This article presents findings from the university-based research center, Beautiful Social, where students perform the public work of digital composition and literacy instruction to help nonprofits and social entrepreneurs with modest resources develop cutting-edge social media strategies. In its first two years, students have run more than 40 projects in new media and web 2.0 consultancy, training, and community management free of charge to Philadelphia-area organizations. Importantly, this hands-on learning experience dramatically changes the ways students think about the technology they (already) use (Jenkins, Shirky, Turkle) and facilitates webs of connection: connections that link what students learn in class to their lived experience; connections that transform what they know and are able to do; connections that link self to others; connections where students have a felt experience of being engaged community citizens.
In December 2010, I founded Beautiful Social, a research center at Saint Joseph’s University. I view this enterprise as a simple and effective model for 21st-century digital media education. It enacts a powerful global ethic, where students learn how the Web enables us to embrace our interconnectedness and take ethical action. Through this enterprise we have a sustainable, economical, and effective model for teaching and learning where non-profits receive free assistance and students gain much needed work experience. This model helps both students and organizations grow, while having safer failures and bigger successes. Not only does this model build skills, it creates leaders with a social conscience. Many student’s attitudes about what they want to do after college change dramatically after working with Beautiful Social. They realize that they want to be part of something that makes positive change.
We receive requests for help both locally and globally. Students attend meetings at organizations or via Skype, create social media strategies, research best practices, consult for the organizations, crowd-source their work, and generate reports. They assign each other homework and actually do it. They also gain professional experience with social media platforms including Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, and blogs. We also place interns inside organizations and have a lasting impact on how area organizations operate. Students are gaining real experience to add to their resumes and are landing jobs after college based on that experience. Most importantly, virtually every student is demonstrating leadership potential.
In short, this way of learning changes the ways students think about the technology they (already) use. As creators and designers, they see how what we create fosters specific cultural values. They see that what we make is a reflection of our own ethics. Importantly, this model of education facilitates webs of connection: connections that link what students learn in class to their lived experience; connections that transform what they know and are able to do; connections that link self to others; connections where students have a felt experience of being a global citizen. I’m excited to keep working with this innovative model of teaching and learning and to learn from others who express interest in educational models that empower students to foster civic action and social change.