How journalism educators can use Coursekit to enhance classroom learning

Coursekit is a new learning management system aimed at professors who want something more than the traditional Blackboard experience. Some journalism professors call the free site — which integrates social media and course content — a Facebook for academia. Students like it, too.

CEO and Co-founder Joseph Cohen, 20, said in a phone interview that the site was designed with students in mind because “we were students ourselves until last year.” Cohen has postponed his studies in the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania to concentrate on his new business.

Coursekit, which was launched out of beta two months ago, enables professors to email students, post content, grade assignments, post notes, comments, Q&As etc. The syllabus can be posted as text, a standalone document or into the calendar section so students (and professors) can see exactly what is coming up. Oh, and it also includes a social media stream.

It’s that all-in-one solution that appeals to associate professor Chris Harper at Temple University in Philadelphia.

“Coursekit is like a one-stop-shop for academics,” he said in a phone interview. “It’s simple and easy to navigate and allows me to have very quick and accurate conversations with students.”

Harper, who is co-director of Temple’s multimedia reporting lab that produces PhiladelphiaNeighborhoods.comuses the tool to keep his students informed.

“Two [of my classes] are co-taught and two are separate, but we can all cross-post on Coursekit, which means that all of us are up-to-date with what’s going on with the students and with PN.com,” he said.

Harper uses the social media stream to deal with questions about libel, grading and assignments. “Why not facilitate learning by simply answering a question?” he said. “For example, a student asked a question about grading policy. I could immediately respond to it and the ensuing Q&A was available to the class.”

“The questions might be as small as checking telephone numbers or tips for stories but the point is that we can respond much more quickly. That quick exchange among faculty and students works really well.”

Harper had used Facebook to engage with students in the past but has found Coursekit to be more effective. It’s difficult for instructors and students to find older or specific posts on Facebook, he said, noting that “with Coursekit you can search posts by time, terms and other filters.”

He also found that students didn’t view Facebook as an academic tool, “whereas with Coursekit, they know that’s where the course information is.”

Carol Stabile, a professor in the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism and Communication, agrees.

“A Facebook generation is not going to be interested or engaged with Blackboard,” she said in a phone interview. “If we’re going to be teaching social media we need to find a way to incorporate social media into out classes, and Coursekit facilitates that,” she said.

Stabile, who is also the director of the Center for the Study of Women in Society, found it hard to use Facebook in class. “It was great for dialog but it was too messy for organizing content. It wasn’t a productive messiness.”

Stabile’s lecture classes can hold 200 students and she says Coursekit significantly cuts down the typical traffic to her inbox.

“I used to receive a ton of emails from students sharing links and now they post them all on Coursekit,” she said. “Within a week of the class starting, students were creating their own profiles, posting content and sharing interesting pieces of information online.”

Unlike Blackboard, Stabile said, the design of Coursekit has encouraged participation and interaction among students and professors.

“Interaction is incredibly important in this contemporary media environment, and if you are not paying attention to interaction, you’re missing the boat,” she said. “We all spend a lot of time creating content for our blogs and Twitter, and we need to be able to use this in our pedagogical practice.”

Simplicity and ease of use are big attractions for Jeremy Caplan, who directs the education program at the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism at CUNY’s Graduate School of Journalism and teaches interactive and entrepreneurial journalism.

Caplan, who is also a Ford Fellow in Entrepreneurial Journalism at Poynter, likes Coursekit’s simple design.

“We use so much technology in our journalism tools that I don’t want to overwhelm students by the means of transmission. This tool has to be simple,” he said by phone. “With Coursekit, I can tag class sessions and items across the course so links and resources can be associated with a particular reading and class session. Everything is then easy to find.” He hopes that at some point, Coursekit will enable users to integrate Google docs into the system.

Caplan, who is developing a distance-learning course in entrepreneurial journalism that will serve students across the globe, hopes to use Coursekit as part of this effort.

“Coursekit seems like a very good solution for this kind of remote teaching project because of the interactive element,” he said. “We are looking at this as a way of testing whether we can serve them in some way, working on creating some sort of short course initially over a couple of weeks.”

He sees Coursekit as a way of facilitating cross-border participation and a simple, single place to post ideas, links questions and feedback. He describes his current crop of Tow Knight fellows as “very active” in discussion and dialog on the site and said he expects this will only increase in a remote environment.

CEO Cohen didn’t share the number of professors who have signed up for the service, but said he he’s happy with the company’s growth. He views his site as an effort at re-imagining the learning experience and organizing it around groups and social networks.

“People naturally form groups and there are social networks throughout academia, and we wanted to represent those networks,” he said. “It’s about people and connections.”

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