Integrating hands-on learning practices to social media curriculum: A case study at University of Wisconsin-Platteville

In less than two years, the social media curriculum at University of Wisconsin-Platteville went from non-existent to achieving national recognition for offering the “best hands-on experience.” All levels of administration have positively commented on the curriculum, especially the emphasis on high impact learning practices (the new euphemism for “hands-on”).

Contributed by Dr. Robert J. Snyder, this post discusses why and how the Department of Media Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville added a comprehensive social media curriculum. With the insights shared by Dr. Snyder, other schools may find inspiration, or practical details, in adding coursework within their own social media curriculum with high impact learning practices.

Social Media | University of Wisconsin-Platteville

Why we started the social media curriculum

Several years ago, the author knew that our department needed to address social media within the curriculum. The approach became clear as job descriptions for social media content providers started showing up at the department.

There has been a seismic eruption in these 21st century jobs. For example, Platteville has seen the creation of two social media content provider jobs within the last three years; those are jobs in 21st century manufacturing that did not exist at the start of this decade. In addition, there has been significant growth in companies that will generate content for social media for those businesses and organizations that cannot devote the time internally to such activities, finally, there seems to be an expectation among some employers in a variety of fields that fresh hires out of college will handle the firm’s social media platforms because students are already doing that on their own.

To simply tell students to “start a social media business out of your house, it’s easy” sells far short the need for social media pedagogy.

Based in part on job descriptions for social media content providers, the curriculum had to address skills in multi-media, such as writing, video and photography, as well as an understanding of marketing, public relations and audiences. Much of this coursework was already in place. Two new courses were created for the social media minor. In keeping with our department’s philosophy of theory-driven practice, one new course is the theory-driven course called Social Media and Society.

The course grounded in practice became a section of what our department calls Applied Communication. Students can gain academic credit for working at the student newspaper, radio station and the university’s cable channel. For many of our students, this is a requirement. Students generate the content for those outlets, under the supervision of a faculty member, as they do at many other similar programs.

It quickly became obvious that a faculty supervised student activity could take place with social media. Our department approved a section of Applied Communication where students generate the content for an “official” department Facebook page.

Ground rules and structure for the social media courses

A variety of policies and practices were put into place before the first day of classes. The first was the recognition that the university has a policy about such social media activities. It is university policy that an “official” university social media page is ultimately under the jurisdiction of university administration. Those who run university newspapers may shudder at such a notion but you do need to be aware of such policies that may exist at your institution. Thus far our department’s official student-run Facebook page has not had any outside interference.

That’s due in large part to the rules and policies for this page. On the first day of class, it is made clear to students that the page represents the department, and as such professionalism is to be practiced at all times. For example, it is not professional to use texting shortcuts in official posts on the page. Photographs are to have good composition and exposure. Selfies are not professional.

The objective of the page, as determined by the department, is to serve as a platform to engage the department’s students and alumni. There is also recognition by the department that potential students may (and have) visit the page.

Where does the content for the page come from? We use a beats system, similar to a newspaper. Beats include department classes, faculty, student media, student life, alumni updates, interns, and so on. Topicals, such as Question of the Week, and Today in Media History are part of the mix. We post material for our main audience, our students. Students who engage the page describe it as “fun.”

Tagging photos is encouraged and we notice that this practice increases traffic to the page. As a courtesy, students enrolled in Applied Communication-Social Media do not merely walk into a class with a smartphone and snap away. We have not yet had, for example, a student ask that a photo be taken off the page because said student simply does not want their picture distributed via social media. In fact, we have had parents Like posts because their son/daughter has been tagged in a photo.

Because students throughout the department are encouraged to like the page, there are additional rules for posting to prevent overloading timelines. Posts on the page should be two hours apart and there should be no more than five posts per day. When a student posts, the student needs to provide the faculty supervisor with a post alert (email). The advisor can then look at the post, make an editing suggestion if necessary, or simply acknowledge a good post. Students are expected to post twice a week. Meeting output expectations is part of a student’s grade.

Each student submits a weekly activity report. Posts from the prior week are analyzed every Monday for traffic and engagement. Students do an end-of the semester summary analysis on the page regarding engagement. What posts received the most engagement and what was it about those posts that encouraged engagement?

Due to the success of the department’s Facebook page, students have suggested that the department start a Twitter feed and Instagram account. We’ll think about that. The faculty supervisor does spent time monitoring all student generated posts for the Facebook page. Additional workload can reasonably go only so far.

The department has an additional tool for giving students that hands-on experience AND a means for engaging all majors outside the classroom, including putting student work on display. Do not underestimate the value of having your students’ parents visiting such a platform.

When handled with some thought and objectives, adding hands-on social media coursework has only been a positive, thus far, for our department.

 About the department and the school

Home to the oldest student-run radio station in the University of Wisconsin System, WSUP-FM, and the oldest continuously published student newspaper in the UW system, the Exponent, student-run media have always played an important role in our program’s approach to the study of media. Our department is also within a college that places an emphasis on professional development.

You can contact me (, or leave a comment to this post, for further discussion on this topic.

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About Mu Lin

Dr. Mu Lin is a digital journalism professional and educator in New Jersey, United States. Dr. Lin manages an online marketing company. He also manages MulinBlog Online J-School (, a free online journalism training program, which offers courses such as Audio Slideshow Storytelling; Introduction to Social Media Marketing; Writing for the Web; Google Mapping for Communicators; Introduction to Data Visualization; Introduction to Web Metrics and Google Analytics.
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