What do Occupy Wall Street, Free Burma, the Zapatista Movement, and Uzbek dissidents have in common? All have mobilized social media for their causes, and all were topics in the new course Social Media and Global Change in the Spring 2013 semester at the University of Illinois. The course was developed and sponsored by the Global Informatics Initiative as the first phase in its efforts to further internationalize informatics curricula at the university.
The Global Informatics Initiative is a collaborative venture involving the Illinois Informatics Institute (I3), the Graduate School of Library and Information Science (GSLIS) and five federally funded Title VI National Resource Centers: the Russian, East European & Eurasian Center (REEEC), Center for East Asia and Pacific Studies (CEAPS), the European Union Center (EUC), Center for Global Studies (CGS), and the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies (CLACS). It is aimed at bringing together Illinois’ strength in informatics and computer science with its rich area studies resources.
The “Social Media and Global Change” course was developed and taught by Dr. Bertram “Chip” Bruce, Professor Emeritus of Library and Information Science. An expert on community informatics and technology-enhanced learning, Professor Bruce shared his ideas on the course topic with other colleagues at the Midwest Scholars Conference on March 14, 2013 (Part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5). The course itself was offered through the GSLIS online LEEP format, which involves synchronous and asynchronous online instruction as well as a day of in-person classroom instruction on campus.
Professor Bruce observed that “Most of what we read about social media tends to focus on the situation in the US. That’s also true of much of the research. As a result, many in the US have little opportunity to understand the role that social media plays in other countries.” One of the goals of the course, then, was to bring together experts from the Illinois campus and overseas who are researching the use and impact of social media in other places, to widen the horizon of the discussion of social media. Guest speakers in the course from among local University of Illinois faculty included Ann Abbot (Spanish, Italian, Portuguese) on “Social Media Marketing for Social Enterprises” in the Spanish-speaking world; Markus S. Schulz (Sociology) on “Transnational Mobilization and the Internet” and the Zapatista Movement in particular; and Jon Gant (Library and Information Science) on Geographic Information Systems and e-government. Students also interacted with faculty from overseas, including Yan Li (Zhejiang University) on the topic of the digital divide in China; and Olena Zhylinkova (Kharkiv National University, Ukraine) on social media legal regulation in different countries. Class discussion moved very quickly from simple questions of whether or not social media facilitate social change to more complex questions of the many factors that inhibit or facilitate effectiveness, with critical issues including censorship, identity, privacy, and access, according to Professor Bruce. In the course, students relied on their diverse fields of specialty (geography, informatics, cultural and area studies and library sciences) and produced excellent final projects, including webtoons and maps. Thus, they learned through and about social media and became trained in how to more effectively use this medium.
The Global Informatics Initiative would like to build on the connections created among faculty and students in the course to develop additional courses and foster further collaborative research in this interdisciplinary field. While federal funding through the Title VI area studies centers was instrumental in fielding the pilot course and in creating the Global Studies Initiative, major financial commitments from GSLIS and the Illinois Informatics Institute will allow the Initiative to continue into the next academic year and pursue additional courses, including a possible MOOC course, and collaborative research efforts.