Online Class Discussions and Twittering Breaking News

January 20th, 2009; 9:42 pm by Ryan Thornburg

Things were a little out of rhythm all day today, with a weird snow storm that couldn’t decide whether it did or did not want to close down UNC today.

The bad news is that I didn’t get a chance to have MDC’s Richard Hart host a discussion about the N.C. dropout rate. The good news is that I had a chance to run two good live experiments in online journalism.

The first, and probably most interesting, was the use of amateur reports to track the snow. Last night on Twitter I asked my followers whether there was a common location where people would be storing photos and other reports on today’s road conditions. One of my students, Sara Gregory, suggested that we set up a tag, “#CH-Snow” for people to post their accounts. And it turned out to provide some very localized views of the storm — stuff that I wasn’t getting from the local radio station’s interview with the town manager or county sheriff. Although, I also got a lot of good information from WRAL and WCHL that I would not have received elsewhere. For an example of how Twitter can be used to create an instant and ad-hoc reader news network, go here. Today also provided a much larger example of how Twitter can be used for breaking news coverage via an ad hoc network of amateurs and professionals. See #inaug09 for that example.

But journalists have to understand that in order to make such a tool work when needed they have to have already made these kinds of connections with the community. If a journalist doesn’t build a network of followers in a time of calm, he or she won’t be able to activate that network in a time of crisis.

The second innovation was the online discussion I hosted on my class Blackboard site instead of hosting live class. I gave the class a reading assignment, and they are begging to use Publish2 to extend the conversation. We are the N.C. Diploma Dilemma newsgroup on that site, if you are interested in keeping track and adding your comments as well.

Of course, online discussions are just a simple demonstration of the way that the Internet creates an on-demand information tool that transcends space and time. Of course, books do that, too. But book readers can’t backsass the author. No “Gutenberg, your drawings are LAME!” And don’t you think that’s something the Renaissance was completely lacking?

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