Rodney Collins: Maps Blog Creates a Collective Experience

Rodney Collins, Anthropology Department

While blogs have become a mainstream approach to document and share student comprehension and reflection, the undergraduate course The Contemporary African City, taught by Professor Rodney Collins, used WordPress (with a Google maps plugin) to curate and display information in a compellingly different way.

The course — designed as an interdisciplinary exploration of the post-colonial African city — had students research assigned cities and lead discussions around those locations through the theoretical lens of urbanism and urban planning. Collins knew that he wanted to explore interactive mapping features not only because he found his students had limited geographic knowledge of the continent but also because geography is a fundamental influence on the socio-political climate of the region.

I’ll admit capital cities of the African continent is challenging, but the country names themselves were challenging…not knowing where Egypt was in relation to Sudan for example. And these are countries that are in the news all the time. So it seemed critical to be able to move through the basics of geography — something as fundamental as geographic specifics of the African continent — while also exploring these deeper, richer theoretical or conceptual domains.
—Rodney Collins

The idea for the blog initially arose when Professor Collins, who used a timeline visual for a course he taught at NYU, pondered how he could merge the need to connect the high-quality research produced by his students with a geographic representation.

He arrived at the solution working alongside CNDLS Assistant Director Bill Garr. They went over possible solutions, including Google Earth, before settling on a “wikimapeia” hybrid that combined the interconnectedness of Wikipedia articles with the flexibility of Google Maps. Collins liked the way users could click on a picture (such as a painting) in one article and be taken to the article describing that picture. The solution they arrived at delivers both content connection and visual discernment.

On the blog’s front page, a Google Maps-powered interface allows users to delve deeper into the complexities of each city. By clicking on any of the posted flags, a dialog appears showing the city’s name and a link to information relating to that city. From there, users are taken to a blog containing the students’ impressive research accumulation enhanced by rich content including video, maps, and images.

As Collins states, “They were really challenged to become sort of desk officers for a particular city and be able to aggregate as much information as possible in order to contribute positively and productively to the conversation around the general topic.”

While the introduction of the blog was a mid-semester proposition, it ultimately supplemented the students’ engagement with their research by providing a technological means of organizing and showcasing their research as a final polished and interactive product.

The experimental nature of the course, melding not only disciplines but also technologies, revealed intriguing insights into the relationship between research and technology. Collins is debating introducing the blogging element earlier on in future courses because he likes the flexibility of the platform, but he feels that having students produce writing in Blackboard discussion forums prompted more long-form essays not typically encouraged by blogging.

While the structure of Blackboard discussion forum encouraged a type of writing that was fruitful to content creation, Collins also tells the story of how technical difficulties actually helped reset the tone of the class after students started relying on PowerPoint presentations too much to share knowledge in the class.

“They were doing bullet-pointed summaries of the readings. I think the PowerPoint sort of leads to that type of approach, that sort of analysis of the material, reiterated in terms of bullets rather than thinking…and then, we had technical difficulties one week. We couldn’t get the computer to work so there were no PowerPoints possible even though the student had prepared a PowerPoint presentation. And at the end of the class, the students said to me: 'Class went really well today! The discussion was really great!'"

And it wasn’t because the student was better as a facilitator, it really was because, I think, that PowerPoint bearing down upon us and guiding all of our conversation was too demanding.”

Ultimately, Collins believes the strength of the class was the level of collaboration and discussion facilitated by the students’ research. While the continual development of the site restricted the amount of time students had to post their entries, the quality of their research is evident in the richness of their posts.

Despite its late introduction and learning curve, the blog has the potential to add value beyond this class. “There is possibility of thinking of this as an additive project. Next time this class is offered, there will be ten students and ten additional cities added to the map so you can build outward from this and potentially update what has already been entered into other cities. So I see this as a larger conversation.”

One potential home for this blog could be the African studies program at Georgetown. “It’s student based work, it would be contributing to their department, other students can see it. It could have a really dynamic life.”

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