Issue Five

Table of Contents: Issue Five

Introduction: Media and Methods for Opening Education
Suzanne Tamang and Gregory T. Donovan

Special Feature: Questions of Authority: Academic Publishing, Anti-Art and Ownership
Elizabeth Bishop and Britney Harsh

Building a Place for Community: City Tech’s OpenLab
Charlie Edwards, Jody Rosen, Maura A. Smale, and Jenna Spevack

The InQ13 POOC: A Participatory Experiment in Open, Collaborative Teaching and Learning
Jessie Daniels and Matthew K. Gold, with members of the InQ13 Collective

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

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

Ioana Literat

Notes from Queer(ing) New York: Refusing Binaries in Online Pedagogy
Jen Jack Gieseking


Issue Five Masthead

Issue Editors
Gregory T. Donovan
Suzanne Tamang

Managing Editor
Anne Donlon

Stephen Brier
Carlos Hernandez
Kimon Keramidas
Benjamin Miller
Leila Walker

Notes from Queer(ing) New York: Refusing Binaries in Online Pedagogy

Jen Jack Gieseking
Bowdoin College



In this paper I reflect on the construction and instruction of the outcomes of the Queer(ing) New York course (QNY). The case study of QNY demonstrates the pedagogical work of refusing norms and hierarchies that pedagogical models, particularly online courses, are assumed to maintain. QNY created an open course that queered the binaries of the public/graduate seminar and local/virtual. I draw from queer, feminist, and critical geographic approaches at the moment of the massive, open, online course (MOOC) fervor in order to queer models of online and open education. I also reflect on the impact of the course through in-class notes and data visualizations produced from social media and course analytics. I suggest that queering open education is a pedagogical method that affords scholars ways to examine and refute binaries and, in turn, promote the democratization of knowledge.



In this paper I take up how the Queer(ing) New York (QNY) course queered false binaries that had yet to be taken up by the premises of online education, namely the divisions and overlaps between public/graduate seminar and local/virtual teaching. I draw from queer and critical geographic theories at the moment of “the year of the MOOC” (Pappano 2012). I reflect on data visualizations based on analyzing social media (Twitter) and course website analytics (Google Analytics) produced in the form of social network analysis, geographical statistics, and maps. These data were recorded during the class and in the six months following. For many of those class members that took part, including myself, the course meant a great deal personally and to the practice of democratizing education. This democratization forefronted the experiences and spaces of underrepresented lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans*, and queer (LGBTQ) populations whose histories are not taught in most schools before the college level. I suggest that queering open education is a pedagogical method that affords instructors and scholars ways to examine the false binaries that prevent the democratization of knowledge, both for LGBTQ communities and beyond.

The aim of the QNY course was to read the city through a queer lens by examining LGBTQ urban spaces at different scales, including neighborhoods, places such as bars or centers, streets, and the city itself. In over 40 countries on six continents, throughout May 2013 and, for some students, continuing for several months, over 280 students shared in conversations about the practice of queering New York City and how queerness was deployed and has shaped cities, neighborhoods, and places around the world. By making room for students to reply to scholarly articles with wide-ranging ideas of what LGBTQ spaces and places were and were not, deep differences emerged in their perspectives. Bringing together these often isolated narratives afforded ways to collectively produce more multiple, unstable, and, as such, queer understandings of LGBTQ life.

As a scholar of geographies of gender and sexuality, it had long been a dream of mine to teach a “Seminar in the City” (SITC) series course with the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies (CLAGS). The free, open, graduate-style seminars are offered by scholars, activists, and artists over the course of four meetings every semester in New York City. I was eager to take QNY to broader publics, both LGBTQ and beyond, but questions remained: how does one structure the traditionally small and exclusive graduate seminar course in a way that would allow for bringing queer theory and activism to the public? How could I build on a course model that meets only four times without any assignments or assessments? How could my own research and teaching help democratize education about queer New York while spanning digital dualisms of the local and virtual? Furthermore, we live in a time of mainstream obsessions with massive open online courses (MOOCs) as the future of higher education. How could I harness the positive work developing from MOOC-mania to bring this particular SITC model of education into an online environment?

These notes from QNY demonstrate the need for pedagogical work in refusing norms and hierarchies that pedagogical models, especially highly popularized MOOCs, aim to maintain. As education scholar Bonnie Stewart (2013c) argues in her article “Moving Beyond a Binary View of MOOCs”:

Dialogue around change in higher education increasingly centres on the illusion of a simple divide: the business model of disruption vs. the status quo of college, idealized. … We need new narratives that stretch beyond the binary of privatization vs. the public status quo.

In other words, Stewart argues that top-down, one-size-fits-all solutions of neoliberal capitalism present themselves as simple, but require confrontation through intense unpacking and critique. QNY, I decided, would unpack and critique the assumptions implicit in MOOCs.

As the course was shaped by its moment in time and my own methodological, theoretical, and pedagogical frameworks, its aim became abundantly clear: to explore difference through the lens of the city. The course description read as follows:

While LGBTQ studies has begun to extend itself to look at rural and other non-urban environments, much of the urban still remains to be accounted for, particularly difference within the city. To truly account for our difference, we must queer the city in the way it normalizes groups and spaces, and New York City is an exciting urban environment to begin within. In Queer(ing) New York, we will read work that challenges and queers the normalized histories and spaces of LGBTQ life. How can we queer the neighborhood, bar, streets, and bodies within it to tell stories of difference? Participation in the seminar is free and open to the public. No prior experience in theoretical readings or site analysis is needed; an open, imaginative, and inquisitive mind is mandatory. All readings will be provided.

With a plethora of discussion questions, readings, and interactive technology at the ready, as well as a robust syllabus, we—by which I mean the students, CLAGS staff, and I—began the largest SITC.

During the month of May 2013 over four class meetings, Queer(ing) New York came to life. The course played out as follows: it was live-streamed and recorded on video, live-tweeted, and live-chatted; furthermore, it provided discussion spaces to carry on conversations after class. I took my own notes during class. Readings were distributed to enrolled students via a private link to a shared folder. As the course progressed, I embedded each video on the website and continued to draft posts I made in advance of each class, to post in-class discussions, and also to write the follow-up posts, which included the live-chat feed from the videos and a few student comments.[1]


Designing the Course

When I was designing and teaching Queer(ing) New York, the CLAGS “Seminar in the City” course model stood out in many ways as distinct from the prevalent MOOC model. Since 1999, the CLAGS SITC courses have provided free and open programming to the public about LGBTQ issues, concerns, and communities, and holds an institutional home and affiliation with The Graduate Center of the City University of New York. The seminar is a part of a broader organization, the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies.[2] In this section, I explore how I drew upon the queer, feminist, and critical geographic thinking to democratize online education through the method of queering some of the false binaries prevalent in the year of the MOOC. I also build from past Seminar in the City courses and my own research, as well as my experiences having led a participatory, open online course (POOC).


A Queer Response to the “Year of the MOOC”

The context and historical moment of the course were key. At the same time I was developing and leading my course, fervor over the MOOC model began to peak. In late 2012, The New York Times ran a series of articles entitled “The Year of the MOOC ” which ran, loosely, from the fall of 2012 through 2013. By early 2013, economist Thomas Friedman declared that MOOCs had revolutionary capacities to transform universities and, most importantly, to make universities less costly by eliminating some of the labor of teaching. Friedman (2013) went on to suggest that what was necessary for an education “revolution” was affordable and easy:

For relatively little money, the U.S. could rent space in an Egyptian village, install two dozen computers and high-speed satellite Internet access, hire a local teacher as a facilitator, and invite in any Egyptian who wanted to take online courses with the best professors in the world, subtitled in Arabic.

The merits for the masses are clear but the quality of the education remains in question. At the same time, administrators and policy makers determine most of the “proof” of the success of this form of education by rates of completion. The focus on educating for all is an important goal, but obsessions over the low rates of completion do nothing to support actual learning (Stewart 2013b). Furthermore, Meisenhelder (2013) has demonstrated that much of the MOOC fervor, which often touted MOOC courses that adhered to Friedman’s versioning, was instead “hype” because they failed to deliver innovative or interactive pedagogy, and still tended to privileged audiences.

At that time I was employed as Visiting Assistant Research Professor with and project manager to JustPublics@365 at the CUNY Graduate Center, a project to create new forms of knowledge using digital media in order to connect academics, journalists, and activists across traditional silos of knowledge production and social action, and foster transformation on issues of social justice. The project took a critical and radical stance to MOOCs. In brief, we sought to shift the one-to-many model from “massive” to “participatory” by launching our own graduate seminar which was a participatory, open, online course (POOC) (see Daniels et al. 2014). We hoped the POOC course would support the production of participatory action research projects that involved work between students and community partners to create social change, as well as securing certificates of completion for those who completed the required coursework. It is my reading that the positionality and pedagogical frameworks of different institutions and educators is overlooked in the MOOC phenomenon, and I will address this in my analysis.

The SITC model required rethinking online education yet again. The courses aim to reach a broad public audience across education levels; research, activist, or art projects are possible but not expected. There are rarely assignments, and no grades or credit are given. Rather than a full semester course, the classes are offered in four class meetings at the CUNY Graduate Center in Midtown Manhattan. Readings are dispersed for free in advance. Just as queer education theorist William Haver writes that “queer theory is queer precisely in its incompletion” (1998, 352), there is no formal SITC model but rather an accumulated pedagogical model. Queer incompletion, like other critical pedagogies, leaves room for development and growth that cannot be planned or affixed in advance.


Theoretical Framework

The course grew from my own research on lesbians’ and queer women’s shifting experiences of social and spatial justice in contemporary New York City. I saw Queer(ing) New York as an opportunity to bring the ideas of those I read and experiences of those I performed research with to a broader public. To do this, I had to take a step back and be informed by queer, feminist, and critical geographic theoretical perspectives in designing QNY. It is this work that helped me rethink the “massive” and “participatory” angles of the MOOC and POOC that were feeding my own version and moment of the SITC course. These theories were essential in illuminating the false binaries perpetuated by MOOC proponents and traditional pedagogies.

Queer theory affords ways of understanding practices, processes, and ways of being that refuse the normative. The work of queering allows for difference, questions the powers behind the purported “normal,” and situates pleasure and politics side-by-side. Similarly, there is a feminist perspective that suggests we need not to move “beyond” difference when “difference itself can often provide the focal point for action” (M. W. Wright 2006, 101). Still, queer theory, feminist theory, and queer and feminist identities are not interchangeable, and sometimes even dis-related. As critical geographer of sexualities Kath Browne writes, queer is not simply an “identity category, but…a fluid set of possibilities and contestations” which remains in the tension of never being “grasped, owned or appropriated” (2006, 888). Feminist and queer appropriations of space and education then share a refusal of norms that fix inequalities to spaces and places, students and teachers, curriculum and pedagogy precisely because they recognize the place of always being in process. Similar to but unlike other critical pedagogies, feminist and queer perspectives on education relate to and develop from issues of gender and sexuality. Both theories also develop from and speak to issues of gender and sexuality, identical to the focus of QNY. I was equally keen not to divorce desire from politics. I sought to make room for discussion around gender, and sexuality in as much as sexual acts in our conversations. It is in seeing and sharing the multiple layers of our complicated lives that we reveal the imbricated nature not only around gender and sexuality, but also race, class, ability, and other identities, as well as various geographies and moments in time.

Critical geography is another layer to my own research and teaching; it aims to develop theories, methodologies, and research that combat social exploitation and oppression while building upon major and minor economic, political, and social theories. Critical geography develops from the theoretical framework that space is produced through social practices (Lefebvre 1992). As such space is not a fixed container, but constantly (re)produced in how it is perceived, conceived, and lived (cf. Harvey 2009). My queer-feminist framework uses the standpoint of experience to unpack not only normative values but limiting and unjust spatial models as well. The QNY course departed from the notions that identities are inscribed in space, and space is a constructed and contested medium of identity formation played out within individual, social, and structural power relations that must not only be addressed through discourse but also through action (cf. McDowell 1992; Bell et al. 1994; Ruddick 1996; Cahill 2006).

The MOOC, POOC, and SITC models incited my interest in a broader pedagogy beyond the local, and along with these theories, crystalized the direction of Queer(ing) New York. The course sought to make space to recognize difference as a process of making space for self and others, a process that is never finished or all-encompassing but always on-going and partial. What remained was putting these ideas into action and unpacking the false binaries I faced.


Theory and Seminar in the City Pedagogy Meet in MOOC-ish Action

Digging into contradictions—often visible in the untidy false binaries that repeatedly arise in our lives—can afford a way forward previously unimaginable. In my own pedagogy, the “massive” aspirations of trending online courses clashed with the aims of the SITC. The SITC model held the aims of public pedagogy in tension with a graduate seminar format, but with a limited reach. While an organization with international reputation, CLAGS’s events are almost solely within NYC and attended by NYC individuals. I wanted to expand the work of CLAGS and the SITC model beyond the local, even while focusing on local NYC history and issues. The virtual element of online pedagogy offered other possibilities. While scholars have refuted notions of digital dualism—that online and in-person experiences are not distinct but imbricated and co-constitutive—the pedagogical dimensions of learning in both spaces at once have been underexplored. When thinking about such publics through the lens of online pedagogy, I was led back to Michelle Moravec’s (2014) longing for “either a synchronous online course or a physical space for collaboration.” QNY would provide both as well as discussion forms to support other time zones, interest levels, and patterns of everyday life.

It is only through both quantitative and qualitative reflections that insights into the strengths and weaknesses of the QNY model can be reached; they afford lenses into the large and very minute effects of the class. I now take up how QNY unfolded by blending my design of the course, my notes from classes, and data visualizations made about the social media and online metrics from the course. I focus on the two binaries that stood out to me as producing inequalities if not tended to carefully: public education/graduate seminar, and local/virtual.


Public Education in a Graduate Seminar Format

The students were my co-experts on the materiality of LGBTQ spaces and places, as most of them live in such spaces and places everyday. How could I choose readings that allowed them to speak from their diverse experiences and amplify their expertise? Who could read so many pages per week and attend all classes with a full-time job or maybe two, or on top of a full graduate program, for example? Should I provide any sort of certificate of completion to support the needs of those working against traditional models of education while still working against linking learning with assessment in the SITC model? I address the public / graduate seminar binary not only through the readings and my notes from the class, but also through the networks developed from this course as evidence of publics formed from and beyond the classroom.

While the SITC model targets education for broader audiences in a graduate seminar format, theoretically fueled conversations at the graduate level can exclude the uninitiated. The liberal model of public space advocated by Jürgen Habermas (1991) in the public sphere, when fully democratized, guarantees equal access for all. In a related example, Michelle Fine and Jessica Ruglis look at how the public sphere is taken hostage by those with money and power as public education becomes privatized and dispossesses young people of color of their agency and freedom. They write, “The public sphere is being fundamentally realigned, but not significantly hollowed—which is what makes this too seem natural” (2009, 21). The actuality of the public sphere then often results in the exclusion of those different from the group that holds power.

Instead, I embrace geographer Kurt Iveson’s (2007) work which argues for a multi-public model of public space that does not establish a singular notion of public, but accommodates a variety of subcultures and groups in spaces that embrace difference. I made room for variation in levels and types of readings and provided a structure for conversation that spoke to both theoretical and applied outcomes. As such the class aimed to draw upon open and online education to recognize difference through a practice of queering and holding binaries in tension.

The multi-public model of the course revealed itself in various ways. In my notes in our class on LGBTQ neighborhoods, I recorded how students carefully played with notions of “attachment” and “belonging” that did not work the same for all LGBTQ people. Cross-generational perspectives were incredibly eye-opening, allowing students to trace stories of gentrification, inequality, and homophobia that had only shifted location rather than abated. One gay man recounted how the now-fashionable Meatpacking District contained multiple leather bars in the 1960s and 1970s; the making invisible of what would seem like tantalizing history now to mainstream media surprised younger people, and students remarked that this reminded us of the pasts we needed to uncover. Later on, a student brought up how she could no longer have friends in other parts of the city because, since she lived so far from the city center, her networks had become regionalized. This fragmentation of queer life by gentrification and dispossession resonated with findings from my own work (Gieseking 2013a; 2013b), and inspired other students to think about how community is denied LGBTQ people through structural inequalities.

The precariously unsteady and usually underpaid nature of public education also played a role in the course. After and before taxes, respectively, I was paid $84.91 / $100 for teaching QNY. Given CLAGS’s limited budget, I was not aware until I received the check that I would be paid at all. What this course has not paid in dollars it has paid in understanding of self and other, connection, community, and hope. Furthermore, this course has connected my work to a broad queer public that I could not have reached otherwise, both academic and beyond. For this I am grateful, yet I remain mindful that economic remuneration is necessary for any of these projects to support equality.

The students in the class were white, and we spent a great deal of time—often at my urging or the urging of a few students—paying attention to the privilege of whiteness and being middle class. Perhaps our most difficult issue that clarified racial, gender, sexual, and class breakdowns was the use of “we.” Who was this purportedly LGBTQ shared “we”? One student identified as straight on the first class so that we were not even all LGBT and/or Q. Frustrated at even my own use of the word, I remarked in the first class, “Let’s queer the ‘we.’” When we faltered and used the term, conservations developed that we assumed a sense of home with one another. It also came up repeatedly that the isolation from other LGBTQ people and spaces we may have experienced in our lived inspired a desire for an almost mythical community we could not seem to find; I also saw this pattern in my own research on lesbian-queer spaces in contemporary New York City (Gieseking 2013b). We were pulled between the virtual imaginary and the local realities that left us in tension.

Much of this conversation was possible because of the readings for the course. The social science graduate seminar format I based QNY upon involves the close reading of selected texts. Critical feminist geographer Cindi Katz calls for making use not only of the “big boys” or “major theory,” but also to accept theory-making from the ground up as “minor theory” (1996, 166). I read Katz’s call as applicable to teaching with broader publics. As is the case in LGBTQ studies, theory is often prioritized. I chose instead to not include “big” queer theorists such as Judith Butler, Michel Foucault, or Jasbir Puar in order to forefront experience as equal to theory. Selecting anti-disciplinary readings when possible refuted the invisibility of LGBTQ concerns by showing how imbricated LGBTQ life was with all methods of study. These readings carefully worked across diverse identities (race, class, gender, and sexuality); a range of experiences (homelessness, cruising, AIDS activisms, and gentrification); and varied periods of time (1890s­-present), and spaces and places such the City of New York itself, a specific bar, and neighborhoods ranging from the gentrified and chic West Village in Manhattan to the predominantly working class neighborhood of color Jackson Heights.

Graduate seminars are often devoted to discussing around 80 to 120 pages of journal articles and academic book chapters per weekly two hour meeting. I cut the number of readings to around 40-60 pages per week split between two to four readings, as the two hours of class still required enough material to support thoughtful conversation. Further, rather than present only the selected works, I wanted students to be able to find readings that interested them. They also repeatedly sent emails and raised points I felt could be best dealt with through access to further materials. I thus selected a total of over 333 further recommended readings which I listed in a Zotero list and on the site. Students were ecstatic each class to see more and more readings appear, eager to access work and ideas about LGBTQ people and spaces that many had only dreamed existed.

Continuing the SITC model to delink learning with assessment, I did not require any assignments. The MOOC model amplified the link between learning and assessment (Stewart 2013b). However, I decided to allow those who wanted such a certificate to reach out to me regarding a final paper topic and ask their own university for credit in exchange. While I did not want to push assessment, I also wanted to leave room for those students who could use credit toward a degree although no students chose to do so.


Social Media and Space

In this section I turn away from the structure of the course and the classroom and focus instead on the social media from the course in order to understand how the course developed as a network of learners. Investigating the role of networks in online education, efforts toward highlighting and supporting isolated individuals have proved successful (Reffay and Chanier 2003), and I hoped creating publicly accessible networks could do the same. The Twitter hashtag #CLAGSqNY allowed for those able and unable to tune in as the class took place/aired to keep the conversation going, and I used Twitter to continue conversations in other courses (N. Wright 2010).[3] I rendered a social network analysis to understand how this space propagated connections rather than exclusion.

giesking1Figure 1. Social Network Analysis of #CLAGSqNY Hashtags on Twitter in May 2013.


In Figure 1, each dot or node is a person or group tweeting. Each line or edge indicates they mentioned or were mentioned by someone else connected to them. A total of 502 tweets were collected using the TAGS Explorer v5 macro (see Hawksey 2013). I then used a Python script to distill handles and mentions in a .csv file of 84 nodes and 151 edges before importing into Gephi, an open source data visualization software for social network analysis (see Cristiano 2013). I activated the functionality to show who were the hubs of conversation that most folks talked through, i.e. betweenness centrality which indicates how often a node appears on shortest paths between a network which indicates level of influence. Those tweeting had three degrees of separation. The colors of the different groups are based on modularity which reveals sub-groups who tended to speak to one another.

The patterns in these tweets point to three major hubs of communication that formed on Twitter, namely @CLAGSNY (Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies, in-person in NYC), @jgieseking (me, in NYC), @meganbigelow (Megan Bigelow, in-person in NYC), as well as other nodes in NYC and abroad. We also see four nodes off to their supposed lonesome to the left, yet each of these individuals took part in the in-person course. The few larger nodes tell us that communication on Twitter often took place between a few people. The large number of individuals with only one line to and from another indicate that these individuals only spoke to one person or made an announcement mentioning another person. Those individuals with more than one line show multiple networks developing between, at least, this group of students. While Stewart (2013a) suggests that a massive network is one of the key offerings and outcomes of online pedagogy, QNY shows how marginalized groups forge connections in smaller numbers as well, often without the benefit of funds to support such ventures as is the case of my pay for teaching QNY. I suggest that the communication via Twitter, as well as other formats, and the connection built through discussions of course readings, evidence a production of a public course in a graduate seminar format that helps democratize education.


The Local and the Virtual

Geographic scale (e.g., body, home, local, national, global) is socially produced in the power dynamics, social and political relations, and economic structures by the everyday ways we operate (Smith 1992; Marston 2000). More recently, critical geographer Geraldine Pratt and literary theorist Victoria Rosner (2012) have reimagined scale through a feminist lens to show how scales are permeated with one another. The authors trouble the seeming masculine/feminist binary of global/local by calling for examination of “the global and the intimate” to reveal the ways geographic scales infuse one another in the people’s experience and action (Pratt and Rosner 2013, 1). In their framework, intimate relations are simultaneously global and local, just as the global is experienced in and through the intimate and all the scales in between.

Balancing the global and intimate informed my thinking about how to bring an SITC course to the larger public through the Internet. Namely, how could I bring the local and the virtual in conversation with one another to extend Queer(ing) New York to people beyond New York City? A course on New Yorkers by New Yorkers repeated the exclusion and navel-gazing tendency of large gay cities, and my aim with this course was to amplify difference for greater understanding. Furthermore, while my course focused on New York City and enrolled undergraduate and graduate students from NYC schools, I also wanted to reach many people who may not be in school. Given CLAGS’s limited budget to advertise and the very specific focus of many of the courses, enrollment, defined as a student expressing an interest to take part in the class and attending at least one class meeting, typically ranged from about 5 to 10 students. How could this model be expanded using only my budget of zero dollars and the volunteer labor of the CLAGS staff?

Digital video, social media, and web sites afforded me the chance to bring this course to life in, about, and (technically) out of place. Public enrollment via EventBrite allowed students to register per class for in-person or online enrollment. I had hoped for 25 students in the classroom, as previous Seminar in the City courses had drawn 5 to 10 students. I found myself opening up more and more seats until I eventually locked down the number at 55 in-person enrollees, fretting about whether we even would have enough floor space. Over another 225 people had enrolled from places across the world to tune in online. The CUNY Graduate Center provided free and open livestream capabilities. I designed a website on my own server that included the syllabus, a feed of the #CLAGSqNY hashtag, a link to a course Facebook page, links to readings, the course blog—which invited anyone to comment or join as a blogger—and information about the instructor and sponsors for the course. I also announced the course in LGBTQ academic and activist networks via online listservs.

At the same time, I framed the weekly classes across various scales of the City of New York—neighborhood, bars, streets, and the city itself—to show how the processes and practices of injustice and resistance work across levels. Across scales, these local and virtual spaces afforded students a shared geographical imagination to repeatedly link issues in New York City to the other places they resided in or had visited. About halfway through our first class, students went around the room and pushed each other to rethink the experience of the popular West Village neighborhood through the vantage of different identities (e.g. being black and trans, a little person, overeducated, age 64). Geographies also mattered, as a couple that just moved from Wyoming spoke about their excitement arriving in NYC. Around the room we continued to go for a good fifteen minutes. Finally I stated (per Marie Hicks in her @histoftech account): “The thing we all have in common is difference.” By focusing on what Haver referred to earlier as queer incompletion, the students could allow for difference and specificity to flourish side-by-side. As I repeatedly pointed out to students, even the course title Queer(ing) New York expressed making room for queer practices and identities in the room and online. The title and course structure left room to both be and do queer within a place and about a place.

The commitment to bridging the local and virtual involved a lot of labor that the class took note of and even cheered on. As I did for the heavy labor involved in the POOC, I had collaborators in this labor to make this local and virtual classroom possible. On their own time, CLAGS staff members designed and hung course flyers and pushed out announcements of their course to their mailing lists. I also announced the course on various mailing lists. At least one staff member agreed to be in class at all times in order to live tweet and handle questions from online participants while making sure the live-stream continued to run. The staff also booked the live-streaming and handled room reservations. Without the hard work of CLAGS staffers, the course would have been impossible. I also reached out to a number of CUNY Graduate Center organizations and programs to sponsor the course in order to spread the word further.[4] As I mentioned early on, my own positionality within the university as a Visiting Assistant Research Professor and my long-term relationships within the institution were essential. Very few graduate students are permitted to teach SITC courses, and without my deep knowledge of the technological offerings within the university, the online component would have been impossible. Further, the kind of multi-interest sponsorship grew from my own networks. Turning this power and knowledge into a participatory endeavor and embracing the work collaboratively gave me more energy and increased the recognition of the course throughout campus and beyond.

In the remainder of this section, I share the Google Analytics data on the QNY course site to reflect on who showed up online. Educational scholars Simon Shum and Ruth Crick (2012) made use of identical datasets to study what they refer to as learning analytics, or evidence of who and how people engage with online learning environments. While such data are never wholly accurate and do not fully depict who took the course or watched the videos, the large enough sample provides some insights as to who viewed the site and how geographies were connected through the course. It is invigorating and poignant to see who was taking part, where, and for how long because it is these elements that spoke the most to the participatory nature of the course web site.

As of October 28th, 2013, exactly six months after launching the QNY course website, it had 1,308 unique visitors, and a total of 2,331. This means that 43.9% of those interested in the site came back more than once. Studies have shown that users stay on a webpage for about 10-20 seconds (Nielsen 2011), yet QNY course site users spent about 3:56 per visit, indicating that they perused the site and its materials with uncommon attention.


clagsqny-figure-2-1024x645 Figure 2. Number of Sessions per Country on the QNY website (Google Analytics).


There is a striking reveal provided by the local/virtual binary in the purported location of IP addresses that pinged my server. The countries with the supposed top ten IP addresses (United States, Canada, Germany, UK, Brazil, Sweden, Austrailia, Netherlands, Italy, and Turkey) indicate that the course tended to reach those in more pro-LGBTQ regions, but also crossed boundaries into less welcoming nation-states. Regardless of their exact locations, focusing on a seemingly local place while connecting across the Internet also brought other people to the city and gave them access to it as well (see Figure 2 for a map of the number of sessions per location). More revealing is the data regarding language usage. While just under 93% of all visitors came from browsers set to the English language, other top languages included Portuguese, German, French, Swedish, and Spanish. This language data suggests that the course crossed linguistic boundaries as well as physical ones.


Figure3_GiesekingFigure 3. Percentages of Unique QNY Site Users by State and District of Columbia (Google Analytics). Note that some states did not appear in the Analytics.


Again, while IP addresses can be less than revealing, within the United States a total of 42 states are represented, and the breakdowns were equally interesting (see Figure 3). Given the course’s focus on New York City, it is unsurprising that nearly two-thirds (60.3%) of the users came from IP addresses supposedly in New York State. Given which states ban same-sex marriage as of October 31st, 2013, which I take as an indicator of state attitudes toward gays at the policy and social level, I found that 15.8% of all new visitors were from these states. If we go a step further and remove the State of New York, there is no statistically significant difference between those who viewed from states with (23.9%) or against (15.8%) same-sex marriage laws. From global maps and usage statistics to intimate in-class experiences, QNY asserts itself as a multi-scalar intervention to bring together the seemingly disparate local and virtual.


Discussion & Conclusion: Of Tall Ships and Queering Online Education

In completing this record of QNY, I also record its incompletion. The course is, in many ways, still on-going and remains partial. Not only is the course site still live, but the students continued to organize offline after the final class. In the fall of 2013, two of my students created a course reunion in the form of a queer sailing trip on a tall ship around Manhattan. We told stories of LGBTQ people on waterfronts as the sun sank. Other students put together two parties in their own homes, inviting all of the class members to both. While the Google Group they asked me to create has seen no activity, a number of students mention they are just happy to have it around and know the connection to the ideas and people that made this class possible exists. Many SITC courses include a field trip, whether it be a moment of activism, an academic walking tour, or a performance. In June of 2013, over a dozen students and I gathered to walk from the Christopher Street Piers, through the West Village, into the artist housing at Westbeth, and then on to a long brunch and conversation. The queer, feminist, and critical geographic approach we took in the classroom came to life on our walk as a mishmash of academic ideas, historic anecdotes, and personal memories, and social media and posts to the website about the class’s jaunts kept us connected to our online peers.

As I wrote this paper six months after the QNY seminar’s conclusion, I received an email from one of the students, “N.” I never met N. in person. He emailed once during the seminar to say how much he was enjoying it and again, after the course, out of the blue. He wanted to let me know his Master’s thesis on social design would now draw upon queer theory and LGBTQ studies to examine the role of LGBTQ people in the increasing gentrification of an East Coast city as a result of taking my course. More emails like N.’s have since showed up in my inbox, and they are one example of how queering open education starts ripples of change that help democratize education and refuse the privatization of the public sphere. We do that work by queering the false binaries that prevent from working across difference in many ways.

My effort to teach readings from across disciplines with diverse methods, populations, and arguments afforded entry points to ideas that related to individual lives and pushed those ideas across scales and levels of power. This thinking across scales is evidenced in both the global and intimate stories revealed by data visualizations and in-class notes. Further, Queer(ing) New York in the classroom made way for queering New York in person. By queering binaries of public course/graduate seminar and local/virtual, my pedagogy and scholarship have expanded and been questioned.[5] The CLAGS SITC model spoke to concerns I had about refusing hierarchical norms in education, particularly those reasserted in mainstream MOOCs. At the same time, the SITC framework encouraged drawing upon best practices from different types of teach, including those in the POOC, which allowed for maintaining a queer attachment to uncertainty.

Much of our work together also led to imagining and enacting other worlds, such as queer sailing adventures and walking tours. As educational theorist Maxine Greene writes, “To imagine is to think of things being otherwise” (2009, 30). A telling example of our using our difference—and shared difference and outsiderness at that—to imagine other worlds came when discussing Dan Savage’s “It Gets Better” campaign in class. Some found the idea hopeful, but most found the message empty because the suffering and bullying of LGBTQ youth is not responded to but tidied over, i.e. it will get better . . . someday. A response I shared and students retweeted and mentioned often embraced the philosophy of the course: “It gets different, not better.” My students, CLAGS colleagues, and I sought to imagine other ways of connecting and transforming through pedagogy for and about queer people, place, and experience.



I am thankful to my reviewers, and to the editors of this issue who brought this important topic into conversation. I am forever grateful to the staff of CLAGS, Kalle Westerling, Benjamin Gillespee, and Jasmina Sinanovic, and to the CLAGS Director, Jim Wilson. Without you, QNY would have never happened. Working together allowed this course to grow and reach so many, and I remain thankful for your brilliance, support, and kindness. I am also and most thankful to my students. Without you, there is nothing to queer and nothing worth queering.



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[1] No counts are available of the number of views of the course videos via the livestreaming software.

[2] Per the website, CLAGS is “a platform for intellectual leadership in addressing issues that affect lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) individuals and other sexual and gender minorities.”

[3] A full archive of the #CLAGSqNY hashtag is available here.

[4] The course was co-sponsored by the Center for the Study of Women and Society, The Center for Place, Culture, & Politics, and the Environmental Psychology Program.

[5] Earlier on in my academic career, I began to create the Gender, Sexuality, and Space Bibliography which I share publicly now via Zotero; many students commented what an exciting resource this was for them and I have continued to expand it as a result.



About the Author

Jen Jack Gieseking is a cultural geographer and environmental psychologist engaged in research on co-productions of space and identity in digital and material environments, with a focus on sexual and gender identities. S/he pays special attention to how such productions support or inhibit social, spatial, and economic justice. Jack is working on her first book, Queer New York: Constellating Lesbians’ and Queer Women’s Geographies of New York City, 1983-2008. Jack is Postdoctoral Fellow in New Media & Data Visualization in the Digital and Computational Studies Initiative at Bowdoin College. S/he is co-editor of  The People, Place, and Space Reader, with William Mangold, Cindi Katz, Setha Low, and Susan Saegert. Jack can be found via her website or Twitter at @jgieseking.


The InQ13 POOC: A Participatory Experiment in Open, Collaborative Teaching and Learning

Jessie Daniels, Hunter College, CUNY School of Public Health, and the Graduate Center, CUNY

Matthew K. Gold, City Tech and the Graduate Center, CUNY

with Stephanie M. Anderson, John Boy, Caitlin Cahill, Jen Jack Gieseking, Karen Gregory, Kristen Hackett, Fiona Lee, Wendy Luttrell, Amanda Matles, Edwin Mayorga, Wilneida Negrón, Shawn(ta) Smith, Polly Thistlethwaite, Zora Tucker



This article offers a broad analysis of a POOC (“Participatory Open Online Course”) offered through the Graduate Center, CUNY in 2013. The large collaborative team of instructors, librarians, educational technologists, videographers, students, and project leaders reflects on the goals, aims, successes, and challenges of the experimental learning project. The graduate course, which sought to explore issues of participatory research, inequality and engaged uses of digital technology with and through the New York City neighborhood of East Harlem, set forth a unique model of connected learning that stands in contrast to the popular MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) model.




In the spring semester of 2013, a collective of approximately twenty members of the Graduate Center of the City University of New York created a participatory, open, online course, or “POOC,” titled “Reassessing Inequality and Re-Imagining the 21st-Century: East Harlem Focus” or InQ13. The course was offered for credit as a graduate seminar through the Graduate Center and was open to anyone who wanted to take it through the online platform. Appearing at a moment when hundreds of thousands of students were enrolling for Massively Open Online Courses (or MOOCs) offered through platforms such as Coursera, Udacity, and EdX, InQ13 was notable as an attempt to openly share the usually cloistered experience of a graduate seminar (typically comprised of 10–12 students and an instructor) with a wider, public audience. Exploring various aspects of inequality in housing and education, the course emphasized community-based research in a dynamic New York neighborhood through a range of “knowledge streams” and interactive modalities.

Developing, designing, launching, and running the POOC was an enormous undertaking on every level. In this article, we provide a conceptual framework for a “participatory” open course and share thoughts about the challenges inherent in translating the ordinarily private world of the graduate seminar into a shared, public, online experience. This article provides an overview of the background, structure, and theoretical underpinnings of the course; a discussion of its connection to East Harlem as the site of inquiry and learning; and a brief exploration of how we might begin to assess the impact of such an experiment. Befitting a course that brought together a widely diverse range of perspectives, the article features a multivocal reflection by many of its participants, including faculty, students, project managers, librarians, web developers, educational technologists, videographers, and community members. This experiment in participatory learning is further contextualized by a podcast related to our course.


The Context of the POOC

In order to understand the development of InQ13, which launched in early 2013, it is important to appreciate the particular historical and political moment in which the course emerged. The term “MOOC” —an acronym for Massively Open Online Course—was coined by educational technologists Dave Cormier and George Siemens in 2008 to describe an innovative, and inherently participatory, open, online course (Cormier and Siemens, 2010). In the fall of 2011, Stanford University opened some of its computer science courses to the world through an online platform and found hundreds of thousands of students enrolling. At about the same time, venture capitalists began pouring millions of dollars into businesses such as Coursera hoping to find a revenue model in MOOCs (The Economist, 2013). As a result, MOOCs moved from niche discussions among educational technologists to coverage in The New York Times, which proclaimed 2012 “the year of the MOOC” (Pappano, 2012). When we began development of InQ13, there was no shortage of hyperbole about MOOCs. In perhaps the most egregious example of this hype, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman extolled the revolutionary possibilities of MOOCs, saying, “Nothing has more potential to enable us to reimagine higher education than the massive open online course, or MOOC” (Friedman, 2013). As a number of scholars have pointed out, such claims about the revolutionary potential of MOOCs are not unique in the landscape of higher education but instead harken back to similar, even identical, claims to those made about educational television in the middle of the twentieth century (Picciano, 2014; Stewart, 2013). Still, we were intrigued by the potential of digital technologies for opening education.

Premised on extending the experience of traditional university courses to massive audiences, MOOCs have provoked an array of responses. Commentators who believe that higher education is in need of reform argue MOOCs offer a productively disruptive force to hidebound educational practices (Shirky, 2014). According to such arguments, the educational experiences offered at elite institutions can now be made available to students across the world, for free, thus making higher education possible for students who would not otherwise be able to afford it. Some critics of MOOCs often view them in the context of a higher education system that is being defunded, worrying that higher education administrators see, in MOOCs, possibilities for both revenue generation through increased enrollments and cost-cutting through reduced full-time faculty hires (Hall, 2013).

To date, most MOOCs have consisted of video lectures, sometimes accompanied by discussion forums and automated quizzes. Students are expected to absorb and repeat information delivered via video in ways that seem consonant with what Paulo Freire described as the banking model of education, where students are imagined as empty vessels into which the instructor deposits knowledge (Freire, 1993). Within the mostly one-way communication structure of the truly massive MOOCs, the interaction between faculty members and students is necessarily constrained due to the scale. While some MOOCs attempt to foster interaction between the professor and his (or her)[1] students, this has not met with much success (Bruffet et al., 2013, 187). There is little in the corporate MOOC model to recommend it as a vehicle for a graduate seminar, in which intimacy and sustained discussion, rather than massiveness and openness, are most prized. We coined the neologism of “POOC” —a participatory, open online course—to better capture the meaningful participation and co-production of knowledge that we hoped to achieve. Our participatory approach was layered and nested, bringing together two interlocking components: 1) direct engagement with specific readings, people, neighborhoods, and technologies (Cushman, 1999; Daniels, 2012; Gold, 2012; Rodriguez, 1996; Scanlon, 1993); and 2) collaborative rather than individually-oriented community-based research projects.


Studying Inequality

The course focus on inequality grew out of discussions among faculty at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York (CUNY) about how to bring together research about inequality across disciplinary boundaries and extend those conversations beyond the walls of the institution in ways that mattered within communities.[2] There was wide agreement that any effort should find a way to engage with the vibrancy of New York City and its history of struggle for social and economic justice, and thus reflect CUNY’s public educational mission to “educate the children of the whole people.” Among the questions we hoped the course would explore were: What does inequality look like in 2013? How might we imagine our future differently if we did so collectively, across a variety of disciplines and in conjunction with community-based partners?  And, given our particular historical moment, how might the affordances of digital technologies augment the way we both research inequality and resist its corrosive effects?


The Neighborhood of East Harlem

East Harlem is a neighborhood that has simultaneously fostered a vibrant, multi-ethnic tradition of citizen activism and borne the brunt of urban policies that generate inequality. Several of the people in the InQ13 collective had ties to East Harlem as residents, researchers, community activists and workers, so we began to discuss the possibility of locating the course there. In addition, CUNY had recently located a new campus in this neighborhood with the explicit goal of developing academic-community partnerships. These factors taken together—the unique history and present of East Harlem, the connection to the neighborhood from those in the InQ13 collective, and the new CUNY campus—provided a compelling case for situating the course in East Harlem. Thus, the original questions that framed the course were joined by another set of questions: Could a course such as this one “open” the new CUNY campus to the East Harlem community in innovative ways? Given the troubled relationship of university campuses to urban neighborhoods, could we forge different kinds of relationships? And, were there ways that the digital technologies used in the course could offer a platform that would be useful to community activists engaged in the struggle against the forces of inequality in East Harlem?

Given the limited amount of time the collective had to prepare the course and the complexity of staging the POOC, the process of forming in-depth engagements with community partners did not progress as far as we had initially hoped it would which will be further discussed (see Mayorga in “Perspectives” section). That said, the course served as a useful opening for future, ongoing efforts involving the East Harlem community at the uptown CUNY campus.


The Structure of the Course

The overall structure of the course was designed to serve multiple groups of learners: 1) traditionally enrolled students through the CUNY system, 2) online learners who wanted to participate, do assignments and complete the course, and 3) casual learners who wanted to drop in and participate as their schedule and desire for learning allowed.

In an effort to displace the MOOC model of a course led by a solitary, celebrity professor, each course session involved a guest lecturer or a panel of guests that served to highlight the collaborative nature of how knowledge is produced and activism is undertaken and sustained. Each session was both livestreamed for those who wanted to participate synchronously and then, several days later, a more polished video recording of the class session would be released and posted to the InQ13 course site for those who wanted to participate asynchronously. One of the ways we tried to build engagement with the East Harlem community into the structure of the course was to have class sessions that were also open community events at the uptown CUNY campus. Out of twelve regular sessions, four were held at the East Harlem campus and open to the public.

The course pivoted around leveraging digital technologies to enhance the skills and practices of community-based research; students were encouraged to work in partnership with community members in East Harlem. Students posted their completed assignments on the course blog at the InQ13 site. To facilitate group work, students could use the “groups” feature on the site to collaborate around specific projects. As designed, these groups were intended to foster connection between online-learners and CUNY-based learners, but this potential was not realized as fully as it could have been in the execution of the course. The faculty-provided feedback and grades on assignments were offered for CUNY-based learners, and the digital fellow provided this for the online learners (see Negrón in the “Perspectives” section below). At the end of the semester, students were invited to present their projects at a community event at La Casa Azul Bookstore in East Harlem (this was in addition to the four regular sessions held in the neighborhood).


Evaluating the Impact of the POOC

It is challenging to assess the impact of an experiment in graduate level education that took participatory learning as its chief goal. When the goal is for a course to be “massive,” the primary metric of evaluation is how many people registered for the course. With the POOC, this measure was not meaningful because participants were not required to register at the course site— a choice we made in our effort to open the course to as many different kinds of learners as possible. In its design and execution, the course allowed for multiple levels of participation, from Twitter users who joined conversations based on a Twitter hashtag (#InQ13), to those who watched the videos of the seminars or read some of the many open-access texts, to learners who created accounts and participated in group discussions on the course website.

daniels1Figure 1. Evaluation Metrics of the POOC


Part of the challenge of this experiment was the measurement of a broad spectrum of metrics meant to tap the distributed and participatory elements of the course (See Figure 1). For example, we were able to track the number of visits to the InQ13 course site during the semester, which totaled well over eight thousand (8,791). The videos garnered almost three thousand (2,824) views. While these numbers pale in comparison to the hundreds of thousands boasted by many MOOCs, these numbers represent a significant reach when compared to the usual reach of a typical graduate seminar that enrolls ten to twenty students.

Some of the emerging scholarship on evaluating MOOCs points to the importance of gauging student experience (Odom, 2013; Zutshi, O’Hare and Rodafinos, 2013). For the POOC, students contributed nearly two-hundred and fifty (250) individual blog posts and digital projects to the course site. A more in-depth qualitative analysis from the perspective of two students is included here (see Hackett and Tucker in the “Perspectives” section below).

Traditional measures of learning assessment are valuable, yet they often overlook the variety of learners and the wide range of their goals in engaging with such a course. Given the participatory nature of the course, one of the most relevant metrics is the number of people who attended the open events in East Harlem, which was nearly five hundred (485). As further testimony to the global potential of online learning, we found that people from twenty-six countries visited the course site or watched the videos. Discussions happened both in person and through the Twitter hashtag #InQ13 where over three hundred (315) updates about the course were shared.

We began the POOC with an emphasis on participatory pedagogy—on concrete interactions between a student community and a geographically specific urban community—all of which necessitated a model far removed from the sage-on-a-stage, “broadcast” teaching environments employed in most MOOCs. While MOOCs have spurred discussions about online courses extending the reach of higher education institutions (and, in the process, proffering new, more profitable business models for them), our experiences with InQ13 suggest that online courses that emphasize interaction between faculty, students, and broader communities beyond the traditional academy incur significant institutional and economic costs that rely on often hidden labor. The “Perspectives” section that follows is our effort to make legible this otherwise hidden labor.


PERSPECTIVES on the Participatory Open Online Course (POOC)

On the InQ13 website, our page about the collective lists nineteen different individuals who played a role in creating the course experience ( If MOOCs are imagined by administrators and venture capitalists to be a labor-saving, cost-cutting disruption for higher education, the POOC model was disruptive in another way. The POOC was, in reality, a job creation program, requiring significant investments of time, money, and labor to produce. Within the neoliberal context of devastating economic cuts to public higher education, this reversal of that trend points to an alternative model.[3] In the section that follows we offer insights from many of the people who were involved in producing the POOC and some lessons they draw from their particular roles and participation in the course.


Community Perspectives on the POOC

Community Engagement Fellow Edwin Mayorga

Our approach to community engagement drew on traditions of community-based research, where respectful collaboration with community is central to documenting the local and global dimensions of structural inequality. The commitment to centering community was intended to move us away from reproducing the often exploitative relationships between outside institutions and communities, setting up a number of challenges that we are still learning from. This sort of approach to community engagement is a timeintensive one, and one that was often at odds with the limited time frame for the launch of the POOC. Due to the experimental nature of the grant that funded this work, the POOC was conceived over the summer of 2012, launched in spring of 2013, but not fully staffed until late December – early January, 2013. Thus, building trusting relationships with community groups, effectively integrating community groups into course sessions, and connecting them with course students was a challenge that we did not always meet.

The strategy we used to engage community groups was to reach out to various organizations and host a community meeting. The initial community meeting, held at a restaurant in East Harlem, was small but productive. Following that, we worked to establish a relationship with the Center for Puerto Rican Studies (Centro). Centro’s place as a product of struggle, its long standing relationships to East Harlem, and its definitive archive of the Puerto Rican diaspora made it an ideal starting point for the course.

By the end of the course, we had much to be proud of with respect to our community engagement work. We were able to facilitate community-centered sessions at locations in East Harlem where researchers and activists who either live or work in East Harlem could speak to key issues affecting the community, such as education, housing, and gentrification. We were excited to see students who worked with various community-based organizations produce hundreds of knowledge streams in the forms of bibliographies, blogs, infographics, slides, visuals, and videos on issues of inequality both theoretical and specific to East Harlem, and open to any one to read, explore, and engage.

Still, there were a number of humbling setbacks. Most poignant were the critiques by community-connected scholars and participants about what they saw as reductive depictions of the community and the exploitative “parachuting in” of communityspeakers. We worked to address some of these important critiques by holding another community meeting, and reducing the number of organizations we worked with in order to ensure we maintained and nourished relationships with our project partners. To be sure, there was a need for more community-building work in the run-up to the course.

Upon reflection, our attempt to be both digitally and critically bifocal (paying attention to the local and the global— see, Weis and Fine, 2012) was ambitious and inadequately presented to community people. Creating a clear focus in partnership with communities is essential to future community-oriented POOCs. Most importantly, time (at least a year) and financial resources must be allotted to allow for the creation of well-considered opportunities to share and build across institutions, networks, and people.

The sustained work of community building can seem daunting, but it is central to providing a successful foundation for participatory social-justice education.


Faculty Perspectives on the POOC

Professors Caitlin Cahill and Wendy Luttrell

With a leap and a bound, together we held hands and dove head-first into InQ13 POOC. The course made history at the Graduate Center for it cross-listings across so many disciplines and programs (Urban Education, American Studies, Earth and Environmental Science, Psychology, Anthropology, Sociology, Geography, Women’s Studies, and Liberal Studies). We were not only aware of this cross-disciplinary breadth, but also the multiple groups and levels of learners as we developed graduate-level course readings and assignments. Our materials were posted on the public course platform so that all students could engage course materials and each other. Ensuring that these materials were open-access became a collective effort described below in more detail byPolly Thistlethwaite and Shawn(ta) Smith.

As instructors, we shared two goals: first, to frame the course as an inquiry into the links between public matters and private troubles (Mills 1959), or put differently, an inquiry into the structural inequalities and public policies that imbue our everyday lives. Our second goal was to marry community-based inquiry with digital technologies, in part to counter the no-placeness and too-smooth, ubiquitous, sanitized space of many online courses. We created a series of scaffolded graduate–level assignments for students to address how global restructuring takes shape in the everyday life struggles of a real place, engaging community-based research and digital technologies to learn and leverage change with East Harlem community partners.


Please turn off your cell phone

For the first assignment, students were asked to go to East Harlem without using any digital technologies. This felt like a bold move at a time when so much of our everyday experience is mediated by screens. We encouraged students simply to “be” in East Harlem, to draw upon their senses of smell, sight, sounds, touch, taste, and texture as they paid attention to and experienced their surroundings (Rheingold, 2012). As part of this assignment, we asked students to reflect upon their relationship to East Harlem and their positionality. For their final projects, students would experiment with at least three digital tools from a set of twelve categories (such as mapping, audio & soundscapes, and digital storytelling). But first, we needed to raise critical questions about the voyeuristic gaze of researchers engaging in working class communities of color. Through in-person and online discussions about personal experiences, readings, and the film Stranger with a Camera (2000), we began the course around questions of ethics, the politics of representation, and the meaning of community engagement. All of this was meant to prepare students to enter and engage East Harlem as a site of learning and activism, and tp set the tone for the explorations that followed.


On stage – off stage

Each week, the class met for two hours; during the first hour, we livestreamed video of a lecture or discussion as part of the public-facing course, and during the second hour, we met privately with the Graduate Center students. This was a key pedagogical move: we learned that the performativity of the POOC was intimidating for many involved, and so we were committed to maintaining dedicated face-to-face time each week with the Graduate Center students enrolled in the course. While some students were at ease in the online environment whether on camera, on the blog, or on Twitter, for others the public nature of working and learning was uncomfortable, even paralyzing. With hindsight, we wonder if this discomfort was even more pronounced after the sense-of-place exercise in East Harlem described above because it surfaced messy questions about insiders, outsiders, border-crossers, structural racism, anxiety, and attending to the necessary “speed bumps” of doing research where one must slow down and reflect before moving forward. This reflection was on-going and needed to be nurtured through multiple formats and spaces—weekly blog posts, class discussions on and off stage, one-on-one in-person conversations with students, meetings between students and community partners, and posts to a private online space where students could exchange views they didn’t want to share with a broader public.


Plurality of publics

Our experience builds out the pedagogical and ontological significance of acknowledging the plurality of publics. As Nancy Fraser (1996, 27) has suggested, the constitution of alternative public spaces, or counterpublics, function to expand the discursive space and realize “participatory parity,” in contrast to a single comprehensive public sphere. This was the promise of the POOC as we strove to create and hold different publics together. We believed in the productive tensions between digital technologies, community-based spaces and research, and the more intimate, reflective pedagogical spaces of the course. The course reflected these three dimensions in terms of format and ways one could participate. The community-based inquiry projects also placed emphasis upon using technology in exciting and interesting ways to feature the critical counterpublics of East Harlem and their emancipatory potential in addressing structural inequality and injustices. This was reflected in the variety of final projects, which focused on documenting contemporary and historical community spaces such as Mexican restaurants, Afro-Latina hair salons, alternative educational spaces, youth-led collective social justice movements (the Young Lords/ the Black Panthers), and the memories embedded in everyday spaces in El Barrio.

One of the most exciting ideas was how the POOC might serve as a resource at two levels: at the local level, connecting with members of different East Harlem community efforts, and at a global level, connecting with historic Latino neighborhoods (Barrios) across the US and around the world. For example, how might the POOC serve as a resource for undocumented students in Georgia or Arizona where access to education has been denied? Or how might it help trace networks of Puerto Rican migration across the United States? These remain potentialities for future iterations of the course; in this first instance of the course, the most developed form of participation came out of the community-based partnerships students formed through face-to-face relationships where the thorny questions of outcomes, sustainability, and representation were negotiated over time and in relationship.


On the edge of knowing

When we started the class, we did not know what to expect. We were wary of the online neo-liberalization of higher education, especially at this particular political moment. Still, we were excited by the possibilities of participatory digital technologies to create bridges that connect the plurality of publics in more collaborative rather than exploitative ways (as evidenced in some of the amazing student projects). Critical questions of appropriation, labor, access, pedagogy, and privatization loom large in our minds. But what stays with us is best conveyed by the wise words excerpted from the blog of Sonia Sanchez, a student in the course who wrote about the world we inherit but want to reimagine, a world where “everything can be turned around and stamped with a barcode,” including education, housing, and space. As Sonia points out, we are surrounded by screens, by “a million little vacuums with bright screens” that make people “unaware they are standing next to each other.” We see InQ13 as part of a larger and much-needed process of connecting screens and souls in the service of social, economic, and educational equity, and justice.


Open Access and the POOC

Librarians Polly Thistlethwaite and Shawn(ta) Smith

Libraries have traditionally supported faculty with course reserve services, copyright advice, and scanning service to shepherd extension of licensed library content for exclusive use by a well-defined set of university-affiliated students. However, under current licensing models, this content can rarely be extended to the massive, unaffiliated, undefined, and unregistered body of MOOC enrollees without tempting lawsuits filed by publishers with deeppockets. Course content, usually in the form of books, book chapters, articles, and films, are not licensed to universities for open, online distribution.

Additionally, use of licensed content of any kind is arguably incongruent with a MOOC’s aim and purpose. Licensed content requires some form of reader authentication to regulate access. In contrast, open-access scholarship requires no registration or license. It is available to any reader, including students affiliated with a university and non-university students living and working in East Harlem. Linking interested students to the open reports, films, books, and articles reflecting work focused on inequality and East Harlem, the POOC’s open access course materials raise the profile and increase the impact of the academic, activist, and artist authors.

Authors featured in or engaged with the InQ13 POOC were generally eager to make their work open access. The Directory of Open Access Journals verified that several significant course readings were already “gold” open access, providing the widest possible audiences, and ready to be assigned for any course reading. The Centro Journal of the CUNY Center for Puerto Rican Studies, for example, is completely open access. Many of this journal’s authors were assigned by the POOC over several course modules.

Some journals allow self-archiving by authors. Self-archiving means that authors may post their own articles online at their professional website or institutional repositories. These types of journals are sometimes referred to as “green” open access. While author self-archiving is widely permitted by traditional academic journal publishers, the opportunity to self-archive is not at all ubiquitously exercised or understood by authors. Authors publishing in journals that are not completely open (known as “gold” open access), required both prompting and advice about how to put their work in open access contexts. Librarians supporting the POOC spent a great many hours checking the policies of journals using the SHERPA/RoMEO tool, and corresponding with course authors about how to make their scholarship available in open access repositories, accessible by any student in the course.

A few book publishers were willing to make traditionally published, print-based academic books open access, at least temporarily. The University of Minnesota Press, NYU Press, and University of California Press made copyright-restricted book chapters, and in one case an entire book openly available to accompany an author’s video-recorded guest lecture.

Publisher restrictions are not at all immediately obvious to authors or to faculty forming course reading lists. Librarians played a crucial role in supporting this open online course by identifying, promoting, and advising faculty and their publishers about open access self-archiving.


Coordination of the POOC

Project Manager Jen Jack Gieseking

Producing the POOC involved a multitude of staff that across the span of InQ13’s development, enactment, and follow up. In order to manage the project’s many moving parts,we set about outlining our goals, sketching out a plan to accomplish these aims, and making sure each contingent piece was ready in time for the next element. In the few weeks we had to plan, we also involved educational technologists to help us think through user experience (UX) and information architecture (IA). They also helped us conceptualize the educational technology functions and support needed for InQ13 to succeed. The next step then was to hire staff to develop this work based on our colleagues’ expertise.

Oversight and management involves a great deal of listening. As project manager, I was responsible for seeing each element of the project to completion. For instance, as each person asked me, who would handle the UX or IA, I would turn around and assign that element to the person who already had a great deal of insight into it.   Our work as co-developers involved many check-ins before any final work was completed so that we could bring together concerns and questions.

My own position bridged these parallel teaching and learning processes. I was simultaneously a developer, teaching assistant, online user, videographer, educational technologist, and the primary technical and logistic support for the live event seminars. I sometimes appear in the course videos because I invited the guest speakers for those weeks, or because someone was needed to run the laptop. I live-tweeted class sessions, I enrolled in the course, and, more than anything, I learned.

Each step forward in managing the POOC involved a million little, delicate steps. As Amanda Matles and Stephanie M. Anderson describe below, placing cameras in the classroom was a complicated issue that took weeks of discussion to resolve. Edwin Mayorga sent hundreds of emails requesting meetings with activists in East Harlem and making inroads to connect students to community partners. Our WordPress and Commons In A Box developer, Raymond Hoh, handled difficult fixes overnight and expanded the ways the site and course could afford a collaborative space for students and InQ13 team alike. Like the class itself, the process of producing the POOC involved a great deal of teaching, learning and knowledge-sharing.


Website development & Instructional Technology

Educational Technologists Karen Gregory, John Boy, Fiona Lee

There is a familiar heroic narrative about the genesis of new products and services in the tech sector (including educational technology) that goes something like this: “We worked 100 hours a week, slept under our desks, ate cold pizza and drank stale beer so we could write code and ship our product on time—and we liked it!” Like most heroic narratives, this narrative is as revealing for what it leaves out as for what it includes. While building a product, service or online course certainly requires concocting abstractions in the form of code, we have to unpack what we mean by “coding” in this context (Miyake 2013).

In addition to the time and energy that went into building the web infrastructure (setting up pages, categories, widgets etc.), there was a lot of discussion—online and in person—about course goals, envisioning what kind of work course participants would do and how they would use the site. In other words, the work of building the website was not just coding in the limited sense of creating and manipulating computer algorithms. It was also thinking, talking, debating, questioning, and imagining.

In this section, we will reflect our involvement, as graduate students, instructors and educational technologists, in building the POOC and highlight three forms of labor that are likely to be missed in the usual narrative: pedagogical practice, aesthetic imagination, and the accumulated labor of the “code base.”


We Came as Teachers

Perhaps the first thing to stress when considering the hidden labor of the website is that those of us who came together to create the site had already taught for several years. We did not come to this task as simply as “builders” or “coders,” but as educators, scholars, and Instructional Technologists. Each member of the site team was able to bring to bear several years of classroom experience, as well as experience collaborating with faculty across disciplines to design and implement “hybrid” assignments. This means that we not only had experience with what “works,” but also with what can fail, despite the designers’ (or teachers’) intentions.

The challenge of creating this particular course site was not only a challenge of designing a functional site to accommodate the coordination and logistics of the site (such as to create space for blogging or posting media artifacts), but also to lay out the site to structure, facilitate, and implement the course goals and intentions.


The Labor of Imagination & Design

In considering the question of labor, we cannot overlook the role the imagination played. Creating the POOC site was an act of giving form or realizing the ideas, goals, and desires for the course. If the POOC was to be a space for communication and conversation among participants, the challenge of this site was to imagine how to design a space that could foster community, across a series of mediated spaces and through the thoughtful use of the tools at hand, including WordPress and the Commons In A Box platform. At the same time, given that we were building the website for participants rather than for users, we had to re-imagine what “user experience” means. This required building a website that was not only functional, well organized and easy to navigate. The website also had to be designed in a way that encouraged participants to contribute their own ideas and goals for the course, and that was flexible enough to meet the course’s changing needs. To do so, we had to use our imagination to anticipate the perceptions and responses of participants, but in a way that remained open to their imagination of how they approached the course. In other words, the work of building the website did not just happen at the beginning, in anticipation of the start of the semester; it was an ongoing process of reflection and maintenance that involved engaging with participants’ needs.


The Political Economy of Service Provision

Another case in which we need to broaden our understanding of the kinds of labor coding entails is with regard to the tools or “code base” we worked with. Software products such as WordPress, BuddyPress, and the CUNY-developed Commons In A Box suite are not just abstractions all the way down; rather, they, too, are accumulations of people’s imaginative and creative work. To say that simply we built on or leveraged existing code bases is to reify this and to blot out the political economy of free and open source software (FOSS) development. While the FOSS world is often seen as the epitome of the “sharing economy” it also intersects in some ways with broader labor regimes. “FOSS development, with its flexible labor force, global extent, reliance on technological advances, valuation of knowledge, and production of intangibles, has fully embraced the modern knowledge economy” (Chopra and Dexter 2007, 20).


The Challenges of Videography

Videographers Amanda Matles and Stephanie M. Anderson

As doctoral candidates in the Critical Social Personality Psychology program, Geography program, and Videography Fellows at the Graduate Center, we entered the InQ13 POOC collaboration well acquainted with the nuances of using video in academic settings. The task in the POOC, though—to livestream, capture, and immediately publish the video recordings of the various classes online—presented a number of ethical, technical, and logistical challenges unique to participatory open online courses. Often, the introduction of camera equipment into any social space changes the dynamics and feelings of participants. While some students were comfortable having their likenesses seen by a mostly anonymous online audience, others expressed concerns, and anxieties. Thus, in order to achieve an intimate feel for online participants, consent from all students was needed. This tension of consent was compounded by the video crew’s presence in the midst of intimate group discussions. The feeling of embeddedness for online viewers sometimes came at the risk of vulnerability for graduate students, instructors, and speakers.

Working within the instantaneous time-space of participatory open online courses, the transmission of pedagogical material in video form—available in real time or overnight—is actually the result of professional A/V and computer set-ups and many invisible hours of planning and labor. Each location and unique class structure required specific A/V design. Because there were multiple presenters, audiences, rooms, and auditoriums, we needed not only a hardwire Ethernet connection in each location, but also flexibility and breadth in audio recording equipment. InQ13 used a two-person crew: one person operated the camera while the other live-mixed the audio, monitored the livestream, and received and reacted to feedback from other POOC collaborators watching the stream online. Additionally, an entire video postproduction process occurred within the 24 hours following each class. This included the addition of unique title cards and lower thirds for each speaker, sound mixing, exporting, file compression, and uploading new videos to the blog. Furthermore, long-format HD video files are extremely bulky, and can be slow to work with. Once edited, the file for a one-hour course usually takes at least 2 hours to export, then must be further compressed for internet streaming. The entire process could take up to 12 hours. A dedicated hard drive with at least 2TB storage and at least a 7200 rpm processor was needed to produce one semester of the POOC.

As videographers, we had to continually negotiate between what our ideals were and what was practically achievable given the opportunities and limitations involved in the InQ13 POOC. To integrate online POOC student participation and learning through the InQ13 site, it was vital that access to online course videos was timely. This availability allowed students writing weekly assignments and participating in blog conversations could torefer to the video archive at any time and as many times as needed. Online video provides learners with valuable repetition and open access.


The Labor of Supporting Students

Digital Fellow Wilneida Negrón

In the early planning stages of the POOC, the team identified the need for a Digital Fellow who could provide support in integrating technology and pedagogy to foster an active learning environment that would challenge students to think critically about inequality and the technologies they would be utilizing. The literature on best practices for online instruction increasingly emphasizes a focus on interactive, skillful use of technology, and a clear understanding of both technical and interpersonal expectations (Tremblay 2006, 96). The technology and participatory features of the POOC involved an online web platform, social media, and digital media technologies, the use of which bridged online and face-to-face learning contexts. This required me to partake in various roles as a facilitator, community-builder, instructional manager, coach, and moderator. While the fluidity of my role precluded, to some extent, clear parameters and role definitions, it also allowed for a kind of “distributed constructionism” (Resnick, 1996), a key building block to the formation of knowledge-building communities.

The initial phase of the class consisted of helping students and professors navigate around the multimodal nature of the POOC (see Kress, 2003) and evaluate any barriers or enablers when participating and using technology for content-creation, collaborating, and knowledge-building (Vázquez-Abad et al 2004, 239;Preece 2000, 152; Richardson 2006, 52). Since it was imperative that the students be able to utilize digital technologies, I conducted two short surveys, one completed in class and one completed online, which gauged the digital skills of students and their interest in a variety of digital tools they might use during the semester.

A majority of POOC students were interested in using Zotero, Flickr, and archiving-based projects for the class. This reflects what students already felt comfortable with, as many noted that the digital tools they most had experience with were Zotero and Flickr.

The majority of students expressed an interested in archiving but had no experience with it. Animation and information filters were the only two technologies that none of the students had experience in.

Although studies in computer-supported collaborative learning frequently under-expose the interaction between students and technology (Overdijk and van Diggelen, 2006, 5), my experience as a Digital Fellow revealed how essential this perspective is for identifying additional instruction and support needed. For example, through these assessments, I learned of the varying levels of digital media literacy among the students: some students were proficient and had been using digital technologies in their work and professional life, while others had no experience in digital technologies and/or limited use of social media. I sought to address these issues through individual and group instruction and through the creation of online groups and forums, which promoted peer-to-peer learning and problem solving.

As a Digital Fellow, I had to be prepared to negotiate the students’ own views about how they wanted to use digital technologies and their social media profiles. I could not assume, for instance, that all students would be at ease using these technologies, or that the asynchronous conversations between the graduate seminar students and the wider community of POOC students would go smoothly. Some students expressed early concerns about their privacy and seemed hesitant to use their public social media profiles in conjunction with the class. These kinds of moments provided challenges to the POOC’s objective of fostering transformative and open dialogue among students, but they were challenges that were met collaboratively by the InQ13 team.


Student Perspectives on the POOC: In the Physical Classroom

Student Kristen Hackett

Prior to taking the course I had a Facebook account as my sole scholar-activist digital outlet. Within the first couple of weeks I had set up an account with Twitter and Skype, had begun building a personal website, and was becoming an experienced blogger through my weekly contributions to the course blog. Further, within the first two months we had an assignment that required us to use three of the twelve knowledge streams suggested by the course in our community-based research projects, which ultimately entailed trying out many more than three before settling on which would be most useful (these along with instructions for use can be found at:

In the course I used digital technologies to facilitate communication and collaboration with other classmates (both GC- and community-based), my professors, the distant guest lecturers, the extensive digital support staff, and community partners and organizations in East Harlem who were cruising the website or Twitter hashtag (#InQ13). In a broader sense, technology was used as an avenue to communicate to others and spread awareness about social justice—blurring the boundaries between community and academy and incorporating and implicating each in the other—and about our research projects, which were predicated on the importance of this cause. In this vein, Twitter was a useful tool for positioning our work among other similar works and related information by using targeted hashtags such as #communityresearch, #eastharlem, or #inequality. Furthermore, Twitter was important for driving others back to the site to learn more about the course and our cause by using the hashtag #InQ13 with each tweet.

On a level specific to my situation as a doctoral student, the emphasis on technology was useful in thinking about how I can expand the way I think about my scholarship and myself as a scholar. A specific question that has repeatedly come to mind during my graduate study is why journal articles and written prose are deemed the best (and often the only) mode of communication of our ideas. By introducing new tools of digital communication into my lexicon I could rethink or reimagine how I could communicate my research, in what form, from what platform, and to whom. For example, being able to incorporate Flickr photos into my blogs brings my words and thoughts to life in a way that is not achievable in a journal articles where images, and colored images in particular, are often not accepted. Additionally posting a short article to my webpage as a blog filled with photos and free of academic jargon, and then tweeting it to relevant yet potentially distant communities using hashtags allows me to share my work with others who I previously was not able to reach using traditional academic channels of sharing and publishing. In sum, the emphasis on these new and emerging technologies forced me to reconsider who my audience and co-researchers could, should, and might be and what forms that research could take.

Admittedly, given the highly supported environment we were in and the impending deadlines for assignments that required some kind of digital technology use, getting over our varying degrees of digital technology phobia occurred more rapidly and readily than others might expect. We had a few impromptu support group-like sessions in the beginning of the semester. At these sessions students voiced their fears of publishing online and putting their thoughts out there right away and/or their technical fears regarding actual use of a digital technology. Many of us didn’t have accounts for these different technologies and hadn’t engaged them before so our fears likely stemmed from a nagging anxiety about stepping into new territory.

For the former fear, some class time was carved out to talk, share, and support one another—and it helped that many of us were having the same concerns. When they were fears connected to lack of technical knowledge, we were referred to workshops in the library, or we could meet one on one with our digital technology support staff member or one of the librarians. In my own experience, my concerns were more along the lines of the latter, and while workshops and one-on-one sessions can be helpful in getting started, honestly a lot of my knowledge has come from doing and from playing around with the different technologies (for example, from building websites, from tweeting and using hashtags, and talking @ others on Twitter). Doing so alleviated the fear and increased the comfort of use as well as taught me how to use the different tools, technically speaking.

I also realized that part of my increased use of these digital technology tools was just knowing they existed. Furthermore, thinking about these tools in the context of rigorous academic research, and in a group that condoned and encouraged their use for that purpose, was new to me and reoriented my approach to these technologies in new ways—as tools. The focus of the course was not just on using these digital technologies, but using them as scholars and as scholar activists in pursuit of community-based research, and it was helpful that other respected scholars (our professors) and our academy were encouraging it.

Since the closing of the course I have proceeded to emphasize the use of digital technologies in my own scholarship and in the scholarship endeavors of research groups I work with. I have focused my efforts on Twitter and website and Facebook page creation at the moment. I think of the latter two in a geographical sense, as a way of creating a virtual place or home for me and my work, or the work of a research team. One can find my current research projects and interests, publications and presentations, and approaches to teaching. Further, they can get a sense of my networks by following links to the page of my research team or the Graduate Center, or the Environmental Psychology subprogram.

While my use seems to be growing, and I am finding the tools helpful, there are many digital tools from the course and in general that I’m not engaging. But I don’t think that’s the point. It is helpful just to know they are there, to be on the lookout for more as they develop, and to consider how they may enhance a project, make it more accessible or carry its messages further.


Student Perspectives on the POOC: In the Online Classroom

Student Zora Tucker

This course was valuable to me in several distinct but interdependent capacities: I am a graduate student at another institution, a public school teacher, and a self-identified movement activist. As a graduate student in a program in Arizona designed for people who live and work elsewhere, it was a windfall to find this course to use for my self-designed program in Critical Geography at Prescott College. It is rare that I am able to find collegial relationships in this rather isolated process, and the multiple modalities available to me—webcasts, Twitter, and the capacity to come into the CUNY Graduate Center for the open sessions—were all excellent for the development of my independent scholarship. I was able to see and converse with scholar-activists I had known only through writing, such as Michelle Fine and Maria Torres. This format allowed me to engage the course with varying intensities at different times in my schedule.

When I took this course, I was looking for teaching work as a new arrival to NYC while simultaneously doing research on charter schools and public space for my graduate work. This course gave me the ability to get a sense of the landscape of public schooling in relation to space in East Harlem, and to think through my emergent understanding of the state of public schooling in this city. My learning in these two areas came primarily from paying attention to people on Twitter, following them if our interests converged, and engaging with the work of other students posted on the class website. This happened fluidly, through a process that allowed my research interests to converge and weave together in a positive feedback loop that sustained my understanding of my new home, my academic critiques, and my ambition to work as a teacher in New York City.

This course was wellaligned with my movement philosophy of using academic space as a forum for broadcasting voices that are not always amplified in the halls of power. No one lives in the abstraction of neoliberalism; we all find our ways through the minutiae of its day-to-day realities. This course made space for this truth in multiple ways, but I will write here about two. First, the community forums created in InQ13 paired academic writing, which so often veers into the abstract and untenable, with the concrete analysis of those who do the work of living in and through sites of academic analysis. Second, the website itself was visible to people outside of the class, so I could share my posts and posts of other scholars—and even the structure of the website itself—with my former students, my colleagues, and anyone who might be interested in either the format or the content (or both) of this course. I had two colleagues at the college where I used to teach using my blog posts in their work with undergraduates.

In conclusion, s a person who came to this course through a friend who recommended it through Facebook, and as someone who participated in it primarily through the website and Twitter and shared it through social media—my experience of this POOC—a was holistically educational and useful beyond the expectations that I initially had of the experience.



We, the collective of the InQ13 POOC, shared what we learned while conducting this experiment in participatory, open education in the classroom, online, and among East Harlem community partners. As this essay suggests, and as the archived course website reveals, the InQ13 POOC was a valuable experience, not least of all because it offered an alternative to MOOCs at a crucial moment of their ascendance in the popular imagination. The InQ13 POOC provided a vision of digitally augmented learning that prizes openness, community-building, and participatory action above massiveness of scale. While this attempt to create an innovative model of what opening education could be sometimes resulted in messy struggles with the complex social, political, and economic issues related to inequality—not the least of which is the inequality between academics and community-partners—the POOC nevertheless reimagined what higher education might be if we took seriously the idea of “opening” education. Graduate education can and should engage with the possibilities to open education that MOOCs offer. But it must do so through thoughtful models, conceptualized with social justice in mind, and with an awareness of the labor, solidarity, and collectivity required behind the scenes. We proffer the InQ13 experiment in particular, and the idea of the POOC more generally, as one possible path for others considering future experiments in open education.




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Tremblay, Remi. 2006. “Best Practices” and Collaborative Software in Online Teaching. The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 7(1). OCLC 424760690.

Resnick, M. 1996. Distributed constructionism. The proceedings of the international conference on learning sciences. Association for the Advancement of Computing in Education. Northwestern University. OCLC 84739865.

Rheingold, Howard. Net Smart: How to Thrive Online. MIT Press. Cambridge, MA, 2012. OCLC 803357230.

Richardson, Will. 2006. Blogs, wikis, podcasts, and other powerful web tools for classrooms. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press. OCLC 62326782.

Rodriguez, Cheryrl. 1996. “African American anthropology and the pedagogy of activist community research.” Anthropology & Education Quarterly 27, no. 3: 414-431. OCLC 5153400850.

Sanchez, Sonia. “More than panem et circenses.” 2013. Reassessing Inequality and Reimagining the 21st Century. April 18. Accessed November 5, 2013.

Scanlon, Jennifer. 1993. “Keeping Our Activist Selves Alive in the Classroom: Feminist Pedagogy and Political Activism.” Feminist Teacher,  8-14. OCLC 424819999.

Stewart, Bonnie. 2013. “Massiveness+ Openness= New Literacies of Participation?.” Journal of Online Learning & Teaching 9.2. Accessed May 12, 2014. OCLC 502566421.

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[1] Most high-profile MOOCs have featured men as instructors; the POOC was co-led by two women. For more on the gender imbalance in MOOCs, see Straumheim 2013.

[2] This initial conversation included Michelle Fine, Steven Brier and Michael Fabricant and was made possible by the Advanced Research Collaborative (ARC), under the thoughtful leadership of Don Robotham (Anthropology).

[3] The POOC was made possible by funding from the Ford Foundation.



About the Authors

Jessie Daniels is Professor of Public Health, Psychology, and Sociology at Hunter College, CUNY School of Public Health, and the Graduate Center, CUNY. She has published several books, including Cyber Racism (2009) and White Lies (1997), along with dozens of articles. She leads the JustPublics@365 project.

Matthew K. Gold is Associate Professor of English and Digital Humanities at City Tech and the Graduate Center, CUNY, where he serves as Advisor to the Provost for Digital Initiatives. He is editor of Debates in the Digital Humanities (2012) and served as Co-PI on the JustPublics@365 project during its first year.

Co-Authors from the InQ13 Collective:
Stephanie M. Anderson
(Graduate Center, CUNY)

John Boy
(Graduate Center, CUNY)

Caitlin Cahill
(Pratt Institute)

Jen Jack Gieseking
(Bowdoin College)

Karen Gregory
(Graduate Center, CUNY)

Kristen Hackett
(Graduate Center, CUNY)

Fiona Lee
(Graduate Center, CUNY)

Wendy Luttrell
(Graduate Center, CUNY)

Amanda Matles
(Graduate Center, CUNY)

Edwin Mayorga
(Swarthmore College)

Wilneida Negrón
(Graduate Center, CUNY)

Shawn(ta) Smith
(Graduate Center, CUNY)

Polly Thistlethwaite
(Graduate Center, CUNY)

Zora Tucker
(Prescott College)

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.

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