Collaborative Curricula Linking Digital Studies and Global Health / By Virginia Kuhn and Heather Wipfli, with Jason Lipshin and Susana Ruiz

Collaborative Curricula Linking Digital Studies and Global Health

Virginia Kuhn, University of Southern California
Heather Wipfli, University of Southern California
Jason Lipshin, TomTom
Susana Ruiz, Take Action Games


Digital media, deployed in the service of real world issues, have the potential to foster the type of collaborative learning needed to prepare for the dynamic, interconnected world of the 21st century. In this article, we describe a project in which two university-level classes, one in new media and one in global health, were combined in order to improve the learning experience of each. While studying the complexities of global health can illuminate issues surrounding large-scale digital literacy in a globally networked world, working with multiple digital tools can prepare students for the complexity of a career in the field of global health.


It has become impossible to ignore the fact that the cultural and technological shifts responsible for a globally networked world have also rendered many conventional approaches to university pedagogy untenable. As such, many universities are exploring ways to enhance the undergraduate experience, often via the integration of emergent technologies.[1] Against this backdrop, we embarked upon an educational collaboration, receiving support from a competitively awarded fund for innovative undergraduate teaching on our campus.[2] During the spring of 2012 we paired two upper division courses taught in two disparate programs at a research university—New Media for Social Change and Case Studies in Global Health. Both classes served relatively new academic programs: a minor in Digital Studies at the Institute for Multimedia Literacy (IML) and a major in Global Health offered by the Institute for Global Health respectively.[3] While the classes were taught concurrently, we strived to ensure that each retained its core academic integrity.[4] The classes combined a curriculum, though from an administrative perspective, they remained separate.

Given the resonance between the two disciplines, we imagined that this pairing would enhance the intellectual experience of each: while the field of new media or digital studies[5] attends to the interrelationships among technology, culture, communication, and expression across the registers of text, audio, video, and interactivity as they impact large-scale literate practices, the field of global health investigates the close interplay between medical, economic, geographic, and environmental factors as they impact human health. Both disciplines require knowledge of the systematic complexity that characterizes our highly mediated, globally networked world. The exploration of real-world issues underlies both disciplines and is, or perhaps should be, a fundamental component of both educational programs. Further, both are iterative and dynamic in their scholarship, and their researchers seek to uncover solutions to complex problems by collaborating in academically diverse teams. Moreover, even as researchers in both fields tend to make decisions based on varying degrees of available data, they do so with a keen awareness of the extent to which change in one element of a global system affects all others.

In sum, the classes seemed a natural fit for collaboration.

Pedagogical Approach

In the recent book Cheating Lessons: Learning From Academic Dishonesty, James Lang (2013) surveys academic dishonesty from ancient Greece and China to the present day and arrives at four features of environments that discourage cheating and, by extension, tend to foster learning. These environments are characterized by the following features: 1) they are mastery based, rather than performance based; 2) they offer intrinsic motivation; 3) they promote a high expectation of success; and 4) they offer many types of and opportunities for assessment (rather than a single high-stakes measure). Cheating Lessons is emblematic of the recent debates about the state of higher education and the growing interest in the scholarship of teaching and learning. With the benefit of some critical distance, we now ask ourselves how we might view this effort using the features of Lang’s successful learning environments.

To back up for just a moment, we should note that the two faculty members already had a working relationship. We were two of only three faculty sent by our Provost’s Office to present at a conference in Washington, DC, that was geared to reinventing undergraduate education in Research I universities. We also collaborated on a project for ABC News and the Gates Foundation, creating a Facebook game, One Thousand Days, that teaches the importance of early childhood nutrition. Our collegiality and shared commitment to teaching were instrumental in the decision to pursue this project, and the funding we received was also integral since it allowed us to: 1) hire a research assistant, Jason Lipshin, to help with planning in advance of the course; 2) send Jason to train on ArcGIS (i.e., on adding data to maps); 3) conduct planning meetings; and 4) purchase some materials such as books and hard drives. Finally, we were both deeply involved in establishing our respective institutes’ curricula, and this helped us manage both conceptual and logistical issues. While the classes we combined were intended for advanced students in each program, we hoped that the lessons learned, the methods established, and the materials created would be of more general use in university pedagogy, particularly for those who teach at institutions with less access to material resources and less time for experimentation.

We now see that the most compelling portions of the class included features of Lang’s criteria for successful learning environments, and like Lang, who culled educational insights from studies of cheating, we found that the resistance we encountered from students was just as instructive as those aspects that seem most immediately successful.[6] We should note from the outset that we approached this project with a belief in the efficacy of small class sizes and a distinct skepticism of the lecture model with its “sage on the stage” approach. We agree with Paulo Freire’s prominent condemnation of the banking system of education, whereby students are posited as empty vessels just waiting to be filled with faculty wisdom. We profess a constructivist approach to knowledge, one that is situated, active, and rigorous. Logistically speaking, each class was listed and enrolled in its home department, but scheduled in the same room. Each class enrolled about twenty students for a total of forty-three, and each had a faculty member as well as a graduate teaching assistant assigned by the department—Susana Ruiz for digital studies, Allen Shu for global health.[7]

In preparation for the class, we asked ourselves what sorts of projects would help to foster the goals of each discipline. The two faculty members met frequently with Jason, the research assistant, during the semester prior to the class.[8] During the semester the class was convened, the meetings expanded to include the two teaching assistants. After some background work on the ethics of representation, the relative nature of power and privilege, and global health statistical reports, we divided the course into three main units, each lasting about five weeks. Each unit contained a corresponding multimodal project: 1) visualization of public health data; 2) geospatial disease mapping of the contemporary cholera outbreak in Haiti; and 3) a video-based argument around complex issues associated with HIV and the law.  We used emergent tools that allowed students to engage research in multiple formats using numerous methodologies.  Students were also tasked with weekly reading responses that included selections from both fields, and the two group projects required a mix of students from both classes. All course materials were distributed and all student work was submitted using a course wiki that was password protected.[9]

In what follows, we describe the three units, their rationale, and an overview of the project assigned to each, after which we enumerate some of the lessons learned. These insights were gleaned from a variety of sources: our own impressions, student reflections, course evaluations, and an examination of the projects created. We conclude by assessing the course through the lens of Lang’s criteria for successful learning environments. We also include some ancillary materials: students were filmed at the close of the course, and their reflections, as well as the projects created for the class, were gathered and placed online using a WordPress site: These materials, which are embedded throughout this article, are included as evidence, so that they may illuminate the claims we make about the course, even as they might also serve as models for future courses or for units within more traditional class settings.[10] Indeed, the two faculty members have made use of the materials in subsequent classes, and the video-based projects have been shared widely including their circulation during the International Conference on AIDS (hereafter referred to as AIDS 2012), which took place soon after the course ended.

Unit I: Visualizing Health Data

The graphical representation of information, a practice referred to as information visualization or data visualization, comprised the focus of the first unit. In 1945, Vannevar Bush decried the deleterious effect of information overload and poor data management.[11] More than half a century later, the trend has increased exponentially, as data deluge and the complexities of a globally networked world amplify the situation. Thus, it is no surprise that the visual display of information has exploded as a means of representing these vast datasets, necessitating critical engagement with their visual expression.

We also believe that critical engagement with any semiotic system includes consumption as well as production since it can be difficult to understand the rhetorical choices involved in creating a graphical representation without actually having made those choices. When visualizing information, certain elements of the data are suppressed in order to emphasize others. For instance, subway maps tend to sacrifice geographic accuracy in order to accentuate the paths of the various routes. As such, this assignment asked students to investigate the ways in which data become information and, further, to explore the ways that information shifts its meaning depending on its context and mode of presentation.

This early focus on data fulfilled another of our goals in terms of interdisciplinary efforts. Data gathering is often viewed as a pivot point at which the hard sciences and its methodologies depart from humanistic or artistic types of inquiry. Indeed, when discussing the early readings—a bulletin titled Global Public Health: A Scorecard (Beaglehole and Bonita 2008) and a few chapters from Allan Johnson’s Privilege, Power, and Difference (PPD)—one student suggested that the global health readings were more valid, scientific, and evidence-based since they used statistics, while the PPD reading was merely anecdotal. This was the perfect opportunity to explore the very nature of research methodologies, allowing us to ask questions such as: what counts as knowledge in each field? Are interpretive methods purely subjective? What data is used in statistical models and how is a datum defined? Do statistical models in global health rely on self-reporting? If so, might survey data also be seen as subjective? How might mixed methods add veracity to a topic and make it compelling? Are there any statistics to be found in the narrative of Power, Privilege and Difference? A close reading of one paragraph, for instance, revealed at least five data points, but since they were presented in narrative form, they were not immediately recognized as such. Calling received wisdom into question became a key course theme, and we believe this type of “defamiliarizing” of knowledge is vital to critical thinking.

The information visualization assignment was the only individual project, and although no professional-level tools were required, students were asked to use at least two tools and to create four different visualizations of the same data points: a pie chart, a bar graph, a box plot, and a heat map. In this way, it became a comparative project that complicated the very nature of these images that are rampant in the media. Students were further encouraged to step outside of their comfort zone: we hoped the global health students would eschew their go-to tool, Microsoft Excel, and that the digital studies students would eschew their general anxiety about using statistics. Students were required to submit a project plan with an overview of their chosen health-related dataset and its provenance, as well as the types of visualizations they planned to create.

An ongoing list of resources was available via the course wiki, from the conceptual Periodic Table of Visualization Methods to tool-based sites such as ManyEyes and Gapminder, both of which offer access to datasets as well as the ability to upload one’s own. Requiring a project plan allowed us to offer input and suggestions while assuaging some of the concerns students voiced about the experimental nature of the course. The global health students, who were mostly pre-med, tended to be more comfortable with a single correct answer and necessarily more concerned with their individual grade point average, an understandable concern given the competitive nature of medical school admissions. The project also required students to write a two- to four-page report describing and contextualizing each visual they produced, and this, we noted, gave them the opportunity to explain any failures they might encounter when using new applications. Students also had the opportunity to briefly present their work in class, which gave them a further opportunity to articulate goals that might not be apparent in the final project.


Unit II: Geospatial Disease Tracking

While the information visualization assignment was effective in introducing students to issues in the filtering and representation of complex data, the formal parameters of the assignment necessarily limited the conceptual scope. Although statistical representation has long operated as an important genre for both conducting global health research and communicating that information in diverse contexts, it also became increasingly clear to us during the progression of our first unit that representing the complexity and dynamism of global health problems remains difficult when using only static visualizations. Thus, in our second unit’s disease-mapping project, we sought to move from representation to simulation, building upon many of the skills introduced in the first assignment while also more fully integrating systems thinking on both conceptual and formal levels. Using the interactive mapping platform Hypercities, we asked students to collaborate with peers from both global health and digital studies in order to create a media-rich map of the multiple forces contributing to the 2009 outbreak of cholera in Haiti. We assigned the four groups and their topics as detailed below, although we did give students a chance to request a change.

We began the second unit began by reading Steven Johnson’s The Ghost Map (2006)—a historical account of how John Snow, “the father of modern epidemiology,” tracked the source of the infamous 1854 outbreak of cholera in London. In charting Snow’s inquiry, we emphasized Johnson’s characterization of Snow as a systems-level thinker, drawing connections across anthropology, urban planning, and the life sciences, while also encouraging students to consider the important role of mapping in providing context and visibility to these transversal relationships. Having introduced students to Snow’s interdisciplinary methods for investigating cholera in 1854, we presented the interactive mapping assignment as a way to connect past and present, asking students to consider how similarities and differences in social, technological, and geographical contexts might be brought to bear on the construction of our collaborative project. To illustrate the value of interdisciplinary approaches, we had a visit from a documentary filmmaker who screened his filmic reenactment of Snow’s discovery. Guided by Johnson’s narrative about how to represent and make use of complexity, we were particularly animated by such questions as: how might the need for interdisciplinary and systems-level thinking be amplified in a globally networked society? What might “the ghost map” of the 21st century look like? And how could it be used to trace the complex set of forces that led to the 2009 outbreak of cholera in Haiti?

In order to tackle such issues, we divided the class into four groups of ten students equally composed of digital studies and global health students. Each group was then assigned a seemingly discrete research topic related to the Haitian cholera epidemic, which would then be plotted as a self-contained “layer” of data on the Hypercities map. The breakdown, wherein each group was tasked with structuring a story around the assigned topic, was as follows:

GROUP I, PEOPLE: Population characteristics (density, socio-economic status) and refugee camps.

GROUP II, WATER: waterways (natural and municipal), power sources; and waste management.

GROUP III, CARE: Health systems (health care services/clinics, medical schools, and disease distribution).

GROUP IV, INTERNATIONAL AID: International aid, international focus, UN peacekeepers, and NGOs.

Within each group’s layer, students were encouraged to present their research across multiple registers—from text and image, to video and information visualization—and think about the various potentials and limitations of each form. Students were also urged to think about the specifically spatial and temporal qualities of their argumentation, teasing out what it would mean to design their research in ways that depart from the traditional academic paper. It is, perhaps, in this latter aspect that some of the most interesting outcomes of the project emerged, as Hypercities (built on the Google Maps API) holds many time-based affordances, which are quite rare among typical mapping platforms. For instance, Hypercities includes the ability to specify the time frame in which a particular point appears and the ability to place points in a linear narrative sequence. This time frame feature allowed students to explore differences in data before and after the 2009 earthquake, while the narrative feature allowed groups to effectively create virtual “tours” of the crisis, crossing vast geographical distances and toggling between local and global scales according to the rhetorical needs of the particular argument (please see accompanying screen shots and overview video).

Such unique features contributed to the emergence of many compelling and innovatively structured arguments. But we soon realized that it was much more interesting to see each group’s layer in conversation with others: to see the ways that one kind of data interacts with another in a complex system. For instance, by toggling on layers of data from two groups simultaneously, we were able to see the ways that sources of drinking water intersected with waste management systems, providing a visceral portrait of how cholera was transmitted in and around Port-au-Prince. Likewise we were able to see the ways that high mortality, lack of adequate health care facilities, and low socioeconomic status often overlapped, providing students with a stark picture of how aid in disaster contexts is often unequally distributed along class lines. Thus, while each team researched in relative isolation and plotted their data as a discrete “layer” within the Hypercities map, it was only in seeing the multiple overlaps and intersections between economic, social, political, and biological factors that more telling insights could emerge.


Figure 1. A screen shot from the class project in which students mapped the cholera outbreak in Haiti using the Hypercities platform.

Figure 1. A screen shot from the class project in which students mapped the cholera outbreak in Haiti using the Hypercities platform.

Figure 2. Screenshot from Hypercities class project on Haiti.

Figure 2. Screenshot from Hypercities class project on Haiti.

Figure 3. Screenshot from Hypercities class project on Haiti.

Figure 3. Screenshot from Hypercities class project on Haiti.

Unit III: Video Argument: HIV and the Law

The third unit of the course centered on HIV, AIDS, and the law, and was tactically deployed in anticipation of the XIX International Conference on HIV and AIDS (a.k.a. AIDS 2012) slated to convene in Washington, DC, a few weeks after the course’s completion. This was the first time in twenty years that the conference was held in the United States, a fact due mainly to a shift in policy that had heretofore been inhospitable for visiting AIDS activists and those living with HIV, many of whom are one and the same.[12] Using video testimony from the Commission on HIV and the Law’s regional stakeholder consultations as a jumping off point, student groups focused on the production of research-based video arguments, or what we refer to as digital arguments. In constructing their digital arguments, students were expected to use the available semiotic resources—text, sound, still and moving images, and animation/effects—to create a nuanced and sophisticated academic argument about some aspect of the complex issues related to HIV and the laws that govern its research and treatment.[13]

During this unit, students read 28: Stories on AIDS in Africa, a monograph by journalist Stephanie Nolen (2008), as well as policy briefs and peer-reviewed articles about the relationship between HIV and the law. In addition, we had a guest speaker, a colleague who is a noted legal expert in the field. The project associated with this unit moved more closely to established pedagogical approaches: video-based or digital argument is a foundational assignment developed at the IML and modeled in other new media programs in the US. Unlike new media programs that have grown out of English departments, writing studies, or schools of communications, the IML’s location in the School of Cinematic Arts has meant that there is a strong emphasis on images—both still and moving—founded on an awareness that digital technologies are as amenable to images as they are to words. Founded in 1998, the IML has expanded its focus to include interactivity, networking, social media, physical computing, and geospatial technologies, yet the emphasis on images remains a vital one.

Concurrent to the study of HIV and AIDS, the global health students received training in how to find, capture, and convert existing video assets, followed by a brief overview of professional editing tools. The IML students, already well versed in these applications and workflows, were given tutorials in special effects based on kinetic typography in order to help them animate dynamic visualizations to enhance the testimonial footage. For this final project students working in groups of three or four used stakeholder testimonials and additional news reports, images, original text, voiceovers, and music to construct a five- to eight-minute video argument covering some aspect of the ways that laws impact HIV prevention and treatment around the world. The project’s scaffolding included an ideation stage during which groups discussed their ideas with one or more of the teaching staff. We also required rough cuts that were screened in class, allowing each group to receive feedback and ideas for completion. The labor required to complete production-based projects is often underestimated by students and often invisible to faculty unaccustomed to teaching them. As such, it is crucial to build in these milestones.

The resulting projects were incredibly rich and well researched, and they covered a wide range of issues with more depth and nuance than we had imagined going into the unit. For instance, one group explored the complexities around the treatment of migrant workers—there are 105 million worldwide—who are often treated as criminals and deported from the country if they contract HIV, regardless of the country of infection. Another group explored the linkage between domestic violence and HIV, showing the ways in which women, particularly those in deeply patriarchal cultures, are often infected by their husbands and then left with few options. Divorce is taboo and even testing and treatment is untenable since it brings shame. The emotionally laden approaches to needle exchange programs were addressed by another group, while yet another explored AIDS in the US and the delicate balance between public safety and individual privacy.

This highly successful unit was a great way to complete the course, and while viewing these videos one after another, one notices a certain over-reliance on kinetic typography (words that are animated to move across the screen in interesting ways), the technique that IML students learned during the unit. However, it is also evident that the IML students took the unit seriously and pushed themselves to acquire new skills—there was no project requirement to use the technique—while it also meant that the global health students participated in the production work, doing some of the less sophisticated tasks such as capture, compression, and rough cut editing. Moreover, sequential viewing of these projects is not the norm, even as individual videos have been viewed far more widely than a text-based equivalent such as a research paper would have been. Indeed, students noted having sent their video projects to friends and family, and many of them shared their work via social networking sites.

HIV and The Law Group Videos

Pedagogical Dissonance: Key Challenges

In the broadest terms, the course was consonant with Lang’s four features of successful learning environments:

1) It was mastery based, as opposed to performance based. There were no tests requiring rote memorization or the type of cramming of facts that may soon be forgotten. The work was tied to real-world events in a way that encouraged mastery, we hope, rather than a single high-stakes performance whose outcome would be final.

2) The main assignments were project-based, and the projects were designed to foster intrinsic motivation by giving students autonomy in setting their own goals insofar as was viable. The assignments included enough structure to ensure rigor, but enough openness to allow students to take an approach that was meaningful to them either personally or professionally. Moreover, seeing others students’ work during presentations may effectively raise the stakes as students put their best foot forward as a matter of pride.

3) The course offered many modes of assessment: not only were the projects themselves evaluated, but so too were the weekly reading responses, the reflective essay in the second unit, and the oral presentations for each project. Students also had the opportunity to articulate their difficulties and to revise their work in light of feedback from both peers and instructors.

4) Lastly, the course offered a high expectation of success. There was no curve to the grading process in either class and no reason all students could not do well. Each project and its requirements were carefully explained in class and models were offered for each unit. In addition, we provided resources—access to both faculty and TAs, as well as lab techs and software tutorials—so that students could stretch themselves beyond course requirements should they desire to.

Even as the course seems to have more than met these features of successful learning environments, there were several challenges, and these are, perhaps, the most useful to enumerate as they prove enlightening. We briefly sketch them below.

Lessons Learned


Establishing and managing group work among students is always a somewhat dicey issue, particularly given the fact that faculty assign grades separately. The first project, which centered on visualizing health data, was undertaken individually, and this may have inadvertently shown students the value of collaboration: When presenting their work in class, the IML students suggested that they struggled with the statistical aspect of this assignment, while the global health students remarked upon the design prowess that they saw in their colleagues’ projects but felt lacking in their own. They seemed happy to know that the next two projects would be group work.

Unlike the first assignment, the second project—disease mapping with the Hypercities platform—was collaborative. The groups were relatively large: four groups of ten or eleven students each. We were fully aware of the logistical obstacles of a group this size; scheduling a common meeting time for instance, would be daunting, especially for juniors and seniors with full course loads in addition to the demands of internships, part-time work, extracurricular activities, and the like. Conceptually speaking, this size could also be a problem in terms of leadership, decision-making, and the distribution of labor. On the other hand, in some ways we saw this assignment as a class-wide endeavor (and it truly was experimental since none of us had used the platform heretofore, even as the IML faculty member and TA were well acquainted with it), and so breaking it up this way felt to us more like splitting the one large group into quarters rather than building large groups of students. We advised students to use collaborative tools like Google Docs for planning, and to also break into smaller groups within the larger one. Moreover, as we told the class, working in groups will be a regular part of life after school, and so making decisions about how to navigate such efforts is always a useful endeavor. We urged students to make this a learning experience at the meta-level as well as at the curricular one. What will you do, for instance, when a group member fails to complete a task? Would you handle it the same way in a work setting? How will you address intragroup conflict? We wanted to give students agency along with all the responsibilities that accompany it.


When the two faculty members, who hail from very different academic disciplines, showed differences of opinion, students expressed discomfort. The evidence of this discomfort comes in a variety of forms: from the frequent emails to faculty, to the oral discussions with faculty and teaching assistants. In an effort to gather as much data as possible about student learning, we filmed extensive interviews, asked for frequent private feedback, and attended to course evaluations. Unedited reflective interviews with students may be found here:

During course planning meetings, we actually reveled in the differences we uncovered, finding them to be a great source of new knowledge and a chance to reexamine our own thinking. As faculty, we felt such differences in disciplinary approach would enrich the experience of the class and remind students of the possibility that other truths existed beyond their own worldview, while it would also demonstrate the importance of context.

For instance, the issues surrounding the way technologies of surveillance operate tend to be viewed differently in each field. In global health, the beneficial nature of surveillance tends to dominate: Not only does such scrutiny allow for more accuracy of data collection, making epidemics easier to track, it can also help with monitoring health care compliance. By contrast, the oppressive nature of surveillance technologies tends to be the focus of new media studies, where it is seen mainly as a disciplinary measure with the potential for abuse by ideological state apparatuses (cf. Althusser, Foucault). Indeed, a regular part of the IML’s foundational course sequence includes a camera assignment in which students create an argument about some aspect of private and public space. They are asked to research and speculate about issues such as whether the increasingly ubiquitous cameras in public places protect individuals from crime or simply provide the means for keeping them in check. Adapting this project for the combined class initially seemed interesting and provocative, but in the end, the skills and resources necessary felt prohibitive; not only does this project require extensive instruction in techniques for shooting film (framing, lighting, sound, etc.), the number of cameras, sound kits, and hard drives required would drain equipment stores when they were needed for IML courses with required camera projects.[14] Further, the video project on HIV and the law seemed more valuable, both conceptually and practically: The global health faculty were offered access to this testimonial footage, its topic was germane to the project, and working with found footage not only requires less equipment, but editing professionally shot footage is also a valuable in teaching one about the way a visual argument is framed. That said, during class we did not attempt to hide our differing views on surveillance and other topics, though we did so in a respectful way. Still, some students expressed discomfort at the lack of a single definitive approach to such issues.


If one of Lang’s key features of successful learning environments lies in the presence of multiple opportunities for evaluation, the relationship of such evaluation to grades is worth considering in more detail. As we noted previously, students were often likely to seek a single and uncontested correct answer, and this tendency we have found to be more pronounced in the hard sciences. Undoubtedly, the data-saturated culture that permeates contemporary educational institutions has amplified students’ need to attend to data points such as test scores and grade point average, although one student did note in his course evaluation that in the absence of a test, he could not be sure he had actually learned. But beyond this desire for confirmation of learning, the fact remains that students’ apprehensions about grades are justified. Indeed, the impact of grades is often tangible, affecting material concerns such as financial aid, scholarship, group memberships, and medical or graduate school admissions, which often pivot on GPA.

As such, a key aspect of this type of pedagogy that requires students to complete work that is unconventional and often unfamiliar lies in clarity of grading parameters. Students must be told the basis on which they will be assessed, particularly when it comes to group projects. We see this as an ethical imperative, and so we took many steps toward transparency. All projects were explained in class and were accompanied by a detailed assignment sheet that included a set of assessment parameters. In general, the following aspects of each project were gauged[15]:

  1. Complexity of subject matter. Example of simplicity: War kills. Example of complexity: Is it worth killing a few people to free many others?
  2. Message: the extent to which your message is conveyed in a rhetorically appropriate way.
  3. Technique: the project should be unencumbered by malfunctions/misspellings and the like.
  4. Textual rationale and citation of sources.

Each project also required a student to complete a structured review of another’s project, and students were graded on the quality of that review. In other words, students are not impacting other students’ grades—that responsibility should never be surrendered by faculty—rather, peer review gives students practice at critical engagement with digital texts, even as it helps them see how their own projects will be received. Moreover, such individual assignments—peer review, reading responses, reflective essays—help students exert a measure of control over their own learning in a class that includes so many collaborative efforts.


Many educators and institutions of higher learning tout the value of critical thinking, and yet, by definition, critical thinking means one must challenge accepted ways of knowing. The sort of critical consciousness that such challenges can foster often brings discomfort as students must rethink ideas they have been raised with, but as noted cultural critic bell hooks contends, such anxieties should not be dodged; rather, instructors can anticipate them and provide a space in which ideas can be tested and validated or shown to be faulty (hooks 1994, 86). Indeed, this was vital to us in approaching our collaboration since we strongly felt, and continue to feel, that the critical thinking necessary to solve the complex problems of a globally networked society is distinctly at odds with authoritarian modes of education.

Traditional university education based on disciplinary silos and the presumed straightforward transfer of information from instructor to student, if ever a viable approach, is certainly no longer one. This approach fails to elucidate the dynamic and systematic nature of burgeoning disciplines like global health and digital studies. New forms of digital media, used collaboratively, can help overcome these more traditional approaches. On the one hand, disciplinary sovereignty disappears within digital space that is based on integrative systems that connect and link various forms of information in multiple and continuous ways. On the other, recognizing that access to global health information is no longer confined to the scientific elite but readily available to anyone with access to the Internet requires that quality educational programs refocus, moving away from transferring facts and figures toward teaching to consolidate, evaluate, and use information effectively and responsibly. Moreover, in many ways Internet access requires far more expertise since data deluge and information overload render the expert far more valuable in terms of accessing, analyzing, assessing, and triangulating information. We can no longer teach students what to learn, we must teach them how to learn.


We gratefully acknowledge the support of the USC Provost’s Office for Undergraduate Education‘s Fund for Innovative Undergraduate Education (administered by the USC Center for Excellence in Teaching), which helped make this class possible.


Althusser, Luis. 1971. “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses.” Translated by Ben Brewster. In Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays,121–176. New York: Monthly Review Press.

Beaglehole, Robert, and Ruth Bonita. 2008. “Global public health: a scorecard.” Lancet 372, no. 9654: 1988–96. DOI:10.1016/S0140-6736(08)61558-5

Foucault, Michel. 1980. Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972-1977. Edited by Colin Gordon, Translated by Colin Gordon et al. New York: Pantheon. OCLC 6554112

Friere, Paolo. 1996. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. 2nd ed. New York: Penguin Books. OCLC 34270225

hooks, bell. 1994. Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. New York: Routledge. OCLC 30668295

Johnson, Allan G. 2005. Privilege, Power, and Difference. 2nd ed. Boston: McGraw-Hill. OCLC 57134413

Johnson, Steven. 2006. The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic—and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World. New York: Penguin. OCLC 70483471

Lang, James M. 2013. Cheating Lessons: Learning from Academic Dishonesty. Cambridge: Harvard UP. OCLC 840460705

Nolen, Stephanie. 2008. 28: Stories of AIDS in Africa. London: Portobello Books. OCLC 183917081

[1] For instance, see Elizabeth Losh’s recent book The War on Learning: Gaining Ground in the Digital University, in which Losh problematizes the different types of technologies used by universities (courseware) and by students (social media platforms), which are often somewhat oppositional, at least in their aims (e.g., security versus sharing).

[2] The authors gratefully acknowledge the utilized support received from the USC Fund for Innovative Undergraduate Teaching (FIUT). The FIUT is a USC Provostial initiative that supports novel educational initiatives by faculty who teach undergraduate courses.

[3] In 2014, the IML became a full academic division of the School of Cinematic Arts called Media Arts + Practice, with its own undergraduate major and PhD. The IML remains a research unit under the Division, which includes several interdisciplinary programs.

[4] While the lectures, discussion, and assignments were the same, written feedback and grading was done by the respective faculty member and teaching assistant.

[5] We will use the terms “new media” and “digital studies” interchangeably in this article to indicate a curriculum that focuses on a theory/practice model in which emergent forms of media are both studied and made. This is sometimes referred to as “critical making,” and used to be called “multimedia literacy,” but these terms are fluid and dynamic.

[6] We are gauging the relative success of the unit based on the quality of the student projects, as well as the students’ ability to articulate their intentions and the insights gained by completing the work.

[7] We should note that Allen Shu, the global health TA, was not interested in pursuing this publication, and was somewhat reluctant to participate fully in problematizing the pedagogy. An international doctoral student in statistical analysis, he felt this work to be too far afield from his career plans, and we honored his wishes.

[8] Jason Lipshin, one of the authors of this article, was hired as the research assistant. Jason had completed the Honors in Multimedia Scholarship program but had one final course to complete during the time he worked on the project. He has since earned a Master’s from MIT’s Comparative Media Studies program.

[9] The IML had been using the “X Wiki” for several years due to its media-friendliness, and IML programmers also built a portal around the wiki. Apple is no longer supporting this wiki software, and the IML, now the Division of Media Arts + Practice, no longer has a dedicated programmer. Even during this course, however, the Global Health class also made use of a Blackboard site because its faculty and students were familiar with the Blackboard course management system and because the wiki didn’t offer support for things like grades.

[10] We conducted the course under an expedited IRB and all students were given the option of remaining anonymous. None chose this option, and, indeed, many requested their work be online so they could show it to their friends and family.

[11] His prominent essay, “As We May Think,” has become a seminal text in many new media classes. Interestingly, the example Bush uses to make his case is Mendel’s groundbreaking work on genetics, which he notes was lost to the world for a generation because it was not accessible to those who might expand upon it.

[12] As our USC colleague and legal expert Sofia Gruskin noted, many AIDS activists were reluctant to visit the US because for many years US Customs required visitors to declare their HIV status upon entering the country. Activists justifiably saw this as a violation of privacy and one with potential ramifications for their lives upon their return home. It was the suspension of this policy that made the US a viable site for the AIDS2012 conference.

[13] For a fuller discussion of digital argument, please see “The Rhetoric of Remix,” TWC 2012:;

and “Filmic Texts and the Rose of the Fifth Estate,” The International Journal of Learning and Media:

[14] Camera projects are a core component of many IML classes, and, being in the School of Cinematic Arts, we use professional-level tools and require a high degree of sophistication in filmed footage. So while we could have geared the assignment to allow students to capture video from their mobile phones, for instance, the resulting quality of the work would be uneven across student groups, or simply sub par.

[15] For a more expansive view of IML approaches to assessment, see “Speaking with Students: Profiles in Digital Pedagogy,” Kairos 2010:, which features five-minute overview videos in which students in the Honors in Multimedia Scholarship program discuss their digital theses, which are based in their major area of study.



About the Authors

Dr. Virginia Kuhn is an Associate Professor in the Division of Media Arts + Practice in the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts. Her work centers on visual and digital rhetoric, feminist theory and algorithmic research methods. In 2005, she successfully defended one of the first born-digital dissertations in the United States, challenging archiving and copyright conventions. Committed to helping shape open source tools for scholarship, she also published the first article created in the authoring platform, Scalar titled “Filmic Texts and the Rise of the Fifth Estate,” and she serves on the editorial boards of several peer reviewed digital and print-based journals. With Vicki Callahan, she recently finished work on an edited collection, Subversive Performance and Feminist Bodies (Parlor Press, 2015). Kuhn was the 2009 recipient of the USC Provost’s award for Teaching with Technology. She directs on undergraduate Honors program, as well as a graduate certificate in Digital Media and Culture, and teaches a variety of graduate and undergraduate classes in new media, all of which marry theory and practice.

Dr. Heather Wipfli is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Preventive Medicine at the USC/Keck School of Medicine and in the Department of International Relations at the USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. She is also the Associate Director of the USC Institute for Global Health. Her research focuses on global health politics and the development of innovative forms of global health governance. She has successfully led a number of large multi-country research and capacity building projects focused on global health and policy, including a study of secondhand smoke in homes in over 30 countries. She also contributes to improving the capacity of individuals and organizations to address global health issues through the development and delivery of innovative onsite and online curriculum, including having developed numerous undergraduate and graduate global health courses that experiment with new modes of learner-centered learning, including the use of technology, interactive play, and professional immersion. Dr. Wipfli has published work on policy diffusion, capacity building in developing countries, globalization and health, and health security. Her book on global tobacco control was published by Johns Hopkins University Press in 2015.

Jason Lipshin is a user experience design researcher for TomTom in Amsterdam. He focuses on the exploratory stages of product development, working on next generation navigation devices and fitness-oriented wearable computing. Before TomTom, Jason worked as an interaction design intern for Disney Interactive Group in Tokyo, Japan. He helped create wireframes and concepts for apps that will be soon be released to the Japanese market. In 2014, Jason received his M.S. from MIT’s Comparative Media Studies program, where he wrote his thesis on ubiquitous computing. He was also a researcher for both the MIT Mobile Experience Lab and the MIT Imagination, Computation, and Expression Lab, where he wrote publications and developed prototypes devoted to these (and other) topics. Jason graduated from USC in 2011. In his time there, he worked extensively with the Institute for Multimedia Literacy (now the Division of Media Arts + Practice).

Susana Ruiz is an artist and scholar whose teaching and research are broadly concerned with how the intersection of art practice, game design, computation, and storytelling can enable emergent forms of social justice, aesthetics, and learning. Much of Ruiz’s work takes place via the studio she co-founded, Take Action Games (TAG), which has an evolving portfolio of “serious”, documentary, and “art” game design, participatory culture, and transmedia storytelling. TAG’s accolades include the Games For Change Audience Award, the Adobe MAX Award for Social Responsibility, Honoree status in the Webby Award Activism Category, and the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences’ prestigious Governors Award as part of the mtvU Sudan campaign. Ruiz is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Film and Digital Media at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She was a member of the first cohort in the Interactive Media and Games MFA program at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts and then a member of the second cohort in its Ph.D. program in Media Arts + Practice. She was a USC Provost’s Fellow and recipient of the University of Southern California’s Ph.D. Achievement Award, the highest honor bestowed on doctoral candidates at USC.

'Collaborative Curricula Linking Digital Studies and Global Health' has 1 comment

  1. May 11, 2015 @ 9:17 am Table of Contents: Issue 7

    […] Collaborative Curricula Linking Digital Studies and Global Health Virginia Kuhn and Heather Wipfli, with Jason Lipshin and Susana Ruiz […]


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