2016 Individual Grant Winner

Susan A. Baim

Business Technology/Commerce


What Constitutes “Good Writing” in a Fast-Paced Microblogging Environment?

Background

During the spring semesters of 2011 and 2014, I applied for and was awarded two individual faculty grants from the Howe Writing Center. My topics related to a dual scholarly research and course development effort studying the process of how to assist undergraduate students in making the transition from casual social media language to the more structured and formal communication standards required when social media technologies are applied in a professional “on the job” setting. The first grant established a solid foundation of what Miami University students typically know about professional social media topics, while the second grant extended deeply into the topic of content development for social media as exemplified through good writing best practices.

I am extremely appreciative of the support provided by the Howe Writing Center, for a number of reasons. First, the individual faculty grants enabled me to focus a significant portion of my research efforts on new teaching techniques and practices that have a direct and positive impact on the writing skills of undergraduate students in situations where they show little prior experience. Second, the grants allowed me to stay in close contact with business thought leaders on the topic of professional social media communication through several well-respected conferences and discussion boards. These first two experiences have been particularly useful in that the type of knowledge that I am seeking is fresh enough that it is only now beginning to appear in the research literature. Third, my findings from the Howe grant-supported work have been robust enough to drive other successful grant applications, such as my recent Dolibois Faculty Development Fund application. Funded for the 2016-2017 year, my most recent Dolibois award will enable me to design and deliver a series of interactive presentation sessions at the Miami University Voice of America (VOA) campus concerned with how to add effective social media teaching modules to undergraduate courses.

These previous Howe grants have also resulted in a variety of professional presentations and peer-reviewed publications. A listing of seven presentations and four publications – all were supported in full or in part by the grants – is provided as an appendix. Additional research publications are currently under review.

In this new Howe Writing Center grant application, I turn my attention away from techniques and best practices that can influence social media as a whole and focus on one of the fastest growing social media trends – that of microblogging. Known to many through the familiar platform “Twitter,” microblogging has applications that range from purely casual chats to sophisticated business communications. With the assistance of the Howe Writing Center, I hope to bring attention to ways that microblogging can be a versatile and effective writing tool for undergraduate students.

Introduction

Blogging has long been recognized as an important tool for helping students add more self-expression to their writings and connect more completely with their chosen audiences (Lacina & Griffith, 2012). Students tend to respond favorably to blogging as a writing assignment since it is often less formal and most students also enjoy the fact that they can design how their writings appear in a blog, as well as, choose their own content. Using a blog in a professional manner, say to communicate career-oriented information, portrays the features of a professional brand online or it can responsibly handle Q&A from consumers. Blogging constitutes a skill that can be taught and mastered through learning modules that largely follow established good writing practices with appropriate modifications for the online environment.

Recently, trends in casual social media use have started to move in the direction of microblogging as a faster, more succinct way to convey a message online as opposed to lengthier traditional blogs. Microblogs are defined as ultra-short communications of very few words (often as short as Twitter’s 140 characters or brief statements posted to a Facebook “wall”) that deliver important news or information in a rapid easy-to-digest manner (Mills & Chandra, 2011; Domizi, 2013). Such technologies are not actually “brand new,” but they have taken on higher levels of importance as the general pace of social media communications continues to accelerate. (See, for example, another trend in social media as visual media are evolving quickly from including still photos, to adding clickable video clips, to live-streaming of video content as it happens in real time.)

Microblogging applications today reflect a broad spectrum of needs as diverse as sharing resources quickly among students in a graduate workshop (Mills & Chandra, 2011, p. 35), providing rapid, top-of-mind feedback on speakers in a seminar (Domizi, 2013, p. 43), tallying community preferences between alternative opinions on an issue (Hsu, Caverlee & Khabiri, 2012, p. 447), and responding to natural or man-made disaster situations (Gelernter & Mushegian, 2011, p. 753). For these microblogs to be effective and efficient, the message sent must be fully understood by the receiver – and that message must fit within very narrowly defined space constraints. Thus, the issue of how to apply microblogging technologies to its best advantage shares many of the same parameters as those that influence the success of a conventional blog – namely great content, combined with superior writing skills. Arguably, by limiting the length of a true microblog (again referencing the 140 characters of Twitter), the skill and technique needed to achieve success are a little more difficult to master than in the case of a traditional, lengthier blog.

Potential Impact

The application of social media technologies within university classrooms is widespread and continues to increase at a rapid pace. To provide students with the best possible guidance on using social media technologies professionally in the workplace, instructors must stay fully abreast of the latest trends and be able to introduce them to students in ways that pique curiosity and foster a desire to learn. Microblogging provides an especially intriguing challenge in this regard not only because of the character constraints of platforms such as Twitter, but also due to the way that the use of microblogs has evolved over a very short time frame. For example, even more than is the case with traditional, lengthier blogs, microblogs have skirted conventional writing best practices by communicating in a rapid-fire staccato of abbreviations, phrases, poorly chosen verb tenses, and/or ambiguous prose. As noted by  researchers Bahrainian and Dengel, capturing the true sentiment of a microblogger can be a difficult process requiring the reading and analysis of multiple messages (2015). Therefore, it is reasonable to expect that providing well-defined, relevant learning modules in how to microblog effectively and efficiently would help students communicate their messages in the most professional manner possible. The work proposed here serves to address the  need for this type of knowledge and instruction among undergraduate students who will soon be entering the workforce.

The benefits for students include:

  1. Developing a detailed understanding of how microblogging differs from the more traditional forms of social media communications, including its limiting factors and advantages.
  2. Gaining an appreciation of when and where it is appropriate to use a microblogging technology to express themselves and convey important information.
  3. Learning to carefully select and apply good writing style elements, including phrasing, grammar, punctuation, etc., to enhance the clarity of rapid-fire microblogging communications.

The number of students who will benefit from the learning modules to be developed through this work will average between 60 and 125 students per academic year if the modules are applied across the BTE/CMR 441 Social Media and Career Development course in its online formats. The strong interdisciplinary popularity of the BTE/CMR 441 course should result in many non-business students benefitting within their own programs of study to complement the high concentration of Business Technology/Commerce and Bachelor of Integrative Studies students who customarily enroll in this course.

Project Objectives

The work described in this proposal seeks to improve students’ professional social media microblogging skills by identifying and addressing the unique challenges associated with this type of communication. Specific objectives include:

  1. Identify and document a series of “what counts” factors that signify high-quality professional microblogging messages in a variety of applications, beginning with Twitter communications and postings to Facebook “walls.”
  2. Create and implement a series of three to four learning modules designed to build students’ abilities to recognize when microblogging is a sound communication choice within a professional setting and appropriately decide on both a topic and a realistic goal for the message.
  3. Create and implement an additional series of three to five learning modules structured to provide guidance and repetitive practice on grammar and clarity of content for microblogging messages.
  4. Once optimized, offer the learning modules to other instructors, working collaboratively with those who would like to introduce additional social media instruction within their courses. This will likely include offering prototype and finished modules for discussion through my new social media instructional series at the Voice of America, as supported by the Dolibois Fund mentioned earlier.

Project Plan

My project plan includes the following critical steps:

  1. Benchmark what constitutes easy-to-follow, easy-to-comprehend communications in typical microblogging situations. This will rely heavily on an analysis of Twitter feeds as Twitter is currently the “gold standard” for microblogging – not necessarily in terms of proper communication style, but rather the high level of use at present. Pay particular attention to the type of content delivered, the use of language, the incorporation of non-verbal media, etc.
  2. Prepare the series of learning modules in terms of establishing the range of microblogging sites that students will critique, the process to be used in introducing how to write quick, succinct texts that are free from jargon, unclear abbreviations, slang and other nonprofessional content, the basic structure of the assignments, and the desired outcomes. Share this information, as appropriate, with the Howe Writing Center staff to seek their opinions on the clarity of the learning modules and their recommendations on best practices for fine tuning and implementation.
  3. Revise and finalize the learning modules for incorporation into BTE/CMR 441 coursework as described above. Collect and develop accompanying lecture and/or online resources to support the learning modules and provide supplemental guidance to students.
  4. Develop rubrics appropriate for assessing the student work product(s) from the learning modules. Collaborate with the Howe Writing Center staff to ensure that the most recent thoughts on rubric design are evaluated and incorporated into the overall assessment plan.
  5. Operationalize the new learning modules within the curriculum of BTE/CMR 441.
  6. Share initial findings with other instructors for feedback through the VOA social media sessions.

Assessment Strategy

My approach to assessing the success of student learning invariably revolves around the development of one or more quantitative grading rubrics specifically tailored to the assignments under study. Such rubrics were applied extensively during both of my previous individual faculty grants and my intent is to continue this practice. Rubrics will be supplemented by assessments of overall student learning via end-of-course student surveys and also by Small Group Instructional Diagnosis (SGID) sessions conducted by other campus faculty. In addition, a moderated peer-to-peer feedback process conducted through a course wiki will also be used to encourage students to share feedback with each other on assignment drafts and their finished work product(s). This approach is a key evaluative aspect of BTE/CMR 441 and it has proven very successful in generating meaningful feedback that ultimately enhances the quality of students’ work. As stated in Step 4 of the Project Plan, collaboration with the Howe Writing Center staff will ensure the proper optimization of the rubrics used.

Team Members

I am conducting this project on an individual basis.

Schedule

  • May–June: Conduct benchmarking studies and assemble basic materials needed to generate learning modules and other online resources. Identify specific topic areas to be covered in the learning modules.
  • July: Create complete draft copies of all learning modules and rough outlines of accompanying rubrics for student assessment.
  • August: Collaborate with Howe Writing Center staff to improve and finalize learning modules. Obtain input on rubrics from staff.
  • September–November: Incorporate and use learning modules and rubrics in BTE/CMR 441 for Fall Semester 2016.
  • December: Analyze results and make needed revisions to learning modules based on how well they worked under conditions of actual use.
  • January: Reintroduce optimized learning modules in BTE/CMR 441 for Winter Term 2017.
  • February–March: Perform overall assessment of learning module success and share with other faculty for feedback and potential implementation through my VOA social media series. Write final project report and/or begin work on formal presentations and peer-reviewed research publications.

Budget

  • $270: One-year professional membership in Mindtools.com (social media expertise)
  • $500: Registration for Content Marketing World 2016 Virtual (Online) Conference *
  • $500: Registration for Social Media Marketing World 2017 Virtual (Online) Conference *
  • $730: Miscellaneous books/supplies for learning modules
  • $2000: Total

* These are the industry-standard content-based social media conferences, offered with an online option each year to eliminate additional costs associated with travel.

Reports and Presentations

My intent is to make my results and finished learning modules broadly available to the university community through presentations and publications, plus disseminate my work through professional meetings, such as at the Association for Business Communication (ABC) conferences and/or the Miami University Lilly Conference. Please see the appendix for examples of where I have published and/or discussed my work related to previous Howe grants to date.

References

Ali Bahrainian, S. & Dengel, A. (2015). Sentiment analysis of texts by capturing underlying sentiment patterns. Web Intelligence, 13, 53-68.

Domizi, D. P. (2013). Microblogging to foster connections and community in a weekly graduate seminar course. TechTrends, 57(1), 43-51.

Gelernter, J., & Mushegian, N. (2011). Geo-parsing messages from microtext. Transactions in GIS, 15(6), 753-773.

Hsu, C-F., Caverlee, J., & Khabiri, E. (2012). Predicting community preference of comments on the social web. Web Intelligence and Agent Systems, 10, 447-463.

Lacina, J., & Griffith, R. (2012). Blogging as a means of crafting writing. The Reading Teacher, 66(4), 316-320.

Mills, K. A., & Chandra, V. (2011). Microblogging as a literacy practice for educational communities. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 55(1), 35-45.

Appendix

Refereed Presentations Related In Full or In Part to Previous Howe Grants
  • Baim, S. A. (2015). A study proposal: Teaching students how to use social media. Miami University Scholars and Artists Week Poster Session, March 30 – April 3, 2015, Middletown Campus.
  • Baim, S. A. (2014). Making the transition from casual to professional social media use: Helping students succeed in business through self-directed learning and digital storytelling. Association for Business Communication Midwest Regional Conference, April 3-4, 2014, Minneapolis, MN.
  • Baim, S. A. (2014). BTE 441 – Social media and career development: Digital storytelling in online learning. Miami University Scholars and Artists Week Poster Session, March 3l – April 4, 2014, Middletown Campus.
  • Baim, S. A. (2014). Building professional social media skills through self-direction and digital storytelling in an online learning environment. Midwest Scholars Conference, March 13-14, 2014, Indianapolis, IN.
  • Baim, S. A. (2013). Getting started with social media: What do our students know? Miami University Scholars and Artists Week Poster Session, April 1-4, 2013, Middletown Campus.
  • Baim, S. A. (2013). Understanding what undergraduates know about social media: Transitioning from casual to business usage. Midwest Scholars Conference, March 14-16, 2013, Indianapolis, IN.
  • Baim, S. A. (2013). Keeping pace with business applications of social media: An educator’s race to the curriculum of the future. Association for Business Communication Midwest/Southeast Regional Conference, March 6-9, 2013, Louisville, KY.
Refereed Publications Related In Full or In Part to Previous Howe Grants
  • Baim, S. A. (2016). Building professional social media communications skills: A STEM-originated course with broad university appeal. Journal on Excellence in College Teaching, accepted for first quarter 2016 – now in press.
  • Baim, S. A. (2016). Quick automated tracking of video watcher statistics: An analysis of YouTube and Google analytics in promoting a series of social media videos. Applied Marketing Analytics, accepted; in press.
  • Baim, S. A. (2015). Digital storytelling: Conveying the essence of a face-to-face lecture in an online learning environment. Journal of Effective Teaching, 15(1), 47-58.
  • Baim, S. A. (2012). Preparing to text and tweet at work: Developing professional social media skills in an undergraduate business course. 2012 MMA National Conference Proceedings, September 2012.