Students in online course develop social media strategies for global health care nonprofits

Share this story

Through an innovative and new online course at Virginia Commonwealth University, VCU students and members of the general public are developing social media strategies for two global health care nonprofit organizations.

The class, Global Health and Social Media, is an open online course designed to give VCU students and public participants a chance to learn about social media campaigns for global health issues and to gain hands-on experience developing social media strategies for nonprofit clients.

The course is among the first at VCU to allow the general public to participate as students. It is being offered by the Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture in the College of Humanities and Sciences in cooperation with VCU's newly established Center for Media+Health and in consultation with VCU's ALT Lab.

"We let anybody participate that wants to. We let anybody join our discussions," said Marcus Messner, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Robertson School, who is teaching the course. "This week, for example, we are having Google Hangouts with social media experts from leading nonprofits in the health sector. And anybody can join those Google Hangouts."

The course is similar to a traditional MOOC — a Massive Open Online Course — but is unusual in that it is not only open to the public, but also to VCU students earning credit.

"We're running this MOOC a little differently," Messner said. "Traditionally, MOOCs are offered by universities and they're not for credit. They're just an offering to the public. But here at VCU we decided that we're going to run an open online course that's for credit for VCU students while at the same time open to the public."

As part of the course, the 120 enrolled VCU students and the roughly dozen nonstudent participants are working in teams to boost the social media presence of the Richmond-based World Pediatric Project, which links volunteer pediatric specialists with critically ill children in developing countries, and the Preemptive Love Coalition, which provides training for Iraqi medical professionals so they can address a backlog of Iraqi children waiting for heart surgery.

The class participants are divided into teams of six, and they will compete to produce the best social media strategy plan. Representatives from the two nonprofit organizations will pick their favorites at the end of the course.

The course involves online discussions, which are livestreamed via Google Hangouts, and recorded video lectures, and the VCU students are required to complete writing assignments, take brief quizzes and post on social media.

Corey Staley, director of communications for the World Pediatric Project, said her organization wanted to be a client of the Global Health and Social Media course to gain some fresh, creative strategies for social media.

"While we use various social media platforms on a daily basis and have for some time, it will be interesting to get outside perspectives and watch the process behind it all," she said. "So far the experience has been nothing but great. The enthusiasm from the students and Professor Messner and [course assistant] Jeanine [Guidry] has been fantastic and it has been exciting to watch the Twitter conversations surrounding our organization."

Matthew Willingham, communication director for the Preemptive Love Coalition, said it is exciting to connect with the "passionate, energetic students" working to help his organization.

"Living and working in Iraq can be exhausting and discouraging, but these young people have already done a lot to encourage us in our work," he said. "I'm also looking forward to their ideas. Many of them have grown up with Facebook and Twitter, which means they’re even more native to these tools than I am. I hope to glean insights into how we can better reach young people to the benefit of Iraqi families."

Mishaal Abbasi, a senior in the Robertson School, took the course because she liked the idea of "utilizing social media in a socially conscious sphere — beyond personal, everyday uses."

"We live in an increasingly digital environment that's overflowing with content and media," she said. "I think the strategy nowadays extends beyond getting content out to a general audience and more into targeted niches. So far, all the content and material we’ve gone over in this class has been relevant to the 'real world.'"

Another student, Rajani Ganji, took the class to learn more about how nonprofit organizations can connect with their target audiences.

"Social media connects the world, and this class really shows how it does exactly that," she said. "I am currently interning for The Daily Planet, a local nonprofit that provides health services to those in danger of homelessness. I really hope this class helps me help The Daily Planet, whether the goal is to raise awareness, promote events or donate money."

Ganji added that she loves the fact that the course has been opened to members of the general public. "I think anyone in our community could benefit from this course," she said.


Feature image above: As part of the VCU course "Global Health and Social Media," Matthew Willingham, communication director of the nonprofit Preemptive Love Coalition, takes part in a Google Hangout with Marcus Messner, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Robertson School, and course assistant Jeanine Guidry.


Subscribe for free to the weekly VCU News email newsletter at and receive a selection of stories, videos, photos, news clips and event listings in your inbox every Thursday. VCU students, faculty and staff automatically receive the newsletter. To learn more about research taking place at VCU, subscribe to its research blog, Across the Spectrum at