May/June 2012 Issue • Volume 40 • Issue 5

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The Expanding Classroom:
Welcoming New Media Into Sociology Courses

Carey Sargent, Occidental College

A few months ago, my friend Kenneth Yates reposted a graphic on national unemployment from the blog Sociological Images (thesocietypages.org/socimages/) to Facebook. Yates, a union organizer and community activist from Richmond, VA, used the image to initiate a debate among his friends about unemployment in Richmond and to identify the reasons why the city had a lower unemployment rate than the national average despite the city’s chronic unemployment problems.

Sociological Images, edited by Lisa Wade and Gwen Sharpe, reaches more than 20,000 people per day. When I saw how Kenneth was using it, I sensed that interactive digital media are softening the boundaries between scholarship, public engagement, and the classroom. Sociologists are sharing preliminary research findings in blogs and tweets and exercising their rights to distribute their own peer-reviewed research in open access institutional repositories. The ASA has recently called on us to participate in collective knowledge construction on Wikipedia to “promote the free teaching of sociology worldwide.” The definition of the classroom is expanding into the public sphere, and with its movement, knowledge is not just flowing from expert-to-many but across scholars, students, and publics.

Nonetheless, our actual classrooms have changed very little. Perhaps more noticeably, many faculty instructors are being asked to teach more students with fewer resources, leaving little time to reflect upon or investigate how digital media are affecting teaching and learning. However, their effects are present in our everyday teaching frustrations. Students’ attention spans are fragmented and they don’t read closely. When they read and write they have a hard time distinguishing academic journals from non-academic blogs, let alone assess the authority of the information within them.

Some instructors have responded by creating the classroom as tech-free haven, endeavoring to keep distractions, consumerism, and non-academic information outside its walls. Smart phones and laptops are not allowed. All valid sources of information must be academic and peer-reviewed. At the opposite end of the spectrum, instructors are creating media-immersive learning environments where students collectively produce knowledge. Anthropologist Michael Wesh famously turned students loose with cameras, Twitter, and the gaming platform Jolt to simulate and document the development of world cultures. Alexandra Juhasz not only taught an entire media studies course through YouTube, she also published it as an online interactive book Learning Through YouTube with MIT Press. In our own field, Dhiraj Murthy leads the Social Network Innovation Lab  (socialnetworks.bowdoin.edu/), an interdisciplinary undergraduate lab where students build applications and data visualization tools for the study of social networks.

These contrasting approaches to emergent technologies contain different attitudes toward technology, but they share a common pedagogical concern—how can we get students more deeply engaged in learning?

Critically Engaging the Media

In my courses on culture and inequality I want to ignite students’ critical engagement with media they generally use for entertainment. Drawing from my research on the careers of unsigned musicians, I want students to understand that the Internet’s promise of democratization remains dependent on social networks and off-line institutions and is hampered by social inequalities. The class read key works by Theodore Adorno, Paul DiMaggio, and Eszter Hargittai and, during the course, create blogs about their personal interests (from Semester at Sea to crafting to crime reports) and attempt to gain interest from readers. As they struggle for visibility, they observe first-hand the necessity of utilizing ones’ own social networks and how university-sanctioned content thrives above the rest. Throughout the process, reflecting on their own frustrations and inhibitions, students also come to understand how educational access, bandwidth, and gender norms shape participation in blogging.

As I experiment in my courses, however, I also experience technology “fails.” Media platforms disappear mid-semester, students—far from being the digital natives we assume—can be frustrated by new tools, they can also struggle to write appropriately for public audiences, and not all students (or public audiences) have equal access to digital devices. At this moment, the expanding classroom is generating more questions than we have answered about the relationship between learning, scholarship, and the public.

Fascinated by these problems, I recently moved into a hybrid “alt-ac” (alternative academics) position as an administrator/scholar that supports faculty in making sound choices about emergent technologies. Through a grant from the Mellon Foundation, Occidental College’s Center for Digital Media and Learning hosts an annual institute for faculty interested in incorporating digital technologies into their research and teaching. In this position, I have worked with colleagues to build a Scholarship Technology Knowledge Base (college.oxy.edu/knowledgebase/) that acts as a repository for pedagogically framed reviews of emergent technologies. Other colleges and universities are also recognizing the need for pedagogically oriented technological support and faculty may find assistance through such initiatives, which are often housed in libraries and IT departments. (For those without support, the Chronicle Blog ProfHacker offers great tips and interactive discussion in the comments).

Technology and Sociology

Classrooms are expanding into the public sphere across higher education and sociologists have special ethical, critical, and scientific insight into the implications. Our methods of gathering, analyzing, and distributing data about social life are becoming more accessible to students and the wider public. Had Yates been so inspired, he could have responded to the Sociological Images post with his own data visualization. Using free tools like Google Forms or Survey Monkey he could have constructed a simple survey on unemployment, sent it to his wide social networks through Facebook and Twitter, and had basic, visualized results from hundreds of respondents within a matter of hours.

In the ethos of “sharing” information, Google Fusion Tables and IBM’s ManyEyes are experimenting with the notion of crowd-sourced data gathering and analysis. Google Chrome allows users to “mine” data from one’s own web browser with a free “scrapper” plug in and dump it into a Google Spreadsheet. These kinds of applications can engage students in the process of data collection and analysis. They are also opportunities to ignite critical conversations about the use of commercial platforms and their implications for surveillance, privacy, and inequality.

Students are increasingly interested in using free web-based tools like these to collect and distribute their own data. As we allow them to do so, we need to offer guidance about the ethical treatment of human subjects. Are the data confidential if a third-party tool is used to collect it? When is it ok to represent ethnographic informants with multi-media? Are the Facebook pages of your friends open for analysis?

In addition to crowd-sourced data, governments (e.g., data.gov) and research institutes (e.g., Pew Research Institute, Economic Policy Institute) produce data and distribute it online. As students become more aware of available online data, they will face increasing difficulty, much like they do with texts, in determining their authority and meaning. While sociologists cannot evaluate every existing dataset, we can offer guidance to students about how to critically analyze methodology and to ask the right questions about sampling, operationalization, and bias.

Emergent technologies are converging classrooms and public online spaces in ways that are exciting, perplexing, and disconcerting. I hope that sociologists will continue to explore the technologies that work for their goals and become more vocal in interdisciplinary discussions about their implications for learning, research, and public scholarship.

 

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