engagement on these platforms part of the assessment, students are able to begin building networks, gaining insight into different industries and sectors, and – most importantly – build an easily findable portfolio that allows them to showcase their skills as well as their interest in and dedication to certain issues or topics.
Social media, and a practical as well as critical understanding of its workings, can become a useful in students’ professional journeys beyond their undergraduate degree as well as teasing out a level of creativity of originality that isn’t always as easily encouraged in more traditional assessment formats.
If you’re interested in the work that our students have been producing this academic year, then take a look at this Twitter list, or head over to the module’s blog at http://www.social-media-skills.org. In the next few weeks, you’ll also be able to read posts by Social Media Skills students as they reflect on the benefits and drawbacks of social media, and share with you the video recordings of one of their assessments for the module: a two-minute pitch for their blogs, a task that tested their verbal communication skills as well as preparing them for the kinds of nerves they may face in job interviews and professional presentations.