If you’re teaching a course that focuses on visual or material culture, there are lots of reasons to take advantage of the fact that the social media platforms college students are using these days are very visually oriented. I taught a course called Fashion and Power at NYU in which I used Pinterest to engage students with the reading material and to gauge their ability to apply what they’d read to real world examples. In this post I’ll share how I used Pinterest, including the details of the assignments, so you can see how you might use it (or a similar platform) for your own courses. I used Pinterest slightly differently in each of the two semesters I taught the course, so I’ll describe all the various ways I used it.
I created a Pinterest account that was shared by all members of the class. Each student had the login and password, and we operated on the honor system. We experienced no problems with students abusing their access – no one deleted anyone else’s posts or anything like that. This certainly *could* have happened, but it didn’t. The key here would be to monitor the boards frequently enough so that you’d notice if a problem arose. It would be possible to do any of these assignments with each student having their own Pinterest account and creating boards to complete their assignments individually. Hashtags would be useful if you wanted to do collaborative curations as many of the assignments here involved.
One difficulty associated with all sharing a login was that the person who posted an image would not be explicitly identified – I got around this by requiring that people include their initials in their image captions. Sometimes students forgot to do this; for the first few weeks I reminded them that there were images that were not receiving credit because I couldn’t attribute them to anyone. After that the responsibility was on the student to inform me if they hadn’t received credit for something they’d posted. The other difficulty we encountered was that sometimes the platform would reject posts if too many people were trying to post at once, probably because it detected such activity as spam. This frustrated the students sometimes, but I don’t think it resulted in any major problems. I let students know that if they had difficulty posting they should just email me the content of their post by the deadline and then try again later to get it posted.
Three different assignments
In one assignment, I created a board associated with each week of the course from the syllabus (each week had a specific topic and list of 3-4 readings). Students signed up in pairs for the week they were most interested in, and were responsible for curating images related to the reading material for that week. They had to populate the board with images before the class periods in question – this required them to do the reading ahead of time and also provided me with visual aids I could use during class if I chose to. The caption for each image had to explain its relevance to the reading, including the author and title details so that other students could follow along. (After the class periods each student from the curating pair was also responsible for writing a blog post that reviewed what was covered in class and made use of the pinned images.) I assigned grades for this assignment based on whether a minimum number of images were pinned, and the level of relevance the images and captions had to the course material.
In addition to the weekly assigned boards, each student had a personal board they could post to whenever they wished. Here they had much more latitude to explore images and objects in which they took a personal interest. The only content requirement was that they had to relate the images to one of the “keywords” around which I’d themed the course. I encouraged them to post photographs they took themselves to these boards (though I don’t recall many students doing so). Again, they were awarded points based on posting a minimum number of images (5 by the midterm, 10 total by the final) and their ability to explain the relevance to course material.
The second time I taught the course I took a different approach, in order to complement the other assignments I had planned for the semester. This time around, I created a board for each assigned reading on the syllabus. Students could then post images to any board they chose at any time throughout the semester. The captions needed to relate the image to an idea from the reading and had to incorporate at least one of the course keywords. Students were not assigned to specific readings – I awarded points as they completed their pins over the semester. Each pin could earn from 1-3 points, based on how original the image selection was and how clear the explanation was connecting it to the reading and the course themes. Students could earn up to 50 points for this assignment. They would not need to pin for every reading, if they were doing quality captions and earning the maximum points possible per pin. The only limitation was that they could only do one pin per reading. I also required them to post by midnight before the class in which the reading would be discussed – this was to give me time to review their pins before I went to class. I found this very helpful for getting a sense of how well students had absorbed the reading; if there were a lot of pins with quality captions I could tell that the reading was popular and easy to understand/apply. A few students complained that the time deadline was too restrictive because they preferred to do the reading directly before class rather than a day in advance (I felt the pedagogical value of me seeing their pins before class justified the deadline so I didn’t adjust it). I was surprised to find the variance in participation on this assignment. Because I set it up so that it was basically impossible not to get the full amount of points (either through quality or quantity of pins posted), I expected everyone to get an A by the end of the semester. This was not the case though – in fact I would say the range of scores was broader for this assignment than for any of the others I’ve given. Ultimately I felt it rewarded effort and organization – those who kept track of their posts and got them done early in the semester ended up doing the best.
One problem I ran into repeatedly was trying to get students to link to the sources of the photos using Pinterest’s “pinned from” feature. While Pinterest makes it possible to credit the sources of images, the technical and especially social norms of pinning on Pinterest do not emphasize this. It’s up to you how much you want to emphasize this, but I ended up not being too strict about it (compared with say, requiring them to provide image sources and URLs in their blog posts).
Obviously assignments that use Pinterest require some social media savvy on the part of students. The learning curve was steeper for some than for others, but I think eventually everyone got it. I spent some time during class walking through how to post to the boards, and I fielded questions as glitches came up. I was also available to assist students with the platform one-on-one, though no one actually availed themselves of this help–most of them turned to a friend or classmate for this kind of assistance if they needed it.
I would not use these kinds of assignments in an introductory, required course, the reason being that I don’t think it would be fair to expect students to master a social media platform like this in order to succeed in the class. In an upper-level topical course like Fashion & Power though, especially at a school like NYU, students self-select and the vast majority are already interested in and adept at using platforms like Pinterest. Arguably, too, if they are seeking a career in the fashion or fashion-media industries, they probably *should* have some experience with visual social media platforms. So I think it works very well in a course like this. Hopefully you can also imagine how these assignments could be adapted to platforms like Instagram or Tumblr.
If you find any of this helpful, or have any questions I didn’t address, please feel free to tweet or email me!