Published: June 10, 2014

Dr. Michela ArdizzoniDr. Michela Ardizzoni of the Department of French and Italian encouraged her students to create websites to share information with local schools. See her padlet of her students' work here.

In the Spring of 2014, I taught a new course on documentary and social change in the Mediterranean region. This was a cross-listed course in Italian and Journalism and included 16 students with very different academic backgrounds (communication, anthropology, broadcast, film, astronomy, history, international affairs).  This course focused on socially engaged and activist documentaries whose aim is to address and potentially change salient social issues in countries like Italy, Greece, Egypt, Morocco, Bosnia, etc. Students in this course watched a documentary every week and completed readings related to the film, the issues (homosexuality, Balkan war, migration, citizenship rights, to name but a few), and the creative use of documentary filmmaking. In this course, I included a variety of assignments to ensure that students kept up with the readings and watched the assigned film every week: a weekly reading response to the articles/chapters; a documentary journal; a short paper; a midterm and a final project.

Given the topic of this course, I wanted my students to work on a final project that was engaging and that connected their new understanding of mediated social change to their own experiences. I realize that the content of this course is based on cultures that are widely different from the reality/experience of each student. Yet, I was hoping to use technological tools to create an assignment that could reflect and expand on the course materials, while, at the same time, engaging the students as actors of social change. My goal was to use technology to encourage students to connect what they learned in this course with their role as engaged citizens in their communities and online.

I regularly use technology in my teaching and, regardless of the kind of course I teach (whether it’s a media class, an Italian writing seminar, or a multiculturalism course), I’m often perplexed by some students’ resistance to technology and aversion to experiment with new learning tools. Hence, one of the challenges I expected to find in creating (and implementing) this assignment was precisely the students’ inclination to stick with what they know and resist the adoption of new formats. Therefore, it was crucial to provide a learning environment that eased the anxiety some students might feel towards new technologies, while emphasizing the enriching potential of this assignment and the relevance of this project beyond the classroom (and their grades!).

While the geographic focus of this course was not directly connected to the students’ lives and experiences, I believe that many of the issues covered in the documentaries we watched are relevant also to young generations in the United States. The idea of social change is central to societies worldwide nowadays, and it is important for undergraduate students to understand the role they can play in effecting meaningful changes in their own communities. Hence, one of the goals in this course was for students to work on a project that would connect the class’ topics with their lives in Boulder.

To reach this goal, and ideally connect the issues we discussed in class with the larger Boulder community, I decided to give my students two options for their final project: the first option was a traditional research paper, while the second option was the creation of a website. Since this was the first time I included a website as a final project, I wanted to give my students the option of a more traditional assignment too. Some students still seem to be very resistant to new project ideas and I didn’t want the technical component of creating a website to distract the students from the content of their research. Thus, only those students who felt comfortable with this worked on the website project.

Creating a website on social change and documentary can be a daunting and even fruitless task given the large amount of online resources on this topic. To obviate the risk of a project whose reach would not go beyond the course, I included a specific target audience for the students’ websites: high-school students in Boulder. Having a very clear group in mind helped my students think about more concrete linguistic and visual choices, devise more useful tools for that target population, and ultimately create a repository of information and critical analyses that high-school students can engage with. In this sense, one of the requirements of the website was a ‘Take Action’ page, where students included various ways in which young people can become actively engaged in implementing change in specific Mediterranean societies as well as in their own Boulder communities. Some of these suggestions included links to petitions and NGOs, tools to organize screenings and/or discussion groups, emails of directors and/or activists, etc. The ultimate goal of this project was to create a series of focused, in-depth websites on documentary and social change which could be shared with social science teachers at the local high schools.

The first indicator of success in my ‘intervention’ was whether students did choose to create a website. At the end of the semester, two thirds of the class (10 out 15) chose the website option for their project. After the midterm exam, I met with each student individually to discuss their ideas, and I revised their project outlines. In the future, I am planning on focusing only on the website as the final project for the course. Next time I teach the course, I will have more detailed information and materials on the website project, and I will therefore be able to provide students with more guidance from the beginning of the semester.

The second indicator of success would be the students’ integration of a ‘take action’ page on their websites. I encouraged students to include specific, creative, and viable suggestions on how to learn more about a certain topic (such as LGBT rights, environmental issues, animal rights, migrant detention centers, women’s rights, etc.) both locally and internationally. A comprehensive and therefore successful ‘take action’ section would include three ideas on the local context and three on the Mediterranean. While I wanted students to be creative and resourceful in thinking about this section, I also reminded them that these ideas could include, among others, links to documentaries/trailers/clips, list of discussion questions, links to petitions or activist resources. Most websites provided very thorough and creative ‘take action’ sections with specific activities that could clearly generate enthusiasm among high-school students.

The third and last indicator of success for this assignment was the level of critical thinking and organized planning that went into the creation of this project. I gave students a detailed grading rubric, which focused on the following elements: overall impression, socio-historical and political background on the issue, use of evidence, take action section, number and quality of sources, links, images and videos, overall layout, and clarity and style (appropriate for the target audience). I adapted this rubric from a couple of online resources and, while it took some time to think carefully about this document, it proved to be extremely helpful for me as a teacher, as well as for the students. Working on this rubric forced me to think more thoroughly and concretely about this assignment and the learning outcome I want for my students.

Overall, the website option worked well for this class, and I was pleased to see that most students chose this option to engage with the course materials. Although many students acknowledged the website option would require more work as they had to reflect carefully on the content as well as the delivery mode, they embraced it with enthusiasm. During our individual meetings, many students said they were particularly excited about the target audience for their websites: having a specific public in mind was especially important in this project, as it aided the students in their linguistic, visual, and resource choices, while also giving them a more concrete task to create a ‘digital repository’ that would later be used by local youth. I believe this was the strongest aspect of this assignment as it combined the content of the course with the element of social engagement that I wanted students to achieve.

Having said this, there are, however, a couple of elements that I will modify next time I teach this course. First, I would assign the website as the only final project option. Since I have had the opportunity to reflect on the specific requirements for this assignment, I feel confident I will be able to guide students through this task from the very beginning of the semester. This would give students more time to reflect on the focus of their project and conduct more in-depth research. Second, I will provide more clear guidelines on the kind of research that I would like to see in each website. While several students conducted in-depth and pertinent research, similar to what they would include in a research paper, there were a few students who seemed to focus more on the visual component of the website. This clearly impacted the quality of their projects, and I’ve realized that this is an aspect that should be emphasized further (and more emphatically) in the assignment description and the rubric.

During the summer of 2014, I will contact social science teachers at the local high school, and I will share with them the websites that I curated using Padlet.