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The new communication: using new and social media as a basis for instruction and assessment in higher education.

It is undeniable that new and social media, far from being frivolous distractions, are crucial to students' education and preparation for entry into the modern workforce. Australian Catholic University lecturers DIANE CHARLESON and MARK LYALL outline how they incorporated new media into early tertiary communication studies, and why this inclusion is essential across all senior education.


Educators are facing challenging times, but with such challenges comes opportunity for innovation, reassessment and change to traditional practices. Central to these challenges are the engagement and retention of students, and the need to reappraise our understanding of each student, their learning styles, their aspirations and the place education has for them in this changing world. (1) We propose a need for educators to redefine or expand definitions of literacy to reflect the status of new-media literacies as integral to teaching today's students, both to engage them and to provide essential life skills and workplace readiness. We argue that it is important to support students in developing the skills to be critical content producers with an understanding of the power of their communication and how to optimise this. In order to provide quality learning for these students, communication studies curricula need to draw on and extend the existing skills of students. It is increasingly apparent that new media and social media, with their multimodal affordances, are becoming important means of communication and necessary tools that graduates must be equipped with in the existing and future workplace.


Driving much of the discussion around new-media literacies is the foundational myth of the digital native. (2) Digital natives, sometimes referred to as generation Y or the net generation, were born after 1980. According to Marc Prensky, (3) digital natives grew up on instant communication and access to cultural forms. Being networked for much of their lives, they often have little patience for the slow pace of linear argument. They identify as chronic multitaskers (4) and have a preference for the visual mode. Prensky draws on neuroplasticity theory to suggest that the brains of digital natives are physically different 'as a result of the digital input they received growing up'. (5)

Subsequent gen Y theory speculates about a generation of 'savvy [...] effective and efficient users of technology'. (6) Such users have an 'in-depth grasp and almost "intuitive" knowledge of how to use technology'. (7) Neil Selwyn argues that the inherent homogeneity in these representations tends to disregard the socioeconomic contexts that might temper an individual's access to technology. (8) The links made between learning characteristics and technology use tends to be deterministic, despite mounting evidence that we should treat such determinism with caution. (9) While individuals from generation Y are portrayed as confident multitaskers, this ability has been questioned in experimental settings. (10) Other research has found that there is little empirical evidence to support the view that gen Y's technology adoption and proficiency is uniform. (11) The representation of gen Y, in both the academic and the popular press, matters because the digital-native discourse is feeding into the digital-education revolution here in Australia. In 2008 the Australian Government claimed that its citizens were 'digitally aware and want to engage online', (12) but just three years later the National Digital Economy Strategy admitted that Australian businesses and not-for-profits are not as 'digitally engaged' as their international competitors, and that they lack 'digital proficiency'. (13) The digital-native myth implies that all gen Y individuals need in order to thrive in the modern workplace is access to technology that they simply need to be 'turned loose' in order for their unique patterns of technology use to be exploited by employers. (14)

Assumptions about gen Y individuals' technical facilities and preferences have filtered through to the business sector. We are reportedly entering a new era of work practice, transformed by a 'culture of distributed networking and social technologies'. (15) It is anticipated that digital natives will share their knowledge and skills with older workers, resulting in 'improve [d] workplace efficiency and significantly increase[d] productivity'. (16) Digital natives are reportedly 'willing to put the time in to stay "digitally literate" as technologies rapidly change'. (17) Writing about the finance industry, Adam Ripley proclaims that the 'fresh knowledge of the younger generation, combined with the experience of older employees, is a failsafe combination and one that few banks can choose to ignore'. (18) All of this places quite a burden on our graduates; in short, digital natives have much to live up to in the workplace. Their reputation, be it empirically grounded or not, precedes them. So what can we do to help?

We would claim that digital-media literacy should be a basic entitlement for every Australian student. But as the brief literature review above has hopefully demonstrated, we cannot assume from the digital-native hype that all students will possess a specified degree of new-media literacy. They may know about and engage with social media, such as Twitter, YouTube and Facebook, but frequently lack the 'capacity to compose professional effective messages'. (19) Surprisingly, research has shown that while students spend many hours using sites such as Facebook and Twitter, they are generally not critical or analytical users of technology. (20) But the issue is not simply one of access to technology. Lisa Servon argues that while physical access to computers and the internet is certainly a key factor in social-media literacy, there are other factors that need to be considered such as traditional literacy, technological literacy, content production, use of language and the availability of a network. (21) Technological literacy refers to the ability of the individual 'to use the digital technologies [...] effectively to address their socio-economic and political needs'. (22) It is imperative that users have ownership of and confidence with the technology so that they can become empowered producers rather than tentative, passive users. In order to be effective users, we argue that it is important to be up-to-date with new-media platforms and associated hardware, and also to be critical of and reflective about the issues surrounding the impact of new media on society. We also suggest that familiarity with a range of new-media styles and forms, and an appreciation of audience and purpose, are empowering tools when beginning to create such content; being a user is not enough. A 2010 study of Twitter showed that most users passively receive content, rather than actively create or forward it. (23) The same study concluded that individuals need to overcome this passivity in order to become influential.

Further, the changes in communication introduced by social media need to be seriously adopted by universities as assessment options to help maximise student participation and achievement. Penny Burke suggests that approaches to lifelong learning take into account diverse strategies for student engagement. (24) Learning should be designed with critical engagements that draw on life experiences that are shared as well as individual. Theresa Lillis (25) argues that students in formal educational institutions are often expected to take part in a very particular kind of literacy practice: that of writing academic essays. Many students feel unfamiliar and intimidated by this academic style of writing, which can often reinforce a sense of exclusion whereby students feel inadequate or alienated from the mainstream process. (26) The essay 'privileges the discursive routines of particular social groups whilst dismissing those people who, culturally and communally, have access to and engage in a range of other practices'. (27) Rather than seeing personal technologies (such as mobile phones) and social media as distractions and obstacles to learning, the skills inherent in their use can form the basis for classroom structure and assessment tasks. In the remainder of this paper, we will discuss some of the methods we have used to support students in developing critical content-production skills.


Introduction to Communication is an elective offered throughout the Australian Catholic University. It was initially designed to equip students with written and spoken communication skills, with an emphasis on workplace communication (at the university's Melbourne campus, it is now also a core unit in the Bachelor of Media Communication). To adapt to these diverse aims, the unit has been restructured around new-media communication - oriented towards its practical applications and also the critical analysis of its impact on society (and communication in particular). Such an approach is a significant departure from the unit's traditional focus on essay writing and written examinations.

This unit commences with a four-week module on the use of blogs for profiling. The students are asked to create a multimedia profile of a fellow student suitable for a blog or website. The aim of this module is to enable students to create their own blogs, and to develop appropriate communication skills through critical analyses of existing online content. The ability to analyse the constructed nature of media representations is central to media literacy, and asking students to critique blogging practices and then design their own online profiles develops this important skill in a practical context.

Tumblr is used as the blogging platform due to its user-friendly interface and the apparent popularity of this platform with the student cohort. In the first week, students are paired off and asked to conduct an in-depth interview with each other in order to gather sufficient material to write a profile. They are given guidance on interview techniques and encouraged to go beyond surface matters in collaboration with their partners. They are then instructed to search online for examples of profiles. These examples are analysed in terms of layout, language and use of media. While there is no insistence on a specific style that the students should adopt in creating their profiles, they are directed to model their work on exemplar sites and to place particular emphasis on writing for a specific audience. Next, students are introduced to the Tumblr interface and asked to create a blog that they can customise to suit their profile subject. This excites many students, as it is often their first experience with a blogging platform of this kind. As instructors, we model certain online practices, but it is important that students do the hands-on work themselves; (28) merely talking about blogging will not develop the tacit knowledge (29) that comes from encountering the technology firsthand.

The next stage comprises instructing students in the use of a small video camera and discussing and analysing the role of video and still images in a blog. They are then asked to add value to their written text via a video that should be uploaded to the site along with pictures and audio that will give the reader tangible insights into their subject. In this way, the students learn not only the technical skills necessary to accomplish the task, but also how to analyse and critique multimodal forms of communication and how to use these modes in an integrated and considered manner for optimum results. Student feedback has been very positive, with many students continuing their blogs outside of class and expressing their excitement about potential uses of new media that they had not considered before.

The profiling task outlined above may sound relatively simple, but in order to complete it, students employed a variety of new-media literacies. In particular, students were asked to add value to their written profiles by incorporating moving and/or still imagery. The concept of 'value-adding' implies that one mode of communication, in this case writing, remains foundational. Some students worked from this premise, embedding images and video into their blogs at the most appropriate locations suggested by the written text, or else including the additional media as bookends to the text (i.e. at the top or bottom of the page). Employing a narrative voice and modelling their blogs on accessible best-practice examples enabled students to write with confidence. The task provided a great sense of inclusion, with tangible prospects for success. We expected this outcome, but some students did interpret the profile-blogging task in ways that challenged the primacy of the text. In one case, a student created a profile page that consisted of a collage of what appeared to be unrelated images; apart from the profile's title, there was no text to be seen. Once each image was clicked, however, it spun around to reveal a short paragraph explaining how that image represented an aspect of the interviewee's identity. In the student's analysis, they spoke about wanting to create a nonlinear narrative and found that a photographic collage was the best way to achieve that.

Another student organised their profile around the interviewee's love of music and embedded YouTube, Vimeo and SoundCloud clips, as well as hyperlinks to song lyrics and fan sites, into the profile text. This is an example of transmedia navigation, (30) which refers to the ability to construct a narrative across different modalities. We live in an environment that is increasingly dominated by communication technologies that make it easier than ever before to combine modes. (31) Simply put, a mode is a 'socially shaped and culturally given semiotic resource for making meaning'. (32) Knowing what modes to combine in the blogopshere means having command of the relevant cultural capital, such as being aware of which pop-culture sources are worth including, but also proficiency in the technologies of combination. One of the technical competencies developed by the profile assignment is that of media embedding, which refers to the insertion of a small amount of HTML code into the blog in order to make video and audio playable from other platforms, such as SoundCloud, YouTube and Vimeo. There was some initial resistance to the idea of learning 'code', but that resistance quickly faded away when the practical applications were recognised.

The task's emphasis on collaboration and production helps challenge what has become a textual bias in academic assessment. As Lillis has noted, writing (and indeed all forms of multimodal orchestration) is a social practice rather than simply an individual skill to acquire. (33) In this unit of study, we have emphasised writing's social dimension through careful choice of platform (Tumblr) and task (profile construction).


The assessment for the second module of Introduction to Communication consists of an oral presentation, a research portfolio and a critical-analysis piece of writing, which are all more traditional components of a communications course. Rather than begin with the critical lens, we position this task between two practical new-media exercises that are modelled on current practice. Having become creators early in the unit, students can here reflect critically and add value to their next new-media task.

The class work is devoted to issues in new media and their impact on society and communication. Students are required to keep a folio of newspaper cuttings and downloaded online articles related to issues in new media, which will later be used to inform their oral presentations. In class, students watch a selection of films that deal with various issues surrounding new media. Titles are rotated on a yearly basis, and have included Catfish (Henry Joost & Ariel Schulman, 2010) and the 2010 PBS documentary Digital Nation: Life on the Virtual Frontier. A candidate for next year is Vivienne Roumani's Out of Print (2013), a provocative exploration of the impact of new media on reading and publishing. These films are discussed in groups and followed up with online searches for articles relevant to the topic, either from academic sources or from the wider media. Students then work on a group presentation on any aspect of new media's impact on society. The topics are diverse and range from such issues as privacy and censorship to citizen journalism and the impact of new media on children. The students are then asked to take the articles collected in preparation for their presentations and individually write a critical analysis of the issues raised. In more recent iterations of the unit, the critical-analysis task evolved into a Wikipedia entry, a discursive space more relevant to students than the venerable essay.

This was a very successful component, as the students were engaged with the subject matter and often amazed at the implications that arose from the social media that they so regularly use without reflection. Along with becoming content producers, they also became critical analysts of new media and its impact on their own communication. Positive student feedback and increased class attendance constituted evidence of the success of the unit's redesign to focus on new media, as did the quality of work produced - students were engaged and enjoyed the work, striving to produce quality end products that they were proud to share with their peers and the extended community. Their work was not just relevant; it was 'real'.


This unit offers the students the chance to develop their skills and learn to be effective communicators and content producers rather than passive consumers. They learn to become critically engaged with the media and to see its relevance in a range of work-related applications. By working with familiar media, students are able to develop their writing, speaking and listening skills; as the content is relevant to their interests and to how they will communicate in the future, they can see the tangible benefits of engaging in the unit's activities. It is important that students are provided with opportunities to communicate using new media so that they become equipped with skills that enable them to communicate complex ideas using the kinds of new technologies and platforms that are increasingly being used in all workplaces.

Dr Diane Charleson is currently a senior lecturer at the Australian Catholic University (Melbourne), where she is the program coordinator of the Media and Communication program. She has vast experience as a filmmaker and is presently practising as a video-installation artist and documentary maker. Her research interests are in practice-based research, research of the self, memory, identity, video installation, documentary and new media, <dianema.charleson>

Dr Mark Lyall is currently a lecturer in media theory at the Melbourne campus of the Australian Catholic University. His research interests are in multimodality, e-learning and practice-based research. <>


(1) John Biggs & Catherine Tang, Teaching for Quality Learning at University, 4th edn, McGraw-Hill, London, 2011.

(2) Don Tapscott, Growing Up Digital: The Rise of the Net Generation, McGraw-Hill, New York, 1998.

(3) Marc Prensky, Teaching Digital Natives: Partnering for Real Learning, Corwin, Thousand Oaks, 2010.

(4) Marc Prensky, Digital Game-based Learning, McGraw-Hill, New York, 2001.

(5) Marc Prensky, 'Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants Part 2: Do They Really Think Differently?', On the Horizon, vol. 9, no. 6, 2001, pp. 1-6.

(6) Barbara Combes, 'Generation Y: Are They Really Digital Natives or More Like Digital Refugees?', Synergy, vol. 7, no. 1, 2009, pp. 31-40.

(7) ibid.

(8) Neil Selwyn, 'The Digital Native - Myth and Reality', Aslib Proceedings: New Information Perspectives, vol. 61, no. 4, 2009, pp. 364-79

(9) Penny Thompson, 'The Digital Natives as Learners: Technology Use Patterns and Approaches to Learning', Computers & Education, vol. 65, July 2013, pp. 12-33.

(10) Eyal Ophir, Clifford Nass & Anthony D Wagner, 'Cognitive Control in Media Multitaskers', Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, vol. 106, no. 37, 2009, pp. 15583-7.

(11) Gregor E Kennedy & Terry S Judd, 'Beyond Google and the "Satisficing" Searching of Digital Natives', in Michael Thomas (ed.), Deconstructing Digital Natives: Young People, Technology and the New Literacies, Routledge, New York & Abingdon, 2011, pp. 119-36.

(12) Commonwealth of Australia, Australia's Digital Economy: Future Directions, 2009, < economy_future_directions>, accessed 8 July 2014.

(13) Commonwealth of Australia, National Digital Economy Strategy: Leveraging the National Broadband Network to Drive Australia's Digital Productivity, 2011, < au/20l3/september/national_digital_economy_strategy>, accessed 8 July 2014 .

(14) Thompson, op. cit.

(15) Brynn Evans, 'When Facebook Comes to Work: Understanding the Work Practice of the Digital Native', in Michelle Manafy & Heidi Gautschi (eds), Dancing with Digital Natives: Staying in Step with the Generation That's Transforming the Way Business Is Done, Information Today Inc., Medford, 2011, pp. 3-18.

(16) Marie Puybaraud, 'Digital Natives: Born 2 B Connected', Johnson Controls, 2012, <http://www.johnsoncontrols. com/content/dam/WWW/jci/be/global_workplace_ solutions/worktech/Johnson_Controls_Digital_Natives_ WORKTECHLondon2012.pdf>, accessed 7 July 2014.

(17) Erica Dhawan, 'Gen-Y Workforce and Workplace Are out of Sync', Forbes, 23 January 2012, < -are-out-of-sync/>, accessed 7 July 2014.

(18) Adam Ripley, 'Digital Natives--The Technology Know How Driving the Banks of the Future', bobsguide, 10 December 2012, < -natives-the-technology-know-how-driving-the-banks-of-the -future.html>, accessed 7 July 2014.

(19) William Rifkin, Nancy Longnecker, Joan Leach, Lloyd Davis & Lindy Orthia, 'Students Publishing in New Media: Eight-Hypotheses --a House of Cards?', International Journal of Innovation in Science and Mathematics Education, vol. 18, no. 1, 2010, pp. 43-54

(20) Selwyn, op. cit., p. 370.

(21) Lisa J Servon, Bridging the Digital Divide: Technology, Community, and Public Policy, Blackwell, Malden, Oxford & Melbourne, 2002.

(22) Sebastian Kaempf, 'The Digital Divide: Scarcity, Inequality and Conflict (Last Moyo) Case Study: Virtual Wars', in Glen Creeber & Royston Martin (eds), Digital Cultures: Understanding New Media, Open University Press, Berkshire, 2009, p. 123.

(23) Daniel Romero et al., 'Influence and Passivity in Social Media', in Dimitrios Gunopulos et al. (eds), Machine Learning and Knowledge Discovery in Databases, Part III, Springer, Berlin & Heidelberg, 2011, pp. 18-33.

(24) Penny Jane Burke, 'Writing, Power and Voice: Access to and Participation in Higher Education', Changing English: Studies in Culture and Education, vol. 15, no. 2, 2008, pp. 199-210.

(25) Theresa Lillis, 'Student Writing as "Academic Literacies": Drawing on Bakhtin to Move from Critique to Design, Language and Education, vol. 17, no. 3, 2003, pp. 192-207.

(26) Burke, op. cit., p. 200.

(27) Theresa M Lillis, Student Writing: Access, Regulation, Desire, Routledge, London & New York, 2001, p. 39.

(28) Prensky, Teaching Digital Natives, op. cit

(29) Michael Polanyi, 'The Logic of Tacit Inference', Philosophy, vol. 41, no. 155,1966, pp. 1-18.

(30) Henry Jenkins, Ravi Purushotma, Margaret Weigel, Katie Clinton & Alice J Robison, Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century, MIT Press, Cambridge & London, 2009.

(31) Gunther Kress, Literacy in the New Media Age, Routledge, London, 2003.

(32) Gunther Kress, Multimodality: A Social Semiotic Approach to Contemporary Communication, Routledge, Abingdon & New York, 2010.

(33) Lillis, Student Writing, op. cit.
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Title Annotation:TEACHING MEDIA
Author:Charleson, Diane; Lyall, Mark
Publication:Screen Education
Date:Oct 1, 2014
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