5 Interview with David Squires: Social Media Texts

David Squires and visiting assistant professor at Washington State University

David Squires was a visiting assistant professor teaching in Washington State University’s Digital Technology & Culture[1] program and works at the Center for Digital Scholarship and Curation.[2] In fall 2016, he had students in his Intro to Digital Technology & Culture course create two OER texts on social media, The Social Construction of Media: Social Media, Culture and Everyday Life[3] and Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Social Media (but Were Too Afraid to Ask).[4] We interviewed David about his experience. 

Tell us about the project:

The end product is meant to be a prototype of a OER textbook on social media. There are lots of marketing textbooks on social media, but nothing quite like a cultural studies textbook, so that was the goal: a model for what a social media textbook could look like.

How did the project unfold?

We dedicated about six weeks to the whole thing. First we read, wrote, and discussed copyright, Creative Commons, and open access publishing. Then the students started researching topics and writing. Finally, they put the pieces together as a Scalar[5] book.

What role did students play in the project?

My students did most everything, start to finish. I played the role of project manager but tried to let them do as much of the work as possible. They rose to the occasion, tackling research, writing, layout and design—they even conceptualized the subject areas and structure of the project. At the end, they presented their work in public, for the beginning of Open Access Week. That gave them a sense of a hard deadline that wasn’t just me saying due date! It really was a moment in time that required a certain level of achievement. I’m glad to report that each chapter-group met the challenge, although a few individual students were not able to present.

How did you leverage the project to achieve the learning objectives for the class?

Over the past year, The DTC program at WSU has worked to clarify course objectives for “Intro to Digital Technology & Culture.” Here’s the outcome:

  1.     Perform humanistic inquiry in combination with computational methods.
  2.     Assess information and sources.
  3.     Engage in collaborative and project-based learning.
  4.     Practice creative design and analysis of digital media.

This project furthers each of these objectives:

  1. Students learn digital research tools and a new web publishing platform, Scalar.
  2. Students learn to assess sources as they research their specific chapters, especially as they pull web materials to feature in their book. A big part of this project was identifying valid primary and secondary sources, and knowing which were which.
  3. They created this project as a class, and each chapter had a group of three students contributing.
  4. The primary sources required critical analysis, while the Scalar platform allowed students to practice design and layout as part of the writing process.

What advice would you have for faculty planning similar projects in which they and students create open textbooks?

While I was writing the syllabus, six weeks seemed like a long time to work on a single project. During the semester, however, I wished we’d had more time. If I did it again, I think I would organize the copyright and open access material into one project. Then let the social media textbook follow as the second project. Which is a way of saying, I’d dedicate more time to the research and writing on social media. Research and writing can’t be rushed, especially when students are learning a new platform.

The other note I would add is that Scalar worked very well for this assignment in all regards except one—multiple users working on the same page at the same time caused havoc. We made it work, but knowing that in advance would have helped me prepare students. In general, knowing the platform in advance is essential to guiding students through the process.

If you did this again, what would you change? What are some pitfalls faculty can watch out for?

In addition to the above advice, I’d suggest reading Anne Cong-Huyen’s blog post, “Whittier Workshop: Scalar in the Classroom.”[6] I wish I’d found it before teaching this assignment. She lays out the pros and cons of using Scalar very clearly, reminding readers early on that Scalar is a publishing platform, not a learning management system. I think it’s important to emphasize the publishing, editing, and document design aspects of using Scalar. That should be part of the assignment goals when asking students to produce open textbooks.

I’m not seeing individual credits for the students on each chapter, but I do see them at the end credited with the work overall. How did this decision come about?

The students who worked on those Scalar projects had varying degrees of interest in having their names attached. Some wanted to a byline on their writing; others wanted to remain anonymous. In the end, the class decided to create a contributors page for two reasons. First, because it prevented inconsistencies that would arise with some portions having bylines while others not. Second, after workshops, revisions, and collaborative writing they realized that a byline might not make a lot of sense. In the end, most students decided not to add their names to the contributors page and, if I recall, at least one decided to add her byline to a page she felt her own.

Did you have any conversations about which license to use with the students, and what was the outcome?

We did talk about licensing. We spent the first two weeks of the project discussing Creative Commons and selections of Lawrence Lessig’s Free Culture. We were lucky enough to have WSU’s scholarly communications librarian Talea Anderson[7] join us for one class period. She showed the students about twenty different open textbooks that she had on hand and asked them to look at the different licenses they used. Most used some version of a CC license but a couple had GNU licenses. That exercise was especially helpful for thinking about why some restrictions—like the non-commercial option—do not work for OER despite aligning with the spirit of creating affordable textbook options. In the end, the students decided they did not need a CC license. I was a little disappointed. However, they reasoned that using Scalar made it unnecessary because public Scalar books are easy to reproduce within Scalar but difficult to reproduce in any other form. They saw their prototypes as open (in the OER sense) to a only small community of Scalar users.

Did you discover anything unexpected in this process?

I learned a lot about social media in the process of this assignment. My students had a lot of knowledge to share that didn’t fully emerge during class discussion. Reading their chapters taught me that class discussion is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what students have to share about a topic related to an important part of their everyday experience. Seeing students struggle with Scalar also taught me that frustration isn’t necessarily bad. The students who experienced the most frustration were the same students who used the platform to its fullest capacities. Their chapters featured more interesting layouts, richer media, and better organization than the students who treated Scalar like just another blogging platform. The trick is to convince students to embrace the frustration!

Key Takeaways

  • Devote ample time for the research and writing stages.
  • Familiarize yourself with the various platforms you will be using before the project begins. This will be necessary to assist and guide students through the project.
  • Have students decide how to credit and license their contributions.
  • To help students make informed decisions, invite a librarian in for a “guest lecture” on content licensing and attribution, and ask them to introduce students to the resources available at your institution. If these staff cannot come to the classroom, connect students to approach them as needed.
  • If possible, have your students present their work to a public audience and/or look for a related event or celebration. This has a two-fold benefit: it gives students a deadline-in-disguise, and imbues them with a feeling of accomplishment.
  • When coming up with new assignments or projects, map them to the learning objectives already laid out for your course.
  • Encourage students to express their frustration when they experience roadblocks or obstacles. Offer what support you can, and help them see problems in a different perspective.

  1. "Digital Technology and Culture," Washington State University, https://dtc.wsu.edu/.
  2. Center for Digital Scholarship and Curation, Washington State University, http://cdsc.libraries.wsu.edu/.
  3. "The Social Construction of Media: Social Media, Culture and Everyday Life," http://scalar.usc.edu/works/cultures-of-social-media/index.
  4. "Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Social Media (but Were Too Afraid to Ask)," http://scalar.usc.edu/works/everything-you-always-wanted-to-know-about-social-media-but-were-too-afraid-to-ask/index.
  5. Scalar, The Alliance for Networking Visual Culturehttp://scalar.usc.edu/scalar/.
  6. Anne Cong-Huyen, "Whittier Workshop, Scalar in the Classroom," Anne Cong-Huyen's professional website, https://anitaconchita.wordpress.com/whittierworkshop/.
  7. "Open Educational Resources," WSU Projects, http://cdsc.libraries.wsu.edu/research/wsu-projects/.


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A Guide to Making Open Textbooks with Students Copyright © 2017 by David Squires and visiting assistant professor at Washington State University is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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