Using Technology to Improve the African Studies Capstone

I focused my ITEL project on my Senior Capstone course for the African Studies Certificate/minor. I had 10 students enrolled in my seminar section. My students are seniors, and they are highly motivated and engaged, but also anxious about graduation and careers. The topic is "Representations of Africa in Film & Literature." It is a transition course, asking students to look back at their studies of Africa over the last four years, but also ahead to their next steps in life.

I wanted to use technology to do three main things: 1) create a platform for discussing and sharing about the weekly film viewings that would free classroom time for discussion, but not lose the 'interaction' while the film was being viewed; 2) develop an assignment that helped integrate their future plans, especially career-related, in a more explicit way; and 3) use Omeka to integrate film, audio and other visual media into their final paper projects.

I hoped that these technology enhancements would help me both better utilize class time and help students reflect on their studies and their goals more deeply.

TAs noted above, I had a couple of goals. First, I wanted to make better use of classroom time. In the past, some portion of each class session was used for viewing films as a class. I wanted more film viewing done outside of valuable class time (much easier now with Share Stream), but I did not completely want them to lose the value of 'interaction'—sharing insights, knowing looks, laughs, even tears that you get when you watch a film in the same room and in real time. I decided to use live blogging as a way to explore integrating technology. The students were to watch at least 10 of the 15 course films on a Sunday or Monday night at the same time and blog about it while they watched. I also wanted to make the course blogs that I had used in previous years less like formal essays and more spontaneous and engaging.

The second goal was to more explicitly engage with the nature of the transition that my students are themselves preparing for, graduation and future careers. I did this in a couple of ways. So first, I chose a sub-theme of Youth in Africa and selected readings and films on this topic. Second, I had them do paired interviews, in person, which were recorded. These were for actual or aspirational jobs and the students prepared their own interview questions, took turns interviewing and being interviewed and then watched the videos. They had to complete a 2-3 page reflection on the process. I hoped that the technology would help students see themselves literally and figuratively in a different way, as both a practical tool for preparing for a job interview, but also as different people, professionals seeking a job and professionals interviewing someone else.

My third goal was related to the use of Omeka. I wanted students to think about how to integrate clips of film, audio and visual media into their more traditional research papers. Rather than a stand-alone paper that referenced a set of films in passing, I wanted students to cite specific scenes and characters in their papers, and then put those clips on Omeka, so that the two were an integrated package of outcomes. This would help make the films more a 'source' than simply a piece of entertainment that was not particularly related to academic sources.

I saw evidence of the impact on student learning as emerging from the quality of the work. Unfortunately, the students were rarely able to live stream the films from off-campus, thereby making the time windows for blog postings on Sunday and Monday frustrating for them. And so I told them to watch the films on their own prior to Tuesday and blog while they watched the films. Even though the live blogging didn't work, the blogs themselves were significantly better than previous course blogs I have used or discussion/reflection papers in earlier iterations of this course. I found their use of short quotes, quick reactions and slightly longer posts at the end of the film were a great window into their opinions and reactions to films. They reacted to each other, if not in real time, still in meaningful ways. The discussions in class later during the week were richer and more specific, because we could use the shorter blog postings as a framework.

In the short reflection papers about the paired interviews, every single student said they liked the exercise. They learned things about themselves, and thought more about how they wanted to present themselves, not in minor sort of body language ways, but in deeper ways. I loved their essays about the interviews, because I really could see them as emerging adults and professionals in a field in the way they thought about themselves.

Similarly, I found the final papers were better. Omeka was a relatively tough technology platform to use, and I see some areas for improvement on my side (see below), but overall, the use of the tool of Omeka made the papers stronger and more focused. Students did reference specific scenes/characters/themes more often than in typical seminar papers. Some really understood the goals and fully integrated multiple types of visual media and multiple themes in both Omeka and the paper. The prize-winning paper, for instance, referenced specific films and audio clips which were then placed on the Omeka site.

Many of these interventions and practices I will use again in future courses, especially the more informal blog style, or a combination. I had them do shorter weekly blog postings and then four longer reflection papers on specific questions or topics (after a set of videos we saw in class, or after the trip to the Museum of African Art, for example). That worked really well. I liked the course blog very much this semester.

I will also use Omeka again, but I have to think about which classes and formats it is best for. Having used it twice now, I think it is better for individual projects than group ones, because I think that my students struggle enough with the skill set of 'collaboration' and the learning curve of Omeka makes it too difficult to collaborate successfully. But I like Omeka a lot and I hope to get more creative with it as I gain more experience myself.

There were several challenges. I am improving in specifying learning outcomes with Omeka, but there is a need for refinement. With such a new technology tool, the outcome is better and students are less anxious and therefore enjoy it more when they have more specific guidelines. I think I could have been even clearer about specifying what are Items versus Collections versus Exhibits in Omeka. In addition, I should have done more 'scaffolding' of the Omeka technology part, as I do for the seminar paper. They should have had the library training earlier (the CNDLS training part we did early and that was great), and maybe even coordinate the two. But then they should have had at least 1-2 'draft' deadlines to get them started. The students waited until the last minute, and then were anxious and frustrated.