It seemed like a typical first day of class.
In January, Matthew Prince, a public relations executive at Taco Bell who teaches at Chapman University in Southern California, was telling 80 students what to expect from his influencer marketing course as he walked them through the syllabus projected onto a screen at the front of the lecture hall.
This semester, he said, things would be a little different: If anyone in the class could create a TikTok video that received one million views before he did, the final exam would be canceled.
His words got the attention of Sylvie Bastardo, a 20-year-old sophomore who was seated toward the back of the room. She took out her iPhone and started filming.
First she zoomed in on the screen. Beneath the words “TikTok Influencer Challenge,” it said: “First to reach viral status wins. (Me vs. the entire class.) If you win, the final is canceled.” After capturing this explanation of the challenge, she cut to a classmate who had a surprised look on her face.
The next morning, Ms. Bastardo selected a song to use as a soundtrack for the six-second clip, a catchy tune about a bad hair day that had started gaining traction on TikTok. Ms. Bastardo said she was a savvy enough TikTok user to know that a trending piece of audio can help boost viewership.
After adding the song to what she had filmed in class, she posted the video along with a simple caption: “My professor said if our class got a TikTok to 1 million likes he would cancel the final!! Please like!!!”
Getting to one million likes was not technically the assignment. In his explanation of the challenge, Mr. Prince had asked for one million views. In an interview, Ms. Bastardo said that it had been hard to hear exactly what the professor was saying in the lecture hall once he had thrown down the challenge. But she figured that an influx of likes would appeal to the app’s algorithm and help her video take off.
“It’s easier to get views than likes,” she said.
The view counter began to tick upward as comments poured in from people cheering her on. There were also plenty of detractors. “I had people commenting like, ‘Oh, I’m not liking this, because you should have to take a final. I hope none of you are going to be doctors or med students,’” Ms. Bastardo said. But even the negative reactions helped her project, since TikTok’s algorithm is fueled, at least in part, by comments.
One day after posting the video, Ms. Bastardo saw that she had met her goal.
“My mom was like, ‘You have to email him,’” she said.
But instead of immediately sending a note to her professor, Ms. Bastardo took a nap, she said. When she woke up, she saw that Mr. Prince had already “duetted” her video — that is, he had recorded a new video that he had posted alongside hers.
At the start of the next class, he brought her up to the front of the lecture hall and announced that the final was canceled. Ms. Bastardo took a bow while the other students applauded.
Mr. Prince asked if anybody else had tried to make a viral video. Nobody raised a hand.
To date, Ms. Bastardo’s video has gotten more than five million views. She also made a follow-up video about her success, a clip that itself has been viewed over one million times. “MVP,” Mr. Prince wrote in the comments.
The feedback for the challenge has been mostly positive, Mr. Prince said, aside from a naysayer who popped into a Facebook discussion group for social media professors.
“A gentleman who had been in the education system for a very long time was basically downplaying the role of influencers and this study,” Mr. Prince, who is a member of the group, said. “‘So you’re asking to play on social media instead of, like, an impactful test?’”
Mr. Prince, who is the director of marketing communications and public relations at Taco Bell, said he wanted his students to learn firsthand about the possibilities of social media.
“I was just trying to think of new ways to help support some of the teaching that I’m trying to get across over the course of the semester,” he said. “Mainly, the thought of just how democratized virality and influence is within social media, specifically on TikTok, and that you really don’t have to be a celebrity to drive it.”
In Ms. Bastardo’s view, Mr. Prince had never actually counted on skipping the final. “He didn’t think that anyone would do it or that it would be possible,” she said.
Mr. Prince, an adjunct professor at Chapman, is not the only pedagogue trying to incorporate social media into lesson plans. Duke University offers a course that teaches students how to build their personal brands online. At Goizueta Business School at Emory University, Marina Cooley, an assistant professor in the practice of marketing, set up a TikTok account for her class last semester.
She split the 65 students into groups and tasked them with posting a TikTok that would count for 20 percent of their final grade. A video that got 25,000 views would be worth an A, the professor and her students decided.
The class’s first video to make the grade showed scenes from campus edited together. It referred to Emory as “the Harvard of the South,” a nickname of sorts that tends to rile up the university’s fans and detractors alike.
An even more successful bid for virality surpassed the three million mark. In the video, Margaret Chang, a 22-year-old senior, ranked the six college majors that make for the worst daters while lip-syncing to an audio clip from the reality show “Dance Moms.” (“Finance bros” took the top spot.)
Ms. Chang said she was surprised when she realized the course would require her to make social media content rather than just study it. “Especially because it was basically the equivalent of a final exam or final project in terms of grading,” she added.
Much like Ms. Bastardo’s clip, Ms. Chang’s video was not slickly produced. Short and simple, it showed her wearing earmuffs and sunglasses as she made her presentation. “Audiences, especially my generation, Gen Z, I think we’re just very tired of the artifice of it all, like the embellishment of very curated media,” Ms. Chang said.
Despite her nerves about “being perceived by thousands of people on the internet,” she said she was glad to have participated.
“As somebody that’s on the internet, you can’t really escape influencer marketing, period,” Ms. Chang, who plans to go on to law school, continued. “I’m interested in I.P., business, corporate law. Maybe it will end up playing a role in my career.”
Ms. Cooley said her marketing course had become known as “the TikTok class” on campus. This week, students will register for the upcoming semester. The school is doubling the class size.