by Amanda K. Booher
Balancing theory and practice in the context of an undergraduate course is challenging. Often, there is hardly time to teach the skills students need for effective writing and digital production; developing critical thinking and reflection on their practices, particularly in a global context, can be relegated to a pleasant afterthought.
What interests me most about this project is the attempt to integrate theory and practice, production and reflection. I see the underlying goals asking students to do the following (in no particular order): 1) research how technology has proliferated globally; 2) consider the impact of this proliferation upon specific cultures (as well as their own culture and experience); 3) present this information in a user-friendly mobile website/application (including planning organization and presentation, and designing/coding in Dreamweaver); and 4) present this information in an analytical report. Additionally, all of this was to be accomplished in the span of five class periods.
This is an impressive breadth of expectation. And therein, perhaps, lies the challenge. Accomplishing proficiency in all of these categories might be a reasonable goal for an entire semester; accomplishing it in five class periods challenges the phrase “lofty expectations.” While the effort was worth making, the final product demonstrates numerous problems: consistency in design and information; clarity and accuracy in writing; use of effective sources; usability (generally, and in accessibility); and overall effectiveness. Quality control over a final product composed of individually-produced segments creates additional complications for any project. For instance, to what extent ought the instructor intervene on editing?
While the topic and product of this project is clearly important, I’d like to turn to the methodology behind the project and three specific questions it raises, and consider how these might guide us in our own endeavors to integrate ideas of the global/cultural in our digital productions. Let’s return, then, to the framing of this project, as stated on the introductory webpage:
…As new technologies enter the technological landscape, it is important to account for the ways in which they reshape communication at home as well as abroad. This project explores the proliferation of computers, mobile devices, and Internet connectivity around the world through the comparative framework of the Universal Standard Time zone….
Attempting to cover the whole world in one project is ambitious—perhaps, again, too much so, even with an entire class working together. But I appreciate this reach and its necessity in considering digital media proliferation, and the instructor’s approach to accomplish this. The world could be divided in many ways: by land (country, continent), by culture/ethnicity, by language, by economics (GDP, credit rating), and, as demonstrated here, by time zone. This is a novel means of cutting across other divisions that could be perceived as laden with interpretation and bias, providing instead a (more) benign (and literal) cross-section of inquiry. Yet this cross-section still remains substantial; limits certainly must be imposed, especially in the constraints of an undergraduate course project. And here, we encounter the first challenging question: how to limit?
One option, which appears to be utilized here, is to limit with great freedoms: constrain the inquiry to a specific number, then leave students to choose specific locations. I, too, often prefer to grant students as much autonomy and responsibility as possible. The result here, however, provides a very uneven ground for comparison. For instance, seven US cities are represented in three different time zones, while another time zone accounts for the entire US; that is a disproportionate representation of one country. Kazakhstan appears in both time zone +5 and +6, which is accurate, but also duplication.
More problematic is that some time zones consider specific cities while others take entire countries as their points of analysis. This is a problem of consistency in design for the idea of a mobile app/database (where we expect similarity in categories). This also creates a reductionist view of the world, leading us to our second challenging question: what is fair representation? While the time zone division is potentially helpful in providing unbiased starting grounds, it risks masking biases/contexts that deserve consideration. Countries are complex, integrating various cultures, landscapes, economies, educations, and values. Thus, one might expect that the proliferation of digital media would vary according to these (and other) factors. The over-representation of US cities suggests that students recognize this: Las Vegas, NE and Seattle, WA are understood as places with enough difference to warrant comparison. Alternately, India is considered as one monolithic locale, flattening 28 states, seven union territories, major agricultural and industrial productions, and an extensive number of languages into representation such as this, “There are nearly 29 million Indians on Facebook, and that number is growing every day!”
Setting aside the student’s excitement for this fact, we find our third, and, I’d argue, most significant question: why? What’s the significance of Facebook representation globally? Divorced from the framing of the project, the purpose seems to be a simple representation of statistics and factoids. For these are the majority of this project, in mobile app and analytical paper. Students provide varying amounts of information with some summary comments. Analysis primarily includes noting which country/city “wins” with the most digital access, suggesting (or outright stating) that digital proliferation is inherently preferable, that this is technological, and thus cultural, progress for the “winning” locations. The project itself does not seem to answer its stated purpose “to account for the ways in which [new technologies] reshape communication at home as well as abroad,” or the suggestion that it “raises questions about the influence of technology itself on scholarly work.” Additionally, these analyses represent US-centric values, not consideration of global issues and values of/for technology. Some analyses come dangerously close to “othering” non-US countries instead of providing a global perspective on digital media proliferation.
Thus, despite the goals and explicit framing, the potential for integration of theory and practice, this project falls short. But I do not mean that (or this response) to simply lambast the work of the students and instructor. Integrating writing for different media and real audiences, with an eye to the global, is a smart plan that provides students with learning opportunities and experiences necessary to be thoughtful, worldly digital citizens. This project aspires to that, and is worth consideration, particularly in light of the quick timeframe. The students certainly benefitted from what was attempted and accomplished. The questions raised in a retrospective analysis, however, highlight the complex nature of this kind of project, and the opportunities it presents us for learning and improving upon our own goals of integrating the production of multimodal projects with global considerations, for global audiences.