Articles by Anne Donlon (she/her)

Introduction: Media and Methods for Opening Education

Suzanne Tamang, Stanford University
Gregory T. Donovan, Fordham University


With Issue 5 of the Journal of Interactive Technology and Pedagogy, we bring together scholarship that challenges traditional educational environments through more democratic and diverse modes of teaching, learning, and research. As the first themed issue of JITP, we sought contributions for Issue 5 that explicitly considered both media and methods for opening up educational places and practices. Our hope was to facilitate a scholarly discussion around what it takes to redraw educational boundaries as well as why certain boundaries should be redrawn. The following contributions, from an interdisciplinary grouping of artists and academics, explore how digital media and critical methods can help expand access to the classroom (see Daniels et al. 2014; Gieseking 2014), the laboratory (see Edwards et al. 2014), the urban neighborhood (see Mayorga 2014), and the global economy (see Literat 2014). Although open source media is featured prominently in many of these contributions, it is by no means a defining factor of what we mean by “open.” Rather, each of the contributions in Issue 5 reflect on the people, platforms, and practices necessary to open up access to educational environments—whether or not they are technically classified as open source.

When one considers open-source software, open access publishing, open government, or open courses, the “openness” promoted by each label  evokes complex and contradictory meanings. Evgeny Morozov (2013) recently took issue with the seemingly ubiquitous presence of “open” initiatives in contemporary culture and pointed to the reading of “openness into situations and environments where it doesn’t exist” as acts of “openwashing.” Yet, as Morozov also argues, a consideration of openwashing only helps us question the authenticity of open initiatives but does little to help us consider what openness should mean. In Morozov’s critique we find a constructive starting point for discussing both media and methods in opening education. What do we mean by “open,” by “media,” or by “methods?” And, how might we consider what openness should mean within contemporary educational environments? This issue considers these broad questions as well as some of the media and methods that can help address them.


Media, Methods, and Openness

In 1964, Marshall McLuhan declared “the medium is the message” to draw attention to the mutual shaping of media, defined as “any extension of ourselves,” and messages, defined as “the change of scale or pace or pattern that [a medium] introduces into human affairs” (10). In considering the medium as message, McLuhan argued that human experience and media are locked in a state of reciprocity, thus producing an environment of relationships where people and extensions of themselves shape each other. The medium remains the message in contemporary educational environments, but also emerges as an underexplored method. Regardless of whether education is carried out for profit, governance, or social justice, the methods used to facilitate learning mediate both the knowledge produced and who has access to it.

In discussing participatory action research (PAR)—a methodology that cuts across many of the contributions in this issue—Fine et al. (2003) lament the ways PAR is too often reduced to a set of seemingly apolitical methodological techniques. PAR, they argue, should instead represent an epistemological stance within academic inquiry that “assumes knowledge is rooted in social relations and most powerful when produced collaboratively through action” (Fine et al. 2003, 173). In the context of digital media and methods, we similarly argue that “open” should be understood as both an ontological and an epistemological stance, one that strives to give access to diverse modes of knowing and becoming rather than a technical label for a publishing or property model.

A focus on the technical aspects of open media, without consideration for their associated epistemological and ontological aspects, can often obscure important proprietary qualities. Google’s Chrome web browser is technically open source software, yet it exists to provide Google with a lucrative edge over its corporate competitors. Chrome functions as both a popular, fast, no-fee browser and as a privately owned public space that affords its sole intellectual proprietor (i.e. Google) unique access through which to offer their for-profit products.[1] We might also consider the NYPDs recent data disclosure regarding their “Stop and Frisk” policy. The data is shared with the public through proprietary formats that require everyday citizens to possess corporate software such as SPSS.[2] What’s more, little transparency is offered regarding the methods used to collect and record such data.

Open source media, without a critical reworking of the politics and practices therein, inevitably reverts to the kinds of enclosure and privatization they claim to counter (Donovan 2014). The door to Chrome’s source code may be open to developers, and researchers now have access to a NYPD database, but the environment of relationships entailed in both examples give little power to those not already considered to be “insiders.” The following contributions to Issue 5 draw on critical media and methods to try and redraw this boundary between insider and outsider. Each contribution helps us consider what our mediated society might know and become through more accessible classrooms, laboratories, neighborhoods, and economies.


Contributions to the Issue

The understanding of “media,” “methods,” and “openness” that we’ve outlined above are implicitly, and at times explicitly, supported by the contributions featured in this special issue of JITP. The first contribution, a special feature by Elizabeth Bishop and Britney Harsh, offers an interactive and rhizomatic dialogue that explores some of the authoritative power structures within which new artists and scholars routinely operate. With “Questions of Authority: Academic Publishing, Anti-Art and Ownership,” Bishop and Harsh rework both the medium and message of academic publishing so as to open up this important dialogue to more than just those considered to be seasoned artists and scholars.

The next contribution, and the first of Issue 5’s five articles, is perhaps the most focused on the medium. In “Building a Place for Community: City Tech’s OpenLab,” Charlie Edwards, Jody Rosen, Maura A. Smale, and Jenna Spevack analyze the development of an open-source online platform that both embraces and extends their institution’s laboratory model of hands-on learning. The OpenLab, a WordPress- and BuddyPress-based digital platform implemented at the New York City College of Technology (City Tech), redefines the urban campus to include the digital environment. As the authors succinctly state, the OpenLab is an “open, shared, experimental, and democratic” space that brings together students, faculty, and staff.

In “The InQ13 POOC: A Participatory Experiment in Open, Collaborative Teaching, and Learning,” Jessie Daniels, Matthew K. Gold, and members of the InQ13 Collective reflect on both the platforms and practices that defined The Graduate Center of the City University of New York’s participatory, open, online course (POOC). The InQ13 POOC was designed to reassess and reimagine inequality in East Harlem through community-based inquiry projects that critically integrated social media. Offering a polyvocal analysis from course organizers, professors, librarians, educational technologists, and students, Daniels et al. offer a foundational text for educators looking to develop an interdisciplinary, participatory, and social justice oriented alternative to the more common massive, open, online course (MOOC) model of learning.

Toward Digital, Critical, Participatory Action Research: Lessons from the #BarrioEdProj,” by Edwin Mayorga, assesses the ongoing development of a research project focused on the interconnected remaking of public education and the New York City Latino core community of East Harlem (El Barrio). Mayorga situates his participatory action research project within the broader context of public and participatory science while unpacking the benefits and challenges of integrating digital media for communication and collaboration.

Moving from East Harlem to Hyderabad, Ioana Literat details a community-based intervention aimed at narrowing the digital skills gap between young Muslim women and men in “Empowering Local Women through Technology Training: A Sustainable Income-Generating Model in Hyderabad, India.” Through her experiences designing and implementing a locally sustainable digital storytelling program in an Indian public school, Literat offers a detailed qualitative account of the elements that contribute to the digital participation gap among genders, and outlines a set of best practices for others developing similar teaching models.

In the issue’s final contribution, “Notes from Queer(ing) New York: Refusing Binaries in Online Pedagogy,” Jen Jack Gieseking reflects on the pedagogical work of refusing the norms and hierarchies often assumed in contemporary educational models. The Queer(ing) New York course was offered through the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies and integrated common social media tools with an open-source platform and in-person meetings. Situating herself as course creator and instructor, Gieseking analyzes the promises and perils of integrating queer, feminist, and critical geographic approaches to open up educational binaries like public education / graduate seminar and local / virtual.



In Making Things Public: Atmospheres of Democracy, Bruno Latour (2005) theorizes the “dingpolitik” as an object-oriented democracy. Latour’s theorization is based in equal parts on Donna Haraway’s (1991) notion of affinity politics and John Dewey’s (1927) argument that contentious social problems are what bring publics into being. The dingpolitik orients itself toward common concerns and interests so as to escape the confining realpolitik debates of technical standards and labels. With this issue of JITP we offer a similar approach, to move away from the realpolitik of openness and embracing it instead as an objective around which we as educators, academics, artists, and activists can and should orient ourselves.

The popular appeal of openness signifies, if nothing else, a strong desire for a more inclusive and accessible society. Even when used deceptively, openness represents a common and contested objective in contemporary education. Rather than abandon this common interest because of its frequent co-option, the contributions in this issue instead breathe some much-needed life into the concept of openness. Collectively, the six contributions to this issue critically consider openness as an educative pursuit that harnesses both digital media and pedagogical practices to foster more democratic modes of knowing and belonging.


Gregory T. Donovan and Suzanne Tamang
Issue 5 Co-Editors



We would like to thank each of our contributing authors, the 22 reviewers who participated in Issue 5’s open review process, our copyeditors, and our style and structure editors. We’d also like to thank the journal’s Managing Editor, Anne Donlon, as well as Kiersten Greene, Ben Miller, Renee McGarry, Leila Walker and all our colleagues on the Editorial Collective.



Dewey, John. 1927. The Public and Its Problems. Swallow Press/Ohio University Press. OCLC 952588.

Donovan, Gregory T. 2014. “Opening Proprietary Ecologies: Participatory Action Design Research with Young People.” In Methodological Challenges When Exploring Digital Learning Spaces in Education, edited by Greta Björk Gudmundsdottir and Kristn Beate Vasbø, 65-77. Sense. OCLC 884300588.

Fine, Michelle, María Elena Torre, Kathy Boudin, Iris Bowen, Judith Clark, Donna Hylton, Migdalia Martinez, Missy, Rosemarie A. Roberts, Pamela Smart, and Debora Upegui. 2003. “Participatory Action Research: Within and Beyond Bars.” In Qualitative Research in Psychology: Expanding Perspectives in Methodology and Design, edited by Paul Camic, Jean E. Rhodes, and Lucy Yardley, 173-198. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. OCLC 50518932.

Haraway, Donna J. 1991. Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge. OCLC 21870286.

Latour, Bruno (2005). From Realpolitik to Dingpolitik – or how to make things public. In Making Things Public: Atmospheres of Democracy, edited by Bruno Latour and Peter Weibel, 14-43. Cambridge: The MIT Press. OCLC 60245568.

McLuhan, Marshall. (1964). Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. Cambridge: MIT Press. OCLC 305387.

Morozov, Evgeny. (2013). Open and Closed. New York Times, March 16, sec. Opinion.



[1] See section 8 on property rights in Chrome’s terms of service. Retrieved 03 July 2014 from

[2] NYPD Stop, Question and Frisk Report Database. Retrieved 18 July 2014 from



About the Authors

Suzanne Tamang is a Postdoctoral Scholar and National Library of Medicine Fellow at the Stanford University School of Medicine. Her research focuses on the development and application of computational methods to derive actionable insights with the potential to improve health care quality. In addition to using large-scale data for intervention-oriented knowledge discovery, Suzanne seeks to “data-engender’” patient and caregiver advocates, and to broaden the definitions of health and value. Suzanne received a Ph.D. in Computer Science from the City University of New York. She can be found online at or @suzanntee and reached via

Gregory T. Donovan is Assistant Professor of Communication and Media Studies at Fordham University, a researcher at the Public Science Project, and a founder of the OpenCUNY Academic Medium. His research concerns the mutual shaping of people, place, and media entailed in contemporary urban development, and how to reorient such shaping towards more just ends. His dissertation, MyDigitalFootprint.ORG, was a participatory action design research (PADR) project that involved young New Yorkers’ in critically exploring and redesigning their everyday development within proprietary media ecologies. Gregory received a Ph.D. in Environmental Psychology from the City University of New York. He can be found online via or @gdonovan and reached via


Empowering Local Women through Technology Training: A Sustainable Income-Generating Model in Hyderabad, India

Ioana Literat
USC Annenberg School for Communication



In an effort to increase the local sustainability of a digital storytelling program in Indian public schools, the author piloted a professional development program to train young Muslim women and employ them as digital storytelling teachers in all-female public schools in Hyderabad. Drawing on this experience, and on interviews with the trainees and their fellow teachers, this article discusses the elements contributing to a critical participation gap in terms of Muslim women’s acquisition of digital skills, education and employment, and outlines the potential benefits of such locally sustainable training programs. The article concludes by presenting a set of best practices and lessons learned, which will hopefully facilitate a better understanding and implementation of digital training programs for women in Muslim communities.



Before starting my doctoral studies, I worked in Hyderabad, India, as the field coordinator of The Modern Story (TMS), a non-profit organization that teaches digital storytelling to children of daily wageworkers from traditionally underserved religious and caste minorities. Through extensive fundraising, TMS donates cameras, computers, and multimedia equipment to public schools in India, and places young college graduates from all over the world as digital storytelling instructors in these classrooms. The young instructors – called TMS fellows – teach these students (aged 12-14) how to use photography and video to create and share stories of personal, social, and environmental relevance. The students select the topics themselves; past topics for these video projects have included educational opportunities for women, healthy nutrition, child labor, traffic safety, marriage and life choices, pollution, and other various issues that affect the students and their communities.

Figure 1. The Modern Story digital storytelling program, in the words of its students, fellows and teachers


In order to increase the local sustainability of the project – which was one of my main objectives as field coordinator – I piloted a professional development program whereby we recruited disempowered young Muslim women from the Hyderabad slums, trained them in digital media-making and, upon completion of the training process, employed them as digital storytelling teachers in all-female public schools in the city. Drawing on this training experience, as well as on interviews with the trainees and their fellow teachers in the pilot stage of the program, this article explores the social and cultural complexities associated with implementing such technology-based pedagogical initiatives for women in Indian Muslim communities. I will discuss the socio-cultural and economic elements contributing to a critical participation gap in terms of Muslim women’s acquisition of digital skills, education and employment, and outline the benefits that such tech-based training and employment interventions bring to the various social groups involved in the educational process. Finally, I will devote the last part of the article to presenting a set of best practices – as well as challenges, or lessons learned – that will hopefully facilitate a better understanding and implementation of future digital training programs for women in Muslim communities.


The Digital Training Process

Rationale and Genesis

Henry Jenkins (2006) identifies the “participation gap” as a principal challenge to the acquisition of digital skills and new media literacies, noting that this problem is particularly acute in economically or socially disempowered communities. Indeed, the participation gap goes beyond the scope of the oft-cited digital divide, and is described as the inequality of access to the full range of “opportunities, experiences, skills, and knowledge that will prepare youth for full participation in the world of tomorrow” (Jenkins et al. 2006, xii). In this research community, we most often talk about the participation gap in terms of the students’ acquisition of digital and information communication technology (ICT) skills, and yet, in my personal experience working in education in developing countries, I have found that it similarly applies to teachers as well, and especially to female educators coming from disempowered or underprivileged communities. Indeed, young female educators like our TMS trainees are subject to the same inequality of access that characterizes their students, and are most often denied the professional development opportunities that would allow them to take part in meaningful communities – digital and non-digital alike – and to cultivate the digital skills that they hope to pass on to their students.

Our initiative focused on Muslim communities at the expense of other social groups in Hyderabad, because of our understanding that women in these communities face a much wider array of obstacles in their personal and professional development. We believed that these women would thus benefit to a greater extent from a boost in self-efficacy and empowerment, as well as mastering practical ICT skills that would enhance their autonomy, social participation and future job marketability. Due to cultural restrictions limiting their mobility and their interactions with men, young Muslim women in the impoverished inner-city areas of Hyderabad do not usually get to benefit from ICT training programs or professional development opportunities. Instead of pursuing further studies or specializations, the vast majority of these young women take up full-time domestic work and handicrafts such as silk embroidery or jewelry-making, usually within the confines of their homes.

Since TMS had not worked with these Muslim communities before and thus had no direct experience with this group nor established relations of trust with the larger community, we were fortunate in finding an early partner in Technology for the People (TFTP), a Hyderabad-based NGO with a long track record of working with young women in inner-city Muslim areas. A paragon of social innovation, TFTP showcases the potential of capitalizing on the target population’s existing practical skills in order to help them gain new media literacies and digital skills. The organization taps into the creative potential of young Muslim women (aged 16 to 22), who are skilled in Henna tattooing and silk embroidery, by using this propensity for visual creativity and design to train them in multimedia software, digital design, and animation as a strategy of social and economic empowerment. Identifying our strikingly similar core values and objectives, TMS and TFTP collaborated to devise a symbiotic training and employment program that simultaneously aided two underserved population segments (young Muslim women and, respectively, female public school students), with a focus on education and job placement as closely linked processes.



The intensive month-long training module was designed to accomplish two main goals: the mastering of digital production skills (which included both hardware and software) and, respectively, the acquisition of pedagogical skills that would allow the young women to function as successful digital storytelling instructors in public schools.

Our first task was made considerably easier by the fact that TFTP had already offered these women practical training in graphic design, animation, and web design basics. As such, in terms of software, the young women were comfortable working in CorelDraw (for graphic design), 3DSMax (for 3D modeling), Flash (for animation), and basic HTML (for web design). Their experience with these programs translated, importantly, into an overall familiarity and intuitiveness with multimedia software in general, which could then be channeled into the specific area of digital storytelling production. Therefore, in addition to these extant skills, during their month-long TMS training they learned how to operate audiovisual hardware (specifically: digital cameras, video cameras, tripods, microphones, and other multimedia accessories), and how to use relevant software (primarily, Photoshop and PowerPoint for photography projects, and Windows Movie Maker[1] for video storytelling).

The other key objective of the training module was to address the pedagogy of implementing such curricula in secondary schools. None of the trainees had any pedagogical experience, and our aim was to make them feel confident and comfortable in their role as teachers. We discussed the cornerstones of successful teaching – such as mutual respect, patience, and investment in students’ interests – that can be applied across disciplines and subject areas, but we also addressed, in more specific terms, the pedagogical requirements of digital storytelling programs. We talked about the elements of a good story and the transformation of narratives into digital stories; we discussed what makes an effective assignment, and how to encourage and guide students to convey the stories and topics that they find relevant in an audiovisual format.

Perhaps the most significant challenge during the training process was the language barrier: the training module was in English because the digital storytelling program that they would be teaching is in English as well, and is meant to simultaneously hone the students’ English-language proficiency in addition to their digital skills. However, at the beginning, the young women felt highly self-conscious about their English abilities, especially in front of me, a foreign trainer. Thus, a considerable amount of effort was devoted to encouraging them to express themselves assertively in English, and, by the end of the training, most of them had overcome their shyness with the language and were speaking it confidently.

To assess the effectiveness of the training program and to gauge their comfort as digital storytelling instructors, I designed two final assignments that all trainees completed. The first assignment was to create a digital story, using their newly acquired hardware and software skills. The young women chose to focus this digital story on the educational activities of TFTP and their training in graphic design at the TFTP center. The resulting video story – conceived, written, filmed, and edited entirely by the trainees – is embedded below:

Figure 2. The young women’s first digital assignment: A video introduction to Technology for the People (TFTP)


The second assignment was meant to assess their pedagogical skills, and determine whether they felt confident in teaching these skills to younger students. For this assignment, we identified a local orphanage that was in need of volunteer instructors and whose children would benefit from an introductory course in digital media-making. The young women then did a week of practical training at this orphanage, teaching an abbreviated digital storytelling course to a cohort of around twenty children. They taught the children the basics of using digital cameras and video cameras, although time did not allow for an in-depth video editing tutorial. The novice teachers really enjoyed working with these children, and the feeling was certainly mutual: when the women left, on their last day of teaching, the children were mischievously blocking their way out, saying “Don’t go, sisters, teach us more!”


figure3-ioana-JiTP-e1406222581847Figure 3. The TMS trainees showing the children how to use digital cameras, as part of their practical training at a local orphanage


Throughout the training process, the young women proved to have a deep yearning for learning and self-betterment and often had to overcome substantial obstacles to attend the TFTP and TMS training sessions: many of them commuted for hours by bus to reach the center, and many had to defy their families in order to continue with the professional development program. But in spite of the women’s desire and drive, we had a difficult time recruiting trainees in these patriarchal communities, and convincing their families to allow them to commit to a year of employment as teachers proved to be an even harder task. Therefore, following the training phase, we selected two young women – Asma (age 19) and Neha (age 20) – to participate in the pilot employment program at the secondary schools, on the basis of their commitment to the training, their heightened interest in teaching, and, last but not least, their families’ willingness to let them follow through with a year of employment in public secondary schools. Following the procurement of written permissions from their families, Asma and Neha signed a one-year contract – which, given their enthusiasm and excellent performance, has since been renewed every academic year – and were placed in an all-female public school to work as digital storytelling instructors alongside our own TMS foreign teachers.

Together with the foreign TMS fellows, the young Muslim women teach a digital storytelling curriculum focused on the acquisition of ICT and multimedia skills, as well as English language proficiency and an understanding of social justice issues affecting the students’ communities. The course begins with a theoretical exploration of storytelling (oral, written and digital) and of the elements of a story. Once this foundation is laid, the students are taught how to use digital cameras, upload and manipulate photographs, and use these pictures to create stories, primarily in Microsoft PowerPoint. After they master the photography module, the remainder of the course focuses on using the video camera to create and share more complex narratives around topics of personal, social or environmental significance. Some of the practical video skills they learn are: conducting interviews, recording voiceovers, filming via specific camera angles, editing sound and video, uploading footage, publishing and sharing digital stories. As an illustration of their work, the video below, produced under the supervision of Asma and Neha, addresses the topic of what it feels like to be a young girl in today’s India:

Figure 4. “Who We Are: Being a Girl in Modern India”: A digital story produced by the students of Railway Girls High School, Hyderabad.


Benefits for All

Teaching these young Muslim women how to use technologies of such current relevance and to hone their digital skills is an enormous step forward in their individual empowerment, professional development, and economic independence. However, the manner in which the training and employment program is designed extends the range of social benefits to the other groups involved in the process as well, enhancing the potential for positive change at a variety of levels. Thus, the women’s involvement in this program also benefits, as I shall explain in this section, the young secondary school students, the TMS fellows, and – through a significant ripple effect – the women’s Muslim communities as a whole.

For the young teachers themselves, perhaps the greatest benefit that comes out of this experience is the newfound feeling of self-efficacy and empowerment that they derive from meaningful employment. According to Bandura (2009), self-efficacy is an individual’s needed confidence in his or her own skills and abilities to implement specific prosocial behaviors. In the case of these young women, it emerges from the confidence and fulfillment they derive out of putting their new skills to practical use in the classroom and beyond, and succeeding in this endeavor. Given their lack of pedagogical experience and their young ages (at 19 and, respectively, 20, Asma and Neha are by far the youngest teachers at the school), they were initially quiet and subservient, refraining from contributing to lesson planning or making conceptual suggestions and, instead, merely offering to help translate for the foreign teachers and to provide technical assistance to the students in the computer lab. Soon enough, however, Asma’s and Neha’s increased sense of confidence in their abilities as teachers became apparent both in their general manner and speech in the classroom, but also in their desire to take on more and more responsibilities as their first semester went on. They began by teaching sections of the class, and then moved on to crafting original lesson plans and providing feedback and instruction entirely on their own.

Participating in the training program and then pursuing regular employment made these young women fully aware of their own capabilities, while encouraging them to dream bigger, and have greater aspirations for their future. Kara and Ilana, the two American TMS fellows who first worked with Asma and Neha in the classroom, had a first-hand perception of this gradual transformation. “Their ambition, already high, seemed to find a footing that reached out, as well as inwards,” said Ilana (Millner 2011). And Kara agreed: “Asma and Neha are both strong women to start with, but their work with TMS creates a particular role to identify themselves in. They very much recognize themselves as capable and experienced teachers, which only increases their strength and drive to build fulfilling lives for themselves while also supporting their families” (Newhouse 2011). Neha now wants to stay in the teaching field and continue as a computer studies instructor in public schools, while Asma wants to work in IT and animation.

By participating in this training and employment program, the young Muslim women gained digital skills and English language proficiency, two essential ingredients enhancing their future perspectives and career marketability. It is important to note that these women understand the relevance and necessity of new technologies and digital media, both on a personal level and in terms of regional and national development. They also understand the value of educational initiatives promoting these skills and knowledge. Speaking about digital media education, Neha considers it to be “very important for the future of our country,” and wants to avoid falling into the participation gap: “in a few years, everything will be done on the computer and if you don’t know how to do it, you will have a big challenge….When I will have children, I will of course teach them about computers and media, because I want them to be successful and creative,” she adds, and this is perhaps the greatest indication of the value she places on this educational current (Nuzhath 2011).

However, there is a risk of overemphasizing these practical skills at the expense of other consequential changes in their personal development and social behavior. As such, one must not underestimate the significance of the social and emotional learning (SEL) they underwent as a result of their exposure to this program. The SEL framework is based around the development of five core social and emotional competencies: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making (Durlak et al. 2011). Because of the conservative nature of their communities, these young Muslim women in Hyderabad had lived sheltered lives, where interaction with men, foreigners, and representatives of other religions, castes, and social classes was limited. Working for TMS, they came into contact, in a safe and culturally respectful setting, with male teachers, foreigners from Europe and the United States, young Indians from other cities and provinces, Hindus, Catholics, Buddhists, and many other cultural and religious varieties. By interacting with these diverse groups, Asma and Neha gained relationship skills – in Asma’s own words, “learning how to communicate with others” (Allaudin 2011) – as well as an important sense of social awareness and self-awareness, including a better understanding of themselves and their own social roles and potential. This inter- and intra-cultural exposure is vital for their empowerment; by being exposed to different lifestyles and outlooks beyond their immediate community, the women gain a wider perspective and eclectic knowledge.

The financial aspect of this opportunity is also consequential, facilitating an enhanced sense of empowerment and personal autonomy. Specifically, by pursuing this type of employment, which brings a secure monthly income, they can contribute to their families’ welfare in ways other than performing domestic chores and craftwork. And, as the foreign TMS fellows observed, while in Western cultures, success is often associated with breaking the financial ties with one’s parents and extended family, in these women’s communities, success is measured in the ability to contribute to the family’s economic welfare (Millner 2011; Newhouse 2011). Neha, for instance, says she uses most of her paycheck to help out with her younger brother’s tuition and her nephew’s educational needs. The rest, she saves up in order to buy a laptop for herself. Beyond direct contributions to their household welfare, having a sustainable personal income offers them a further degree of economic freedom, confidence, and social independence within their communities, and also allows them to have a greater say in their households regarding issues such as pursuing higher education or postponing arranged marriages. In addition, holding a regular job and administering their own money also teaches them the vital SEL skill of self-management, all the more valuable for their development since these women had never been employed before and seldom traveled alone across the city.

Because of the patriarchal norms that characterize these young women’s conservative Muslim environment, their families often prohibit them from working in the commercial media and animation industries, as that would require being in public spaces around men. Our project aimed to work around this social prohibition by providing the young women with jobs that are seen as highly respectable for women: teaching in all-girls government schools. Thus, beyond their vocational and professional development, the training greatly enhanced their social status in their communities, as they learned to act as role models to the younger generation of girls in these traditional Muslim neighborhoods. “In my community and my family, this has changed everything,” says Asma. “Before, they were behaving with me like a regular person. But now, they are behaving differently and respecting me more, for being a teacher and teaching at a public girls school, especially in a foreign organization. They say, ‘she is something now, she is a teacher!’” (Allaudin 2011).

The collaboration with these local Muslim women had significant benefits for the foreign TMS fellows as well, both inside the classroom and outside of it. In the classroom, the presence of local instructors like Asma and Neha proved to be an enormous help for the TMS instructors, who could now share teaching and supervision responsibilities with these women. Because of the technology-intensive digital storytelling curriculum, instruction worked best when the class could be broken down into three or four smaller groups or stations, each led by one teacher: thus, while one group is researching on the Internet, another can be filming an interview, while yet another group can be editing the footage recorded the previous day.

It is clear, furthermore, that these young women have specific skills and attributes that the foreign teachers do not possess. Beyond the obvious language skills – helping to translate tricky words and concepts from English to Hindi and vice-versa – that often facilitate the students’ comprehension and their interaction with the foreign teachers, local instructors like Asma and Neha also have a consequential sense of cultural understanding and are able to contribute culturally-specific ideas for homework, projects, and class activities. For instance, being familiar with the annual calendar of Indian festivals and holidays, they can ask the students to draw parallels between class themes and upcoming cultural rituals and celebrations; or, using examples from the girls’ favorite Bollywood films, they can launch an important discussion about female body consciousness that the students can understand and relate to. Finally, their ability to engage the girls and to joke with them is really useful in helping make the classroom a comfortable, safe space for the students, especially in the first weeks of the digital storytelling course.

The benefits of this collaboration for the TMS fellows extended outside of the classroom as well, as the friendship with the young Muslim women enhanced their cultural immersion and facilitated their adjustment in this new and unfamiliar environment. “They were really eager to be our friends, and we were eager to be theirs, so our relationship was mutually beneficial,” said Ilana, the American TMS fellow working with Asma and Neha. She adds, “Working with these young women was a key part of my experience in Hyderabad, and definitely a huge reason why Kara and I were successful teachers at [the school]” (Millner 2011). Kara, her fellow teacher, agrees. “Seeing Asma and Neha build engaged and fun relationships with the students (in ways that I couldn’t because they shared a language and culture) as they themselves learned non-traditional educational methods was one of the most inspiring aspects of the fellowship” (Newhouse 2011).

What is more, these local women proved to be an important point of support for the foreign teachers in Hyderabad. They were eager to show the TMS fellows around, and to make sure that they are safe and comfortable in Hyderabad; in Neha’s words, “we are all part of the TMS team and we have to take care of each other” (Nuzhath 2011). They were also instrumental in providing continuity and an established support system for each batch of new teachers – since the TMS fellowship consists of only one school year, and new fellows are selected annually. In addition, TMS will be working with these “veteran” local teachers to recruit and train more local staff from these Muslim communities. As such, Asma and Neha are a great resource in identifying future digital storytelling teachers from their own social circles and training them in the curriculum, by sharing their technical knowledge and pedagogical experience gained thus far in the program.

For the students they are teaching at the all-girls school, the involvement of these young women from the Hyderabadi Muslim communities was a defining aspect of the digital storytelling program. In addition to making the classroom environment more comfortable through their familiar presence, they serve as role models for the young girls, in a social milieu where women coming from their disadvantaged backgrounds do not have many training or employment opportunities of this type. Their ambition and eagerness to learn is an inspiration for these 12- to 14-year-old girls, and the women’s personal experiences can make a significant and positive impact on their students’ future life choices. For instance, when Asma and Neha led a class debate on arranged marriage, it was a profoundly significant moment for the girls, and a lesson that could not have been achieved with the same efficiency and emotional impact by the foreign teachers, who are outsiders to this practice. Furthermore, unlike the TMS fellows, who come and go every academic year, these local teachers, who live in Hyderabad on a permanent basis, represent a stable support system and provide lasting mentorship, maintaining a close relationship with their students and encouraging them, beyond secondary school, to make responsible decisions and to continue their education.

The same role-modeling process is taking place in these young women’s Muslim communities as well, albeit in a more indirect manner. Asma and Neha, for instance, are the only young women in their immediate community who have a regular job that does not involve domestic work or handicrafts. Their involvement with digital technologies and their mastery of these skills is seen as extraordinary and unique; they report receiving a lot of questions from the other girls in their neighborhoods about the experience of employment and of working with computers, multimedia and new technologies. Asma says, “The girls on my street always ask me about my job, and they say ‘Sister, how is it to work?’ and ‘Sister, what kind of job do you have? …Are you working in a government school? …How can we learn computers?” (Allaudin 2011). By setting a positive example in their community and sharing their experiences with their peers, these young women can be a powerful force for change and, in time, stimulate a feeling of collective efficacy in these communities. According to Bandura (2009), collective efficacy is the degree to which individuals within a system believe that they can effectively organize and carry out courses of action in order to achieve collective goals. While collective efficacy is a systemic change that happens in a longer timeframe and with more difficulty than self-efficacy does, the ripple effect of these women’s behavioral and attitudinal modeling in their communities is a promising first step toward a significant communal change.


Challenges and Best Practices in Digital Pedagogy Training with Muslim Women

These young women’s experiences have the potential to teach us some critical lessons about the implementation of ICT training programs in Muslim communities, so this final section will focus on discussing the challenges and lessons that can be drawn from this initial experience. First, what this example demonstrates is the need for professional development programs in underprivileged Muslim communities to be preceded by a comprehensive preliminary research process that properly identifies the causes of the participation gap, and then works to address these specific factors. If we are to analyze the root causes of the participation gap in the case of our initial batch of trainees, three principal factors emerge: socioeconomic status, gender, and cultural restrictions. The latter two, however, are intertwined, given the patriarchal nature of traditional Muslim communities. Indeed, one of the most pronounced themes in conversations with Neha and Asma was their difficulties in reconciling their own aspirations with the traditionalism of their families and community. During the initial TFTP training, for instance, one of the women was so determined, that she even went on a two-day hunger strike when her father forbade her from continuing with the training. While the decision to go to such extreme measures in order to reach their educational goals adds further testimony to these women’s strength and dedication, such actions simultaneously represent a worrisome threat to their wellbeing. Therefore, knowing that cultural restrictions play such a critical part in these women’s ability to follow through with the training, it is important to involve their families in the training process and to speak to the parents, brothers, or husbands personally, providing them with detailed information and assurances about the nature of the program, so that the women will not have to face this obstacle alone. Given our own hardships concerning the reticence of the families to allow them to pursue employment, this experience has taught us that there is a consequential need for programs like ours to work with the young women’s families and make sure they understand the safe, culturally respectful nature of the program and the significant benefits that it brings to their futures.

It should be clear that training must always be free of cost and feasibly accessible via available means of transportation. Moreover, when employing the women in official teaching positions in the aftermath of the training, it is important, even when funds are limited, to offer some kind of recompense. This recompense can take the form of a regular salary, or some other kind of material incentive, such as meals, IT/digital equipment, etc., in order to boost the young women’s independence and self-efficacy and to ensure that the families will let them pursue this employment opportunity in lieu of domestic work. Similarly, special care must be taken in order to ensure that both the training circumstances and the work environment are culturally respectful and in line with the behavioral requirements of the target population. For instance, the presence of male teachers or male students may be seen as culturally inappropriate, threatening or intimidating; thus, an all-girls school may be more desirable as an ideal working environment than a co-ed school, since this choice would be respected by the women’s families and would also enable them to act as role-models for the younger girls.

Another critical function of the formative research process is to identify potential community partners that can facilitate in the recruitment of the trainees and the establishment of trust relations with the target population. This is especially important in cases where the training organization has not worked before with Muslim communities in that area and therefore has limited knowledge of the specific obstacles that may prevent their participation in the program. By finding the right community partners and developing clear terms of collaboration, both for the short term and the long term, the training organization can thus use this formative research stage to develop flexible, cause-tailored solutions that will help ensure the sustainable success of the program.

Prior to the start of the training process, the organizers should also identify the baseline skills that the participants need to bring to the table, in order to better build on these existing competencies, passions, and inclinations. Once the TFTP trainers found out, for instance, that Asma is very visually-inclined and talented at drawing and design – as a result of her work with silk embroidery and henna tattoos – they decided to start with animation and 3D modeling, since these activities would be more enjoyable and also more accessible to her as a starting point. It is also vital to make the learning process highly transparent: when they made this decision about animation and 3D design, the trainers explained this rationale to Asma and she therefore understood this progression.

Once the training is over and the trainees successfully complete their final requirements, in order to fully facilitate their sense of self-efficacy, they should be allowed to have a high degree of autonomy in the classroom, as long as support systems are in place. The fact that Asma and Neha were trusted with coming up with their own ideas for projects or lesson plans, but could always call on the TMS instructors for help, gave them an immense amount of encouragement and self-efficacy. And while their young age seemed to be an obstacle in the beginning, it proved that it could actually facilitate collegial pedagogy – a non-hierarchical, participatory mode of learning – in the context of a digital storytelling classroom (Soep and Chavez 2010).

In terms of professional growth, however, Asma’s and Neha’s example – as well as my daily experiences working in education in India – certainly point to the need to move away from the foreign model of centralized, nonprofit educational programs and toward more locally sustainable professional development programs that allow these young people to craft a rewarding, and autonomous career path leading to an independent future. Therefore, training local educators in underprivileged or disempowered communities to learn and teach digital skills can alleviate the participation gap that is hindering their personal and professional development, while simultaneously building local sustainability and ensuring a scalable implementation of the program in the future that avoids overreliance on foreign management and coordination.



Ultimately, what Asma’s and Neha’s case best illustrates is the concept of empowerment, and the relationship between the ICT training, self-efficacy, and collective efficacy. Their sense of empowerment and newfound confidence is apparent in their very words; they really did find their “voices,” and I am not only referring to their new style of “talking like a teacher.” During their training, I got to know these young women well, and I am simply in awe of their strength, ambition, and dedication. They are exceptional young women: unconventional, stubborn, witty, and the most knowledgeable cricket fans you’ll ever meet. But what also sets them apart is their desire to transcend the barriers stifling their development, and their having found the courage and the drive to be, simultaneously, learners and educators, and role-models for an entire community.

For the next multimedia project in their digital storytelling portfolio, Asma and Neha want to make a video report about “differences between girls’ education and boys’ education in Muslim culture.” “We raised this point in our community, asking why people think education is important for the boys but not for the girls, and why the girls can’t work in a job. We would like to ask this to the elders in my community” (Nuzhath 2011). Asma’s and Neha’s strength and self-efficacy will hopefully inspire other women in their community to follow their example and transcend the various obstacles that are stifling their personal and professional growth. With the digital storytelling program in Hyderabad currently expanding as a result of these young women’s initial success, we sincerely hope that the ICT training of more women in the Muslim inner-city areas will bring about a lasting improvement in their future prospects and act as a catalyst of development in their communities and beyond. When asked whether she will continue teaching after she gets married, Neha becomes pensive. “I will have to convince my husband to allow me,” she says. “How will you do that?” I ask. “I will take him with me into the classroom, and show him that I am doing nothing wrong, just teaching children.” She pauses, then smiles. “If I am not able to continue teaching, I will feel something is missing in my life” (Nuzhath 2011).



Allaudin, Asma. August 2011. Personal communication (audio interview).

Bandura, Albert. 2009. “Social Cognitive Theory of Mass Communication.” In Media Effects: Advances in Theory and Research, edited by Jennings Bryant and Mary Beth Oliver, 121-154. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. OCLC 878705231.

Durlak, Joseph A., Roger P. Weissberg, Allison B. Dymnicki, Rebecca D.Taylor, and Kriston B. Schellinger. 2011. “The Impact of Enhancing Students’ Social and Emotional Learning: A Meta-Analysis of School-Based Universal Interventions.” Child Development 82: 405–432. OCLC 704625500.

Jenkins, Henry, with Katie Clinton, Ravi Purushotma, Alice J. Robinson, and Margaret Weigel. 2006. Confronting the Challenges of a Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century. White Paper for The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Accessed September 2013. OCLC 820248240.

Millner, Ilana. August 2011. Personal communication(e-mail interview).

Newhouse, Kara. August 2011. Personal communication (e-mail interview).

Nuzhath, Neha. August 2011. Personal communication (audio interview).

Soep, Elisabeth, and Vivian Chavez. 2010. Drop That Knowledge: Youth Radio Stories. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. OCLC 340961369.


[1] Windows Movie Maker was selected at the expense of more powerful video editing software like Final Cut Pro or Adobe Premier, because – due to limited financial and technological resources – it is the most common editing software available in Indian public schools.



About the Author

Ioana Literat is a PhD Candidate and Provost Fellow at the USC Annenberg School for Communication. Her research explores the educational, cultural and transnational aspects of digital participation, with a current focus on crowdsourced art and online creativity. Ioana’s background is in media education. Before coming to USC, she worked as the field coordinator of The Modern Story in India, designing and teaching digital storytelling courses to underserved youth in public schools.

Toward Digital, Critical, Participatory Action Research: Lessons from the #BarrioEdProj

Edwin Mayorga
Swarthmore College


The Education in our Barrios project, or #BarrioEdProj, is a digital critical participatory action research (D+CPAR) project that examines the interconnected remaking of public education and a New York City Latino core community in an era of racial capitalism. This article is a meditation on the ongoing development of #BarrioEdProj as an example of strategically coupling digital media with the theories and practices of critical participatory action research (CPAR). The author describes the project and the theoretical and political commitments that frame this project as a form of public and participatory science. The author then discusses some of the lessons that have been learned as the research group implemented the project and decided to move to a digital archiving model when our digital media design was initially ineffective. The author argues that rather than dropping digital media, engaged scholars must continue to explore the potentially transformative work that can come from carefully devised D+CPAR.



The co-researchers of the Education in our Barrios Project (#BarrioEdProj) and I had spent seven months reflecting on how to expand our social media reach in East Harlem when Mariely said, “Edwin, this whole technology thing doesn’t work in El Barrio.” Mariely’s comment made explicit a set of concerns I had been contemplating for some time, namely, that trying to politically and intellectually engage the community through digital social media was not going to effectively encourage participation, or the development of more connections to local history, or a discussion of relevant educational and social issues.   If digital media was not working in El Barrio, as Mariely suggested, I wondered if we should drop digital tools from a project primarily concerned with collaboratively documenting the interconnected remaking of public education and Latino core communities in an era of racial capitalism altogether (Melamed 2011). Ultimately, we chose not to drop social media from the project and instead to critically and continuously question why, when, and how we want to integrate it into participatory and community-based research.

This paper asks, What can we learn from integrating digital tools and social media platforms into critical participatory action research (CPAR) projects? Drawing on project field notes that were collected between June and December of 2013, I trace the evolution of #BarrioEdProj to cull lessons for “engaged” or activist scholars doing public science work in our digital age (Hale 2008).  I begin by giving some background on the project and our research site, East Harlem and its schools. I provide an overview of the project’s design and highlight some  theoretical underpinnings of what I describe as digital critical participatory action research (D+CPAR). Then I discuss how we grappled with the realization that the social media aspect of our project was not working in El Barrio.

In the months that followed Mariely’s comment, we would rework our research design in a way that centered digital, participatory archiving as part of our D+CPAR design (Caswell 2014). This reworking was guided by giving regular attention to how our varied uses of social media shaped our collective approach to research, teaching, and learning for social justice. Our social media aims were twofold: we wanted to deepen and solidify our engagement with people in East Harlem (El Barrio), and we wanted encourage more public engagement among people in East Harlem and across New York City.

I describe this evolution of #BarrioEdProj and discuss some of the lessons we learned from navigating this change. The challenges we faced made it clear that the traditional challenges ethnographers face, both in gaining community entry and building trusting relationships, remain issues in digital social science (DSS). We also learned that embracing digital media presents new perspectives and new questions for the researcher. Questions of digital access, infrastructure, and practices of participation, for example, are important considerations that engaged scholars must interrogate as part of their work.  I conclude by arguing that #BarrioEdProj should remind researchers that the “universal digital turn” amplified the terrain for intellectual and political struggle, where inequity is reproduced, and transformative public science can be born nyc.



I am an educator-scholar-activist-of-Color who has labored, and fought, for educational and social justice before, during, and after the 12 years that New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg managed the city and controlled the public school system (Suzuki and Mayorga 2014). I locate my scholarship at the intersection of critical education studies, cultural political economy, critical theories of race, digital social science, and social movement theory.  It is my view that activist research plays an important role in making transparent the circulation and material effects of the period of racial capitalism  in which we live (Melamed 2011; Robinson 1983). Following Melamed (2011), I argue that this state-driven, racio-economic partnership adapts and revises white supremacy and capitalism in order to maintain dominance. In these circumstances, my research program and conceptual frameworks aim to trace the contours of structural oppression and histories of resistance through participatory and digital methods in order to foster social justice (Anyon 2009). In #BarrioEdProj, my primary concern is the relationship between the cultural political economy and neighborhoods, communities, and schools—what I describe as the school-community nexus. The nexus is a frame for thinking about the shifting, discursive, and material linkages between what happens in and around schools and larger society.

I think about the school-community nexus across New York City neighborhoods, but I pay particular attention to what Ed Morales described as Latino core communities and their local schools (Morales forthcoming). Initially majority-Puerto Rican, the New York City Latino population has rapidly increased and diversified since the late 1960s. During the twentieth century, certain neighborhoods, like East Harlem, Williamsburg, the Lower East Side, the South Bronx, and Washington Heights, would become cultural, political, and economic, hubs for Latinos. These neighborhoods would experience waves of extreme economic hardships, political strife, urban renewal, displacement, and vibrant social life. My work is focused on exploring the reformation of these core communities in relation to struggles within education.

While Latinos have been a major voice in struggles over public education since the early twentieth century, only certain aspects of the Latino education story, like bilingual education, have received significant attention. Recently, Latinos became the largest population of students in the public school system (NYC IBO 2013); nationally, there has been increased concern over a “Latino education crisis” (Gándara and Contreras 2009). It was in working through the convergence of community and educational crisis that I opted to look at the Latino core community of East Harlem (El Barrio) as a window into racial capitalism, its circulation, and its effects.  A map of the distribution of public schools in East Harlem is shown in Figure 1.


Map1.EH_.EHSchools.Map_-1024x955Figure 1. Map of East Harlem and East Harlem Schools, Image created with, #BarrioEdProj collection.


East Harlem and its Public Schools

Once a home to Italian and Eastern-European Jewish immigrants, East Harlem would become a Puerto Rican stronghold following en masse migration to the US mainland between the 1930s and 1970s. Over the course of the twentieth century, the Black (non-Latino) community would also make up a large portion of East Harlem (Dávila 2004). Since the 1960s, when US immigration laws opened the door to more Asian, Latino and Middle Eastern immigrants, the diversity of Latinos moving into different parts of New York broadened and complicated Latinidad (Latinoness) in New York City and East Harlem (Dávila 2004; Flores 1997). In the midst of demographic change, East Harlem would become a symbol of urban poverty and a site of political struggle , as people dealt with varying cycles of organized abandonment and urban renewal (Freidenberg 1995). More recently, East Harlem has experienced change through a rise in luxury housing over affordable housing, a cultural rebranding of the neighborhoods as Upper Yorkville or SpaHa (Spanish Harlem), and an increasing displacement and departure of long-time residents (Dávila 2004; Morales and Rivera 2009; Padilla 2012).

As East Harlem has undergone economic and social change, the city and East Harlem’s public school system has also experienced significant and often difficult change. Change in the schools has often revolved around governance and the voice of the citizenry in the education of youth. Between the early 1900s and the 1960s, the schools were operated through a highly centralized bureaucracy.  During those decades, East Harlem was known as an area with some of the worst performing schools in the city (Fliegel and MacGuire 1993; Nieto 2000). The tumultuous struggle for community control of schools–the struggle in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville (Brooklyn, NY) is the most widely recalled example of this larger phenomena–would be ended by the implementation of a decentralized governance formation that dispersed bureaucracy and gave families limited but varied forms of choice between 1970 and 2002. During decentralization, East Harlem launched bilingual education programs and a “progressive” small schools movement that would have a profound effect on East Harlem education (Fliegel and MacGuire 1993; Meier 1995; Pedraza 1997). Then in 2002, Mayor Michael Bloomberg re-centralized the system as a Department of Education rather than a Board of Education, a governance reorganization that, critical scholars have argued, is part of a broader, neoliberal assault on public education (Buras 2011; Lipman and Hursh 2007; Lipman 2011).


The #BarrioEdProj

#BarrioEdProj is comprised of a trio of co-researchers that includes two young Latina women from East Harlem: Mariely, age 19, and Honory, age 23. With funding provided by the CUNY Graduate Center’s Digital Initiatives grants program, Mariely and Honory were hired as co-researchers to help develop and steer the project (the research team is shown in Figure 2).  We met, and continue to meet, three to four times a month to discuss readings about East Harlem, education reform, and qualitative research methods; participate in digital media and research trainings; analyze collected data; construct our website; and plan next tasks. Together we have conducted interviews, observed public meetings, and conducted archival research. Data analysis has primarily involved thematic analyses of transcripts, observations, archival data, and online dialogue (Boyatzis 1998).


image1.barrioedproj_nycore_2014Figure 2. #BarrioEdProj research group (and son), Photo by


Because this was a place-based project, we focused our attention on connecting with the neighborhood through in-person and online outreach to individuals and organizations from East Harlem and East Harlem schools. The outreach was geared toward raising awareness about the project, identifying potential interviewees, and building relationships where we would offer to promote events and make note of issues that were of concern to these individuals and organizations. The local Community Board (CB11) has been extremely supportive and has provided space to conduct interviews. In addition, East Harlem Preservation, a volunteer advocacy group dedicated to promoting and preserving the vibrant history of East Harlem, has endorsed the project and shares relevant information and events with #BarrioEdProj on an ongoing basis. The Community School District (CSD 4) offices and the local Community Education Council (CEC) are two other key entities we have developed relationships with over the life of the project.

In June of 2013 we launched (WordPress site via to serve as an information clearinghouse and interactive space for discussion. At the moment, the website uses a language translation plug-in to offer content in Spanish and English, but a companion site, solely in Spanish, is a being explored as a possibility. The bulk of the digital data thus far comes from digitally recorded, semi-structured video interviews, with a multi-generational, bilingual (English/Spanish) group of stakeholders connected to East Harlem education.  Interviewers asked interviewees about their relationship to East Harlem and its schools, their perspectives on cultural and economic change in the neighborhood and the schools, and, finally, their views on the future of the neighborhood and the schools. Excerpts of interviews were edited, produced, and then embedded on the website, where viewers can make comments. In addition to the interview segments, we are continuing to collect images of East Harlem via Flickr and Instagram, scan archival material and self-created informational maps, and collect music produced by East Harlem groups. All this material will eventually be placed on the site.

We also used the voice journalism tool Based on the Drupal-based VozMob, Vojo is a multilingual tool that allows participants to share stories through voice messages, texts (SMS), and images (MMS). Vojo was the tool used by the creators of the award-winning participatory documentary Sandy Storyline. For #BarrioEdProj, Vojo provided a bilingual venue for individuals who wished to remain more anonymous than video interviewees to share their views. This included teachers and families who have a more critical stance in the educational system but who also did not want to make themselves vulnerable to losing their jobs for speaking out. Vojo was also used as a way to conduct interviews at events when the video camera seemed more invasive for prospective interviewees. Like the interviews, Vojo entries are edited and produced through CowBird and then posted on the website for public commentary.

In addition to interviews and Vojo entries, relevant readings and resources about education and gentrification were posted on the website, our Facebook page, and our Twitter account (@barrioedproj).  Resources included a “tips sheet” about getting into college and a blog post with different financial resources to pay for college. Finally, RebelMouse, a social media tool that brings together various social media feeds from many social media platforms, was also embedded on the website.



Critical, Participatory Action Research (CPAR)

D+CPAR is an attempt to begin defining a strand of the still-nascent field of Digital Social Science, where digital media and social media are integrated into critical participatory action research (CPAR).

CPAR is both a way of knowing and fertile ground for generating ways to contest inequity. Torre et al. (2012) write, “Rooted in notions of democracy and social justice and drawing on critical theory (feminist, critical race, queer, disability, neo-Marxist, indigenous, and poststructural), critical PAR is an epistemology that engages research design, methods, analyses, and products through a lens of democratic participation” (171).  CPAR places the processes of problem posing, research, analysis, and data sharing in the interlocking hands of adults and youth, the focus community, and partnering scholars and activists. While CPAR projects develop their own structures depending on the needs and capacities of participants, there is a commitment to contesting traditional “asymmetrical relationships” in which scholars are seen as experts and those outside of the academy are framed as lacking knowledge and thus incapable of meaningfully participating in research (Young 1997). Instead, CPAR projects are premised on collaborative practices where the voices of all participants are equally valued in decision-making and research work. As such, a democratic thread runs through all aspects of the research process.

Guided by democratic principles, CPAR work goes further by asking, Research to what end?  In the 1960s and 1970s, strands of participatory and action research were conceived by activists and engaged scholars “to systematize and amplify local knowledge” in order to transform “it into social activist movements that contested the power of elites and struggled for greater socioeconomic justice” (Lykes and Mallona 2008, 109).  While PAR and CPAR have evolved over time, the commitment to facilitating people’s movement from inquiry to social action remains a key component. As Torre et al. (2012) note, “critical participatory projects are crafted toward impact validity, anticipating from the start how to produce evidence that can be mobilized for change” (181). As projects that are driven by the interests and knowledge of local people, the research process is designed to inform and inspire social action. Gathered evidence can be mobilized for change in a number of ways, including the presentation of participant-generated reports (Watters and Comeau 2010), data performances (POLLING FOR JUSTICE Part 1 of 3 2010), and speeches at governance body meetings (Torre et al. 2012). Each of these forms of evidence-sharing scale-up local knowledge as a means to engaging a broader public and working toward justice.

It is the democratic spirit of CPAR and the commitment to using evidence as a mobilizing tool for change that motivated me to use CPAR as a framework for the #BarrioEdProj. This turn would soon cross with my contemplations of digital social science research. 


Digital Social Science (DSS)

Without overstating it, digital humanities as a field has gained traction (Spiro 2014; Terras, Nyhan, and Vanhoutte 2013), whereas DSS is only beginning to emerge (Spiro 2014). The Economic and Social Research Council (n.d.), a British organization, defines DSS as:

the application of a new generation of distributed, digital technologies to social science research problems. The aim is to enable social research by developing innovative and more powerful, networked and interoperable research tools and services that make it easier for social scientists to discover, access and analyse data, and to collaborate so that they may tackle increasingly complex research challenges.

And Spiro (2014) adds that DSS:

encompasses both quantitative and qualitative approaches; it involves new data sources (such as social networking data), methods (such as social network analysis), capability (such as collaboration tools), scholarly practices (such as new publishing models), areas of study (such as Internet studies), and scale (such as global collaborations).

DSS is very wide open and, as such, integrating DSS concepts and tools into critical participatory projects is an opportunity for engaged scholars to “make the road while walking” (Horton et al. 1990). It is important to note that scholarship in interdisciplinary areas like Community Informatics (CI) and Participatory Design Action Research (PDAR) can potentially fall under the umbrella of DSS (Carroll and Rosson 2007; Gurstein 2000). With respect to #BarrioEdProj, CI’s commitment to the application of information and communications technology (ICT) and PDAR’s exploration of Action Research (AR) are of particular relevance (Gurstein 2007). With that said, our project began by looking at literature on digital ethnography for the design of #BarrioEdProj as a DSS project. As such, I focus on digital ethnography in this paper as a way to think about creating new data sources, new ways to present data stories.

For social scientists like Underberg and Zorn (2013) and Murthy (2008), digital ethnography is, like traditional ethnography, about gathering, sharing, and analyzing stories. The availability of digital video cameras and digital voice recording tools, along with online data storage (Cloud) and online video tools (Vimeo/YouTube), can potentially reshape how ethnographic stories are collected, analyzed, and shared. Being able to store digital video in a cloud, for example, can allow research groups to look through data on our own time in our own location. If research groups have already viewed this data, then face-to-face research meetings can focus on collective analysis or other relevant activity. Moreover, stored data can “be re-analyzed, examined for inter-coder reliability and retrieved by future generations of researchers” (Shrum et al. 2005). Of course, this is not all new. What is new, or perhaps not something not sufficiently embraced by researchers, is the opportunity to provide more continuous data sharing with a broader public.

Additionally, these tools make it possible to share data over the course of project implementation or at the end of a study. Researchers can thus make strategic decisions about when, why, and how, data can be made public. The Morris Justice Project (MJP), for example, was a critical participatory project in the Morris Avenue section of the Bronx. MJP participants documented community member experiences with the police through a survey of over 1000 people. After the survey was completed and studied, the group collaborated with the Illuminator—a cargo van equipped with video and audio projection tools, born out of the Occupy Wall Street movement— to share data on an open wall of a Morris-area apartment building. This digital data share served as an open letter to the NYPD and as a space for community discussion and data analysis.

Similarly, the #BarrioEdProj website was conceived as an open wall where data would be shared and conversations could be had among site users. Through Vimeo, #BarrioEdProj made interviews segments and video coverage of public events available to the public on an ongoing basis. Public engagement with the data online provides another source of data concerning digital participation practices that can be examined at a later point.

In both MJP and #BarrioEdProj, there is a curatorial dimension as stories are told and re-told differently through the selective presentation of data. Using hashtags on a website allows researchers to connect different data pieces across multiple themes. In our case, interviews that discussed education history in East Harlem could be tagged as education governance (#EdGov) and education history (#EdHistory). The segment would then be available through different streams on the website depending on what users were interested in exploring. For researchers, tagging data can also mirror traditional forms of coding qualitative data in thematic analysis (Boyatzis 1998, Braun & Clarke 2006), as data with the same tag can be seen collectively and then analyzed. Finally, digital tools like RebelMouse allow researchers to gather posts from across the various social media tools being used through hashtags. Once the posts have been collected, RebelMouse users can then move them around to emphasize certain posts over others. In each example, researchers are able to exercise curatorial powers over how data is organized and made available, leaving platform users with various trails of crumbs to follow and jump between.

There are many more ways to think about the merging of digital social science and critical participatory research projects, but I want to briefly move to public engagement as a part of the D+CPAR process and as an object of study.


Public Engagement

Using a D+CPAR framework, we considered how digital environments and social media could contribute to creating more equitable spaces for public engagement. It is clear that “’everyday life’ has become increasingly technologically mediated” (Murthy 2008), making it “difficult to distinguish between digital and non-digital activities” (Leonard & Losse 2014). Public engagement in the digital age is a concern to researchers, marketers, and political advocates, to name a few. Research on practices among internet users looks at a number of different areas, including political activity, personal interests, and social uses (Smith 2011). Our working notion of public engagement is grounded in education studies and political advocacy.

Orr and Rogers (2011) argue that “[p]ublic engagement cannot be reduced to individual acts such as voting, speaking with a teacher, or choosing a school. Public engagement emerges as parents, community members, and youth identify common education problems and work together to address them” (xiii). Historically, education has been a key site for political struggle in the U.S., and it has been particularly important for marginalized communities. In some instances, engagement in school politics has meant opportunities for exerting voice and demanding concessions from the state. At other times, the elimination or curbing of engagement has been part of maintaining control and inequity.  Today, the voices of members of US society are heard unequally, as “[t]he privileged participate more than others and are increasingly well organized to press their demands on government” (Orr & Rogers 2011, 2). In light of this, we contemplated how #BarrioEdProj could provide spaces for various stakeholders concerned about education to come together through the Internet and social media.

For researchers, creating spaces for engagement can take many directions, but for #BarrioEdProj the focus remained primarily on creating opportunities for individuals to interact and using social media to share information relevant to the community. With our website and social media platforms, the underlying idea was to invite people to view collected material and then have them respond to the material and the comments of other participants. Recent studies note that approximately 60% of American adults use social media, and 66% of social media users — or 42% of all American adults — use social media for some form of political engagement (Rainie 2012).  Taking this statistic into consideration, the digital holds promise as a site for political work, though it should not be considered a panacea by any stretch. In having digital participants engage one another through #BarrioEdProj sites, the idea was to identify key educational problems that could be addressed collectively through continued dialogue and action planning.

While the use of the Internet and social media in research has many promising aspects to it, including democratizing communication, expanding opportunities for public engagement, and expanding networks of relations, it cannot go un-critiqued.  First, membership in social media communities are “inherently restricted to the digital ‘haves’ (or at least those with digital social capital) rather than the ‘have nots’” (Murthy 2008, 845). This is both a cultural and material problem that emerges in “societies structured in dominance” (Hall 1980, 320). Public engagement is increasingly contingent on digital infrastructure (access to Wifi, broadband quality, etc.) and digital savvy (Prensky n.d.). As I discuss later, infrastructure and the digital practices of our participants were key issues that would inform the redirection of #BarrioEdProj.

A second point to consider is the way that capital and digital participation are deeply entangled.   In a recent article in Dissent, Jung (2014) compares Tronti’s theory of the “social factory” to social relationships in the Web 2.0 age. The “social factory,” according to Tronti (as discussed in Jung 2014), is where “every social relation is subsumed under capital and the distinction between society and factory collapses, so that society becomes a factory and social relations directly become relations of production” (48). Jung argues that the social, playful labor of participation in Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other social media platforms is tracked and farmed as a new source of value extraction and accumulation of capital—relationships are thus commodified. Around 70% of the social media market is dominated by Facebook (Jung 2014). Users of Facebook and Instagram are high frequency users, checking their sites at least once daily (Jung 2014). These realities present engaged researchers with an ethical dilemma in which one must consider whether one’s use of digital technologies is merely contributing to commodification and the reproduction of social inequities.  Open source tools like elgg and Dolphin provide ways to create social networking alternatives to the proprietary platforms, but the comparatively limited reach of these platforms can make them difficult for participatory research projects that seek to be far-reaching and accessible. In the end, #BarrioEdProj proceeded with proprietary platforms (with the exceptions of WordPress and Vojo) because we felt that East Harlem’s public institutions did not have a strong digital presence in the community. I go into more details about the digital landscape of East Harlem in the next section.


Results & Analysis: Lessons from #BarrioEdProj

Evaluating #BarrioEdProj

Evaluating the effectiveness of a D+CPAR project involves looking at both academic impact and external, or public, impact (see JustPublics@365 and the London School of Economics and Political Science for more). We understood impact in this context as referring to our ability to create public engagement opportunities that would be used by a growing number of people. One way we can look at impact through social media is by “measuring links, downloads, views, usage, and re-mixes” (JustPublics@365 2013).  We found limited success in attracting people to create and engage a public through the digital environments we offered. According to our WordPress analytic tool (Jetpack), we had received around 828 visitors between June and December of 2013. Looking at both the number of “likes” and “reach” on Facebook, we found that during this period we had very few people (28) “like” our page, and our outreach was equally modest, averaging around 15 to 20 people being reached organically (The project has never paid for advertising on Facebook or any other proprietary platform). On Twitter we had 110 followers and had a reach of about 1,000 people a month (according to SumAll). These initial bits of data showed us that Mariely was right in suggesting that our social media was not working in East Harlem. We began to ask, Why not?

We think that there were a number of reasons our digital participation work was failing to take hold in East Harlem. Some the problems were internal issues that we could change, while others were more external issues that require further research to verify. I will briefly highlight three potential issues.

First, trying to build on-the-ground connections at the same time that we were trying to launch the social media work was a major misstep. Establishing a strong digital presence in D+CPAR work requires strong “community anchors.” Like traditional ethnographies, DSS researchers need to develop trusting relationships with community organizations and individual advocates. Having established the majority of our on-the-ground relationships a few months prior to the launch, we lacked sufficient entry into the study site. In addition, not having stronger relationships with local organizations meant that we missed out on having a larger pool of prospective digital participants. To take from the marketing world, a successful digital project requires brand awareness and brand confidence (Michaels 2013). We had not established sufficient brand awareness or brand confidence. Moreover, the time and labor needed to improve our digital presence was too much for a group of three researchers with limited funding. (For more on digital labor, see Scholz 2012.) These missteps were problems of design and would be addressed internally. There were other, more external factors, that our ineffectiveness would lead us to consider further.

One external issue was the uneven and unidirectional use of social media for public engagement in local, civic, issues on our site. New York City began publishing a Digital Road Map (DRM) (2013) in 2011 as a vision for making New York “the number one digital city” in the US (1). One of the core tenets of the DRM is improving “digital engagement” by identifying “the right technology and tool to reach their constituency and achieve their aims” (27). As such, the DRM defines engagement as a unidirectional activity in which governing bodies see themselves as information disseminators for a public composed of consumers. This runs contrary to our own understanding of public engagement, in which participants are seen as active and equally legitimate.

As I mentioned earlier, about 42% of people in the US use social media for some form of political engagement. Still, of those 42%, the largest group of users are white males under 50 years of age (Rainie, Smith, Schlozman, Brady & Verba 2012). Among our co-researchers and interview participants (N= 23), there was varying interest in and experience with the use of social media for public and political engagement. Participants who were under 30 years of age reported that they primarily used Instagram, and they used it primarily to connect with their friends and family. They expressed not having used social media for political or public engagement very much. These patterns mirror national trends in social media use (Duggan 2013).

Participants over 30 were more varied. Some noted being digitally engaged, primarily through Facebook and Twitter, while others stated that they were on social media (mostly Facebook), but rarely used it for either public or personal engagement.  Anecdotally, one interviewee in the over-30 group, who reported he was “old school” and didn’t use email and social media very much, noted that Twitter was vital to promoting a proposal he worked on for the Participatory Budgeting Project (PBP) in his district. PBP is a community-focused project through which ten city districts are deciding, along with district residents, how to spend $14 million (PBNYC n.d.). The most recent PBP evaluation report focuses on how organizers engaged local residents and advocates, but makes little mention of the role of social media (Community Development Project at the Urban Justice Center 2013). Still, this interviewee’s comments made clear that the potential impact of social media for public engagement is understood and used by local advocates, but it is not necessarily a part of the practice of the broader neighborhood.

In addition, we found that the local school district did not use a website or social media to engage the public. Parents at one local school did request that the school use a mass text (SMS) tool to provide families with more school updates. There were also a few individual schools that used Twitter to reach out to families. In sum, our data suggests that using social media for public engagement was not a common practice across East Harlem, and this potentially reproduced inequities of voice in political decision-making. Equitable engagement was further inhibited by an unclear vision of digital practices among local institutions and government bodies.  In the future, #BarrioEdProjwould like to conduct a broader neighborhood survey to document how social media is used in the neighborhood as a way to contribute to developing a neighborhood vision for engagement through social media.

A final external factor I want to highlight concerns digital infrastructure and specifically access and adoption of high-speed broadband. According to Digital Road Map (2013), 99% of New Yorkers have residential access to high speed broadband, 300,000 more low income residents had access to broadband in 2013 than in 2011, there are fifty parks with free Wifi, and the city has served 4,000 resident living in public housing (NYCHA) through its digital van initiative (New York City, 3).

Certainly, these advances are positive, but the DRM leaves open a number of questions concerning the scope of these improvements. For example, questions about broadband access and broadband adoption must be asked. Nationally, consistency of access to broadband remains varied, though more narrowly, along geographic, racial/ethnic, and social class lines, and types of social media used vary along age and educational levels (Zickuhr 2013). East Harlem is still a low-income, primarily of-Color neighborhood where 31% of people live in poverty and twenty-four public housing projects (14,700 units) make up large parts of the landscape (Figure 3). According to NYC Open Data maps (New York City 2014), there are very few public Wifi spots available in East Harlem, including McDonald’s restaurants and the local libraries (see Figure 3).

Certainly, these advances are positive, but the DRM leaves open a number of questions concerning the scope of these improvements. For example, questions about broadband access and broadband adoption must be asked. Nationally, consistency of access to broadband remains varied, though more narrowly, along geographic, racial/ethnic, and social class lines, and types of social media used vary along age and educational levels (Zickuhr 2013). East Harlem is still a low-income, primarily of-Color neighborhood where 31% of people live in poverty and twenty-four public housing projects (14,700 units) make up large parts of the landscape (Figure 3 Map of EH-NYCHA Housing 2). According to NYC Open Data maps (New York City 2014), there are very few public Wifi spots available in East Harlem, including McDonald’s restaurants and the local libraries (Figure 4 Map of wifi spots).

Mayorga_Figure3-374x1024Figure 3. Public and Rent Stabilized Housing Units Map, East Harlem 2011, from Regional Planning Association. (2012). East Harlem Affordable Housing Under Threat: Strategies for Preserving Rent-Regulated Units.


Map2.FreewifiSpots.EH_.2013-980x1024 (1)Figure 4. Free Wifi in East Harlem, map created through NYC Open Data. #BarrioEdProj collection.


The two public parks with Wifi are not mentioned in the map, nor are some of the other small businesses that offer Wifi (openwifispots 2014). Still, limited Wifi access intersects with the poor conditions of East Harlem libraries (Anderson 2014), and the neighborhood has one of the lowest levels of parkland per resident in the city (Chaban 2012). Additionally, as a neighborhood with one of the highest densities of public housing in New York (Hunter 2014), disparities in access to computers and the Internet are particularly stark (Wall 2012). The 4,000 people served by the NYCHA Digital Vans city-wide make up a very small percentage of the 178,557 residents that comprised NYCHA’s conventional housing program in March 2014 (New York City Housing Authority 2014). All this suggests that public access remains underdeveloped, leaving low-income residents with limited options for adopting broadband. Adoption is primarily mediated by financial constraints, including “high monthly fees, [h]ardware costs, hidden fees, billing transparency, quality of service, and availability” (Dailey, Bryne, Powell, Karaganis & Chung 2010, 3). At this point, data about access to and adoption of high speed broadband in East Harlem is not available, and is something that we also want to address in future surveying.


Looking back to move #BarrioEdProj Forward

While we were struggling with the social media aspects of the work, the digitally mediated research aspects of our D+CPAR process were flourishing educationally and affectively. Our community-centered historical work involved collectively reading relevant texts, conducting and producing digital interviews, and collaboratively analyzing data. Having been members of the East Harlem community for most if not all of their lives, Honory and Mariely were being exposed to East Harlem-focused social science and archival information for the first time. This elicited feelings of surprise and dissatisfaction. They were pleased to learn some of the rich history of the neighborhood, but at the same time they were disappointed by the way these histories had been denied to them over the course of their educational career.  There was also a growing anger as they began to recognize the devastating impact of gentrification and education reform on their lives and the lives of others in the neighborhood.

As a research group, we took our new understanding into interviews, where we heard from a cadre of multigenerational community stakeholders who had participated in the historical moments we had been studying. The interviews would have an emotional effect on the participants and the researchers. Interviewees in the under-30 group, for example, mentioned that being asked about their community was an educational experience for them. Gentrification was a notion that most were familiar with, but they appeared to find the opportunity to link their abstract notion of gentrification to their own lives a positive experience. Participants in the over-30 group also mentioned that they appreciated being able to share their perspective. One participant also noted that she appreciated the mission of #BarrioEdProj and saw it as a potential space to “light a spark” for change.

Upon returning to our group meetings we would engage in a reflective process to make sense of what we observed in the interviews in relation to our readings, archival work, and our subjects’ lived experience. In these discussions the voices of generations of East Harlem education community members enlivened the very complicated situations residents dealt with as they faced displacement from home, urban restructuring, and disconnections from levers of power within the state education apparatus. For our co-researcher Honory, for example, seeing a parent discuss struggles over education led her to think about the complexities families face and the necessary work parents must do in order to provide high quality education for all children.

Figure 5. Meibell Contreras, parent of children at Central Park East I (CPE I). Ms. Contreras discusses her engagement with the schools and some of her concerns about the system. #BarrioEdProj Vimeo Collection.


What was happening in these more personally connected aspects of the work was as much emotional as it was scholarly. As Lynch (2009) reminds us, humans are “deeply relational beings, part of a complex matrix of social and emotional relations that often give meaning and purpose to life, even though they can also constrain life’s options” (4).  This historical and interview-based work was where trust amongst participants was built and the purpose of work was most clearly defined.

Making sense of all the data we had collected and the emotional highs and lows we had experienced, the question we asked ourselves was fundamentally one about taking action: The community is in trouble, so how can we help people realize what’s going on? We were thinking about what engagement would look like and how digital media might or might not fit into this aspect of the work. This was the point at which Mariely importantly noticed that “technology was not working in El Barrio.” In the months that followed we began to develop short-term and long-term changes in our design. First, we decided that we wanted to create a newsletter to report our data, posting it in our digital platforms and holding a public forum to share the newsletter. Second, we decided to slow down our social media efforts and turn our attention to organizing and expanding our digital content and doing more on-the-ground relationship-building with various community stakeholders.

We hoped these changes would help us find ways to scale up some of the transformative experiences that we had had within our historical work. Moreover, our digital engagement efforts needed stronger roots in the community and better, more compelling content, before it could gain traction in East Harlem and beyond. As such, our D+CPAR framework would include a digital, participatory, archival component that would serve as a springboard for digital engagement.  Digital, participatory archiving is a growing area that is seen as scholarly, educational, and political work (Caswell 2014, Povinelli 2011). This activist archiving has been particularly important for humanities and social science scholars who study populations and histories that have traditionally been marginalized and rendered invisible to the public. Like our supporting organization, East Harlem Preservation, our goal is to not only document histories, but to use those histories to inform the public and bring people together to incite change. 



The first year of the #BarrioEdProj sheds light on some of the promises and challenges that public social science researchers must consider in the digital age. What became evident was that digital critical participatory action research (D+CPAR) provides opportunities to reimagine qualitative research methods, offers new perspectives on what and how data can be collected, and expands how data can be shared and discussed. Our project also brought attention to the importance of public engagement as the nature of engagement is changing. In addition, old barriers like relational trust and new barriers like broadband access and adoption in under-resourced communities present engaged scholars with challenges that can be addressed through collective, interdependent efforts that are socio-politically and financially supported—all solutions that existed long before the digital came into vogue. What is distinct about this era, and what I think researchers must be most vigilant about, is how the digital must explicitly be part of our understanding of the terrain of struggle.  As Murthy (2008) notes:

[t]he challenge for us is not only to adapt to new research methods, but also, as Saskia Sassen (2002: 365) stresses, to ‘develop analytic categories that allow us to capture the complex imbrications of technology and society’. Doing these in tandem, with an eye to ethics and the digital divide, will be the benchmarks by which sociology’s engagement with new media technologies will be judged.

As new critical participatory projects begin to take root and digital media are integrated into projects, research collectives must continue to interrogate how digital media shapes the everyday as the everyday shapes the digital. #BarrioEdProj looks to community-based projects like the Red Hook Initiative’s Digital Stewards program and academic endeavors like JustPublics@365 as examples of work that centers the imbrications of technology and society. We contend that by working through an analytical and activist framework that sees the digital as part of the fabric of social inequity and social justice, D+CPAR can contribute to the production of holistic research and a more just and sustainable future.



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About the Author

Edwin Mayorga is a parent and educator-scholar-activist who is completing his doctoral work in Urban Education at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. His dissertation, Education in our Barrios #BarrioEdProj, is a digital critical participatory action research project (D+CPAR) based in the New York City Latino core community of East Harlem.  Working with two youth co-researchers (Mariely Mena and Honory Peña), #BarrioEdProj traces the discursive and material effects of neoliberal education reform and urban restructuring on, in, and through East Harlem and New York City since the 1970s. Most recently, he was a co-author of “Slow violence and neoliberal education reform: Reflections on a school closure” and “Scholar-activism: A twice told tale.” In the fall of 2014, he will be an Assistant Professor in the Educational Studies department at Swarthmore College. Edwin does educational justice work with the New York Collective of Radical Educators (NYCoRE), is a participant in the National Latino Education Research & Policy Project (NLERAP), and on the community advisory board of the Participatory Action Research Center for Education Organizing (PARCEO). You can find Edwin on Twitter @chinolatino78 and @barrioedproj.


Building a Place for Community: City Tech’s OpenLab

Charlie Edwards, New York City College of Technology

Jody Rosen, New York City College of Technology

Maura A. Smale, New York City College of Technology

Jenna Spevack, New York City College of Technology[1]


For the Fall 2011 semester, New York City College of Technology (City Tech) launched the OpenLab, an open digital platform for teaching, learning, and collaboration that everyone at the college—students, faculty, and staff—can join. Built by a City Tech-based team using the open source software WordPress and BuddyPress, it provides a space where members can connect with one another in an academic social network, create profiles and portfolios, and collaborate in courses, projects, and clubs, sharing their work with others at City Tech and beyond. As its name suggests, the OpenLab is both open on the web and a place for experimentation. It is also experimental itself, in its goals to increase student engagement and reduce fragmentation at a large, diverse, and sometimes impersonal commuter institution. What we have seen so far is promising: in only two years the OpenLab has already become an essential part of the life of the college with, at this writing, over 9,400 members. This article traces the path that led to the creation of the OpenLab, shares successes, challenges, and lessons learned along the way, and outlines future plans. We invite readers, and visitors to the OpenLab, to consider what creating such a space—open, shared, experimental, and democratic—might achieve at their own institutions.  


The OpenLab in Context

Institutional challenges

City Tech is a senior college of the City University of New York (CUNY), the largest urban public university in the U.S. The college has gone through several transformations since its founding in 1946 as a trade school, most importantly when it joined the CUNY system in 1964 and when it became a senior college—awarding both Associate and Baccalaureate degrees—in 1983 (New York City College of Technology n.d.b). City Tech offers a wide range of professional and technical programs including engineering, computing, architectural and construction technologies, hospitality and tourism, communication design, and the allied health sciences, as well as a variety of general education and upper-level courses in the liberal arts and sciences.

Students at City Tech differ from the popular media image of the traditional American undergraduate in several important ways. There are no residence halls available at the college, and, like most CUNY undergraduates, the majority of City Tech students live in New York City with their parents, guardians, or other family members. The college is a majority-minority serving institution, with self-reported race/ethnicity at 34% Hispanic, 32% Black, 20% Asian/Pacific Islander, and 11% White students. Just over half of City Tech students report a household income of less than $30,000 per year, and just under half are in the first generation of their families to attend college. Like undergraduates at other commuter colleges, City Tech students often have responsibilities in addition to their studies; they may work part- or full-time, or provide care for children or other family members (CUNY Office of Institutional Research 2012, New York City College of Technology 2012).

Enrollment at the college has soared in recent years; by Fall 2012 the college enrolled over 16,000 undergraduate students, almost two-thirds of whom attend full-time (CUNY Office of Institutional Research 2012). While its location, in busy Downtown Brooklyn adjacent to the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges, facilitates easy access via public transportation, the density of the neighborhood constrains opportunities to enlarge the college campus. A much-needed new building is currently under construction, though its completion is not anticipated until Spring 2017. Meanwhile there is a lack of attractive, communal gathering space at City Tech: there are few lounges for students to use to socialize, relax, or study, no quadrangle or lawns, and only one small outdoor space.

City Tech’s student body, then, is constantly in motion between home, work, and school, with limited opportunities to make connections with and at the college—though such connections are key to student success.


OpenLab_Homepage-1024x725Figure 1. OpenLab Home Page (click for full-size image)


A living lab

The OpenLab is a major component of “A Living Laboratory: Revitalizing General Education for a Twenty-First Century College of Technology,” a five-year project (2010-2015) funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s Title V Strengthening Hispanic-Serving Institutions program.[2] The Living Lab project aims to improve student engagement, specifically by addressing the difficulties that students encounter in making connections between their required General Education courses and the highly specialized coursework in their majors, even as these courses function as gateways to their fields. The project seeks to collaborate with groups throughout the college to re-envision General Education across the disciplines by using City Tech’s Brooklyn waterfront location as a living laboratory, employing place-based learning and the hands-on modes familiar to our students in their majors to increase student achievement, measured by grades and persistence, retention, and graduation rates.

The OpenLab was conceived as a key element of the Living Lab project that would both support the Living Lab’s goals and seek to address these larger institutional challenges of disconnection and fragmentation by strengthening the college’s social and intellectual fabric. As an open digital platform the OpenLab can make the college curriculum visible to City Tech students, and encourage them to make connections among their strengths, interests, and goals. The OpenLab creates avenues for community members in different classes, departments, and schools to connect with one another. It offers a virtual place for students, faculty, and staff to meet and work and an opportunity to strengthen the college community unfettered by the limitations of our physical plant. The OpenLab provides virtually through its online platform what the City Tech campus cannot always provide physically: a beautiful, inspiring space for communities to gather and grow.


Why Open? Why Lab?

The name OpenLab speaks to two important and pervasive themes of this initiative. Its open nature fosters community and connection. Unlike closed online systems such as Blackboard, the learning management system available throughout CUNY, the OpenLab allows members across the college to communicate with one another and the world outside City Tech. OpenLab membership is available to everyone at City Tech through a simple registration process. Members can see what other members are doing, as can visitors from outside of the City Tech community. Such openness has great potential. This open-by-default design provides greater transparency for students looking to see what goes on in other courses, offering them a unique insight into their choices for registration and choosing a focus or major. Faculty members can benefit from the innovative pedagogies their colleagues employ, and can see not merely which courses their students have enrolled in but also what they study in those classes. Staff members can get a glimpse into course activities that would not otherwise be accessible to them. For all members, the possibility of observing and participating in curricular, co-curricular, and extracurricular activity is an exciting prospect, one that is only possible because the system is open.

As a college of technology, City Tech uses throughout its curriculum a laboratory model that is both familiar to and successful for its students. The OpenLab fosters the kind of learning espoused in the City Tech mission statement, developing both intellectual curiosity and practical experience in career fields by creating active, hands-on, and process-oriented experiences. In so doing it pairs with the college’s educational goals for the students to apply problem-solving skills to their work in their professions and develop communication skills (New York City College of Technology n.d.a), fostering intellectual curiosity and practical experience in career fields. All members of the OpenLab—students, faculty, and staff alike—benefit from the opportunities for experimentation available to them through use of the tools it provides: blogging capabilities, collaborative documents, shared discussions, and the ability to integrate external tools easily and seamlessly. By using WordPress for content creation, OpenLab members gain valuable experience with software they will likely encounter again, whether for work or in their own extracurricular pursuits. We encourage students specifically—and all OpenLab members in general—to take advantage of the expertise they can develop in using WordPress, and to promote it as a skill when they move on from City Tech.

The OpenLab, in adopting the open source software WordPress and BuddyPress as its foundation, joins a worldwide laboratory of open source design and development. In creating the OpenLab, the team has been fortunate to build on the experiments and experiences of others at City Tech, CUNY, and beyond who have implemented WordPress and BuddyPress as open pedagogical tools over the past decade. The open digital platform that the OpenLab is most similar to is the CUNY Academic Commons, an academic social network launched in 2009 that connects faculty, staff, and graduate students across all 24 campuses of CUNY (the team has recently released the Commons In A Box, which puts a full-featured WordPress and BuddyPress implementation within reach for any institution). The OpenLab team also counts as inspiration UMW Blogs, built at the University of Mary Washington by Jim Groom and his team, and the University of British Columbia’s WordPress installation spearheaded by Brian Lamb. We have learned from WordPress projects at other CUNY colleges as well, including Baruch College’s Blogs@Baruch, Macaulay Honors College’s and York College’s student ePortfolio platforms, and Queens College’s undergraduate writing initiative. In building the OpenLab as a place for community at City Tech, then, we are proud to join a community of educators and technologists dedicated to opening education through the use of free and open source software and a commitment to open pedagogical practices.


The OpenLab in Theory

In addition to the strong lineage of inspiring open source projects that paved the way for the OpenLab, the project has theoretical grounding centered on the idea of student engagement as critical to ensuring that students are successful in their college careers (Kuh et al. 2007, xi). Certain pedagogical and social practices contribute to and bolster student engagement; these include frequent interaction between students and faculty, especially outside of class time, both academic and social interaction with peers, feedback received from faculty in a timely manner, and “time on task”—the amount of time students spend on their academic work (Kuh et al. 2007, 43). Further, a strong engagement with the college community may be especially important for commuter students such as those at City Tech, who spend less time on campus than do undergraduates at residential colleges (Krause 2007, 29).

Research also indicates that technological interventions like the OpenLab have the potential to strengthen student engagement at commuter institutions (Krause 2007, Kinzie et al. 2008). The OpenLab offers a platform for faculty-student and student-student interaction in courses and extracurricular activities, as well as multiple avenues for faculty and peer feedback on student work in a variety of media. Since the OpenLab is a web-based platform, the ability to accomplish coursework while off-campus may also increase the amount of time that students spend on their academic work. With the multiple responsibilities that our students navigate throughout their days in addition to their coursework, the opportunities for 24-hour, off-campus access to the OpenLab may be especially beneficial.

The OpenLab can also have an impact on student engagement beyond flexible access to coursework. Recent data collected for the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE), which samples over one million students at hundreds of four-year colleges and universities about their participation in programs and activities for learning and professional development, reveals that engagement rose among “[f]irst-year students who frequently used social media to interact with peers, learn about campus events and opportunities, and interact with faculty and advisors” (National Survey of Student Engagement 2012, 18). While the NSSE asked students about proprietary social media platforms, this finding corresponds with the observations of those working with open academic social networks. Matthew K. Gold, for example, notes that these platforms provide multiple pathways for connection via what he terms “low-stakes engagement”: “Students may visit the course site because they receive a friend request from a fellow student, and in visiting the site, they may quickly respond to a status update, contribute a link to a group, respond to a forum post, send a private message, or update their own status” (Gold 2011, 70-1). These academic social networks provide multiple avenues to attract students into a course, and in doing so can strengthen their ties to the college community.

The OpenLab can foster opportunities for our students to work and study together, to encourage each other, and to support each other’s success, which is far less likely when students do not know or feel connected to one another. Beyond this, though, as Gold and Otte report in their discussion of the CUNY Academic Commons, faculty and staff members too can similarly benefit from working with a platform that encourages collaboration, a networked structure that encourages interdisciplinary, intercollegial, and nonhierarchical conversations (2011, 10). Such a structure, however, does not come about automatically when WordPress is installed; rather, it is the result of conscious design choices made with community-building in mind.


Design of Place: Structure and Features

Customizing for community

The OpenLab and much of its user-created content is open and visible to the public, allowing prospective members and site visitors to browse and comment. Although only members of the City Tech community can join the site and actively create content, the site structure and home page content feed invite visitors to experience the dynamic learning environment and community that is not always visible on the physical campus.

BuddyPress, the open source social networking software integrated into the OpenLab’s WordPress Multisite installation, allows us to define a virtual place that supports City Tech’s community-building needs and provides the infrastructure necessary for an active, high-impact, connected learning environment. It offers social networking features like activity streams, member profiles, group and site creation, discussion, and collaborative document editing, and is at the core of sibling sites such as the CUNY Academic Commons. BuddyPress powers one of the most distinctive features of the Commons, its home page, which highlights recent activity by members, groups, and blogs, and gives visitors an instant snapshot of the vibrant Commons community. This integration of members and their activity, and the collaboration and cross-pollination it fosters, inspired the OpenLab’s home page design and organization.


OpenLab_Navigation-1024x725Figure 2. OpenLab “Group” configuration: Courses, Projects, Clubs, and Portfolios


There are, however, significant differences between the OpenLab and its sibling installations. The biggest modification, implemented in partnership with our consulting developers, was to customize BuddyPress and subdivide its default “Group” configuration into several discrete types, Courses, Projects, Clubs, and Portfolios:

  • Projects on the OpenLab can range from student research projects and collaborations to college committees to grant-funded academic journals, and can be created by individual or multiple members.
  • Clubs allow any member of the College community to grow an online space related to a particular social or academic interest.
  • Courses are set up to offer faculty members the tools to facilitate class collaborations, engage students in meaningful peer-to-peer learning, and provide a digital repository for course documents.
  • Portfolios are an extension of the College’s student ePortfolio initiative and allow for personal portfolio development for all OpenLab members, including faculty and staff. The member Portfolio is a WordPress or external site linked to the member Profile page. Members are encouraged to use the site to present their teaching, academic, or creative work.

These appear prominently in the navigation, along with People, the OpenLab’s directory of members. This organizational architecture supports usability and navigational aesthetics and facilitates group creation, interaction, and findability by separating groups into defined areas of focus that are familiar to our college community. This important customization helps to communicate a clear path for visitors and offers a foothold for members less experienced in open, collaborative systems.


OpenLab_People-1024x725Figure 3. OpenLab People Page


The People section of the OpenLab brings together all our members—students, faculty, and staff—and provides access to their Profiles. Any member of the campus community with a City Tech email address may sign up and create a Profile on the OpenLab.[3] The member Profile presents the member’s academic interests, department or area of study, and contact information, as well as recent activity on the OpenLab including posts, comments, and discussion topics. Profile visitors can view the Projects, Clubs, and Courses that the member participates in, allowing them to make connections with others who have similar interests and providing opportunities to share learning, social, and research experiences with the greater OpenLab community. The member Profile also allows for a pseudonymous display name and allows the member to choose the information they share with others. Use of pseudonyms allows members to protect their identities without compromising the public nature of the OpenLab. We believe that giving members control over their self-presentation is an essential component of any open platform.


OpenLab_Profile-1024x725Figure 4. OpenLab Member Profile


The benefit of the OpenLab’s customized navigational sections is that it gives new or prospective members a place to start: browsing these general areas guides the member who might be interested in joining a campus club or seeing an example of a member Portfolio. Although not all groups on the OpenLab are public, those that are present the most recent data on the group Profile page. Although the OpenLab encourages openness, it also supports a range of fine-grained privacy options that enable groups to have public or private spaces as desired, and even a combination of the two. Each group Profile, similar to the member Profile, displays recent posts, discussions, collaborative document activity, group membership, and a link to the group’s associated WordPress site.


Listening to Campus Voices

The OpenLab team follows an iterative approach to design and development, the standard open source software methodology. After releasing a version of the site, we listen for feedback from members and observe how they embrace or ignore new features. Critical here is the work of the OpenLab’s Community Team.[4] All are advanced graduate students with expertise in both the technical and pedagogic aspects of using open source platforms in an educational context. Some of their work takes place behind the scenes: testing site updates, reporting bugs, evaluating and recommending plugins and themes, and developing the OpenLab’s Help content. They are also the friendly faces of the OpenLab, answering members’ questions via email and online, running workshops, visiting classrooms and offices, and maintaining open channels of communication between the OpenLab’s members and the rest of the team.

This community-minded method of development accepts the unpredictability of member needs and behaviors and allows the OpenLab to evolve as the community grows and develops. Following are several examples in which member requests and actions have translated directly into exciting new functionality and have greatly improved the design of the OpenLab as place to learn, work, and share.


My OpenLab

In the early releases of the OpenLab, its navigation and usability needed significant enhancement. Members repeatedly requested easier access to their personal settings and dashboards. A simple name, My OpenLab, was adopted for the member’s logged-in state, which was identified in headings and dropdown menus. My OpenLab makes the member’s content more readily available and improves overall usability, but also conveys a sense of place and ownership.


OpenLab_MOL_External_Portfolio-1024x725Figure 5. My OpenLab navigation, Portfolio integration, external site linking


External site linking

The ability to link a WordPress site to a group is available in BuddyPress, but this functionality did not extend to sites outside the OpenLab’s network. Many faculty members, some students, and a few campus clubs had however already developed web sites and were hesitant to start a site on the OpenLab if it meant recreating their sites there. Customizing the OpenLab’s BuddyPress install with the ability to link an external site to a group’s Profile now allows members with sites on other platforms to become part of the OpenLab community space, making this externally hosted content visible in activity feeds and on the home page. This seemingly small customization is actually a powerful intervention that simultaneously promotes member agency and inclusion. It allows the OpenLab to support those who are committed to maintaining a “domain of their own” (more formally, a “personal cyberinfrastructure,” Campbell 2009). We see this as particularly important for encouraging OpenLab participation among adjunct faculty, who may have their own independent teaching sites to accommodate their teaching on a number of campuses.


Cloning courses

As the number of courses on the OpenLab continued to grow, to over 600 current and past courses by the spring of 2014, it was clear that faculty needed tools to replicate their previous course structures, rather than starting from scratch. One key feature of the OpenLab is that course content remains available after the course ends; consequently, it was important to develop an alternative so faculty members would not empty courses for reuse by deleting past student data. This BuddyPress customization now offers faculty the opportunity to clone a course and establishes a best practice of maintaining an archive of past OpenLab courses available for student and department reference.


Portfolio integration

When the OpenLab was initially developed, the college was also looking for a new platform to host its student ePortfolios. The OpenLab was able to provide a home for this project, incorporating student ePortfolios into the site structure. A year later an initiative was launched to digitize faculty teaching portfolios and, once again, the OpenLab was the obvious place to turn. In response, we now offer all members of the college community the opportunity to create an online Portfolio, linked to the individual member’s Profile. Student ePortfolios, faculty teaching portfolios, and staff professional portfolios can now all be found together in the Portfolios section of the OpenLab. Through such design choices, the OpenLab becomes not only a solution to a logistical problem but a place for sharing, since students, faculty, and staff can see and learn from one another’s work.

These examples demonstrate our efforts to work toward a method of inclusionary innovation that encourages meaningful growth. We rely on member input to make the OpenLab the best it can be, with the aim of creating an inspiring, supportive gathering place that everyone at City Tech can share. The OpenLab’s designers strive to support this aim through compelling visual design that reflects well-considered information architecture and usability heuristics. Visitors and members alike regularly praise the OpenLab for its beautiful design. This is a tribute to the efforts not only of the current team but of the (now former) City Tech students who worked on the OpenLab’s original look and feel. Their design vision supports the hope that creating a beautiful place for learning, sharing, and belonging will foster community engagement and increase retention both within the OpenLab and at City Tech.


The OpenLab in Practice

Since the first semester of its use in beta, the OpenLab’s ambitious goals continue to be fulfilled in practice. The member-generated content of the OpenLab is a testament to the value of openness and of the laboratory model, and makes evident the OpenLab’s contribution to the college community. Examples of the benefits of the open, shared, democratic, and experimental avenues abound on the OpenLab.



Charting new territory with a site on the OpenLab is a great opportunity for anyone interested in making content more visible. The OpenLab can offer a new and very real audience for that work because of its open nature. The openness of the platform encourages browsing through the shared materials, both in formal and informal ways—exemplified by a student who asked our Community Team why some courses were available for her to see whereas others required membership. She was following some of the courses in her major that she had not yet taken, or had taken with different professors, found reading these course sites a valuable resource, and began conversing with the faculty member to expand her education further.

Some courses assign what this student did voluntarily: to draw on the OpenLab’s openness as a source for learning. For example, a professor asked his Introduction to Poetry students to explore the OpenLab and to comment on materials on other courses’ sites. This not only challenged students to move beyond the comfort of their class’s community, but also reminded others that the OpenLab is open for this kind of cross-pollination. An English Composition professor asked students to examine other members’ avatars and report back about how they perceived members based on their avatars. This served the course as an introduction both to visual literacy and to the construction of an online persona. Another faculty member in Restorative Dentistry used the fact that the OpenLab is readily available to non-members by inviting colleagues from an international professional organization in the field of restorative dentistry to view his students’ work and comment on it. Here, students were exposed to an audience beyond the college, professionals with expertise to benefit their growth in the field.

Courses are not the only venues to benefit from being open. The needs of various college committees and organizations have been met by sharing information on the OpenLab. These additions have not been top-down, but rather reflect the community’s adoption of this much-needed place to collaborate. For instance, the college-wide Assessment Committee, in an effort to increase transparency and inform and involve more of the community, established an OpenLab Project that includes reports from the most recent assessment cycle for all participating departments. College Council has had a public site on a college server but is now developing its OpenLab presence. Committees that are open to all college faculty members might wonder what added value there could be in sharing their materials in the open forum of the OpenLab, rather than just with its voluntary members. In both of these examples, the openness of the site matters because the sites are part of the network, not hidden away from their potential audiences. Unlike stand-alone sites, the networked nature of OpenLab sites creates a broader audience for the work of these committees and organizations. Not only can faculty and staff members benefit from seeing what other committees are doing, but students as well can begin to see a clearer picture of the college, its infrastructure, and its concerns.



Community building is a central component of the OpenLab, creating venues for shared spaces in courses, among courses, and across the college. Learning Communities are a natural fit for the shared spaces of the OpenLab. These communities enroll a cohort of students in two or three courses that collaborate on a shared project or consider overlapping themes. In one of the first learning communities on the OpenLab, two professors in Hospitality Management and one in English connected their courses using the OpenLab via custom menus that seamlessly linked students from one course to the next. This connection fostered the sense that all three faculty members collaborated to create this more dynamic, more engaging experience for these first-year students. In another Learning Community, professors from Humanities and English similarly linked courses using custom menus in that first semester, and then subsequently began sharing their space in one Course site to facilitate their community’s joint project, a place-based endeavor that drew on semester-long projects that culminated in a virtual walking tour. This tour used various external technologies as it collated students’ on-site speech videos by embedding them in a shared Google map that was itself embedded on the shared OpenLab site.

The open nature of the platform can easily facilitate the development of unofficial learning communities. One instance came when two math professors joined efforts when each taught a section of the same course in the same time slot. They shared one OpenLab site for students to exchange reflections on their joint field trip, a walk across the Brooklyn Bridge to provide the basis for mathematical calculations, and even booked a larger classroom for one class session to accommodate both classes in a discussion of the results from their joint field trip. Other faculty members have experimented with unofficial learning communities, such as one bringing together a hybrid section with a fully online section of the same course. The opportunity to communicate and collaborate with other students is so important for the otherwise disconnected online students; pairing them with students who do have the chance to get to know each other face-to-face enhances the learning experience overall among the members of the created community.



With the capability to expand educational opportunities through incorporating multimedia components into posts and pages, the OpenLab fosters the hands-on, active learning so many in our community strive to integrate into their courses. The availability of spaces to contribute content in a variety of media on the OpenLab can inspire disciplines not traditionally thought of as visual to make use of the site’s capability to incorporate images and videos, or those not typically considered writing-intensive to include expository blog-posts or collaborative-document assignments. In one math course on the OpenLab, students were asked to reflect on the term infinity both in its colloquial usage and as a mathematical term. To further support their understanding of these definitions, students were asked to relay a story about when they first learned about the term, and to incorporate a photograph that encapsulated the meaning. Writing, visual literacy, and a sense of play became vital skills to complete this math assignment, a great example of how the OpenLab creates a place for creative expression and innovative pedagogy.

In an Introduction to Hospitality Management course, students were asked to consider Brooklyn as the site of tourism. Imagining they were each the concierge in a boutique hotel in Brooklyn, students were asked to develop videos that guests would watch to pique their interest in a nearby location. Students could creatively cast their videos, considering not only the details of a location, but also the intended audience of the video and how they would want to represent the location to the clientele. This project took advantage of YouTube as a resource for storing videos that were then easily embedded into posts. It also identified for students their role and their audience, and offered a creative medium for students to consider the role of the concierge, and to experiment with place-based learning in a field-specific way.

In each of these examples, students had opportunities to use openly available digital tools and to transfer knowledge and skills from their college experience to work in their disciplines. Faculty members could continue to cover course content while expanding their pedagogical practices and affording students additional avenues for experimentation and creative expression. One student took on this challenge independently, conceiving of her ePortfolio not merely as a way to record her achievements in Restorative Dentistry but also as a customizable, thoughtful reflection of her approach to her field. Using the extended metaphor of a city to describe the mouth full of teeth, she showcased her dedication to her work and her interest in experimenting both in the lab and in her representation of that work.


OpenLab_ePortfolio-1024x725Figure 6. Student ePortfolio: Restorative Dentistry



All members have the ability to create Projects, Clubs, and Portfolios—only faculty can create Courses, which is the only difference in permissions among the types of members—and to read or actively participate on public sites throughout the OpenLab. This means that in addition to officially sanctioned committees and clubs, there are numerous unofficial, unchartered, or even previously unformed groups coalescing in OpenLab Projects and Clubs. In a recent survey of OpenLab Clubs, the Community Team found that more were unchartered than officially City Tech-sanctioned, indicating that the OpenLab has given a place for students—and all members—to gather around common interests regardless of official support. Thus, in addition to the notable presence of the Student Government Association and the City Tech newspaper, there are also unchartered clubs such as Anime Gaming Underground, or the Mobile Application Developers. We are eager to provide support—both technical and community-building—for these ventures to become fully realized.

Projects such as the First Year Writing and Developmental Writing Resource Archive, which offer resources for faculty teaching the college’s sequence of composition courses and developmental writing, respectively, encourage full-time and adjunct faculty to join, share, and benefit from the wealth of resources that have been compiled. Providing opportunities for full-time and adjunct faculty members to share space and resources has been one of our main goals for the OpenLab, making it a space for all to get involved, regardless of rank or position. Many new projects are being developed to collate materials for faculty working on a given course or initiative, and to share discussion space to collaborate on the issues at the heart of that endeavor. These spaces open the conversation to adjunct faculty, creating avenues for their involvement that have not existed before. OpenLab workshops also create such shared spaces, since they provide support for faculty and staff, full-time and part-time alike, and can facilitate collaboration across and among departments and offices. As part of the Title V grant, adjunct faculty members receive a stipend to participate in OpenLab workshops; this further facilitates their inclusion in the OpenLab.


The OpenLab in Progress

These are just a few examples of the kind of work that the OpenLab enables; every day visitors to the site can find more. It has been exciting to see how the OpenLab’s members have grasped its potential for connection and collaboration, openness, sharing, and community-building. But of course technologies do not determine outcomes. Indeed, as Gold and Otte note in their discussion of the CUNY Academic Commons, any intervention in the mode and means of social interaction—and perhaps especially in education—is potentially disruptive and destabilizing (Gold and Otte 2010, 10). Inevitably, then, with all the OpenLab’s successes, there have been challenges along the way. Below are three of these and the approaches taken to address them.


Growing pains, growing community

The first challenge has actually been the OpenLab’s success: its dramatic rate of adoption. As the Living Lab’s external evaluator noted, the project’s original usage target (1,000 active members by the end of the grant) quickly looked “quaint.” Such vertiginous growth naturally brought technical concerns: with the site rapidly becoming essential to many of its members, we hardened its infrastructure for reliability and have recently optimized the database to ensure it can support this rate of growth for years to come. The biggest impact, though, has been experiential—a site with thousands of members simply feels different, and the individual members and the work they create can easily be lost in the sheer volume of activity and content. If we fail to attend to the affective dimension of site use, we could find ourselves simply replicating online the problems of disconnection and fragmentation that the OpenLab hopes to address.

Early in the development process, we made adjustments to the site design to showcase member content more effectively and make it more readily findable: the home page now shows the four most recently active groups of each type (Courses, Projects, Clubs, and Portfolios), and search and filtering capabilities have been added. Another important addition to the home page is the “In the Spotlight” section, which allows us to call attention to a different example of the exceptional work on the OpenLab each week. Members have reported their excitement at having their work recognized so prominently; when we featured the Restorative Dentistry student’s ePortfolio described above, its author responded that this appreciation of her work had not only provided encouragement but also “made it something real” for her, “something that a living person actually looked at and read (as opposed to an odd exercise similar to jotting things down, folding them into paper airplanes, and launching them into the cybervoid)” (Jes Bernhard, pers. comm.). We are planning other ways to celebrate member contributions and enable all members to participate in the selection process.

Evident in the above is the interplay between software and social. A social network should not be conflated with community;[5] building a sense of community among OpenLab members is an ongoing process that requires conscious and intentional individual and collective effort. The Community Team plays an important role here in helping members feel welcome on the site. With such a large member population, though, the Community Team cannot interact with everyone—members must create community by and for themselves. And they are. Many members complete public profiles and make “friend” connections. New faculty have set up a private space where they can share their experiences, ask questions, and discuss concerns. Faculty members continue to use the OpenLab to share ideas and resources, and discuss best practices with colleagues; adjunct faculty, who often find themselves marginalized at their institutions, are joining these conversations. Important student-facing administrative offices—Veterans Affairs, for instance—see the OpenLab’s potential for giving the students they serve a space of their own to communicate. Students have created initial presences on the site for key organizations and informal interest groups, too.

We believe, though, that there is more we can do to foster community on the site. We will be working to understand, through quantitative and qualitative approaches, how the OpenLab’s members (especially its less vocal members) use and experience the site, what works and does not work for them. We will be creating ways to bring members together on the OpenLab for shared activities—including, simply, fun.


A place for students

We are particularly interested in understanding the perspectives of one key group: students. Students make up the majority of OpenLab members (over 90% at this writing). However, despite the success of Courses on the OpenLab, the wide array of individual and group Projects created by students for their coursework, and strong adoption of student ePortfolios, we have yet to see widespread adoption of the site for extracurricular activities. There are many external factors that undoubtedly influence student use of the OpenLab. In addition to the time and space constraints we know affect City Tech students, another factor that may have an impact on their voluntary use of the OpenLab is access to technology. Although many own or have access to their own computers, tablets, or smartphones and Internet access from off-campus, others do not, and must rely on shared computers in their homes or at the college. As enrollment has risen, campus computer labs, like the campus overall, strain to accommodate the increasing number of students who wish to use them (Smale and Regalado, 2011). Thus, students may not always be able to access the OpenLab at a time and location that is convenient for them and conducive to using the OpenLab for extracurricular reasons. Additionally, while there are convincing arguments for using the OpenLab rather than closed, proprietary platforms, students may see Facebook or other social networks as more appropriate for co-curricular and extracurricular activities since they already socialize there.

We have no desire to construct a “creepy treehouse” to lure in students (see Gold 2011 for a discussion of this term [73-4]), but are concerned to help them understand that the OpenLab enables them to create places of their own, and that they can be co-creators of the OpenLab itself by participating in our collaborative development process. In response, we are making concerted efforts to engage City Tech’s students beyond the classroom. We have recently recruited a group of Student Community Team members who contribute regularly to a site they have named “The Buzz,” and are looking to expand the team to continue to provide dynamic content by and for our student population. Student team members have also begun working with our Community Team to conduct proactive outreach to student clubs and other organizations and provide them with help and guidance on incorporating the OpenLab into their activities. We hope that these efforts will encourage deeper integration of the OpenLab into student life at City Tech.


OpenLab_Buzz-1024x725Figure 7. Student Community Team Blog “The Buzz.”


Understanding the OpenLab

We are deeply committed to the OpenLab as a democratic space where students, full-time and adjunct faculty, and staff are equally welcome and valued, a space that they own and which is shaped by their needs, that encourages openness, connection, and experimentation while respecting its members’ privacy and their right to share, hide, create, or delete their work as they see fit. We have found, however, that conveying this vision requires continued work. Although many members have been with us for months or even years, each semester brings new students and faculty to City Tech and new members to the OpenLab. This means that, just as we explain the site’s features and functionality to new members, we must also seek to convey the aims and ethos of the project. Some members regard the site as another Blackboard or Facebook and complain that its features are lacking in comparison. We explain that their missions could not be more different—that Blackboard is a learning management system primarily focused on courses whereas the OpenLab is a space that anyone at City Tech can use (and that the platforms can readily co-exist). In regards to Facebook, we might observe that our efforts to build a social network at City Tech are ultimately aimed at improving student outcomes, not monetizing their data.

Members can certainly use the OpenLab without knowing or perhaps even endorsing its underlying argument. Accustomed to working with closed, rigid, and proprietary products over which they have little control, many people are not likely to expect educational and social media software to be open, flexible, and dedicated to enhancing their agency. We have learned, though, that the lack of a shared understanding of the project can limit its potential. For instance, if faculty members do not know the pedagogic benefits of the OpenLab’s open and collaborative features, they are less likely to use them; students will be reluctant to provide feedback if they have no expectation that their concerns will be heard and acted on; adjunct faculty may not join an open interest group if it is unclear that it is truly open to all.

Finding effective ways to build this shared understanding, then, is critical to our outreach activities. We have created a brainstorming game that faculty members can use to generate assignments that employ the affordances of open platforms such as the OpenLab to support specific learning objectives. This game has been used for City Tech professional development, and we have run interactive sessions at conferences to further promote open digital pedagogical practices. We are continuing to enhance the OpenLab’s Help content, and we have established an Open Pedagogy Project as a place to discuss and share best practice examples of OpenLab usage—explicitly articulating the project’s goals and guiding principles in spaces such as this allows us to hone them and debate them with the OpenLab’s members, and challenges us all to live up to them.


Sharing the OpenLab: at City Tech and with you

Each new semester allows us to revisit, revise, and improve. Not only our development approach but our entire project process is iterative, so the next few years promise to be as eventful as the last. We will continue to evolve the OpenLab in response to member feedback. A generative platform generates ideas; members are constantly coming up with new ways to use the site. One recent and exciting request is to provide support for alumni mentoring of current students. Additionally, the student team has come up with important suggestions that could help build community on the site, such as highlighting members with similar interests and mutual friends. Finally, like any active development project, we have a laundry list of improvements, large and small, that would benefit the OpenLab’s members.

Key for the project’s relationship with the college is the idea that members can work with the OpenLab, not just on the OpenLab. In other words, an open platform, built by and for City Tech, offers opportunities for collaboration, participation, and co-creation that are unthinkable with closed, proprietary software solutions. For example, the OpenLab creates rich possibilities for curricular integration across a wide range of disciplines. We have already developed an internship program in partnership with our consulting developers and City Tech’s Advertising Design and Graphic Arts department that has given students real-world experience in documenting and enhancing the OpenLab. We can imagine other synergies: students in City Tech’s new professional and technical writing major could create Help content that would be read by thousands of people; classes in web development could create plugins for the OpenLab and thus for the BuddyPress and WordPress communities; students in education fields could analyze and learn from best practices they find on the site. Thus, in addition to reaching out to student organizations, we are also working with academic and administrative departments, other grant-funded projects, committees, and so on, to help them explore what the OpenLab can mean for their work.

Looking beyond City Tech, we are also committed to sharing both what we have built and what we have learned along the way in creating, using, supporting, and sustaining the OpenLab. We have begun that process here, and welcome questions and comments. We have identified discrete items of OpenLab functionality that can be packaged as software plugins for release within the scope of the current grant funding. Our plans for future development include contributions that will benefit the wider WordPress and BuddyPress communities. Most excitingly, we are seeking to partner with others to make the OpenLab’s key features—such as, for instance, our customizations of BuddyPress group functionality—freely available to all.

The OpenLab has joined other dynamic initiatives in offering members opportunities for opening education. With the strength of this experience behind us, we close with a challenge. Free and open source software is proven, robust, and sustainable. A community of practice freely shares recommendations and advice, and the OpenLab team benefits from and seeks to give back to this growing and generous group. Every day the OpenLab provides a living demonstration of what students, faculty, and staff can achieve with an open platform that is built for community. Members across the college have seized the opportunities that the OpenLab provides to create open and shared spaces, to experiment and innovate, and have provided innumerable examples of the benefits of using and contributing to an open platform. We ask readers, and visitors to the OpenLab, to imagine what the use of open digital tools can do to strengthen their communities. The tools to open education are already at hand.



The authors would like to thank all members of the OpenLab team, present and past, for their contributions to the project. We are grateful to the OpenLab’s many supporters at City Tech, including all our colleagues in the Living Lab initiative. Finally, our deepest thanks go to the OpenLab’s members—without whom, of course, the site would be an empty shell. The OpenLab is enabled by “A Living Laboratory: Revitalizing General Education for a 21st-Century College of Technology” (2010-2015), a $3.1 million project funded by the U. S. Department of Education under its Strengthening Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSI) Title V Program.


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[1]The OpenLab is the work of many hands, as will be evident here and the Credits page shows. The “we” used in this article thus seeks to represent not only the authors but the entire OpenLab team.

[2]The Living Lab includes three activities in addition to the creation of the OpenLab: conducting a faculty development seminar focused on using place-based learning and high-impact educational practices to infuse general education into courses; integrating the assessment of general education student learning outcomes across the curriculum; and building an endowment for the Brooklyn Waterfront Research Center. More information is available on the Living Lab project site.

[3]A valid City Tech email account is required to register with the site. Members retain access to their accounts during periods of inactivity and even after leaving City Tech; we believe members should have agency in controlling the content they have created on the site.

[4]Note that the Community Team concept is borrowed from the CUNY Academic Commons. We also benefit from the OpenLab’s other sibling installations in that our team members gained their experience by working with several of these initiatives. Additional support for students and ePortfolios is provided by the college’s Student Help Desk and ePortfolio teams.

[5] Boone Gorges, one of the lead developers of BuddyPress and a member of our team, has also made this observation (2012).


About the Authors

Charlie Edwards is Program Manager of the “Living Laboratory” initiative at NYC College of Technology, CUNY. After twenty years in commercial IT, she is now also a graduate student in the English PhD and Interactive Technology & Pedagogy Certificate programs at The Graduate Center, CUNY, with research interests in the Digital Humanities and Victorian popular fiction. She can be reached at

Jody Rosen is an Assistant Professor of English and OpenLab Co-Director at NYC College of Technology, CUNY. Her research focuses on communication-intensive instructional practices in the classroom and in professional development, as well as representations of gender and sexuality in early twentieth century Anglo-American literature. She can be reached at

Maura Smale is Associate Professor/Coordinator of Library Instruction and OpenLab Institutionalization Lead at NYC College of Technology, CUNY. Her research interests include undergraduate academic culture, game-based learning, open access publishing, and critical information literacy. She can be reached at

Jenna Spevack is Associate Professor of Creative Media and OpenLab Co-Director at NYC College of Technology, CUNY. As an artist, designer, and educator, her projects and practices explore how interactions with and connections to ecological systems support resilience in the shifting natural-social-political landscapes. She can be reached at

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