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Twitter exchange between instructor and student about how one author was connected to the British royal family but could find no biographical information on her. One tweet also has a picture of Han Solo from the movie Star Wars.
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Possibly Impossible; Or, Teaching Undergraduates to Confront Digital and Archival Research Methodologies, Social Media Networking, and Potential Failure

Abstract

This article details an undergraduate student research project titled “The Possibly Impossible Research Project,” a collaborative effort between the Baldwin Library of Historical Children’s Literature at the University of Florida and the Writing and Communication Program at the Georgia Institute of Technology. The article outlines the pedagogy behind a multimodal digital research project that provided Georgia Tech students with in-depth instruction into archival research processes while improving the Baldwin’s annotated bibliography. The article then details the process of teaching the course and how students responded to the project both during and after the course. This assignment also offered students an opportunity to uncover and make meaning as researchers in their own right, and to distribute that new knowledge through public facing digital platforms such as Twitter and Wikipedia. The authors conclude that the collaborative project had meaningful impacts on the undergraduate students, the course instructor, the curator of the Baldwin Library, and the larger academic community; further, it can serve as a model for engaging undergraduate students with archival research, analysis, and dissemination. This article outlines the assignment in detail, including the interactive digital scaffolding assignments. The article cites student research journal tweets and final reflective portfolio essays to demonstrate the successful fulfillment of the student learning outcomes.

“There’s no use trying,” [Alice] said: “one can’t believe impossible things.”
“I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There (1871)

Introduction

For first-year undergraduate students, college work can feel like the expectation to do the impossible. When confronted with projects that require original research, these students may feel ill-equipped to engage with unfamiliar techniques and may give up without even trying. If, by emulating Lewis Carroll’s Red Queen from Through the Looking-Glass, instructors can encourage students to practice believing in their ability to achieve “impossible” things, and create a situation in which it is acceptable to fail, students can begin to feel secure enough to try for the impossible.

In this spirit, our article details an undergraduate student research project titled “The Possibly Impossible Research Project,” a collaborative effort between the Baldwin Library of Historical Children’s Literature at the University of Florida and the Writing and Communication Program at the Georgia Institute of Technology. This article outlines a multimodal digital research project that provided Georgia Tech students with in-depth instruction into archival research processes while improving the Baldwin’s “Guiding Science” annotated bibliography. This assignment also offered students an opportunity to uncover and make meaning as researchers in their own right, and to distribute that new knowledge through public-facing digital platforms such as Twitter and Wikipedia. Overall, the project produced a meaningful collaboration among the undergraduate students, the course instructor, and the curator of the Baldwin Library, while contributing knowledge to the larger academic community. Further, it can serve as a model for engaging undergraduate students with archival research, analysis, and dissemination.

“Guiding Science” Bibliography Project

The contributions of women to early scientific discoveries and the dissemination of international scientific theory are still largely unknown outside of the fields of children’s literature and the history of education. In 2014, the Baldwin Library of Historical Children’s Literature was awarded an American Libraries Association Carnegie-Whitney grant to develop a digital annotated bibliography of women-authored science books for children during the long nineteenth century. As an ancillary to “Guiding Science: Publications by Women in the Romantic and Victorian Ages,” the George A. Smathers Libraries digitized 200 titles from the project to provide context to the bibliography and encourage use of these texts in teaching and research.[1]

One of the main aims of the bibliography project was to highlight the important—and often neglected—work of women to promote scientific invention, discovery, and the development of the scientific method. However, with the professionalization of the sciences from the home to the academy, the work of these women was ignored and, in some cases, maligned. As science formalized fields of study and work, women were pushed out of their work as lab assistants and translators of scientific theory. Since women could not receive any formal training in sciences (women were not allowed to attend universities in Great Britain until the twentieth century, and very few women were able to attend universities in the United States until then), they were relegated to the role of mere amateur. Their previous work as authors, educators, and partners in scientific discovery was forgotten or dismissed as being of lesser quality than that of their formally trained male counterparts.

In compiling the bibliography, the Baldwin Library curator, Suzan Alteri, identified titles, authors, and subjects in the library’s online catalog. Identifying subjects proved difficult since the many fields of science during these eras fell under the umbrella of natural history. In order to fully capture the scope of scientific endeavors, it was necessary to keyword search scientific concepts rather than broad science subject fields. In searching for titles to include in the project, Alteri discovered many anonymously written titles. Since the project had already identified many books written by women, Alteri began to wonder how many of the anonymously written titles were actually authored by women. Because of the enormous legal and social barriers to education, work, and full participation in society before and during the nineteenth century, books authored by women were often published anonymously so as to avoid derision, as Cheryl Turner noted in Living by the Pen: Women Writers in the Eighteenth Century (2012).[2]

In addition to the bibliography, Alteri felt it was necessary to add additional contextual information so readers would understand the time period and constraints under which these women were writing while also providing a better understanding of how science and science education developed in tandem. Since the project was rooted in the idea of discovering the hidden work of these women, Alteri believed one of the most important aspects of contextual information would be biographical information on the authors. Since most women did not receive a formal education until at least the mid-nineteenth century, how were they able to write so many crucial texts for science education? By tracing biographical details such as familial status, exposure to education through tutors, and other pathways to education, Alteri thought that readers of the bibliography would be better able to grasp women authors’ contributions to literature, education, and science. Moreover, compiling biographical details often uncovered interesting facts about how women’s writing was received by both the scientific community and how their entry into the public sphere, as writers, was viewed by society.

However, finding biographical information on over one hundred different women authors who wrote in the eighteenth and much of the nineteenth century was surprisingly difficult. While some writers, such as Sarah Trimmer, wrote numerous texts and are well-known for their contributions to early children’s literature, many women authors did not sign all or any of their books. This tendency to leave texts unclaimed was compounded by the fact that in British society of the time, vital record information was not regularly kept on daughters and wives. Since Alteri was working alone to compile biographical information, tracking vital record information would have been too laborious a process. Instead, Alteri opted to search the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography and Wikipedia for biographical information. The ODNB was originally published in 1885 (and continuously updated) as the Dictionary of National Biography, a biographical listing of important peoples from Great Britain and its colonies. Wikipedia was used for the small number of American authors.

Searching biographical dictionaries by name yielded interesting results. For authors who had their own entries, summarizing biographical information was simple. For others, scant biographical information was discovered through more famous husbands and brothers. For example, a few sentences on Emily Taylor are contained in her brother’s entry, Edgar Taylor. As noted earlier, women writers often faced steep criticism for entering the public sphere of professional writing, and many simply published under their married names—Mrs. Thrope or Mrs. Brook—or signed their work as “A Lady” or “A Mother.” Alteri was able to cobble some information together by searching for male relatives, particularly if, as in the case of Mrs. Norman Lockyer, they were scholars of some note. A very small number of authors were able to be tracked through their publications, since most books of the time period contained the phrase “By the Author of…” Still, out of the 123 authors listed in the bibliography, fifty authors, or forty percent, were untraceable by these methods. Alteri was struck by how large the percentage was, but struggled with how to convey a partially successful recovery project to end users of the bibliography. For Alteri, and other scholars on the original project, it was obvious that the barriers to women’s education and participation in the public sphere in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were the result of sexist practices, but would people unfamiliar with children’s literature, women’s history, and feminist recovery projects understand the impact of having no information on a person except a copy of a book? By compiling biographical information on these women authors, it is not only their texts and ideas which are recovered, but their lives as well.

Undergraduate Research Collaboration

As chair of the Baldwin Library’s Scholars Council, instructor Rebekah Fitzsimmons of the Georgia Tech Writing and Communication Program (WCP) was familiar with the goals of the “Guiding Science” project and the curator’s struggles. WCP houses the core communication courses for Georgia Tech, including the two-semester composition sequence, and emphasizes multimodal communication through the WOVEN (Written, Oral, Visual, Electronic, and Nonverbal) framework. English 1102, “continues to help students learn how to communicate more effectively, but with a greater emphasis on research, argument, and applied theory. Instructors of English 1102 construct courses around intellectually engaging and relevant themes from science, technology, literature, and popular culture.” The course also encourages projects that “help students learn the role that research plays in formulating social and cultural ideas.” Inspired by conversations in the popular media surrounding the #MeToo movement and films like Hidden Figures (2016), Fitzsimmons felt students at an elite technical institute would benefit from a research project that not only highlighted the vast number of women involved in scientific discovery during the Victorian age, but also actively demonstrated the ways in which the accomplishments of those women were forgotten or actively appropriated by others.

Fitzsimmons and Alteri collaborated to design an ENGL 1102 course that would provide Georgia Tech students the opportunity to contribute original research to the “Guiding Science” bibliography. The resulting course was titled “The History and Rhetoric of Science Writing for Children” (syllabus available here). Students were asked to think through the ways rhetorical communities of science writing—especially those focused around education—changed given various historical moments, and the ways in which certain voices within those communities have long been privileged, ignored, or actively silenced. Students read children’s literature with scientific themes, including Charles Kingsley’s The Water-Babies (1862), Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden (1911), Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle In Time (1962), and contemporary (2011–present) science-themed picture books. Engaging with primary texts and secondary critical literature, classroom discussion touched on the historical transformations of “scientific” ideas about race, gender, evolution, astronomy, mechanics, health (physical and mental), professionalization, and science education from the Victorian age into the twenty-first century. In dedicating the research unit of the course to investigating the lives of these lost Victorian science authors, the students engaged with real world examples of Victorian women working in and writing about the sciences with academic rigor, creativity, and a dedication to educating young people about physics, chemistry, astronomy, natural history, hygiene, horticulture, home economics, and geography.

The course utilized Paulo Freire’s problem-posing education model within a Critical Digital Pedagogy framework, which encouraged the students to experiment, play, improvise, and fail as a part of the learning process. In their book An Urgency of Teachers: The Work of Critical Digital Pedagogy, Morris and Stommel (2018, 23) note that “Digital pedagogy calls for ‘screwing around’ (Ramsay) more than it does systematic study . . . digital pedagogy is less about knowing and more a rampant process of unlearning, play, and rediscovery.” By embracing this model of learning, the course was designed to empower students to interrogate the rhetorics of scientific discourse that would be relevant to most of their future careers in the STEM fields, while breaking the hierarchical model of the classroom to encourage students to collaborate with the professor and one another. This process helped the students to make meaning, including applying this work to their own professional fields and connecting their developing skills to future projects and goals.[3] In addition, folding original research into the course exposed students to primary sources in literature and research processes using special collections and archival materials. Since special collections and archives are often viewed as the laboratories of the humanities, many of the research methods used by scholars in special collections and archives mimic those used in scientific laboratories, particularly observation and testing.[4] In this case study, students began with observations about science during the Victorian age, developed questions regarding their chosen author, and then began to “test,” through interrogation, various sources for biographical information. As Anne Bahde (2011, 75) states, allowing undergraduate students to interact, even digitally, with primary sources can “provoke an unusual level of critical inquiry.” Primary sources are often neglected in many undergraduate courses either due to curricular time constraints or pedagogical biases that reserve primary source research processes for graduate students. However, Pablo Alvarez (2006, 95), and others, document how using rare books in the undergraduate curriculum can “offer new perspectives that can lead to original research.” Students are often more engaged with primary source material, either due to the uniqueness of the resources or their novelty as a relic of times gone by. Providing students with the opportunity to act as a professional researcher helps them become more responsible and empowers them to drive their own education. The focus on process and experimentation in this project allows students to work, sometimes for the first time, in a space without a preconceived notion of right or wrong answers and a shared sense of authority within the classroom.

The Possibly Impossible Research Project” asked students to assist the curator of the Baldwin in researching the fifty female authors from the “Guiding Science” bibliography about whom she had been unable to locate sufficient biographical information. Each student was assigned one author and asked to research and compile enough information to complete either a multimodal Wikipedia article or a short textual biography to be posted on the “Guiding Science” website. Each student was given all the information Alteri had already compiled as a starting point, which might include lifespan dates, family information, known pen-names, or country of origin.

This assignment acknowledged from the outset that the chance of authoring any kind of public-facing biography might not be achievable. From the very title of the assignment, it was important for students to understand that the ultimate goal of the project might well be out of reach (as it was for the curator). Therefore, the assignment was structured to help students learn good research practices and goals, engage with various digital learning communities, and document their work with an eye toward process over final product.

The final project deliverable was a research portfolio, which permitted students to mix and match at least three of the following elements based on the information they found:

  • Multimodal biographical article posted on Wikipedia
  • Public-facing biography for the Baldwin “Guiding Science” website
  • Bibliography of sources in MLA format
  • Archived Twitter research journal
  • Research narrative of 600–800 words
  • Archived correspondence with librarians, scholars, archivists, or other experts
  • Archived images

The assignment sheet and in-class discussions emphasized that while the ideal outcome of the project was a public-facing biography, it was possible that students could fulfill the required learning outcomes of the assignment and earn an A even if they could not complete this portion of the portfolio. Ultimately, the assignment sheet instructed: “Students should approach this project as a journey into the unknown. They should be prepared to make mistakes, get messy, and potentially come up empty-handed.[5] A large part of the project will include figuring out how to make failure and frustration productive, how to document a research process so that future researchers might benefit, and how to enjoy the research rabbit holes.”

Pedagogical Goals

This assignment focused on four major pedagogical goals. The first was content related: to have students engage with historical records and the rhetoric of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century scientific communities. The women represented in the bibliography project were talented, often prolific authors; many were also brilliant scientific thinkers and researchers in their own right. However, due to the social and political realities of the Victorian age, the vast majority of these women were denied opportunities to practice scientific inquiry in any professional sphere or were considered mere assistants in the scientific careers of male relatives such as a husband, father, or brother.[6] Prior to the Victorian age, scientific discovery occurred in the home, which could make it easier for women to participate. But the professionalization of scientific inquiry into academic fields developed rapidly during the nineteenth century. Ann B. Shteir (1997, 236) notes that burgeoning professionalization coupled with the restriction of women in public sphere created circumstances which instilled “more exclusionary relations between women and science culture.”

At a technical institute that only began accepting female students into regular classes in 1952, this assignment offered an opportunity to have students encounter firsthand the ways in which science relegated these women to the sidelines. By asking twenty-first-century students to research nineteenth-century female authors, the feminist lens of this assignment pushed students to ask (often in outbursts of frustration, such as the Tweets pictured below) why these women’s lives weren’t better documented. This project, aided by classroom discussions, directly confronted the myths that the lack of women in STEM fields is due to disinterest or biological/psychological dispositions of different genders, or that women have only begun to be involved in STEM in the last 50 years.

Twitter exchange between instructor and student about how one author was connected to the British royal family but could find no biographical information on her. One tweet also has a picture of Han Solo from the movie Star Wars.

Figure 1. #RJ tweet exchange between the instructor and student Cheyenne Murray, who voices frustration about the lack of information about an author with significant political connections. (see original tweet: https://twitter.com/eng_1102_Murray/status/961018874882912257)

 

Twitter conversation between students about how they can find more information about women authors’ male relatives than the actual authors themselves.

Figure 2. #RJ tweet exchange between three students noting the ease of locating information on male relatives compared to the female authors. (https://twitter.com/nawereGT/status/962083179191590912)

The second goal was to help students move beyond Google and to harness digital research technologies, including social media, to find information. To encourage collaboration and professional networking, students were assigned two required and one optional digital scaffolding components. First, students kept a real-time research journal via Twitter (see next section), where they regularly reported the steps in their research process over the course of one month. Second, each student wrote a WordPress blog post summarizing their work approximately halfway through the project and then responded to two other posts with constructive feedback. These posts were included on the course blog, a public-facing website, with all student names anonymized. Third, one of the final portfolio options allowed students to include an archive of their email communications with experts from outside the class. This last optional component was rather broadly sketched in the assignment, but students were given an in-class tutorial on how to compose a polite, professional email asking librarians, curators, publishers, archivists, or other scholars for information or research assistance.[7]

Tweet showing how a student was able to contact the Massachusetts Vital Records Office to obtain birth and death dates. Tweet has image of email sent.

Figure 3. #RJ Tweet noting a significant discovery derived from an email exchange with MA Vital Records. (https://twitter.com/FrancescaKwok/status/962460819660398594)

 

Twitter exchange between students regarding a biographical dictionary of American women that might also have women authors in it.

Figure 4. #RJ Tweet exchange where one student points fellow students to a useful source about American authors. (https://twitter.com/gtac334/status/960404528876212224)

The third goal was to displace the expectation that the professor already knew all the answers and it was the students’ job to rediscover the “right” answers. Instead, the professor was presented as a partner in the learning process. This assignment contradicted the “banking” model of education in which “the teacher knows everything and the students know nothing” and “the teacher talks and the students listen—meekly,” (Freire 1970, 23). Using the problem-solving techniques of the inquiry approach allowed Fitzsimmons and Alteri to “introduce students to IL [information literacy] as a way of thinking that focuses on modes of thought involved in seeking appropriate sources” (Mazella and Grob 2011, 468).

At first, the unknowable nature of the assignment and the inability of the professor to accurately predict the successful completion of the ideal outcome—especially given the time constraints of the project, lack of access to physical materials, and the age of the material—made many of the students extremely uncomfortable. Many asked variations of the question, “But really, which of these authors will be easiest to research?” to which Fitzsimmons repeatedly replied “I honestly don’t know.” To many students, this felt like a drastic shift in the way they thought about research. Ben Ventimiglia[8] wrote in his final reflective portfolio essay[9]: “In high school, doing a research project meant googling the topic, reading the Wikipedia article, and maybe copying a few websites into a bibliography. Yet this project, as with everything else in this class, was different. This time, I wasn’t researching something that the teacher already knew about, this time I was researching something that hardly anyone knew about.” Some students even indicated in their blog posts that they initially assumed that Fitzsimmons and Alteri were only pretending ignorance. Kaylee Correll wrote in her blog post: “When first receiving the assignment for ‘The Possibly Impossible Research Project,’ I thought, surely Dr. Fitz has researched these authors and knows information exists on them. It’s just hard to find, so she’s challenging us to develop our research skills. Well, that has clearly proved not to be the case.” This was, in part, the very assumption the assignment was designed to challenge. In undermining the idea that the professor knows everything, this assignment offered students the opportunity to make meaning through engagement with an existing problem (a lack of information about a subset of scientific authors) and empowered students to become what Freire (1970, 27) terms “critical co-investigators in dialogue with the teacher.” In fact, most readily embraced the challenge of rediscovering knowledge and adding that information back into the historical record via the existing “Guiding Science” scholarly project and through public-facing Wikipedia articles.

This project further emphasized the concept of research and discovery as a process. Both Fitzsimmons and the Georgia Tech research librarians who instructed the class on digital research methodologies and available library resources reiterated that the research that students would likely be engaged in as civil engineers, computer-science developers, and architects would reflect this same kind of open-ended problem solving. These students are likely to find themselves in industries where they are asked to create a solution to a problem that has no preconceived “correct” answer. The exposure to this kind of problem, paired with the opportunity to conduct original research in a first-year composition class where the stakes were relatively low, allowed students to embrace the challenge and reorient themselves toward a new way of thinking about research and their own educations.

Tweet by a student who said they never had to do real research before this class.

Figure 5. #RJ tweet exchange where students discuss their previous lack of experience with “real research.” (https://twitter.com/mollyengl1102/status/962736430614306817)

 

Tweet by a student on how the assignment increased their ability to search online.

Figure 6. #RJ Tweet exchange where students reflect on what this research process taught them and how it might be useful in the future. (https://twitter.com/PeterLe01341419/status/962553797032726529)

The fourth goal was intimately tied to the third: in asking first year students to engage in difficult, original research without the promise of results, the assignment actively set up many of these high-performing students to fail in order to teach them to cope with and work around setbacks. Today’s college-aged students, in general, enter college facing pressures and expectations from all sides, leading to a rise in stress, mental health concerns, and reluctance to admit to confusion or mistakes. Geoffrey Cantor (2017) notes that these pressures can come from all sides such as “the ever-increasing emphasis on academic success in our target-driven culture” as well as stresses “about their finances and the substantial loans that they have to shoulder” in order to earn the degrees they have been told are necessary to succeed in a twenty-first century economy. Cantor further notes, “Schools, particularly prestigious private schools, often project a highly competitive ethos, causing some students to drop out of the race, while others enter it with an obsessive determination to succeed” while familial pressures can turn a bad grade on a test into familial disappointment. The pressures can be high whether the student comes from a long line of legacy degree earners or a family with no higher education background.

Given the highly structured, outcome-based educational policies that govern most of today’s students’ K-12 learning experiences, college courses that offer a lack of structure, supervision, or clear expectations often make students intensely uncomfortable. As many college faculty can attest, students who face frustration or difficulty in completing a project may shut down, give up, or blame the instructor for a lack of clarity in directions or expectations. In response, colleges and universities are increasingly trying to find ways to work with the “failure-deprived” or high-achieving students who are “[n]early perfect on paper, with résumés packed full of extracurricular activities” but as a result “they seemed increasingly unable to cope with basic setbacks that come with college life” such as scoring a B on a test or missing a deadline on a paper (Bennett 2017). In using a digital pedagogy framework that embraces play, experimentation, and failure, this course sought to join other beneficial experiences aimed at helping students learn to cope with failure, while also helping demystify and destigmatize failure through collaborative work practices. Others, such as David Gooblar (2018), have noted that sharing failure can help to normalize it as well as provide students with coping strategies, both in and out of the classroom.

Series of images and gifs featuring brick walls to signify the frustration of hitting a dead end in their searches. Other students offer sympathy, solidarity, or encouragement including an animated gif of a man running through a brick wall; another tweet shows an animated man clutching his head and screaming in agony.

Figure 7. #RJ Tweet exchange between six students, commiserating on the frustrations of hitting “brick walls.” Some offer advice, others sympathy, solidarity, or encouragement. (https://twitter.com/WestbrookKarin/status/961790136190160898)

In this vein, the structure of the assignment was built around the risk of failure as a regular part of original research, thereby emphasizing the need to develop good research habits, such as recording and documenting the steps of a research process, and on creative problem solving in the face of setbacks. To do this, Fitzsimmons first made clear that she expected each and every student to fail, or at least to encounter frustrations and setbacks, which the class came to refer to as “brick walls.” These brick walls might include leads that did not pan out, searches that ended in no results, or email queries sent with no responses.

After assigning the project, Fitzsimmons devoted at least five minutes each class period to a research check-in. Students were regularly asked to discuss what they had or had not found, what resources had been useful, and where had they gone astray. Early discussions were hesitant and limited, likely due to the fact that many students had not really started their projects yet. However, after the blog post (and the flurry of research and tweeting that took place the weekend prior), students became far more willing to admit to running into brick walls. Once the students were willing to share to these failures with their peers, a focus on creative problem solving emerged. As students began to share successes, their approaches often inspired others. For example, as some students began to hear back from archivists and librarians, more students were willing to reach out via email to outside experts. As students had reported success with specific digital resources available through our library’s subscription service, other students began to work with the librarians and databases to find archival records, images, census data, publication information or more. In asking students to confront these brick walls and frustrations, and then move on to new approaches, this project mimicked likely scenarios researchers face in both academia and industry.

One of the many threads of conversation the class repeatedly revisited during the project was how to manage frustration and failure from both a productivity standpoint and an emotional one. In some cases, this meant letting students vent their frustrations, while Fitzsimmons, and eventually other students, validated those emotions; phrases like “that does sound very frustrating” or “I hate it when that happens” acknowledged the students’ difficulties while also recognizing how common failure can be. Often times, identification and sharing of similar experiences was enough to help students. In certain cases of prolonged and ongoing “failure,” the class would sometimes suggest other search strategies, brainstorm new approaches, or offer to share physical resources. In a couple of dire cases, reassurance took the form of reiterating the requirements of the assignment and asking the “failing” student to account for what they had already accomplished and how the work they were producing (research notes, works cited, evidence of emails sent) were all that the assignment required for them to earn an A.

Twitter Research Journals (#RJ): Leveraging Social Media In Archival Research

In an attempt to emphasize the concept of research as a process, Fitzsimmons asked students to keep a public-facing research journal using Twitter. Over the course of the month-long project, students were required to send 30 original tweets about their research process that included the course hashtag (#1102kidsci) and the assignment hashtag (#RJ). The students were also required to reply to 10 of their peers’ #RJ tweets during this time. Students were encouraged to send tweets about their ideas, successes, failures, frustrations, questions, search terms, and correspondence in real time, as their research unfolded.

Given its informal nature, many faculty members, including Shannon Draucker (2018), observe that “Twitter offered my students a venue in which to share their more casual, impressionistic responses to our course texts and to communicate their immediate reactions and emerging insights with each other.” Further, the use of multimodal forms of communication (gifs, links, images) in the digital platform allowed students to share a wider variety of information with peers and the general public alike, regardless of Twitter’s 280 character limit. As a result, this form of a research journal recorded the ups and downs of the research process and made the usually invisible labor of research visible, tangible, and humanized.

Twitter exchange between student and Georgia Tech librarian celebrating finding a picture of an author. Exchange contains two images, one of author in an elaborate white bonnet. The other of cat with OMG written on it.

Figure 8. #RJ tweet exchange between a student and GT librarian Karen Viars, celebrating the discovery of a photograph of the student’s assigned author. Note the informality and collegial nature of Karen’s response, keeping largely with the tone set by the students in this collaborative space. (https://twitter.com/MaximENGL1102/status/961375465511546881)

 

Twitter exchange between students, featuring a photo of the original document in which a student found significant new information.

Figure 9. #RJ tweet exchange between Kevin Lau and a fellow student, featuring a photo of the original document in which Kevin found significant new information. (Tweet no longer available.)

The #RJ scaffolding component also allowed for real-time feedback and coaching from both the instructor and the Georgia Tech subject librarian, Karen Viars. In addition to Viars leading a workshop during class time on databases and digital resources, Twitter offered her the opportunity to respond to students and offer her expertise in an informal, collegial way. Given the nature of this project, both Fitzsimmons and Viars found it useful to reinforce a number of the concepts discussed in class, specifically the ideas that research is a process, that dead ends do not necessarily mean failure overall, and that finding no results in specific databases is still valuable information to be recorded and noted. Based on theories that experiential learning can provide more concrete learning outcomes, this real-time feedback in response to the students’ actual work likely made more of an impact than the in-class discussion of failure as an abstract concept. To encourage this tone and level of informality, both Fitzsimmons and Viars regularly responded with the same level of irreverence, humor, and emotion as the students.

Twitter exchange that features an example of informal coaching from the instructor, using an animated gif of a woman making angry, frustrated faces while simulating strangling the air with her hands.

Figure 10. #RJ Tweet exchange that features an example of informal coaching from the instructor, using an animated gif to sympathize with the student’s frustration while encouraging the professional protocols discussed in class lessons. (https://twitter.com/DrFitzPhD/status/963225008154791939)

 

Exchange on Twitter between student and instructor discussing importance of taking breaks during the research process, which features a gif from Big Hero 6 that reads “Low...Battery…”

Figure 11. #RJ Tweet exchange between a student and the instructor that reiterates some of the process oriented lessons about research discussed in class, namely the importance of taking breaks and self-care. (https://twitter.com/db110223/status/958791263066775553)

While one of the goals of the assignment was to teach students how to use social media to develop professional collaborative networks, the supportive and positive community that developed among the students within the #RJ hashtag discussions went far beyond the professor’s expectations. Although the assignment required students to reply to one another 10 times, most students quickly outpaced that requirement and embraced the digital space as a place to share database resources, books, articles, and search techniques. In her reflective portfolio, Annie Lee wrote: “Slowly but surely, Twitter became the place for collaboration. Between following accounts that may have been of help and exchanging ideas with my peers, we were able to create a community that was constructive and rewarding.” Many students admitted to turning to the Twitter hashtag when they felt stuck or frustrated, knowing that their class colleagues would have tips and new ideas for them to try.

Extended collaboration Twitter conversation. The first tweet includes a photo of two leather-bound books; the second image includes a photo of text from one of the books that is relevant to a classmate’s project. The third tweet responds to the image of text, asking the original poster to send more information about an author mentioned in the body of the text. Additional tweets facilitate sharing information; the final tweet from the instructor includes an image of Ron Swanson from Parks and Recreation nodding in approval and reads “I’m really proud of you.”

Figure 12. In this extended #RJ Tweet exchange, Bailey McLain shares photos from a physical book she checked out of the library and offers to check the index for other students’ assigned author; she tags Ben Ventimiglia on a photo of that text that mentions the author he was researching. Another classmate from a different section read the text in the photo and replied to Bailey, asking for more information. Bailey messages him the additional information; the instructor responds at the end of the exchange commending the whole group for their generous collaborative spirit. (https://twitter.com/bmclain1102/status/957983681292980229)

The #RJ assignment also offered students an opportunity to leverage social media as a networking tool. In early class discussions, students were encouraged to seek out scholars and professionals on Twitter who studied relevant fields, like Victorian literature, children’s literature, or science communication. Over the course of the project, students used their #RJ tweets to track their conversations with the Georgia Tech library staff as well as their work in reaching out to other experts via email or social media. Many expressed surprise at how helpful and responsive the librarians were, rather than being bothered by their requests. Jae Hee Lee Lee noted: “In fact, the librarians presented to me resources I have never heard of before where I could find the rarest books (in this case, written by my author) and other sources verifying the reliability of the information I was finding.” Additionally, many students cited the class lesson on writing audience-centered professional emails (and sending thank you notes!) as one of the most beneficial parts of the project. In fact, a number expressed the idea that until this project, asking for help had felt like a last resort or an admission of failure. Perhaps because failure was an expected part of this project or because collaboration was actively built into the project requirements, many students described a new outlook on asking for help. In his final portfolio, Zong-Rui Wee wrote that this project

opened up a new side of research that I had never really explored—it is okay to reach out to authorities on a given subject to ask for help and to be pointed in the right direction. … I had struck a goldmine by reaching out to the museums and archives, and even when they had no physical resources for me, they had pointed me in the right direction. If reaching out to professors or archivists for information was not one of the few suggested options for the project, I would probably never have found as much information than I actually had.

Teaching students how to approach fellow scholars in a collaborative spirit as a valid form of research thus became a major unexpected outcome of the project’s focus on networking and social media.[10]

Student tweet includes a screenshot of an email she received from the magazine Popular Science about her author; the Georgia Tech librarian responds with an animated gif of a man gesturing excitedly that reads “Yes! That is awesome!”

Figure 13. #RJ tweet by Karin Westbrook with a screenshot of an email from an editorial assistant at Popular Science; the magazine was started by the brother of the author Karin was researching. (https://twitter.com/WestbrookKarin/status/960911389656313856)

 

Student tweet to another Twitter user asking for assistance; that same Twitter user replies with a link to a blog post written about the student’s author and an invitation to direct message for more information.

Figure 14. #RJ tweet from Bethel Mamo to a Twitter user who describes herself as “Chronicler of 18th century royal life, both fictional and true!” @MadameGilflurt had previously tweeted about the student’s assigned author and provided her with information as a result of this exchange. (https://twitter.com/bethelkidsci/status/956729597818802176)

Research and Student Outcomes

At the conclusion of the “Possibly Impossible Research Project,” students submitted twenty-eight short biographies for authors in the “Guiding Science” bibliography. A further nine authors now have “leads,” or at least some information gathered by the students that can be used to conduct further research. Out of the fifty authors assigned to the students, only eight have no information. The additional biographical information, and the research processes used by the students, demonstrate a number of the barriers that existed for women writers and the increasing barriers placed on women in the sciences during professionalization. As evidenced in students’ research journals, a number of women had to be tracked through their male relatives, of whom there was far more written evidence.

The project also promoted the books of these authors and their contributions to scientific fields to a wider audience through the creation of new knowledge. In addition to the information contributed to the Baldwin, eleven students completed either new Wikipedia articles on their author, or edited and made significant improvements to their author’s existing Wikipedia pages.[11] Ultimately, the students viewed the Wikipedia article as the pinnacle of achievement in this project, owing to the high standards for “verifiable” sources required by the Wikipedia community and multimodal components, such as images of the author, that they felt made a Wikipedia page complete.[12] In contrast, students who wrote biographies for the Baldwin were permitted to hedge or qualify their research, allowing them to include information that they had not been able to confirm in published sources.

As with any original research, the potential for unexpected discoveries made this project especially exciting. A few lucky students uncovered scandalous content about their authors that directly defied the stereotypical image of a children’s literature author. One student discovered evidence that her author had been sentenced to hard labor after being arrested for stealing; another student found newspaper articles accusing her author of adultery.

One student uncovered a lead that indicated that Mary Trimmer might have been a fake name used by American publishers to capitalize on the success of the British author Sarah Trimmer. As students shared these discoveries via Twitter and during class discussion, their enthusiasm and surprise provided their classmates with both motivation and entertainment.

A student tweet about finding evidence her author stole a purse and was arrested, including an animated gif of a woman stuffing pastries into her purse and two additional tweets about further wrongdoing. The instructor responds with an excited textual reply; the Georgia Tech librarian responds with an animated gif of a man looking surprised that reads “at first I was like...”

Figure 15. #RJ Tweet where Lauren Becknell shares that she found evidence to suggest her author was arrested for theft and for counterfeiting coins. Both the GT librarian and the instructor react with excitement. (https://twitter.com/BecknellKidSci/status/960920003112591362)

 

A student tweet about an author accused of adultery, featuring an animated gif of Mr. T, and J. Alexander from America’s Next Top Model looking scandalized.

Figure 16. #RJ tweet in which a student reacts to finding evidence that the student’s author did not actually exist, but was a scam invented by American publishers to take advantage of another author with the same last name. (https://twitter.com/LitScience1102/status/962012675289960449)

 

A student tweet indicating evidence that the author never existed and was, in fact, a scam; the tweet includes an animated gif of Andy from Parks and Recreation looking shocked and reads “Oh snap!”

Figure 17. #RJ tweet in which a student reacts to newspaper articles indicating the student’s author committed adultery. (https://twitter.com/tweetinfeatin/status/962102325488779264)

Students felt successful regardless of how much information they located; even the eight students who turned in portfolios with no results reported feeling they had learned a significant amount from the project. The students with no results all admitted to feeling some level of disappointment but also reported feeling proud for sticking with the project. While some reported a good deal of content knowledge acquisition, specifically about their author, the topic(s) on which she wrote, and Victorian society, most reported a new appreciation for “real” research, an expanded understanding of the resources available to them through the library, and a growing appreciation for professional networking via digital platforms. Many of the students also noted that they appreciated their work going towards public-facing resources, rather than remaining between them and their professor. Lauren Becknell wrote: “I found this project to be very meaningful due to our own research being able to be seen, edited, and built upon by other literature researchers.”

Finally, the students had the opportunity to learn about the challenges, pitfalls, joys, and productive processes associated with original research in a relatively safe, low-stakes environment. In a study that examined the emotional responses of information seeking library patrons, Carol C. Kuhlthau (1991, 367) notes that the exploration phase of research is the one most likely to challenge previously-held conceptions about the information available and is often the phase where “users may find the situation quite discouraging and threatening, causing a sense of personal inadequacy as well as frustration … some may be inclined to abandon the search altogether at this stage.” By exposing students intentionally to this stage of research in an assignment predominantly focused on process and documentation as the graded requirement of the assignment, the students were able to refocus on methods rather than the final product. Helen Smith’s reflective portfolio included this observation: “For each of the assignments in this class, the process of getting to the final product was the key change in my mindset. It is often very easy to want to jump headfirst into a project. … Without realizing it, you begin skipping crucial steps in the brainstorming, outlining, creating, drafting, and revising stages.” The increased focus on process helped the students come to terms with the risks of original research, namely, the potential for failure. Peter Lee wrote “This project taught me that often in research, there will be dead ends and that its sometimes perfectly fine to not find anything substantial.” In classroom reflective discussions, many of the students reported that they felt far more confident to approach their research-driven major courses now that they had a more solid grounding on how to do “real” research.

The positive impacts of this project were not reserved merely for the students. First, the larger fields of English, children’s literature, the history of education, and the history of science will all benefit from the original research produced in bringing the lives of these (often incredible) women to light. Second, Alteri reported learning new and creative approaches to biographical research from the students (e.g. what sources they used, how they tracked down information). She noted, “they often thought of using sources that I, a more traditional researcher, would not have used, especially Ancestry.com and other genealogy sites that many students used to locate their authors through marriage records, census data, and obituaries. Also, I think a meaningful impact has been bringing the work and the lives of the women to light!” Third, Fitzsimmons noted that a lot of learning can come from admitting “I don’t know” as a professor. While this course was built on topics the professor knew a lot about, it also left space for the unknown in order to ignite student curiosity. Fitzsimmons noted, “I was genuinely thrilled by each new discovery but I was also prepared to roll up my sleeves and help students puzzle through a frustrating lack of findings during office hours or workshops.” This shared sense of discovery helped many students with no interest in pursuing the humanities beyond their required courses find value and importance in this particular project.

Student put together a Twitter thread on how to approach original research for this class as a self-directed reflective exercise—the multimodal animated gifs helped make the thread entertaining as well as informative. Animated gifs show Kermit the Frog typing furiously on a typewriter, a cat typing furiously on a laptop, Bert from Sesame Street looking up from a book as the camera zooms in on his surprised face, Belle from Beauty and the Beast swinging down a shelf of books on a ladder, a young woman applauding and nodding, Britney Spears giving a thumbs up and a scene from WWF wrestling.

Figure 18. Lauren Becknell put together a Twitter thread on how to approach original research for this class as a self-directed reflective exercise—the multimodal animated gifs helped make the thread entertaining as well as informative. (https://twitter.com/BecknellKidSci/status/963115838139191296)

Future Possibilities

In future iterations of this project, or for faculty members looking to create their own assignment based on this one, a few improvements should be made. First, students were very concerned about submitting their final research portfolios correctly in terms of format and document set up. A future version of the assignment sheet would clarify what the archive of images would look like, and additional time might be spent on how to create and curate a “Twitter moment” in order to create an archive of the students’ #RJ tweets and responses that would be easier to share. In addition, Alteri will be more active on Twitter, sharing her own frustrations doing research as well as interesting contextual information. Third, faculty members planning to use Twitter as an ongoing feedback tool might consider setting up digital office hours in which they check tweets on the course hashtag and respond. This would provide faculty members with a quantifiable amount of time spent providing feedback, as well as giving students a sense of fairness in terms of when they might look for responses. Given the mobility and accessibility of Twitter, these “office hours” could be a 15-20 minute window as a part of class prep.

There are also non-digital ways to encourage this level of idea exchange, both for faculty with privacy concerns, students without readily accessible computers, or those with a critical digital pedagogy that objects to supporting a large-scale commercial platform like Twitter. Keeping a paper and pen research journal and sharing the contents with a research team, or a faculty-guided small group, could certainly achieve similar levels of demystification and collegial collaboration. Finally, while this course contributed a great amount of information on these female authors, biographies from the “Guiding Science” bibliography still remains incomplete. In a future version of this class, students will be asked to research some of the authors for whom previous students were unable to find information. Therefore, in line with asking students to consider themselves as members of an academic community and using “unsuccessful” research to help build future research discoveries, the professor plans to share, with student permission, some of the no-result portfolios with the new student researchers. Hopefully, these portfolios will serve as good examples of how to record and preserve research as well as demonstrate actively that failure can still lend itself to progress.

Notes

[1] Full-text of titles can be found at http://ufdc.ufl.edu.
[2] Women authors often remained anonymous due to “the detrimental impact that their sex might have upon the earning power of their writing; the fact that it could undermine a proper evaluation of literary merit, either through premature rejection or ridicule, or through over-indulgence and condescension; and because the stigma of ‘unfeminine’ behavior remained attached to authorship throughout the period,” (Turner 2012, 95).
[3] See Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970), chapter 2.
[4] Researchers often liken archival research to the investigative process. Alexis E. Ramsey’s Working in the Archives: Practical Research Methods for Rhetoric and Composition and Helen M. Buss and Marlene Kadar’s Working in Women’s Archives: Researching Women’s Private Literature and Archival Documents.
[5] This is a reference to Miss Frizzle’s catchphrase in The Magic School-Bus picture book series, which also appeared on the course syllabus: “Take chances, get messy, make mistakes!”
[6] See C. V. Burek and B. Higgs
[7] Some of the students included connections they had made via other platforms like Twitter or official query sites for institutions like museums in this “archived correspondence” section. See Figure 15 for an example.
[8] Throughout this essay, all student quotes are included with permission from the students; students are identified by name or included anonymously based on their expressed preferences.
[9] All WCP courses include a multimodal reflective portfolio in lieu of a final exam: students are asked to write substantial reflective essay to “help your readers understand and make sense of the work you did this semester and allow them to understand the ways you developed as a communicator.”
[10] On a personal note, given the ongoing struggles on college campuses to address the unique mental health needs of highly pressured students and resulting student suicide rates, the unintended outcome of teaching students it is ok to ask for help is the one Fitzsimmons is the most proud of.
[11] Of the eight proposed new pages, two were rejected by other Wikipedia users/editors as failing to provide “clear evidence of why the subject is notable and worthy of inclusion in an encyclopedia.” Wikipedia itself admits that the “notability” requirement is one that reinforces the online resource’s systemic bias. Take, for example, the recent case of Nobel prize winner Donna Strickland, whose first Wikipedia page was rejected because she did not meet the notability requirement.
[12] Wikipedia requires published secondary sources or official documents (i.e. government documents, public records) as support for an article; given the relative obscurity and age of the authors, these verifiable materials were the most difficult for students to locate and then cite digitally.

Bibliography

Alvarez, Pablo. 2006. “Improving Rare Books into the Undergraduate Curriculum.” RBM: A Journal of Rare Books, Manuscripts, and Cultural Heritage 7, no. 2 (Fall): 94–103. EBSCO Open Access Journals.

Bahde, Anne. 2011. “Taking the Show on the Road: Special Collections Instruction in the Campus Classroom.” RBM: A Journal of Rare Books, Manuscripts, and Cultural Heritage 12, no. 2 (Fall): 75–88. EBSCO Open Access Journals.

Bennett, Jessica. 2017. “On Campus, Failure is On the Syllabus.” The New York Times, June 24, 2017.
https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/24/fashion/fear-of-failure.html.

Burek, C. V. and B. Higgs. 2007. The Role of Women in the History and Development of Geology: An Introduction. Geological Society, London, Special Publications, 281, 1-8, https://doi.org/10.1144/SP281.1

Buss, Helen M. and Marlene Kadar. 2001. Working in Women’s Archives: Researching Women’s Private Literature and Archival Documents. Waterloo, Canada: Wilfrid Laurier University Press.

Cantor, Geoffrey. 2017. “Students’ Debilitating Fear of Failure Must Be Addressed.” The Times Higher Education Supplement 2295, March 2, 2017. London: THE. LexisNexis Academic.

Carroll, Lewis. 1871. Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There. New York: D. Appleton & Company.

Draucker, Shannon. 2018. “A Claim in 140 Characters: Live Tweeting in the Composition Classroom.” The Journal of Interactive Technology & Pedagogy, May 23, 2018.
https://jitp.commons.gc.cuny.edu/a-claim-in-140-characters-live-tweeting-in-the-composition-classroom/

Freire, Paulo. 1970. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Translated by Myra Bergman Ramos. New York: Herder and Herder.

Gooblar, David. 2018. “The Benefits of Doing it Wrong.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, January 23, 2018.
https://www.chronicle.com/article/The-Benefits-of-Doing-It-Wrong/242273

Kuhlthau, Carol. 1991. “Information Seeking from the User’s Perspective.” Journal of the American Society for Information Science 42, no. 5 (June): 361–71. Wiley Online Library.

Mazella, David and Julie Grob. 2011. “Collaborations between Faculty and Special Collections Librarians in Inquiry-Driven Classes.” portal: Libraries and the Academy 11, no. 1 (January): 468–69.

Morris, Sean Michael and Jesse Stommel. 2018. An Urgency of Teachers: The Work of Critical Digital Pedagogy. Hybrid Pedagogy, Inc.
https://urgencyofteachers.com/

Ramsey, Alexis E., Wendy B. Sharer, Barbara L’Eplattenier, and Lisa S. Mastrangelo. 2009. Working in the Archives: Practical Research Methods for Rhetoric and Composition. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.

Shteir, Ann. 1997. “Elegant Recreations? Configuring Science Writing for Women.” In Victorian Science in Context, edited by Bernard Lightman, 236–54. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Sweeney, Richard. 2006. “Snake Person Behaviors and Demographics.” Teaching Tips. Last modified December 22, 2006. http://unbtls.ca/teachingtips/pdfs/sew/Snake Person-Behaviors.pdf

Turner, Cheryl. 2012. Living By the Pen: Women Writers in the Eighteenth Century. Hoboken: Taylor and Francis.

About the Authors

Suzan Alteri is an Associate University Librarian and Curator of the Baldwin Library of Historical Children’s Literature at the University of Florida. She has published in Digital Defoe and Education Libraries. Her current project, “Guiding Science: Publications by Women during the Romantic and Victorian Ages,” explores women-authored science books for children.

Rebekah Fitzsimmons is the Assistant Director of the Writing and Communication Program in the School of Literature, Media, and Communication at the Georgia Institute of Technology and a Marion L. Brittain Postdoctoral Fellow. She earned her PhD at the University of Florida in children’s and young adult literature and regularly publishes on bestseller lists, the cultural reception of children’s and young adult literature, and issues of prestige in children’s publishing. Her monograph in progress argues that the pioneering women in children’s literature fields, like librarianship, teaching, and publishing, appropriated the markers and rhetorical strategies of professionalization used in traditionally masculine fields to seize prestige and influence for themselves at the turn of the 20th century.

1

Designing ‘Authenticity’ in Digital Learning Environments

Allan Johnson, University of Surrey

Abstract

This article reports on a study into the integrative use of social media tools to create an ‘authentic digital learning environment’ for undergraduate literature teaching at City University of Hong Kong. An authentic digital learning environment is one that is created—rather than adopted or adapted—by student cohorts. The findings of the study suggest that the use of digital media in the classroom can create higher levels of student engagement, but only when it is embedded systematically in module design. This article outlines the rationale for moving to a digital learning environment composed of social tools, thereby situating learning in a context that is more authentic to students while seamlessly integrating digital literacy education into traditional subject areas.

Introduction & Context

This research commences from a position held by Laurillard (2012) that teaching is a design science and, as such, can be described, created, and evaluated through consideration of the patterns which contribute to the complex relationship between learning and teaching. These patterns can become even more apparent in digital pedagogies, where the correlation between content and form is often highly significant. This investigation studied how learning activities conducted in ‘authentic digital learning environments’ impacted student experience in an English literature course in the Department of English at City University of Hong Kong. An authentic digital learning environment is one that is created—rather than adopted or adapted—by student cohorts. In practice, this means that the functions normally fulfilled by a learning management system (LMS) such as Blackboard or Moodle (e.g. content delivery, lecturer-student communication, student-student communication, work submission, assessment) are accomplished inside an environment that students incrementally and collaboratively build through their sustained connections within web 2.0 tools such as Twitter, WordPress, and RSS.

Proprietary LMSs have been shown to be important tools for enhancing student learning, particularly in literature and language studies (e.g. Gimmel, 2007; Levy, 2009; Lancashire, 2009); however, they are specific only to educational contexts (and particularly to higher education contexts) and students will ultimately leave them behind following graduation. This research examined the impact of learning activities and materials that are assigned, created, and assessed within an environment that more closely mirrors students’ own authentic engagements with collaborative technology. The findings from this study suggest the importance of full integration between material design and implementation in digital pedagogy, and underline the importance of holistic instructional design with equal consideration of task and material creation.

Authentic tasks & authentic materials

Previous research has focused on ‘authenticity’ as a quality of the discrete learning task or assessment tool (Cronin (1993), Young & McNeese (1993), Lebow & Wager (1994), Herrington & Herrington (1998), Oliver & Omari (1999), Barab, Squire, & Dueber (2000), and Herrington, Reeves, and Oliver (2006)). Lombardi (2007) defines authentic learning as the focus on ‘real-world, complex problems and their solutions, using role-playing exercises, problem-based activities, case studies, and participation in virtual communities of practice’ (2). This type of engaged, participatory learning task can lead to what Ramsden (1992) refers to as ‘deep learning’, a mode of learning marked by long-term retention and genuine critical application of concepts, ideas, and theories. This interest in ‘authenticity’ as a possible attribute of a learning task or assessment tool supports learning that operates within meaningful and consequential learning contexts by situating the task as the elemental feature of teaching.

A related use of ‘authenticity’ in pedagogical design comes from Lave & Wenger (1991) and Wenger (1998), whose influential ‘situated learning’ and ‘communities of practice’ models emphasize the need for learning, teaching, and assessment methods that replicate the demands of the professional environments students will ultimately enter. These understandings of authentic tasks and authentic materials reflect Piagetian models of constructivist learning in the way they seek to encourage learning that centers on and bolsters schemata, that is, the patterns of knowledge that students construct and continue to build on through the educational process. Because LMS bear little resemblance, particularly in terms of information architecture, to software that students will be likely to use in their professional lives (e.g. Customer Relationship Management software [CRM], Project Management Information Systems [PMIS], and Content Management Systems [CMS]), there is the suggestion that alternative, authentic modes of learning management which mirror those used in professional environments can benefit student experience and achievement.

Although the majority of research on authenticity in pedagogical design underlines the significance of authenticity in assessment and learning tasks, a further body of research in the field of English language teaching portrays authenticity as a feature of learning materials and content delivery. In modern language education, ‘authentic materials’ are examples drawn from the real world such as magazines, newspapers, and advertisements, which provide language learners an unmediated exposure to the target language. In this context, authentic materials can be contrasted with ‘graded materials,’ readings which appear in textbooks and other prepared course documents which have been designed specifically—in terms of vocabulary, complexity, and grammatical formation—to be appropriate for the student group and learning objectives. As Berwald (1987) and Peacock (1997) argue, authentic materials are an important element of student motivation because they give examples of how the language is used outside of the constraints of the classroom. Bardovi-Harlig et al. (1991) point out the importance of authentic materials in developing pragmalinguistic competencies and Gilmore (2007) underlines the importance of the coherence of authentic materials in developing discourse competencies. Gilmore (2007) also reminds that authentic materials can present a greater challenge to students than graded materials, a challenge which may have significant impacts upon learning goals and objectives.

Both of these strands of investigation—on authentic tasks and on authentic materials—have described ‘authenticity’ as a feature of isolated patterns of pedagogy rather than part of broader holistic systems of learning and teaching. The desirability of what may be termed ‘authentic’ learning is restrained to one aspect of learning and teaching design. Neither of these views on pedagogical authenticity unite both task and material to consider an authentic learning environment that supports and engages students in ways that reflect genuine uses of both course content and the application of course content to life beyond the lecture hall. It seems clear that the advances of web 2.0 connectivity has made this style of learning and teaching possible in a way that it never has been before.

Digital writing and assessment in English as a Second Language (ESL) contexts

As Berwald’s (1987) and Peacock’s (1997) comments on ‘authentic materials’ suggest, the relationship between material design and teaching design is a critical element of modern language education. Conducting this study on ‘authentic learning managements systems’ in Hong Kong—a semi-autonomous Cantonese-speaking region, which Schneider (2011) describes as ‘a classic ESL country where knowledge of English is typically associated with middle-class identity and a modern, international outlook on life’ (p. 139)—brought a number of pedagogical issues to the fore. Literature is an important part of the ESL classroom, and can provide a unique and distinctive development of both linguistic and cultural competencies (Lazar 1990; Nance 2010). However, the teaching of literature in ESL contexts generally minimizes the uses of writing tasks. Language teachers’ weariness over the use of literature—and, particularly, writing about literature—seems well-founded. A point that Dixon made in 1983 seems to remain true for many ESL literature students: ‘often, it seems, they are learning to substitute intellectual sophistry for the effort to give authentic articulation to their literary response’ (p. 219). Brown, Bull, and Pendlebury (1997) suggest that ‘a good case could be made for arguing that [essays] are the most useful way of assessing deep learning’ because they require students ‘to integrate knowledge, skills and understanding’ into a cohesive written work (p. 58). While it seems that the university essay is a good way to assess student work and, indeed, a key element of the learning process of students, Bourdieu and Passeron (1977) famously point out in Reproduction in Education, Society and Culture that the essay is a privileged, institutionalized genre, one that reflects little of the type of writing that students will undertake in their future professional lives. Educators thus might be wise to consider the strength of alternative forms of written assessment, a shift with significant applications in ESL learning and teaching contexts.

Authentic digital learning environments

Instructional design for distance, blended, or distributed learning must recognize the relationship between learning and teaching, and integrate learner, task, and technology into a coherent design system (Herrington, Reeves, and Oliver, 2006). Jenkins (2009) further develops this point:

Rather than dealing with each technology in isolation, we would do better to take an ecological approach, thinking about the interrelationship among different communication technologies, the cultural communities that grow up around them, and the activities they support. (7)

Although some work has been done on the importance of student customization in instructional design (Vovides, Sanchez-Alonson, Mitropoulou and Nickmans, 2007; Mason & Rennie, 2008), the majority of research has focused on social media tools in isolation and their particular implications within the classroom. The view has almost universally been that social media tools can provide important learning opportunities as long as their uses are appropriately aligned with course learning objectives and intended outcomes. For instance, Facebook can help to better engage students in learning because of its familiarity and ubiquity, but students can still be hesitant to ‘friend’ lecturers or to open up a largely private digital network to classroom purposes (Bosch, 2009; Irwin, Ball, and Debsbrow, 2012; Lee, Teng, Hsueh, and Li, 2013). However, other research (e.g. Sapargaliyev, 2012) suggests that students show little engagement in closed Facebook groups for learning materials, and can be resistant to the use of Facebook in learning and teaching because of privacy concerns (e.g. Wang, Woo, Quek, Yang, and Liu, 2012). The uniqueness of Twitter inheres in the fact that it offers the potential for a greater amount and greater variety of teacher-student, student-teacher, and student-student interaction in lectures (Tyma, 2011; Andrade, Castro, & Ferreira, 2012; Tiernan, 2013). And as Lowe & Laffey (2011) and Rinaldo, Tapp, and Laverie (2011) point out, the use of Twitter can be especially relevant in fields such as marketing where students will likely be using Twitter in their future jobs.

Social networking can play a significant role in the development of community and a shared community of inquiry (Sinnappan & Zutshi, 2011) and lead to a participatory culture that extends beyond the classroom (Jenkins, 2009). By their very nature, social media tools are not isolated, but are defined by their relationships and connectivity as much as by their individual affordances. As this article defines it, authentic digital learning environments are the spaces that are created when students collectively and consistently interact through web 2.0 tools such as Twitter, WordPress, and RSS. When this type of engagement is embedded systematically within module design, the authentic digital learning environment fulfills nearly all roles of a traditional LMS and does so in a way that can lead to new learning opportunities for students.

Methodology

This research took place in an English literature course called Literature in Our Lives at City University of Hong Kong during Spring 2014. Literature in Our Lives is an introductory General Education course available to all students at the university. There were 56 students enrolled in the course, which was delivered through a 3-hour weekly mixed seminar/lecture. Before this course began, students all had at least one semester experience of using Blackboard to handle class discussions, file sharing, announcements, and work submission. Literature in Our Lives moved away from Blackboard to locate all discussions, file sharing, announcements, and work submission in authentic digital tools best suited for these purposes, including WordPress and Twitter.

Students completed approximately 3,000 words of assessed writing during the semester which was uploaded to individual portfolios in the form of weekly responses to the primary texts. Students were given basic training on WordPress during the first lecture and many participants would go on to use this platform for their blogs, although a small number of alternative blogging sites and CMS were also used. Examples of student work each week was re-blogged on a private module website and students had the option to make their own blogs either public or assessable only to me and their classmates. To facilitate peer-to-peer review, students were required to find and comment on two other pieces of work each week. Because of the authentic deployment of these written responses, students had to share links to their writing to the target audience of class peers through tools such as Twitter, Facebook, RSS or semi-structured blogging circles. In addition, they had to work in groups to produce a creative reimagining of one of the primary texts on the courses. These took the form of films, websites, eBooks, animations, and poetry which could be integrated into their personal blogs for final assessment.

At the beginning of the semester a survey was administered which asked students to evaluate the differences between Blackboard and social media for educational purposes; a similar survey was delivered at the end of the semester to gauge students’ perceptions following the course. Both surveys relied on an array of structured and unstructured question types. At the end of the semester, small discussion groups were held with students in order to observe reactions to the use of an authentic digital learning environment, and student writing and communication within this environment was analyzed with reference to the stated intended learning outcomes for the course.

Findings & Discussion

Two surveys were delivered to the 56 students in Literature in Our Lives to measure their perceptions of integrative social media usage in the classroom at the beginning and end of the semester. Both surveys included two questions which aimed to gather insight into students’ comparative understanding of the affordances of traditional LMS and social media: 1) ‘Which of the following functions in Blackboard do you believe are better than other social media websites?’ and 2) ‘Which of the following functions of social media websites do you believe are better than Blackboard?’ For both questions students had a list of six affordances and were able to select multiple answers:

  • Group Collaboration
  • Class Communication
  • Notification of Grades
  • Work Submission
  • File Sharing
  • Announcements

Results from the first survey at the beginning of the semester demonstrate that many students possessed a clear and well-defined understanding of the potential role of digital media in education. Respondents considered Notification of Grades, Work Submission, and Announcements as tasks best achieved by LMS and Group Collaboration, Class Communication, and File Sharing as best achieved through social media channels (Table 1).

Table 1: Results from survey conducted at the beginning of the semester in bar chart format as described in the body of the essay.

Table 1: Beginning of Semester: Which Platform is Best?

 

While File Sharing received a close split of 16 responses favoring social media and 14 responses favoring LMS, the spread was much more pronounced for several categories: for Group Collaboration, 28 respondents chose social media versus only 2 for LMS; for Class Communication, 27 respondents chose social media versus 3 for LMS; and for Work Submission, only 4 respondents chose social media while 27 chose LMS.

Following a semester of using social media as an integrated element of learning design and assessment, the second survey captures several changed perceptions. Most notably, by the end of the semester an equal number of students indicated that social media and LMS were most suitable for Work Submission, suggesting a growing awareness of how social media could be used effectively to submit work for assessment (Table 2).

Table 2: Results from survey conducted at the end of the semester in bar chart format as described in the body of the essay.

Table 2: End of Semester: Which Platform is Best?

 

The majority of students selected fewer categories than in the first survey, showing a more focused indication of their preferences. Although the preferred channel of engagement in the remaining categories remained the same as in the first survey results, the data further emphasizes student perceptions that Notification of Grades is still best achieved through LMS (zero students selected social media in this category) and reflects a growing awareness of using social media for File Sharing (16 against 14 at the beginning of the semester as opposed to 14 and 6 at the end). Students perceptions on the educational use of social media is thus not altered dramatically by its inclusion in teaching design; however, there is evidence of modest shifts in perception particularly related to the possibilities of submitting work through a social media channel.

Furthermore, the survey results do not suggest that students found the increased use of social media to be detrimental to the learning environment, and further focus group discussions suggest that students found the use of an authentic digital learning environment to be a positive experience that improved both engagement and content understanding. As one student described:

I do believe digital media can change students’ perspective on as well as approach to literature and most importantly, help them make sense of the art of reading so that it no longer seems like a daunting process.

There were, however, a number of objections. One student suggested that ‘digital media is for entertainment’ while another student felt that the walled structure of LMS played a significant role in gaining and maintaining student attention:

Blackboard, even though a bit bland, keeps the students focused on their tasks rather than wasting time reading about Kayne West and Kim Kardashian’s wedding plans.

Several students sensed that the ubiquity of Blackboard within higher education is a key element of its value: ‘I think Blackboard is still a major platform in education, but if more courses are using digital media, it could be more convenient.’ This point was echoed by other students, who thought there might be a tipping point for the wide-scale move away from propriety LMS, although perhaps that tipping point has not yet been reached.

Serendipitous & Collateral Learning

This data does not represent significant shifts in student perception of social media as a learning tool; however, the assessed written work indicates some advances in metacognition. There can be a secondary objective in pedagogical design that moves beyond the intended learning outcomes. Literature in Our Lives was not digitally-themed in its content, and it was important that the digital components didn’t overpower the literary studies focus. While the topic of the learning objectives in literature pedagogy is far beyond the scope of this article, this research does flag a number of interesting points about the particularities of literature education within a digital environment, and particularly within an ESL context. These relate largely to the way in which students behaved within the authentic platform utilized, and the serendipitous or collateral learning that their work demonstrated.

In their portfolios, several students began to take on unique private personas: one student signed off posts like a letter with ‘Lyterally Yours’ (Figure 1)—a pun on ‘literal’ which draws attention to the role of the reader and critic in literary analysis—and another began a tagging convention using ‘Say Me’ and ‘Say You’ to distinguish between posts determined to be more reflective versus more analytical (Figure 2). In both cases, the students’ behavior in the digital environment reflected a unique understanding of the role of the critic in literary studies and the relationship of the critic both to literary history and to a present audience.

Figure 1: Example of student blog post which signs off ‘Lyterally Yours’ like a letter

Figure 1: ‘Lyterally Yours’ and the relationship between reader and writer.

 

Figure 2: Close-up of navigation pane of a student blog which uses ‘Say Me’ and ‘Say You’ as category structure

Figure 2: Category structure that reveals relationship between critical and reflective approaches to literary analysis.

 

Student use of tagging and categories also reflected unique collateral learning effects that registered their individual understandings of the literary texts in a critical/analytical matrix not otherwise observable in a formal essay.  Eleven students organized their posts into the three genres of ‘Fiction,’ ‘Poetry,’ and ‘Drama’ through either top-level navigation, or tagging, a seemingly obvious and appropriate information architecture, which, nevertheless, represents an important awareness of genre form in an ESL literature course (Figure 3).

Figure 3: Example of top level navigation menu in a student blog which is divided into Fiction, Poetry, and Drama

Figure 3: Top level navigation that reflects interest in genre.

 

Tagging conventions also regularly revealed interesting insights. For example, one student used the tag ‘sexual awakening’ for posts on Brokeback Mountain, Interpreter of Maladies, and As You Like It, indicating a clear sense of comparison between these three works which appear on the surface to have little in common (Figure 4). Another student was evidently drawn to the role of history within the texts studied, using ‘past’ and ‘present’ as a tagging convention; both tags appear, appropriately, in a post on The Cherry Orchard (Figure 5). In total, 21 students expressed metacognitive awareness of the relationship between texts through tagging conventions and information architecture.

Figure 4: Example of a tagging cluster on an individual student post which include the tag ‘sexual awakening'

Figure 4: Tagging conventions that reveal relationships between literary texts.

 

 

Figure 5: Example of a tagging cluster on individual student post which include ‘conflicts, ‘past,' and ‘present’

Figure 5: Tagging conventions that reveal relationships between past and present.

 

Whether these digital performances reflect new learning created by the platform or record learning that would have otherwise gone unnoticed remains unclear. However, while operating in this way students were able to demonstrate skills and competencies that would have gone unnoticed in a regular delivery, and were rewarded for them appropriately. They were able to demonstrate the way in which they thought about literature using affordances unavailable outside of an authentic digital learning environment. Perhaps unexpectedly, three students turned their blog into a professional portfolio, which included relevant sections on education and work experience and portrayed the blog entries as evidence of high levels of English-language proficiency. What began as a form of written assessment had thus been made truly authentic with relevance and meaning in the professional world.

Conclusions & Recommendations

Jenkins (2009) emphasizes the need for a participatory culture in social media, with students learning how to effectively and productively participate in the vast digital world around them. Within such a learning environment the design of content delivery, collaboration, and assessment allows for and rewards collateral and serendipitous learning. Using tools that already exist within the frame of reference for the student and are perhaps already being used by them is (as research on authentic tasks and authentic materials has demonstrated) messy, unpredictable, and potentially frustrating for student and teacher. However, it remains a necessary component of helping students understand how the content they are studying relates, even if only superficially, to a world that continues to exist outside of the lecture hall. While propriety LMS have been shown to be valuable tools in education, there is evidence that authentic digital learning environments—comprised of tools that students will continue to use beyond graduation—allow them to perceive new connections between content material and lead to helpful collateral and serendipitous learning which can contribute to final module assessment and professional development.

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About the Author

Allan Johnson is Lecturer in English Literature at the University of Surrey and previously Assistant Professor of English at City University of Hong Kong. He is the author of Alan Hollinghurst and the Vitality of Influence (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014) as well as articles and chapters on an array of modern and contemporary writers including James, Stoker, Conan Doyle, Shaw, Forster, Woolf, Eliot, Cather, Waugh, Doctorow, and Hollinghurst.

Transcultural Dialogue Mashup

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Richard Kabiito, Makerere University
Christine Liao, University of North Carolina Wilmington
Jennifer Motter, Co-president of the National Art Education Association Women’s Caucus
Karen Keifer-Boyd, Pennsylvania State University[1]

Abstract

The Transcultural Dialogue project presented and discussed in this article can be used, and adapted accordingly, as an effective approach to learn about self and others. By facilitating transcultural dialogue, teachers can guide students of all ages in diverse locations in powerful collaborative meaning-making through group artworks that deconstruct and reconstruct visual culture. The Transcultural Dialogue contemporary approach to global group work embraces and supports peer-to-peer learning and generative knowledge construction. We discuss challenges, possibilities, and opportunities of collaborating online between two higher education institutions: Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda, and Penn State at University Park, Pennsylvania, USA.

Visual Culture Mashup

Transcultural Dialogue is an action research project, begun in 2007 by Karen Keifer-Boyd, with colleagues at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda, and University of Helsinki. The Transcultural Dialogue concerns contemporary visual culture in U.S., Ugandan, and Finnish contexts in a project designed to erode assumptions, ignorance, and misunderstandings about each other’s lives, beliefs, and values through reciprocal reflections, in the form of a conversation, as a mashup of perspectives.[2] Mashup is a term most often associated with a musical genre of new work composed of selected elements of other songs, seamlessly blending diverse lyrics, vocals, riffs, and instrumental soundtracks. Typically, the purpose is to critique music culture. The Transcultural Dialogue project is a techno-cultural mashup–that is, a hybrid mixed reality of virtual and physical, participatory pedagogy and online architecture for learning about self and others. We adapt the term “mashup” to describe the Transcultural Dialogue process of critiquing visual culture through participatory pedagogy.[3] Visual culture is an economical and powerful medium for creating artwork, as it involves using images that are easily accessible, surround us daily, and subconsciously impact our worldviews and beliefs. In collaborative visual culture artworks, meaning is made through the collective art-making process and interpretations of the finished work. Multiple voices have the potential to create rich artworks that lead to deep interpretations. Group effort can generate unanticipated new knowledge and unique learning experiences that vary based on participant grouping.

The Transcultural Dialogue project was created in order to find ways to breakdown cultural stereotypes and misunderstandings between people from different cultural backgrounds. We achieved our goals through the use of social media to facilitate learner conversation and collaborative art-making (see Figure 1). This is based on three theoretical arguments. First, visual culture is a powerful space to explore social justice issues and one of the means to teach through visual culture is through creative mashup art-making (Darts 2004; Freedman 2000; Garoian 2006; Knight, Keifer-Boyd, and Amburgy 2004). Second, collaborative constructivist learning (such as creative mashup art-making) creates a community of learners[4] who work together to transform their learning experience (Hung et al. 2005, Mintrop 2004, Whitcomb 2004). Third, after establishing a reflexive understanding of the learning process in a local setting, social media is an effective means to promote dialogues among people across different cultures and geographic locations (Ertmer et al. 2011; Higgins, Wolf, and Torres 2013; Leppisaari and Lee 2012; Rautenbach and Black-Hughes 2012; Sun and Puterbaugh 2013). From researching Transcultural Dialogue participants’ reflections and experiences, we argue that our approach of using social media to create a community of learners and facilitate learner collaboration of visual culture mashup art-making to disrupt misconceptions about different cultures is effective and meaningful for use in art courses from sixth grade to higher education to help students learn about self and others in relation to societal expectations and embodied place-based experiences.

Presented here is the third iteration of our Transcultural Dialogue project, in 2010, which involved students at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda in dialogue with students at Penn State, University Park, Pennsylvania, USA. The authors share their experiences of teaching and learning using social media to collaborate in creating art from dialogue between two groups of art students who are culturally and geographically distant from each other.

Mashup Process

Ladson-Billings (1995, 2012) introduced culturally relevant pedagogy as a theoretical model to understand student achievement in developing critical perspectives that challenge inequities. The pedagogical approach, also referred to as culturally responsive teaching (Gay, 2000), incorporates and explores, through a dialogic and collaborative learning project, the culturally situated knowledges and standpoints of students and facilitators. The Transcultural Dialogue project, based in culturally relevant pedagogical theory, provides collaboration opportunity for project participants to make visible to self and others their cultural beliefs, practices, and values.

The project began with participants bookmarking websites that they perceived represented the visual culture of Uganda and the United States. We used a free Web 2.0 tool, Diigo, that could be used with low bandwidth, an issue for the Ugandan participants. The original plan was to use Dabbleboard,[5] an online whiteboard, to create artworks collaboratively between Ugandan participants and U.S. participants. However, Dabbleboard would not work on the weak Internet connection in Uganda. Diigo is a social bookmarking tool that has a plug-in for web browsers. Participants used the plug-in with their browsers to bookmark websites. A Diigo group was set up on the Diigo website as a virtual space for the interactions between participates. The U.S. and Ugandan participants were asked to bookmark websites they think related to the culture or visual culture presentation of the other country and add their comments on these sites. All the bookmarked sites and commentary fed into the project’s group in Diigo set-up by Keifer-Boyd, the facilitator who designed the online pedagogical architecture, and participated in all stages of the project and artmaking while in Uganda. Each of the participants in the project commented on why they selected the particular representations to bookmark. Participants next explored what was bookmarked regarding their own country by those not from their country. They read the rationales for the selected visual culture representations and commented in response regarding if and how the representation relates to their life. The commentary and selected representations were the source for collaborative artworks. Participants dialogued about the images in relation to their lives, and constructed art that visually conveyed a particularly meaningful exchange in their dialogue about how the image portrays or does not portray their lived experiences. At this collaborative artmaking stage, participants worked together via email to send their individual visual response to the dialogue and to discuss how to collaborate so that the individual artworks inspire a work created by all in the smaller groups of two or three participants from each country. After uploading the finished collaborated artwork into VoiceThread, [6]participants discussed the artworks and recorded their responses to these three questions: How is subjectivity constructed in the image? Whose subjectivity is constructed? What prior knowledge is assumed? The five collaborative artworks generated from the dialogue concerned specific references to familiar activities, daily-life objects and themes, as well as to larger issues such as power differences, absence of taboo topics, and cultural pride (see Figure 1).

keifer-boyd

Figure 1. Five collaborative artworks created by groups comprised of both Ugandan and U.S. participants during the 2010 Transcultural Dialogue project.

Throughout the world, people are connecting with free, open source applications such as online collaborative workspaces, social networking tools (Human Rights First 2012), and mobile devices (Johnson, Levine, and Smith 2009, 5). “Improved collaboration can enrich learning when people come together to discuss a topic, especially when the participants have different backgrounds and can amend one another’s knowledge,” claim Tétard, Patokorpi, and Packalén (2009, 5). Importantly, collaboration among educators fosters dialogue that can be reflective about teaching with suggestions from collaborators and can further curriculum and resource development. We asked the following questions in reflecting on a 2010 iteration of Transcultural Dialogue:

How will faculty and students in institutions of higher learning initiate and sustain online collaboration under the constraints of cultural and geographical distance? What are cultural differences between the Ugandan and U.S. institutional and personal contexts and how would these potentially affect online collaboration? How will students relate to each other online in terms of their own cultural orientation and what effects would this have on collaborative learning? Which types of social software are familiar to students and how would they enable the creation of communities of learners?

Although other studies of transcultural collaborations have diverse goals and backgrounds as well as rules of engagement, almost all show that participants learned to appreciate their cultural differences and others’ perspectives (Ertmer et al. 2011, Camardese and Peled 2014, Leppisaari and Lee 2012, Lindberg and Sahlin 2011) and learned more about their own cultural identity (Leppisaari and Lee 2012, Lindberg and Sahlin 2011). Even though “social matters prove to be the main obstacles for successful virtual collaborative learning” (Tétard, Patokorpi, and Packalén 2009, 5) and language and time zone differences can create difficulties (Camardese and Peled 2014; Sun and Puterbaugh 2013; Higgins, Wolf, and Torres 2013; Leppisaari and Lee 2012; Ertmer et al. 2011), the value of transcultural projects outweighs the challenges in the context of classroom learning for students who do not have many experiences with in-depth dialogue about their cultural beliefs and practices and with creating art with people from other cultures.

Several studies have shown that transcultural collaboration motivates the participants because of the opportunity to collaborate with people with different backgrounds (Camardese and Peled 2014; Sun and Puterbaugh 2013; Higgins, Wolf, and Torres 2013; Leppisaari and Lee 2012; Ertmer et al. 2011; Rautenbach and Black-Hughes 2012; Lindberg and Sahlin 2011). Abramo, D’Angelo, and Solazzi (2011) demonstrated that transcultural collaborations provide diversity that leads to greater learning, understanding, and innovation for researchers. Based on their research into collaboration that utilized social media between two academic libraries, one in the U.S. and the other in China, Sue and Puterbaugh (2013) conclude that “the dissimilarities in language, culture, and general outlook provide a richer work relationship” and more meaningful outcome (64). Higgins, Wolf, and Torres (2013) studied collaboration between comparable undergraduate marketing classes in the U.S. and Ireland, in which both U.S. classes used the social media platform ValuePluse[7] but one class did not have the international component. Their research shows a significant difference in students’ learning from their peers in the international group and indicates that the transcultural component adds engagement and interest for students’ learning. The examples above and the Transcultural Dialogue project’s participants’ reflection below all indicate that transcultural collaboration provides meaningful learning experiences and creates an important space for sharing and exchanging perspectives through written text, spoken audio recordings, and images. Moreover, participants, as conveyed in Kabiito’s reflections below, were able to learn how others from a different country view their country.

It has been an exciting but challenging engagement with the Transcultural Dialogue project. It provided an opportunity to produce works of art in different ways. I mostly create art with physical objects. In this class, I was able to work with a digital medium, which is not only an end in itself, but also a material for artistic engagement. Secondly, it was revealing to learn about how people from outside Uganda view us, and how Ugandans view the United States. (R. Kabiito, personal communication, November 26, 2011)

The Transcultural Dialogue project presented here stems from learners’ participation in culturally relevant pedagogy where one’s cultural orientation comes into play (Lu 2008). The Transcultural Dialogue project is designed as a culturally relevant pedagogy with a community of learners. This practice is aligned with what these studies have identified as the significance of transcultural collaboration.

Challenges Across and Within Communities of Practice:
Time Constructs, Cultural Difference, and Geographical Distance

Social media can further communities of practice with constructivist learning principles. Constructivist learning begins with learners collaborating with others from their own interests and concerns (Tétard, Patokorpi, and Packalén 2009). Transcultural dialogue makes visible social relations, behavior, beliefs, preferences, and orientation toward others.

Ligorio and Van Veen (2006) note: “The community of learners approach focuses on the social dimension of learning and considers collaboration to be the engine of learning” (105). To create a community of learning requires three component parts: cognitive presence, teaching presence, and social presence (Anderson 2008). Cognitive presence refers to learners’ reflective and sustained dialogue to challenge their assumptions and construct new understandings, a transformative learning. Students perceive teaching presence when facilitators are engaged in making and sustaining the dialogic space of learning. With social presence in particular, students establish supportive environments in which they “feel the necessary degree of comfort and safety to express their ideas in a collaborative context, and to present themselves as real and functional human beings” (Anderson 2008, 344). Presence in contexts with the potential for dialectic and dialogic learning can be democratic spaces “whose relationships mediate learning as much as the processes and tools that are in play” (Ravenscroft et al. 2008, 6). In dialogic educational spaces, new forms of intersubjective orientations are created in which transformative learning can happen. It is from these premises of democratic spaces for culturally relevant practice with a community of learners that the Transcultural Dialogue project was launched in spring 2010.

In the Transcultural Dialogue model, the intersection between visual culture, stereotyping, and transcultural communication may present problematic issues. For example, transcultural communication has the potential to unveil participants’ hurtful false beliefs and stereotyping of others that stem from mass media consumption. Unfortunately, mass media provides a limited portrayal of others’ reality, and it has the power to (mis)inform and mold our beliefs and opinion of others based on narrow perspectives. If this is the case, a participant’s comments may offend other participants. Also, there is the possibility for misrepresentation, miscommunication, and misinterpretation to occur when participants from different cultures interact with one another using the Transcultural Dialogue model. However, in our experience some participants expressed fear that they might unwittingly offend and none mentioned they were offended, only misinterpreted. Differences in interpretation were discussed in the exchanges. Long waits for responses was the main frustration expressed by U.S. students.

Time Constructs

Similar to other studies on transcultural collaboration, challenges of scheduling and technology were part of our Transcultural Dialogue project experience. Language was not as great an issue in the 2010 Transcultural Dialogue as it was found to be in other studies involving collaboration between different language speakers (Sun and Puterbaugh 2013; Higgins, Wolf, and Torres 2013; Leppisaari and Lee 2012; Ertmer et al. 2011). Scheduling with time zone differences is a challenge (Camardese and Peled 2014, Sun and Puterbaugh 2013, Leppisaari and Lee 2012). The U.S. students in the Transcultural Dialogue project had regular class meetings twice a week. They often had to wait for the Ugandan participants to respond to their posts because of the different scheduling. This sometimes created disappointment if U.S. participants did not receive responses within their time expectations. Ugandan students participated outside of a structured course, and while this choice to participate motivated involvement, obstacles such as frequent electrical outages and slow bandwidth kept them from responding as frequently as the U.S. students expected. Ugandan participants seemed to be patient with electricity and technology. Some Ugandan participants found particular times of the day provided faster Internet connectivity. Several commented that the Internet is faster when the United States sleeps. Similarly, the concept of time as a constraint or being integral in the constitution of culture may not be understood in the same way. In Uganda, time may appear as a given, whereas in the United States, time is often interpreted as a constraint. For most Ugandan participants, time as a given meant there is a schedule but adherence depends on other life circumstances and situations. For most U.S. participants, they expected to work within the time constraints allotted for the project in a course that had a specific ending date.

In addition, technical difficulty was a huge challenge. Munguatosha, Muyinda, and Lubega (2011) state that for developing countries to adopt learning with social media, it requires “self efficacy, reliable technical and administrative support, infrastructure, system interactivity, adequate budgeting and accountability, and a flexible organisational culture” (307). This highlights the challenges in many transcultural collaborations with social media. Sue and Puterbaugh’s (2013) study of collaboration with China and Rautenback and Black-Hughes’ study of collaboration between U.K., U.S., and South Africa also found that technology difference is an obstacle. For our Transcultural Dialogue project, the bandwidth problem altered the original plan of using certain technology, such as Dabbleboard. The art-making collaboration therefore moved to e-mail communication, which is more difficult to track.

Social software that is available and accessible in Uganda and the U.S. should provide a platform for collaboration with minimal physical contact, yet it is mired with challenges. The challenges include differences in how students relate online in terms of conversation, understanding of self in relation to others, understanding of others’ concept of time and how time is spent by other cultures, human activity, sources of truth, commitment to school, friends, or family, and cultural understandings of giving and receiving respect. For example, one participant reflects on her notions of time in relation to the 2010 Transcultural Dialogue project:

Time and technology presented challenges and restricted the project. Instant feedback could not be expected due to the time difference and Uganda’s slow Internet speed. At times, this made it difficult to engage in dialogue with others. As a participant in a group art project in which communication was vital, I waited hours/days for Ugandan participants’ responses and contributions. This was challenging for me living in a culture of instant gratification. However, delayed response time served as a reminder of the distance and difference between our locations and cultures. Reflecting on time and technology constraints, I find our Web 2.0 artmaking/meaning-making accomplishment admirable. We were able to connect, learn, and create with others in an enlightening way. (J. Motter, personal communication, November 26, 2011)

Difference in time and timing in several other ways is one of the greatest challenges to both online and face-to-face (F2F) collaboration. F2F brings everyone into the same time space and promotes richer learning experiences than online if the time immersed in another culture can be for ten weeks or more. Short visits are mired with problems of tourist views. Ten or more weeks can still be within a semester, making a F2F visit possible for a group of university students. However, ten weeks in an online collaboration may be too short if the time during the ten weeks is divided among many other responsibilities, including work, study, and family. From our experiences, projects spanning less than ten weeks do not work well because shorter durations fail to allow for flexibility with holidays, electrical outages, and other unforeseen events like university faculty strikes or other environmental, cultural, or political crises. Ten weeks is the minimum we have found and fifteen weeks might be the optimal length of time for an online Transcultural Dialogue project so that the focus on creating collaborative art is not lost.

Cultural Difference

Culture is commonly understood as attitudes, beliefs, and daily practices that distinguish one group of people from another. Cultural practices are both sustained and changed through language, material objects including art, and educational, social, religious, and political institutions. However, one’s own culture is often invisible when there is not dialogue about attitudes, beliefs, practices, and material objects with cultural groups different from one’s own culture. Through dialogue and art-making with those from cultures different from one’s own, misunderstandings surface, making visible the nuances and complexity of cultural comparison across space and time. The Transcultural Dialogue project examines issues of cultural difference within and between groups, as well as cultural differences understood through the lens of place and identity—that are socially, historically, politically, and psychologically constructed and practiced.

The 2010 online Transcultural Dialogue project revealed cultural differences in conceptualization, dialogue, and application of knowledge and resources available to the collaborating students from both regions. Students in Uganda viewed culture as something that had already been constructed. For the U.S. students, culture existed in the present and was therefore always in a state of becoming; for the Ugandan students, on the other hand, Ugandan culture is perceived in the distant past, prior to colonial legacies that control the present. This represents a contrast in the understanding of culture between the two groups of students.

U.S. participants learned about themselves through others’ misconceptions. Knowing how others understand their culture gave them a chance to reflect on the influence of media and visual culture. However, Ugandan participants did not seem to benefit from this because U.S. participants generally lack knowledge about Uganda’s culture. The following are reflections from participants on the process of the 2010 Transcultural Dialogue from a cultural-difference lens.

Admittedly, I was unsure of what to expect when beginning my participation in the project. However, I was excited about the opportunity to utilize Web 2.0 to converse and collaboratively create with others whom I likely would not meet otherwise. When thinking about my exposure to the contemporary visual culture of Uganda, I recalled a colorful yet simplistic batik that my cousin purchased in Uganda and now decorates her home. I envisioned the contemporary visual culture of Uganda as handmade artifacts.

When asked to bookmark digital visual culture that conveyed how I perceived Uganda and to comment on the websites I selected, I bookmarked Uganda Travel Guide,[8] a site for tourists, which includes information about the traditional crafts of Uganda including pottery, basketry, and wood-carving. I also bookmarked Ugandart,[9] a Uganda Online Art Consortium that includes a video of a 2009 sponsored workshop that facilitated children’s exploration of art in Namungona. The children partook in drawing and jewelry-making, as well as collaboratively created a large oil on canvas mural by contributing painted symbols of familiar objects and living beings including houses, vehicles, and wildlife. This video, while only a glimpse of Uganda, influenced my understanding of the culture represented. Uganda Wildlife Education Centre (UWEC)[10] is another website that I bookmarked. It exists as a conservation education model to educate the public, including youth, on preservation of wildlife. All animals at UWEC have been rescued from poachers, illegal traders, or accidents (Uganda Wildlife Education Centre 2010). My bookmarked websites represented my perceptions of Uganda, as well as my personal interests.

When contributing to collaborative artwork, these bookmarked websites influenced the imagery that I selected for inclusion in our digital piece. The imagery that I contributed included a child beading a necklace, a heart-shaped beaded necklace, and a child’s painting that depicted a woman, bloomed flower, fish, water, and connected people in the background. My group’s artwork is titled Hope (the lower middle artwork in Figure 1) and is visual culture that represents my understanding of Uganda via visual culture exposure and transcultural dialogue. Makerere University students’ clarifications of Penn State students’ contemporary visual culture selections, descriptions, and questions helped me to better understand Ugandan visual culture by providing missing context that can influence meaning. (J. Motter, personal communication, November 26, 2011)

I also participated in creating a collaborative artwork (see Figure 2) and helped facilitate U.S. students’ art-making. My visual response to my small group of Ugandan and U.S. participants was to create an image that reflected the experience of dialogue with people from different cultures so I began by composing an image of participants’ portraits from screenshots that I took of the participants as posted in our Diigo forum. Besides learning from our conversations, I loved the idea of communicating with others through an online platform. Therefore, the artwork showed the process of this project. Later, other participants in my group added question mark symbols to reflect the questions that arose in the communication process. Making changes and adding to the artwork was a way to collaboratively reflect on our common experience. The action of other participants in my group showed that we all considered the questions exchanged between participants an important part of this experience. (C. Liao, personal communication, November 26, 2011)

keifer-boyd-2

Figure 2. Artwork created by participant Christine Liao.

The dialogue, for me, began when I made a remark, out of a cultural misconception, that people in the U.S. do not know much about the outside world. This was a remark based on Sarah Palin’s misinformed statement that “you can actually see Russia from land here in Alaska” (Walls and Stein 2008, para. 9).[11] When asked about what people from Uganda knew about the U.S., I based my analysis on film images and the mass media, which regularly project contradicting images. On the one hand, the U.S. is portrayed as a land of plenty, where everything is in abundance, yet on the other, we see images that project violence and extreme crime. Indeed, my last night in the U.S. in 2009 was spent in New York’s neighborhood of Harlem, a place I have “known” for crime. I was so uncomfortable that I did not move out into the streets or even peep through the window. I did not, however, find any difficulty walking to the train station the following morning. More so, the warm reception that I received in the U.S., specifically at Penn State, was not what I had anticipated. I had anticipated a numb and detached people, self-conceited due to the vices of capitalism. This and other misconceptions were expressed in the dialogue as we gave rationales for our visual culture selections of the other country and those living in the country responded if and how the visual culture conveyed their experiences. The dialogue, which became the content for our collaborative artworks from our collective reflection on the dialogue, often revealed and challenged stereotypes perpetuated in popular culture or news media representations. (R. Kabiito, personal communication, November 26, 2011)

One challenge for this project was to start with asking questions. One of my students said that she did not know where to begin because she did not know anything about Uganda. This is an interesting imbalance in this project. One group of participants believes they know “more” about the other group of participants. Some people from Uganda learned about U.S. culture through the pop culture export and globalization. However, most U.S. university students did not know much about Uganda. Their almost nonexistent knowledge about Uganda could lead them to have misconceptions about Uganda’s culture(s). The beginning of Transcultural Dialogue, thus, from my observation, started with U.S. students searching for information on the Internet to learn, for the first time, about Uganda. Their understandings of Uganda came from the Internet. Then the dialogue began. They posted what they found about Uganda on the Diigo discussion forum. Some of the Ugandan participants responded, but not everyone’s post received a response. Some participants from Uganda talked about their perception of the United States. For example, one Ugandan participant mentioned that the U.S was uninhabitable because U.S. is often portrayed as violent in the movies. The U.S. students replied, thus sparking discussions about how the media creates stereotypes. Learning happened with such discussion. However, to increase learning, participants needed to do more research about each other’s country before or at the beginning of this project. The U.S. participants appreciated direct answers to their questions, but this did not challenge their previous knowledge, and would be similar to an initial exchange with a foreigner, such as learning about a holiday in a different country. Hence, the learning of Ugandan participants could be different from what U.S. participants learned. (C. Liao, personal communication, November 26, 2011)

Geographical Distance

Unlike in the transcultural dialogues research previously conducted (e.g., Tupuola 2006, Gilberti 2006), this study takes a new twist. In the studies cited above, the interlocutors are mainly fact-to-face with the members of the dialogue team. In some instances, we have virtual environments in play, but such environments are not the focus of the study. In Tupuola’s transcultural study, for example, she creates an engagement process that in a sense was imaginary, whereby dialogue between youth from different geographical locations was mediated by a transnational researcher who relayed the words of one group to another across borders. This is a far different model from the one adopted in this study where dialogue is in real time, only mediated by technological interfaces. This provides a more inclusive basis for participation in the dialogue. The participants’ location introduces a new dimension to the dialogue where educational technologies are used as a set of tools to facilitate the dialogue.

There is an intrinsic connectivity between the platforms under use to facilitate dialogue and the nature of the dialogue itself. The concept upon which the dialogue is built comes with demands of democratic spaces for interaction between dialoguing members. This demand is facilitated by the free access of social media such as Diigo, a tool used in this particular study. Within this space, members are able to exchange views, ideas, and even engage in art-making, even though many of them have never been in real-time encounters outside the virtual environment. The transactional borders are immediately erased to allow real-time dialogue within a common space accessible to everyone regardless of location.

In this way, since members in the dialogue are free to enter, exit, and re-enter the space, more democratic means of dialogue are established and the result is a rich collection of trans-cultural texts—texts not bound by borders, ethnicity, age, or gender insofar as the dialogue is shaped into a whole, meaningful text. At the end, all these texts are built into a tangible outcome that constitutes a common structure of texts that bring together new ideas, understandings, and knowledge within a diverse group of people. This is a unique aspect not part of the design of other transcultural dialogue projects. The following is a reflection from one participant in the 2010 Transcultural Dialogue project regarding use of social media with those who are geographically distant and how social media interaction between two groups of people reveals the impact of visual culture.

The greatest benefit of using social media in this project is that it provides images and texts of visual culture that are easily accessible on the Internet and going online is most people’s daily experience, at least among the U.S. participants. My first thought about the project came from my own transcultural experience—from Taiwan to the United States. I thought it would be like learning cultural traditions from friends who were born in and grew up within the United States when I first came to the U.S. I knew little about Uganda before participating in the project. I had not even heard much about Uganda from news and other media. The images and stereotypes I had about Uganda were generically similar to my stereotypical understanding about African countries—poor, underdeveloped, and war-torn. I thought it would be a good chance to hear from Ugandans about their own country and culture. However, it was not until starting the project that I realized that Transcultural Dialogue is much more than learning traditions of a different culture from friends of a different country. Through social media, we can see how visual culture and images are prevalent on the Internet and how easily we can obtain mis/conceptions through these visual culture presentations of a country. Knowing how Ugandans learned about the U.S. from these presentations was like putting a mirror in front of the U.S. participants and provided them a different angle to see the impact of visual culture. It is a way to create reflexivity for one’s belief and understanding of culture. Reflexive means turning things back toward itself. Through hearing others’ (people from another country) mis/conceptions of what one (the person from the country that is discussed) believes to know better, the exchange shapes one’s knowledge and critical thinking about truth and myth (C. Liao, personal communication, November 26, 2011).

Development of Transcultural Dialogue

We present reflections on our experiences forming and participating in the 2010 Transcultural Dialogue project using a dialogic first-person writing form to weave a narrative of distinct experiences and positionalities of the four authors of this article. The potential of transcultural dialogue emerges from our collective reflections.

Richard: In 2006, while pursuing my doctoral studies at the University of Art and Design Helsinki–TaiK (now Aalto University), I became interested in joining a class titled “Virtual Learning Communities in Art Education: Current Issues and Practices,” taught by Dr. Keifer-Boyd, a Fulbright professor. One of the things I had promised myself before I left Uganda was to create as many linkages and initiate as many collaboration opportunities with foreign universities as possible in order to introduce indigenous Ugandan arts and culture to the world. I presented my ideas for collaboration between Makerere University and Penn State to Dr. Keifer-Boyd. The Margaret Trowell School of Art and Design (MTSIFA) at Makerere University was in the process of transforming its programs to integrate local indigenous cultures into its arts curricula. The Transcultural Dialogue project could support our efforts in revisioning the MTSIFA programs with a focus on Ugandan culture, rather than the current MTSIFA art curriculum based on a modernist European art education curriculum established by the British founder of the school, Margaret Trowell.

In March 2009, I visited Penn State, attended some of the classes, and made presentations about Ugandan culture in general. The visit was not only an academic presentation, but also an initial exchange between faculty—those from the U.S. and Uganda. This visit included meetings with university administrators to propose a student/teacher exchange between both institutions. Several students were curious to know about Uganda and how people there lived. A student in one of the classes asked whether they could freely walk into an Internet café and surf the net. I replied that Uganda has Internet cafés. It was an eye-opening experience indeed.

While visiting the U.S. at Penn State, it became apparent that we were already moving forward with one of the ways of continuing our collaboration—an online and onsite exhibition of work by MTSIFA and Penn State students. Since we did not have a source of funding that would allow students and teachers to travel abroad, social media would be an inexpensive yet effective option for collaboration. Moreover, our online collaboration would build support networks for teachers and students to travel and study in both university visual arts programs in Uganda and the United States. To begin an exchange, I requested that Dr. Keifer-Boyd visit Uganda. During her trip, she would visit our physical facilities, learn about our infrastructure, study our curriculum, attend some of our classes, and generally make recommendations to collaborating partners on how to proceed with an exchange. She would also facilitate a Transcultural Dialogue project as one of the ways of crossing cultures and transcending the barriers that have, over time, created misconceptions about our own cultures and others.

Karen: In preparing a grant proposal, I asked Dr. Venny Nakazibwe and Dr. Richard Kabiito, professors at Makerere University who had visited Penn State in 2007 and 2009 respectively, for feedback on the proposal and a letter of support to include with the funding application. Nakazibwe, the Deputy Dean of the Margaret Trowell School of Industrial and Fine Arts, wrote a letter of support that emphasized the development of “mutual understanding, cultural, and academic exchange.” After introducing the Transcultural Dialogue project to students at Penn State, I traveled to Kampala, Uganda, to introduce the project there with these goals.

Christine: I first learned about Transcultural Dialogue from Dr. Keifer-Boyd. In preparing for her visit to Uganda, Dr. Keifer-Boyd asked if I would be willing to participate and lead students at Penn State in the “Visual Culture and Educational Technologies” course during the semester she visited Uganda.

Karen: I planned for Ugandan and United States participants to get involved in different stages in the Transcultural Dialogue project in spring 2010. I met with the students at Penn State who would be participating as part of their course taught by Christine in order to explain the project and to inspire their involvement. I also drafted a plan and discussed it with Venny and Richard via e-mail and Skype so that we could launch the Transcultural Dialogue project during my five-week visit to Makerere University.

In the first week of my visit to Uganda in March 2010, I met with MTSIFA faculty and studied through observation, artifact exploration, interviews, and reflective journal writing about MTSIFA’s curricula, types of pedagogy, and student and faculty teaching and learning culture. During the second week, through critical reflection from week one at MTSIFA and from my presentation to faculty members about possibilities with Web 2.0 free applications—such as VoiceThread, Diigo, Second Life, Google Docs, and wikis—we developed a plan of action for transcultural critical dialogue with art students and art teachers in Uganda and the United States. In the third and fourth weeks, I participated with faculty and students at MTSIFA and Penn State in the Transcultural Dialogue project. Also, I visited high schools in Kampala to meet art teachers, see their art teaching facilities, and ask if they were interested in a future Transcultural Dialogue project with a high school class in the U.S. The English language is used in the Ugandan schools and there was interest. Almost all students had e-mail addresses. Some of the high school students used e-mail regularly, often after school at Internet cafés.

Jennifer: My interest in Web 2.0 technologies’ potential for collaborative, generative, and transformative learning and knowledge stems from my enrollment in New Media Pedagogy, a graduate course taught by Dr. Keifer-Boyd, in spring 2009. During this course, I facilitated Challenging Gender Stereotypes, a week-long online learning activity in which I asked art education graduate students to use Diigo to post critical comments that unveiled their assumptions about the identities of creators of postcards displayed on PostSecret (http://www.postsecret.com) based on the revealed secrets, imagery, color palette, handwriting, and other potential visible indicators of gender stereotypes.[12] This online learning activity led to my further exploration of the potentials for meaningful informal art education via Web 2.0.

In spring 2010, I accepted Dr. Keifer-Boyd’s invitation to participate in the Transcultural Dialogue project, as I found it to be an excellent opportunity for powerful transcultural collaborative art-making and exploration using Web 2.0 tools. My cousin Natalie Sara Weaver’s stories about her recent trips to Kampala, Gulu, and Pader in Uganda also inspired my participation in this collaborative project. My cousin’s goal was to teach songwriting as a tool for empowerment by enabling youth to tell their stories of oppression, resilience, and hope in creative and transformative ways, which resulted in repeated trips to Uganda. Natalie piloted a songwriting program for young women living in Uganda who were previously enslaved as child wives, child soldiers, and/or who had been orphaned by HIV/AIDS, poverty, and war (The SONG Project Live 2011). What little knowledge I had of Uganda, prior to participating in Transcultural Dialogue, derives from stories of my cousin’s experiences working with youth and music in Uganda and my own exposure to minimal Ugandan media coverage.

Future Transcultural Dialogues

Gilberti (2006) cautions against reducing reality to a limited space in dialogue, suggesting instead that we should work toward entering a third space “where differences are understood to be complementary to each other” (33). In this space (also referred to as “relational space”), there is commitment to learning and understanding each other. This outlines the future of transcultural dialogue. Transcultural dialogue emphasizes relations with others, which effectively changes people’s approach to others, in real situations (Mangano 2009). Transcultural dialogue is crucial, as an approach, in eroding assumptions and misconceptions about different cultures and transcending the borders of a single culture to develop a transcultural model of analysis and debate (Dagnino 2012). In an increasingly interconnected world, “cultures are increasingly intertwined and people often constitute their cultural identities by drawing on more than one culture” (Dagnino 2012, 6). Indeed, in addition to creating an open atmosphere where we become more tolerant and get to know new friends, it also creates a space for fundamental explorations of ideas from different perspectives.

Although there are still many challenges as outlined in the earlier section, the potentials of transcultural dialogue exceed these challenges. The greatest potential is that it opens up new spaces for collaborations and understandings. This is supported by the belief that new understandings within new cultural contexts open up new ways of interacting, building networks, and creating platforms upon which future interactions are built. Lindberg and Sahlin’s (2011) study on transcultural collaboration found authenticity in students’ learning about a different culture because they were in conversation with those they were studying. Our Transcultural Dialogue project also provided an authentic experience of conversation between the U.S. and Ugandan students. Such an experience motivated some students to want to collaborate further and to travel. Similarly, Ertmer et al. (2011), who used Web 2.0 technologies to facilitate pre-service teacher’s global perspectives, found that because of the transcultural collaboration experience, the pre-service teachers were more likely to incorporate similar activities into their future teaching. Most of the U.S. participants of the Transcultural Dialogue project were pre-service teachers planning to teach art in k-12. Transcultural dialogue in pre-service curriculum could motivate students to include transcultural collaboration in their teaching and participate in cross-cultural activities (Ertmer et al. 2011). Indeed, one of the 2010 U.S. participants, inspired by the 2010 Transcultural Dialogue project, expressed interest in creating a transcultural collaboration with people in Belize, where she has connections.

The online collaboration between two groups of people at different locations creates a mashup space where online virtual spaces host real learning experiences. The selected websites, discussion texts, artworks, and voice reflections are the elements that constituted our transcultural mashup experiences. With changing technologies, we expect that ways of communicating between distances will improve. We envision that some of the misunderstandings between cultures will change, but also caution that new misconceptions may arise. Transcultural Dialogue is a space where students from different cultures can develop new knowledge about each other, and visual culture, texts, images, and voices can be mashed up to create new meanings.

The Transcultural Dialogue project utilized Web 2.0 technologies to create a mixed reality experience in which participants brought their physical lived experiences into virtual space and created unique insight and knowledge that was not easy to obtain through classroom lectures alone. Accessible Web 2.0 technologies afforded participants the opportunity to deconstruct, construct, and reconstruct cultural narratives through the sharing of the personal in a global public space via transcultural, collaboratively generated user-content that disrupted stereotypes and preconceived notions. This approach can be developed further in the future when technology and energy infrastructure improve worldwide.

Translation, transfer, critique, and questioning of relevance to the context were important to setting up the online architecture and facilitating the dialogue in this project. The Transcultural Dialogue strategies are intended to further understanding and to celebrate and sustain difference. In our work to pedagogically enact this goal, we have identified challenges, tried solutions, and continue to develop an arts-based research and teaching methodology.

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[1] There is no lead author. Instead, we used a collaborative exchange of writing to develop the article. We list our names in alphabetical order with one exception to this order for Keifer-Boyd, whose leadership style is one of initiating, motivating, and joining forces. Correspondence regarding this submission should be sent to Karen Keifer-Boyd at kk-b@psu.edu

[2] Martina Paatela-Nieminen, Richard Kabiito, and Karen Keifer-Boyd developed the first iteration of the Transcultural Dialogue project in 2007 titled Intertextual House. The goal was to foster an intertextual approach to inquiry and engagement with others concerning the subjective process of producing meaning from relationships between images, discourses, and cultures of house as experience, symbolism, and metaphor (e.g., governing houses as in House of Parliament, body as house as in Louise Bourgeois’s art (1947-1993, see http://maddicara.com/2013/12/10/documents-of-memory-the-house-and-the-body-in-the-work-of-louise-bourgeois/), and house as site of identity and societal expectations as explored in WomanHouse (1970-71) and At Home in Kentucky (2001-2002) art installations. An intertextual interpretation emphasizes social and cultural contexts of images as the necessary framework for understanding meanings and functions of signification systems. Other Transcultural Dialogue iterations included Keifer-Boyd’s courses with Kabiito’s or Paatela-Nieminen’s courses, or both together. Kabiito and Keifer-Boyd continued to incorporate the Transcultural Dialogue project in our courses in fall 2010, 2011, and 2012 semesters (Keifer-Boyd 2012). The fifth iteration is being planned for 2015.

[3] Participatory pedagogy refers here to the participation of many people in a dialogue about visual culture in which their dialogue is the artistic medium and material from which collaborative artworks are created.

[4] Communities of learners, also referred to as communities of practice, are formed from shared interests in which the community utilizes collective resources of experience, skills, and shared access to materials and facilities (Wenger-Trayner 2006).

[5] Dabbleboard was an online whiteboard for collaboration. Users can type, draw, or import images to create a board together. It was shut down in August 2012.

[6] VoiceThread enables users to post images, documents, or videos, and others can make comments using voice recording, video recording, or text.

[7] ValuePluse (ValuePulse.com) is a social media platform that allows users to download and share news with others via RSS news feed. It enables real time discussion on news.

[8] Uganda Travel Guide. 2010. “Welcome to Uganda Travel Guide.” http://www.ugandatravelguide.com/.

[9] Ugandart. 2008. “Uganda Online Art Consortium: A Project of KISA Foundation USA.” http://ugandart.com.

[10] Uganda Wildlife Education Centre. 2010. http://www.uweczoo.org.

[11] Sarah Palin was the governor of Alaska from 2006 to 2009 and the Republican candidate for vice president of the U.S. in 2008.

[12] For further information about the Challenging Gender Stereotypes activity, see “PostSecret: Disrupting Gender Stereotypes” (Motter 2010).

 

 

About the Authors

Karen Keifer-Boyd, Ph.D., is professor of art education and women’s studies at the Pennsylvania State University. She is past president of the National Art Education Association (NAEA) Women’s Caucus (2012-2014), NAEA Distinguished Fellow Class of 2013, and 2012 Fulbright Distinguished Chair in Gender Studies at Alpen-Adria-Universität Klagenfurt, Austria. She serves on the NAEA Higher Education Research Steering Committee; on the Council for Policy Studies; and as past coordinator of the Caucus on Social Theory. She is co-founder and co-editor of Visual Culture & Gender, and has served on 15 editorial and review boards. She has been honored with leadership and teaching awards, including two Fulbright Awards (2006 in Finland and 2012 in Austria) and the 2013 Edwin Ziegfeld Award. Her writings on feminist pedagogy, visual culture, inclusion, cyberart activism, transcultural dialogues, action research, social justice arts-based research, and identity are in more than 50 peer-reviewed research publications, and translated into several languages. She co-authored Including Difference: A Communitarian Approach to Art Education in the Least Restrictive Environment (NAEA, 2013); InCITE, InSIGHT, InSITE (NAEA, 2008); Engaging Visual Culture (Davis, 2007); co-edited Real-World Readings in Art Education: Things Your Professors Never Told You (Falmer, 2000); and served as editor of the Journal of Social Theory in Art Education and guest editor for Visual Arts Research. She is coordinator of the Judy Chicago Art Education Collection.

Christine Liao, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Watson College of Education at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. She received her Ph.D. in Art Education with a minor in Science, Technology, and Society from The Pennsylvania State University. After receiving her Bachelors and Masters degrees from National Hsinchu University of Education she was an elementary school art teacher in Taiwan, where she originates. She taught Visual Culture and Educational Technologies from 2008-2011 at Penn State. Currently, she is teaching arts integration to elementary undergraduates and graduates at UNCW. Her research interest focuses on avatar creation, embodiment, identity, and new media in art education. She has published in journals and book anthologies including Journal of Art Education, Visual Culture and Gender, Journal of Virtual Worlds Research, and Visual Arts Research. She is also the Chair of Art Education Technology Issues Group (2014-2016) in the National Art Education Association.

Jennifer Motter, Ph.D. graduated from The Pennsylvania State University in May 2012. Her doctoral research “Feminist Art Curriculum: Politicizing the Personal via Cyberpost Activism” involves socially-responsible and culturally-responsive art education. Through Motter’s research and praxis, she aims to encourage meaningful experience-based artmaking and strategic social media interventions in order to promote and facilitate social justice. Motter is particularly interested in the empowerment potentials of new media for marginalized groups, such as girls and women. She is co-president of the National Art Education Association Women’s Caucus. Motter is a new media art program developer and teacher at a middle school in Western Pennsylvania.

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