This past semester, I co-taught an undergraduate seminar, “From Dongguan to Delhi: Urbanization and Environment in China and India,” at Yale College. The goal of the course was to introduce students to two rapidly developing countries, China and India, whose unprecedented rates of growth and urbanization will have global environmental consequences. We were extremely fortunate to have the support of Yale University President Richard Levin, along with the Dean of our School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, Peter Crane, which allowed us to actually take all 15 students to both countries over Spring break so that the students could conduct research projects there. The trip was not anything like most university study tours: yes, we did have a mini tour-bus complete with a microphone and a/v capabilities, but we didn’t just simply cart our students around to various sites and jade factories to wander around. Instead, our students divided themselves into 2-3 person groups and had to craft an entire research project throughout the semester and use the time spent in-country to collect on-the-ground data, observations, and interviews. We gave them a specific charge: think about what kinds of information you can only gather from being in-country. Forget any types of statistics or facts that could be gleaned from a quick Internet search or from the library – we wanted each group to make the case for why they needed to actually visit both countries in order to answer their research questions.
To conduct their field research, we wanted to equip our students with technical tools and skills that would help them systematically gather information. When my co-instructor and I sat down over a year ago to design the course, we immediately thought of geospatial technologies (i.e. remote sensing, Geographic Information Systems or GIS) because we both use these tools in our own research. However, as the semester drew closer and we reviewed applications from over 75 students, we quickly realized that most undergraduates do not have any experience with remote sensing or GIS, let alone in the fundamentals of the themes we wanted to bring out in the course, such as urbanization processes, environmental challenges, and policy solutions. So asking them to conceptually grasp the transitions both of these countries are experiencing, as well as to make sense using advanced geospatial analysis that normally takes at minimum a semester to teach our graduate students, seemed to be too tall of an order.
Therefore, I asked my co-instructor what she thought of teaching the students to use social media for research. She skipped the whole Facebook, Twitter, and MySpace era when she was in college and graduate school, while I’ve been using these tools pretty intensively since starting my PhD in 2008 (check out my post here on when I was asked to testify in front of the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission based on my blogging). Luckily, she was keen to also learn about these tools and allowed me to incorporate – for the first time, I believe in an environmental studies class at Yale – social media as a teaching and research tool that students would be accountable for using in their projects. What I mean by accountability is that we required them to use Instagram, Twitter, and blogs both while traveling in China and India and as part of their final project deliverables. While every one of our students were familiar with these social media platforms, none of them had ever been required to use them for a course before, nor had they used them for research. Needless to say – the entire process and final products were an adventure.
I plan to write a few more blogs talking about social media as a pedagogical tool because I believe that as the pace of technology and the web has grown extremely rapidly over the last few years, education has not kept pace. Sure, there is a upsurge in livestreaming lectures and online curricula that have really moved to democratize education. But what I mean is that the reverse is not happening as quickly – while we’ve been quick to use technology to take what we learn inside the classroom out, we’ve been slow to internalize these tools. Of course, Yale is just one case – there are many other universities who are more cutting edge than we are on this front. But can we use social media as a teaching and research tool to help us make sense of what we learn?
I’ll have to spoil the answer to that question, because my experience this past semester is an overwhelming “yes.” The students’ project pages are proof of it. You can browse their projects on our course website, but I just want to highlight some of the social media technologies they used to give you an idea of what might be possible for your own work.
Vimeo: We set up a class Vimeo account as a way for the students to record “video blogs” of personal reflections, as well as to create videos of what they experienced. One group exclusively used Vimeo to create a series of portraits that examined changing dietary patterns and increased meat consumption.
Google Maps Engine: The Water Planning and Provision student group incorporated Google Maps Engine to demonstrate water quality and source data they collected while in China and India. Although Google Maps Engine is still in beta form, the site allows for some simple geospatial mapping and analysis of water quality in a free and easy to use format. Although a similar result could have been achieved with ArcGIS – it would not necessarily have been shareable or embedded in a website. ArcGIS is also proprietary software, whereas Google Maps Engine is not.
Instagram: While Instagram is primarily used for people taking photos and applying artsy filters to them, a new geotagging feature allows for great real-time note-taking and for visualizations such as the one created by the Air Quality student group. These students conducted an on-the-ground visibility study where they took photos at measured distances to gain an understanding of how visibility is affected by air pollution. Online websites such as Instamap and Snapwidget then allow you to plot your Instagram photos on a map and allow users to interact with the map to get a sense of how air quality appears in various places in a city. Another student group decided to use Instagram to create a photo exhibit of scenes of urban mobility and transportation as their final product.
Flickr: This photo sharing site proved to be an excellent tool for students to share photos in topic-specific slideshows, where they could order photos according to a narrative as well as add captions to explain what they observed. The student group studying bottled water and waste developed some great side-by-side slideshows to contrast what they saw in both countries.
ThingLink: This was a new website that I stumbled upon trying to help a student group studying Starbucks as an indicator of rising consumerism in China and India. ThingLink is a site that allows users to upload photos and annotate them using links, other photos, text, audio, and video. A lot of sites, including Gawker, have started using this technology to create “hotspots” on an image that allows for incorporation of more information but in an interactive way.
These are some of the tools that the students learned to use, along with WordPress, which I highly recommend to create visually appealing and user-friendly blogs and websites. None of our students had very much experience with WordPress prior to taking our class, and many of them remarked that although there was a learning curve associated with it, they were glad that they learned how to use it and now they can transfer this knowledge and skill into other areas of their academic and professional careers. The students’ webpages really far exceeded my expectations, and, while it was a lot of work, we now have something “permanent” that will live on, although the semester is now over.