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Teaching and Learning

Turning Course Materials Into a Digital Magazine

Instructors are experimenting with the Flipboard news reader to present up-to-date course materials in a magazine-format mobile app.


The Flipboard "cover" for Lyna Matesi's Ethics in Business course at the University of Wisconsin, Stevens Point

When textbook material gets dated — particularly in current affairs or business topics — what is an instructor to do? Some have found a solution in the Flipboard news reader, which aggregates stories in a magazine-format mobile app. Users can create customized magazines from their social network feeds and news outlets, compiling up-to-date content in an engaging interface.

Lyna Matesi, who teaches management, leadership, strategy, learning and development, and ethics for the School of Business and Economics at the University of Wisconsin, Stevens Point, started using Flipboard in 2013 and now uses it in every class she teaches. She used to ask her students to subscribe to the Wall Street Journal or Businessweek. "I would tell them they needed to be reading something in the business press," Matesi said. "For my students who are undergraduates and who are going to be entering the professional market for the first time when they leave school, I want them to understand their industry because it will help them secure a job. They will sound much different in an interview."

She started by asking students to pay money out of their pockets for the magazine subscriptions — which tended to be unpopular with students. Then she migrated to free e-zines, but students complained about the material clogging their e-mail inboxes. "They hated that, too," she said. "I happened upon Flipboard and I haven't had any complaints. They love Flipboard, and it is really helpful to me where textbooks lag," she said, "especially in social entrepreneurship and social media. I use Flipboard to curate on these topics that I don't have access to in textbooks." 

Other News Readers Gain Traction

Despite its popularity, it is still not clear whether Flipboard will have staying power as a dominant news reader app. Company executives recently told Fortune magazine that Flipboard has more than 80 million monthly users. Yet a recent article in the Wall Street Journal noted that Flipboard faces increasing competition: "Over the years, Flipboard's novelty has worn off. Tablet and smartphone owners can now choose from dozens of news-reading apps, including several developed by the New York Times and Condé Nast. Apple launched its own news aggregation app, Apple News, which is included in the latest version of iPhone and iPad software. Facebook Inc. and Twitter have each revamped their apps to put news articles front and center."

In one classroom exercise, she has students use Flipboard to find 20 social entrepreneurs. They come back to class and put all those names on Post-Its, break them down by industry and talk about how social entrepreneurs are transforming these industries. "Flipboard provides the content that I couldn't have gotten in any other way," Matesi said. "It is fresher and written in a tighter manner than a textbook. Also textbooks don't often publish on controversial topics, she noted: "I can access controversy differently through Flipboard."

Journalism Students Creating Magazines

Linda Bernstein, who teaches journalism and social media at Long Island University Brooklyn as well as an asynchronous course in the master's degree program in professional writing at New York University, uses Flipboard in various ways with her students. Initially she fell in love with it as a news reader, but then she joined a group on Facebook called Flipboard Chat. "I want to emphasize how important that was in the development of my teaching," she said. "There were lots of educators sharing ideas."

Bernstein decided that using Flipboard was a wonderful way for potential journalists to feel like they were curating or editing into a publication. "For those interested in magazine publishing, I thought it was a good way of teaching the lesson of being an editor," she said. "The editing tools are getting better and better. Students can choose a cover and arrange articles."

Most of Bernstein's undergraduates have not heard of Flipboard before she introduces them to it. "They are college students," she said. "That is not why there are online. Big platforms for them are Instagram, Snapchat and Twitter, and they all do have Facebook accounts."

She has them start out with a group class magazine, and the students can decide if they want to make it private or public. Eventually, she has each student start making his or her own magazine. "Last spring was the first time I gave a grade for which that magazine creation was a part of the assignment," she said.

In Bernstein's online course for professional writers at NYU, one assignment requires students to include primary source material. "Flipboard is perfect for this, because you can easily draw in things from social networks," she said. For instance, if students are going to write about whether emoji is really a language, they can go to Flipboard and pull in public material from Instagram and Twitter. Through Flipboard search, they can find primary material. If they are writing about bullying and social media, they can flip in Facebook posts that are public.

Bernstein also has noticed that her students are using Flipboard's "compose" feature to communicate with each other. By tapping on the "compose" icon inside any of their magazine covers, users can add text, images or links from the Web. They can ask readers a question or put an article in context.

"With graduate students just starting magazines for their projects, some ask fellow students if they think they are on the right track," Bernstein said "It is a wonderful way to get feedback from peers and not just from the professor."

Giving Students Ownership of Course Direction

Lecturer Steven Hornik uses Flipboard with graduate students in his Advanced Accounting Information Systems class at the University of Central Florida College of Business Administration. For several years one focus of his class has been cybersecurity. He would start classes with a discussion of articles students brought in on the topic.

"I wanted there to be a way for other students to access the articles if they wanted to and for myself to read up on what students are finding before class — so I could prepare myself in terms of what I wanted to say," Hornik explained. "I had them create a wiki. That was OK, but when they were finished, no one went back to look at it. A wiki page is just a text page with a bunch of links," he said. But when he discovered Flipboard, students were more engaged — it was easier for them to curate and the end result looks more polished, like a magazine. "I realized this is the perfect platform for what I am trying to do," he said. "The students find it easier to add content, and they appreciate the look and feel and it gives them more ownership over what they are doing."

Hornik said that Flipboard has given the students a mechanism for taking ownership of the content of the course. What they want to talk about changes from semester to semester, depending on what is in the news. "When Target was hit [with a data breach], we talked about that a lot," he said. This provides a way for me to allow them to take the initiative and direct things a little bit."

In addition, he noted that cybersecurity is not a traditional topic of study for his accounting students, and they may not see the relevance. But by doing this Flipboard curation week in and week out, they see what the impact of cybersecurity can be on the companies and clients they are going to work for, he said.

Beyond the Classroom

All three faculty members we interviewed reported being pleased to find that some of their students either kept using Flipboard in their careers or continued curating magazines they had started in class. And other students have recommended that more faculty members incorporate the tool into their teaching. "I had a former student who graduated in 2013 come back for a special event during homecoming and speak to current students," Matesi said. "He is managing several Flipboard magazines for his company, and he talked to our students about that as a best practice." Some people are finding it a useful tool for internal communication in the workplace, she added. "If you are on a team considering adopting a new piece of software, you can easily collect a variety of articles on that topic for your project team."

Hornik said that once a semester is over, he continues to see a handful of students still flipping things into the class magazine. "I love it when I see that," he said. "They learned about the topic, they are engaged in the topic and they are not just doing this for a grade."

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