I am about to start teaching three MA and BA modules in social media, and all will include significant amounts of hands-on practical work. As Bernie Goldbach observed, there's really no other way to do it.
One of the challenges is that, unlike most university assessments where there is pressure to blindmark, and students can expect a high degree of confidentiality in feedback, social media assignments are by definition played out in public, with flaws, weaknesses and sometimes plain stupidity on show for all to see, cache and index forever.
One of the reasons I am keen to add Louis Halpern and Roy Murphy's book, Personal Reputation Management: Making the Internet Work for You (2009, HalpernCowan) to the reading lists is that it constantly invites people to think about key issues of privacy and identity.
From the outset it's worth pointing out that the authors need a lot of white space, design creativity and none-too-stringent editing to break the 200 page barrier; the important bits could be delivered effectively in a much shorter and more focused way. At the same time, this is a good book for dipping in to, and if the 'relaxed' format succeeds in making students think, all well and good.
Halpern and Murphy start from the very reasonable position that "In the internet age, your personal 'brand' or identity is never off duty and your reputation is always 'switched on'. The internet is your 'reputation battleground'.
They claim, with some justification: "Privacy is in the past. It's gone. It's history.
"Imagine a scenario where every bad decision you made or every indiscretion was opened up for all to see. Scary thought? Welcome to the very connected world we now live in."
Backed by examples ranging from the talk radio DJ outed as a BNP member to a man whose reputation was shredded by bad reviews on a dating site, they conclude: "Your reputation is in serious danger if you don't look after it."
The problem is a lot broader than being caught doing bad things. If people look at what you knowingly and freelyhave posted, what will they conclude?
"What facets of your personality are you consistently projecting? Are you friendly? Efficient? Dynamic? Do you get on with people?"
It's a good point. I have several facebook friends who are always complaining about being stressed, moaning about being put up on by colleagues, habitually disorganised (me!) or perpetually unlucky or unwell.
The authors recommend a reputation action plan, assessing the brand values you are associated with (whether you like it or not!) coupled with a reputation audit of all the platforms on whuich information about you apears. The goal is to achieve a positive, consistent message across all 'digital touchpoints" that acts as an "executive summary of you", which can be bolstered by projecting key phrases and words to show you in a good light and "to help clarify the best aspects of your brand."
Perhaps this can go too far - as they say, "social media also allows a person to present an idealised version of themselves online." There is some truth in this, experience suggests that even the most scrupulous a few rough edges to show through.
Where the book doesn't deliver surrounds strategies for cleaning up a bad reputation. They give a few ideas but reality is that reputations are fragile and even resorting to the law is only a partial solution.
Anyway, Halpern and Murphy "foresee a time in the near future when reputation management classes will be taught at school's and universities."
Well, that time is already here at Sunderland, and my students can expect to spend quite a bit of the coming semester working through the exercises in this useful and worthwhile book.
UPDATE: You can download the first chapter free from the Personal Reputation Management website