Sneaking Social Media into the Classroom

In professional circles our school of photography Pathshala is considered to be one of the finest in the world. So it is no surprise that our students are excellent at their craft. However, having been in the profession for over 30 years and having worked in over 60 countries, I know full well that it takes more than photographic skills to become a successful photographer. People skills are essential and having a good online presence is mandatory.

So in the class I take for final year students, I no longer teach photography. There are plenty of other teachers who do that well. I help develop students’ career prospects. We talk about presentation, writing grant applications, negotiating with clients and about having a strong online presence.

While I showed them graphs and statistics about how photographs and videos increase their reach and engagement in social media, I was still having trouble getting them to use social media (SM) effectively. They were active on facebook and did share things amongst one another, but it wasn’t part of a systematic online strategy. Several of the students had done badly in their exams in my last batch, and as a teacher I had to share part of the blame. Then I came across Empire Avenue (EA). The best thing about EA was that it was a game. They might not see the value of having virtual stocks and virtual money, but winning at a game is what many young people enjoy, and the ruse worked.

Empire Avenue leaderboard for stock prices for Bangladesh on 27th July 2014

Empire Avenue leaderboard for stock prices for Bangladesh on 27th July 2014Debashish Chakrabarty (DEBASHISH) quickly made it to number four in the Bangladesh leaders table and several other students made it to the leaders list. By setting up and completing missions, they were expanding their network, promoting themselves and their pet projects, actively engaging online and using the Internet more effectively. Soon all students had set up accounts at the most popular SM sites. They were posting more, running and completing missions, and in general terms much more active online.

A side benefit for me as a tutor was that all their activities were measurable. I could see changes in their SM scores and we could together analyse what worked and what didn’t. Soon they were giving me a run for my money. It also meant that their Klout rating went up. As engagement in the most popular platforms helped both their EA score as well as their Klout score. It was easy to mark their exams as EA did most of the work for me. It also set up a mild competition in the classroom where they tried to outdo each other, encouraged by the changes in their scores based directly upon their online activity.

There was a direct benefit to me too. Not only were they engaging with each other and making new online friends, they were engaging with my content as well! The surprise came yesterday as I saw my own Klout ranking soar from 74.43 to 76.86 in a single day. As it is, I am the second highest ranked Bangladeshi on Klout after the Nobel Laureate Professor Muhammad Yunus, and way above the online rankings of our Prime Minister or the leader of the opposition! But having a Nobel Prize does give you an advantage, and while Professor Yunus is an old friend whom I admire, catching up with him on Klout wasn’t going to be easy. Until now.

The students had an edge. Being photographers, submitting good content on instagramflickr and pinterest was easy. They also quickly realized that if they provided an interesting image to go with their text, it was much more likely to be picked up, discussed and generally engaged with. Those producing video had a further edge. Some were even making their mark as curators.

But I had the most fun. By letting them play a game, in one full swoop, I had transformed my classroom into an immersive teaching environment, and I didn’t even have to mark exam papers afterwards! And while you have students pushing up your score, who needs a Nobel Prize?

Author: Shahidul Alam

Time Magazine Person of the Year 2018. A photographer, writer, curator and activist, Shahidul Alam obtained a PhD in chemistry before switching to photography. His seminal work “The Struggle for Democracy” contributed to the removal of General Ershad. Former president of the Bangladesh Photographic Society, Alam set up the Drik agency, Chobi Mela festival and Pathshala, South Asian Media Institute, considered one of the finest schools of photography in the world. Shown in MOMA New York, Centre Georges Pompidou, Royal Albert Hall and Tate Modern, Alam has been guest curator of Whitechapel Gallery, Winterthur Gallery and Musee de Quai Branly. His awards include Mother Jones, Shilpakala Award and Lifetime Achievement Award at the Dali International Festival of Photography. Speaker at Harvard, Stanford, UCLA, Oxford and Cambridge universities, TEDx, POPTech and National Geographic, Alam chaired the international jury of the prestigious World Press Photo contest. Honorary Fellow of Royal Photographic Society, Alam is visiting professor of Sunderland University in UK and advisory board member of National Geographic Society. John Morris, the former picture editor of Life Magazine describes his book “My journey as a witness”, (listed in “Best Photo Books of 2011” by American Photo), as “The most important book ever written by a photographer.” His recent book “The Tide Will Turn” published by Steidl in 2020, is listed in New York Time’s ‘Best Art Books of 2020’. Alam received the “International Press Freedom Award” for 2020 from ‘The Committee to Protect Journalists’.

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