Imagine for a moment the limited utility of a map in an airport terminal, a shopping plaza, or a university campus. When following the internal legend—the rules and cues each map sets for itself—it becomes rather easy to find one’s way around. Trying to get from, say, the shopping plaza to the university, by contrast, would be quite another matter, as neither map would provide any meaningful orientation to a place outside of the one it exists to define. Maps like these construe bubble environments, self-contained places intentionally severed from their external contexts. Exit the confines of the airport or the university and the living city appears immense and irrepressible.
Online digital media, especially software designed specifically for pedagogical use, presents comparable obstacles in terms of connecting to that which is outside their purview. Educational platforms like Blackboard and Finalsite are inward-looking systems that have a conventional relationship to content and whose interaction design tends to encourage navigators to remain within the confines of the system, directing their attention back to its many nodes, pages, plug-ins and modules. Although internally consistent and relatively comprehensive in its features, these systems tend to feel closed off. Ask anyone who uses Blackboard to describe it, and the words “sterile,” “clunky,” and “institutional” are invariably invoked. What is underlying these sentiments is the frustration that these interfaces do not participate in society, but form an enclosure from which to observe its workings from afar.
This failure is largely due to the tendency of educational software’s interaction design to adopt a mimetic resemblance to the physical classroom, a strategic use of verisimilitude. Just as the namesake “Blackboard” suggests, the system derives its utility by forming a closed-circuit conduit with an actual space of learning, offering virtualized counterparts to the infrastructural and social elements therein. Features like drop boxes, rosters, discussion forums, notebooks, desktops, virtual office hours and (of course) blackboards concertedly affect symmetry and parity with the material world of education. This serves the institutional preference for molding digital media into the shape of the university rather than the opposite, which would entail permitting media to reshape the very idea of what a university is or might become. This kind of software treats the classroom as if it existed in isolation, so the digital classroom itself appears cut off from other social environments. These interfaces can reference other social spaces as embedded content, but face serious technological and conceptual challenges when attempting to connect to such spaces horizontally. Though the intent is to create a more seamless or intuitive integration between virtual and actual educational environments, in practice this superficial gesture toward blended learning through verisimilitude reinforces the idea of the classroom as a closed social space. As a consequence, the flow between the classroom and the media technology results in a double-ended pedagogical cul-de-sac.
Anyone who teaches knows full well the most productive occasions of successful pedagogy might begin in the classroom but become truly generative when they are directly linked to a student’s life experience in an altogether different social environment. The classroom is not an institutional enclosure elevated and isolated away from the things examined within it; it is simply one social environment among others. Digital media employed there should by no means replicate the exact dimensions of classroom space, but should help reconfigure these dimensions so that they can more easily extend to spaces beyond. To do this, digital tools must possess a utility and applicability to more than one sphere of society. This can activate and politicize the work of the classroom and help create a distinction between the practice of the classroom and other social environments. Bringing these worlds into greater proximity is something that the use of online digital tools in the classroom can facilitate.
But facing a daunting array of choices, how does one select the correct digital tool for the task at hand? In earlier days of teaching with digital media, a kind of white lab coat mentality prevailed: experimentation for its own sake was encouraged; classes became oriented around a tool’s functionality; it was assumed the more cutting-edge the tool, the more progressive the outcome of the class; and the use of a digital tool was treated as an inherent good, an end in itself. Now that the halcyon days of New Media have passed, the selection of such tools must be made more judiciously and on different grounds. In the current era of ubiquitous computing, the use of digital media is always already part of the classroom experience, so that efforts to contextualize specific digital tools should take priority over their functionality. The selection of a tool should begin with an understanding of the problem or issue it will be used to address. The digital tool should never be treated as a neutral set of potentials; it must be accounted for politically, culturally, and historically. Each digital tool arises out of a specific set of historical and material conditions and is intended to meet an immediate social need; thus it is incumbent upon the instructor to not simply teach with the tool but to explain the context in which it arose and the specific interests it serves.
Returning to our opening example of Blackboard’s interaction design, we can see how verisimilitude to the classroom has been deliberately created to maximize the more efficient management academic labor in order to cut administrative costs and cater to the exploding market within higher education for distance learning. Developing a digital environment that references the tactile, face-to-face relationship of a physical classroom becomes vital in order to build long-term acceptance of distance learning as a credible and legitimate wing of the university system. Distance learning is part of a much broader movement in higher education driven by a streamlined economic business model, the pressure for reduced overhead, the seeking of higher profit margins, and the delivering an educational “product” to students, who are treated more and more as consumers. Thus the seemingly neutral functionality of Blackboard is directly linked to the constellation of interests that have come to define the neoliberal educational-industrial complex. Fostering an awareness of such connections is an indispensible step in teaching what a specific digital tool actually does, and should always be part of the pedagogical process. Teaching how and why the very selection of digital tool already has profound social and political significance is an important step in shaping a critical consciousness about the existence of digital media in every aspect of everyday life.
The above paragraph details just a handful of topics I often consider in order to avoid reproducing the self-referential online media bubble environment, but there are many other issues to consider. In the interest of brevity, I devised a list of ten guidelines I always try to follow to effectively select and critically employ digital tools in the classroom. Not all of these recommendations can be met in every instance, but it helps to bear them in mind even if they cannot be realized.
- Do not use digital tools gratuitously or teach them as if learning the tool is an end in itself.
- The selection of a digital tool should always be determined from an immediate social issue or local problem that is the larger concern of the class and for which the tool might have some relevant impact. Repeatedly ask the question, is this tool relevant to address the issue or problem posed to the class?
- Select digital tools that are being used by social groups other than a classroom. Always demonstrate the connections of the digital tool to spaces/environments outside of the classroom. Who uses it? What immediate social purpose does it serve?
- Illustrate the direct cultural, social, political, historical and economic context out of which a given digital tool arose. This must be understood as part of its functionality.
- Avoid digital tools that replicate classroom space; seek tools that reconfigure it.
- Dispense with the laboratory method of teaching digital tools that privileges the tool’s problem-solving capacity over and above the problem to which it is applied. Let the tool itself be reshaped by the problem.
- Wherever possible and appropriate, encourage the creative repurposing of a digital tool against its original intent.
- De-emphasize digital tools that are overly oriented around an individualized “user.”
- Emphasize digital tools that have collaborative capacity and that produce cultural situations that facilitate collective engagement.
- Identify digital tools that can help sustain participation in a project long after the class is over.
One of the tools I have successfully used to break free of the digital classroom cul-de-sac is Ushahidi. Ushahidi is an open-source, collaborative mapping platform that enables real-time data aggregation. It features a relatively simple interface that gathers information from any number of participants and, in real time, visually geotags that data with color-coded dots on an online map. A participant can upload photos, embed videos, write comments, or simply mark the date and time of an incident. Although it appears at first to be like another version of a custom Google or Geocommons map, what makes Ushahidi different is the speed and source of the data that is fed into the system. Like Twitter, the mapping occurs instantaneously and can be fed into the map from any number sources: via web browser, mobile phone, Smartphone, or email. This feature makes Ushahidi a powerful, online, rapid-response tool as it creates a living, changing map of an event from a collective, ground-level perspective while that event is still ongoing. Once mapped, the result becomes a living archive, searchable by category tag, time, or location, or filtered by subcategories like tags that contain embedded video or photographic evidence of an event. This makes Ushahidi a exemplar of the growing phenomenon of crowdmapping: mobilizing segments of a general population to pull in data that is assembled into a collaborative map that creates new ways of understanding a cultural or political moment that can potentially bypass official channels of interpretation.
Ushahidi, the word for “testimony” in Swahili, was developed by a team of programmers in response to the 2007-2008 election crisis in Kenya that lead to political instability and bloodshed. The beta version of the platform went online in 2008, and had some 45,000 participants reporting on violence over a period of four months. Since then, Ushahidi has been made available as an open-source installation and has been used for the purposes of monitoring elections, human rights violations, abuses of state power, the short supply of essential medicine and natural disasters. It was originally operative primarily in Africa, but has begun to appear in other parts of the global south, Mexico and the United States. One of the reasons for the platform’s development and growth in Africa has to do with the penetration of mobile phone technology to large parts of the population where per-capita access to the Internet via computer lags far behind that of mobile technology. This makes the mobile phone a very enabling, affordable tool for direct democracy and spontaneous grassroots organization for groups who are otherwise technologically disenfranchised.
Monitoring the earthquake in Haiti, 2010.
I used Ushahidi for a collective classroom project in a course taught at the University of California, Riverside, during in the fall of 2010. Titled “Empire Logistics,” the collaborative research initiative sought to create awareness around the impact of the goods movement industry on “The Inland Empire,” an area of Southern California that has been hit hardest by the subprime mortgage crisis of 2008. The Inland Empire continues to face some of the highest home foreclosure rates in the country, staggering unemployment far above the national average, a rise in homelessness, and a decline in the median wage. One of the reasons for the severity of the crash in this region is the structural link between the housing boom and the goods movement industry. An astonishing 40-plus percent of all the goods that enter the United States move through the Inland Empire, making it one of the largest distributions hubs in the country. The class project focused on Mira Loma, a census-designated area where there exists the highest density of warehouses in the United States, where big firms like Wal-Mart and Target house their goods in massive distribution centers before moving them to their retail outlets all over the country. Unsurprisingly, Mira Loma is also the epicenter for struggles in labor and environmental justice. Most notably, Warehouse Workers United (WWU) has been organizing the goods movement workers to unionize and attain the power of collective bargaining against distribution firms like Wal-Mart and the sprawling complex of satellite temp agencies that provide an effective deterrent against unionization by destabilizing job security. Likewise, in the environmental realm, the Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice (CCAEJ) is attempting to pressure local government to better regulate air quality in Mia Loma, which has some of the worst air pollution in the country.
After researching these and related issues in class, we decided Ushahidi would be an appropriate digital tool to facilitate these ongoing struggles and give the Mira Loma community a way of responding in real time to their adverse living and working conditions. In addition to meeting with the WWU and CCAEJ, students did outreach to local schools, health centers and residential areas to take a survey of what the needs of the community actually are, and this helped them designate categories that could be feasibly crowdmapped on our project website. From their research and outreach, the environmental justice group suggested geotagging readings of particulate matter, idling trucks in local school zones, and child asthma clusters. Similarly, the group working with WWU suggested geotagging categories like labor violations, OSHA complaints, police harassment of undocumented workers, withheld payments from temp agencies, and on-the-job injuries. Some of the same aspects of the interface that made Ushahidi successful for monitoring elections in Sudan, violence in Gaza and the earthquake in Haiti also became relevant to our own Ushahidi installation: the ability for direct response to an immediate social problem through accessible technology; the stimulation of a collective and participatory action that bypasses official media channels; and the forging of community and solidarity between related struggles.
The Empire Logistics class project became an effective instance of hands-on learning that integrated a digital tool with other forms of research and social engagement. Students were able to connect the social space of the classroom and the various social and political issues directly adjacent to it. The project produced a critical awareness of how social media can facilitate this process and become a global tool for rapid response and direct action, but it also demonstrated how academic research is immediately germane to real-world problems. In order to launch a successful Ushahidi platform, the class had to work collectively to build a functional application and deliver a resource with actual utility for the community it was to serve. The problems they faced were less technical than social. The platform’s success depended on the investigation of environmental politics, labor relations, urban planning, bubble economies, consumer culture, the housing industry, supply chain management and unemployment. In addition, a successful site demanded social outreach, so they learned directly from community organizers, union representatives, transportation workers and high school students. Developing all of these areas simultaneously became essential to the production of online collaborative mapping projects that could potentially have real and direct social utility for groups and communities engaged in ongoing struggles. The digital tool did not determine the discourse, but simply became an extension of a conversation a community was already having with itself. Additionally, crowdmapping platforms are open-ended systems that can provide a sustainable presence well beyond the term of a single university course. The project can be handed off to a new class or motivated students can continue to amend old or develop new categories or sub-categories further down the line when faced with new challenges.
There are some limitations to the platform. API support of map providers is limited to Open Earth, Yahoo Map and Google Maps, and it only offers the most rudimentary version of those services. Outside of the crowdmapped data plotted onto it, the map cannot be customized in any other way. It is impossible to integrate specific spatial designations, data, or information that might serve as an overlay to the crowdmapped tags. What might census data about income, race and ethnicity look like when compared to crowdmapped data on particulate matter? How might Mira Loma’s ratio of public park space to warehouse space appear if visually comparable on the same map? Questions such as these could be addressed with great effectiveness if Ushahidi’s crowdmapping functionality supported a more flexible and customizable map interface. But the fundamental pedagogical value of Ushahidi as a digital tool continues to lie in its capacity to break out of the bubble environment and remap the social space of the classroom as an integrated contiguous part of society.
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 See <http://www.blackboard.com/>.
 See <http://www.finalsite.com/>.
 See <http://ushahidi.com/>.
 See <http://www.warehouseworkersunited.org/>.
 See <http://www.ccaej.org/>.
 See <http://empirelogistics.org/>.