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Initial round of student feedback

July 6, 2012

After having given the technology a couple of test runs myself, I met up with a couple of students to have a brief chat about the Booth maps, the Phone Booth app, and its potential as a teaching and learning tool. This is just one part of the total feedback we are collecting, as not everyone could make the meet up today, and everyone is also filling out questionnaires on both the technology and the app’s potential for class use. Given that we are now a few weeks into the summer, it was fewer students than I had hoped as collective energy can be brilliant for generating ideas and critiques. Still, it was nice to see people again and good to know that some of the students were still willing to make a special effort to support the project.

The technology was the first topic of conversation. It was agreed that the app takes a long time to load on the phone (and on older models does not load at all), which is problematic for ease of use when out and about on the street. Everyone agreed it was easier to use on a laptop or home computer, which isn’t precisely the point of the project but still important. The simple fact of being able to see notebook entries by location made it possible to interact with the journals in an entirely different way, which was key. As one student said, “anything that fixes info to location is very useful.” This is definitely something I have also found, both in my teaching and learning. There were a few other issues remaining, but the focus of the discussion was on the pedagogical potential.

This year all of the students in GY244 were asked to do a final project for the class. The very broad question they were asked to respond to was “Using particular events, sites, personalities or projects, how might we see London as a palimpsest?” The directions continued:

palimpsest n. and a.

1.     Paper, parchment, or other writing-material prepared for writing on and wiping out again, like a slate.

2.      A parchment or other writing-material written upon twice, the original writing having been erased or rubbed out to make place for the second; a manuscript in which a later writing is written over an effaced earlier writing.” [Oxford English Dictionary]

The British satirist George Orwell writes in Nineteen Eighty Four that “All history was a palimpsest, scraped clean and re-inscribed exactly as often as was necessary” (Book 1, Chapter 3.) In what ways might we ‘read’ the city similarly, as having been written over many times, with aspects that are never completely erased. How might the layers of the past be seen in the present, so that the geographer’s work is to understand the co-existence and interplay of many spaces and times in one place? Geographer Doreen Massey argues that we should think of all places as intersections of processes, connecting wider (regional, national, global) processes to everyday life in particular places. All these viewpoints refuse the idea that places are isolated from events in the past and elsewhere, or that people can be bounded into closed categories.

 

We were particularly interested in the ways in which students were able to see echoes of the past in the present, the continuities and disjunctures in the fabric of the city. It was nice to hear that students themselves were most interested in taking more knowledge of this away from the class, though in a much more concrete and real-world form it may be said! I think that is one of the things I most love about the Booth archives, is the way they can be used to open up a comparison of past and present through both the map (invoking politics of representation and categorization along with the impact of making data visual) and the journals upon which they are based (an additional set of questions around methodology, the blurred line between quantitative and qualitative data, the relationship of researcher to those researched, the mediating role of the police escorts and etc). One of the comments echoed the earlier requests in our initial brainstorm on what such an application might do, in that it would be very desirable to have the additional functionality of comparing the map and journal information with current applicable sources, even if only by link. Looking at current measures and mapping of poverty was mentioned again, perhaps being able to see them side by side. I love how spending time with the maps awoke student interest in comparing the different ways in which poverty has been seen, recorded and measured in the past and the present, which might be a very good thing to better incorporate into the class. I’m not so sure if it would work for the app, but possibly for the website?

The geographical limitation of the maps was brought up as well, as London has crept far beyond the Booth map’s original boundaries. But where projects and the map overlapped, they generally thought it would have been useful. Another student in thinking about how the app might have impacted her final project, said that it wouldn’t have helped at all (she had done a fantastic project on the development of shopping centres over time). But she thought that having access to such an application might have changed her initial choice of project, allowing her to see other areas and possibilities that might have been much more interesting…she was also interested in looking at the Booth maps and journals as measurements of people’s well-being in a sense, possibly the same as their poverty but not entirely and the framing can definitely change the way you would think about such a map and the things that you might look for.

They also both thought that the lecture on Booth and the maps could be better carried out in the field in future classes, with students able to be walked through the process of data collection and able to use their phones themselves to pull up journal entries. We would certainly then have to ensure that all students had access to smart phones.

Finally, the app was seen to have a lot of potential for other classes beyond GY244 and even Geography. The core undergraduate course, GY100, spends a couple of weeks looking at the Booth map and poverty measures, and it seems like such an application might be the perfect way to ease undergraduates into discussions of difficult subjects. One student definitely felt that the maps were a perfect opening to learning how to think critically about information, which was important as he didn’t feel that they did this in the same way in other courses. Another student had friends in Social policy who she thought would also really benefit from this, along with Economic Geographers and the LSE Cities program.  GY250 incorporates a project mapping house prices in London and running regression, both thought it was interesting comparison to the Booth maps and the way they were built.

In sum, the initial feedback was very positive despite technical difficulties, and provided a lot to think about in terms of developing future curriculum and using technology in the classroom. There will be more forthcoming, which I am looking forward to.

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