Sunday, June 3, 2012

Pinterest as Pedagogy: Considering the Uses for the Online Writing Classroom

Scott Warnock posits that online writing courses “force an environment that is not just writing intensive but also often writing exclusive” (xi). He marks this immersive characteristic as a strength of online writing pedagogy saying “we couldn’t ask for a better lab or workshop to help our first-year students develop their ability to communicate using the written world” (xi). As such, Warnock suggests that faculty who are new to online writing instruction begin with the CMS (Course Management System) their institution provides them because “[y]our goal is to get past the technology and start thinking about teaching (22).

Warnock’s suggestions for working with technology in an online writing classroom are intuitive for practitioners who subscribe to an approach to writing pedagogy that privileges text as the primary mode of expression. However, not all new online writing instructors will feel at home in this pedagogical framework. There are those, for example, who have responded to Diana George’s call to have students become producers and not merely consumers of visual communication and to stop allowing the visual to “figur[e] into the teaching of writing as problematic, something added, an anomaly, a ‘new’ way of composing, or, somewhat cynically, as a strategy for adding relevance or interest to a required course” (13). Will the CMS figure as an appropriate venue for these such writing classes?

In my case, no. Most CMS platforms treat the visual as an anomaly rather than a central component of any material produced within the platform. There are discussion boards where you can *even* add a picture, rather than there being tools expressly designed for visual communication. Thus, individuals hoping to bring the visual into a more central role in their online composition classrooms might be better suited to look elsewhere for a tool to bring this value into their classroom spaces. But where? As I began to consider this question, I thought of the online pinboard site, Pinterst.

While the site was not designed with pedagogical endeavors in mind, that fact does not preclude it from being re-purposed for pedagogical pursuits. After all, many technologies used in higher education today were not first designed for the classroom (I’m looking at you blogs and Twitter). Pinterest is not a one-stop-shopping answer to all your technological needs as a teacher, but the interface does provide some unique opportunities for the classroom that faculty might consider, especially if they are looking for a means to bring visual communication into their online pedagogy. I would recommend that teachers of online and hybrid first-year writing classes, in particular, begin to consider the affordances of this technology more closely.

Pinterest ( is an online pinboard site. Think of that trusty corkboard you’ve had in your office with the same four things pinned to it for the last six years. It’s just like that, but on steroids only the Internet can provide. It allows users to upload images or capture them from the web to “pin” to an online pinboard of their choosing. Since each user can have multiple pinboards, it allows folks to organize the visuals they elect to collect. Basically, it’s a visual bookmarking tool. It’s used by crafters, parents, fashionistas and the like to keep track of visual inspiration.

It also has a social component. Users can search the site by topic or keyword for images pinned by other users. They can also follow friends and other users. Pinners can opt to follow all of a friend’s pins, or just a specific board. In addition, when they find a image of interest, users can elect to re-pin it, comment on it, or “like” it. In addition to engaging the pins of others, users can also invited others to boards they own so they can pin to it collaboratively.

Getting Started
Currently the site is accessible by invitation only. Those interested in the site can request an invite from the page directly or someone who is already a part of Pinterest can invite them (want an invite? Comment and let me know). Once invited, registration is easy, particularly if you use Facebook or Twitter to connect to the site. Just complete the simple for or connect to your other social media and you’re ready to start pinning.

Navigating the site is fairly straightforward, once you learn the basics of the interface. Justin W. Marquis, a blogger for Online Universities, details how to get started with Pinterest in the short video below.

Potential Uses
Teachers could start a pinboard and add each of their students to the board. Students could create accounts and boards of their own for class usage and share the links with their professor, just as they would with a class blog. Professors could then provide the class a list of student boards and the students could then follow one another if they wished. With this housekeeping established, the faculty could then begin exploring the activities for which they might wish to use the boards with their class.

Here are five examples of how Pinterest might be used within a writing classroom:

1. Visual Research Organizer - As Marquis suggests in the video above, students could use Pinterest as a place to gather the sources they are using for a research project. They could pin articles and websites to a board marked “Research” and then have an easy way to get back to those resources as they are writing. In addition, students could share their research boards with their professors so that professors could track their progress. Additionally, students could comment on their pins to provide annotations and the MLA citation for an item, much in the way they might in an annotated bibliography assignment. Faculty could provide comments on the board regarding additional sources they might recommend or perhaps even corrections on the MLA format.

2. Presentations - Marquis also suggests that students could use a Pinboard to give presentations on material, rather than using Prezi or PowerPoint. Faculty might ask students to present by moving through a pinboard and using the images as talking points. Alternatively, the pinboard and comments below each image could serve as a stand alone presentation, which would be particularly useful in an online class that does not require audio/visual capability on the behalf of the student.

3. Discussion Thread - Faculty might use an image as a conversation starter by posting it to the class pinboard, perhaps with a prompt in the comments section, and ask students to reply to pin with a comment. Alternatively, the student could be asked to repin the image and provide his or her reply to the prompt in the comment on his or her own board. At the end of the semester he or she might have then a set of responses all tied to images. Students also might be asked to start discussion threads by selecting images and prompts themselves.

4. Visual Essay projects - in a similar vein to the presentations, students might be asked to create visual essays and use Pinterest as the medium of delivery. They could even compose such projects in groups as a result of the collaborative nature of the pinning site.

5. Ancillaries to Writing Projects - One Writing for the Web teacher, Deneen Gilmour, is having students produce multimedia texts and requiring Pinterest be a part of the story the students produce in some productive way. She shares in a Mashable article that “[o]ne student, Meghan Feir, turned in a story that fulfilled the requirement beautifully. She created a pinboard on Pinterest that gathered tips, recipes, blogs, shops, restaurant menus and more for people who need lactose-free or gluten-free diets” (qtd in Holt).

* * *
Pinterest has potential for becoming a useful tool in the online writing teacher’s tool belt. It is easy to use and learn. The platform allows collaboration and engagement between users and defies the text-based bias that results from so many tools used in the online writing classroom.

The current draw back to this tool is also its strength: there has been little written on its uses in the classroom. A majority of the education and writing related pins currently on the site are related to secondary education. Much that’s been written about it focuses on this student audience as well. As a result, it would require more imagination for a college teacher to use it in the classroom for the first time. However, he or she would have the advantage of bringing a tool into the classroom in a refreshing new way.

Works Cited
Diana George. “From Analysis to Design: Visual Communication in the Teaching of Writing,” College Composition and Communication 54.1 (2002): 11-39.

Holt, Kris. "Teachers Pin with Their Students." Mashable. 22 Mar. 2012. Web. 01 June 2012.

Warnock, Scott. Teaching Writing Online: How and Why. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English, 2009. Print.

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