This lesson plan invites students to reimagine wearable devices, like smartphones, as digital archives we carry with us. By examining the information we collect in our smartphones, students learn that we can now capture both aggregate data and subjective experiences like never before in history.
Two class meetings
In each group of four to five, at least three students must have smartphones. Instructor may have a computer and projector to model the assignment.
Students and instructors must know how to operate a smartphone.
Access and Adaptability
This lesson plan could forego smartphones and use laptops or classroom computers, instead. If students cannot bring laptops to class, then the instructor may use a computer and projector, transforming the lesson plan from group work to class collaboration, as instructors and students search for data.
Students must gather information in order to construct a narrative of life in their city or provide original analysis about a given topic. If they choose to construct a narrative, they may examine where members of their group have checked-in, Facebook events they have attended, local restaurants they have liked or reviewed, etc. What does that say about the zeitgeist of their city or the culture of their generation, for instance? For the approach that emphasizes analysis rather than narrative, they may decide to examine the popular figures they like on Facebook, follow on Twitter, or subscribe to on YouTube in order to analyze what subjects young people are interested in and why.
In-Class or Assignment Instructions
- The instructor may assign students a text about archives to prepare them for the first day (suggested: Peter Fritzsche’s article, “The Archive,” in History and Memory from 2005, pages 15-16).
- The instructor may open by asking students what they think an archive is. What images do the word “archive” conjure up? How does Fritzsche describe archives and what human beings leave behind? Has the digital age changed what we leave behind materially? (This prep should take approximately five minutes.)
- The final question about what material humans now leave behind should prompt students to consider digital media. The instructor may now lead a discussion about what information our wearable devices contain that is of value for social scientists. This could go in any number of directions from health apps, dating apps, search histories, YouTube channels, Facebook check-ins, popular figures or networks followed on Twitter, Yelp reviews, etc. A conversation should ensue about why these devices offer a radically new perspective than previous archives by democratizing human experiences. (Approx. ten minutes.)
- Students will work in groups of four to five and pool the data on their smartphones. Ask them to complete the Digital Media Archive Chart (direct link to editable Word document) in order to give their group activity structure. Based on the material gathered by their digital archives, they will construct either a narrative snapshot of their city today or offer original analysis on a given topic.
Each group will present their written work to the class and explain how they synthesized the material to derive their analysis/ narratives.
This graph contains “metadata,” or data that gives information about other data. If students want to explore the possibilities of collecting metadata, they may use Twitter’s API Console Tool, the directions for which are found here.
Students may complete the Digital Media Archive Chart during class discussion in order to give their group work structure. They should quickly develop a plan to effectively complete the writing assignment. Students may also examine the Map of Twitter Status Object, provided in “Skills Workshop,” in order to assess just how much information we may derive from a tweet. After careful consideration of their group discussion and the twitter map, students may now brainstorm the kinds of questions researchers may ask. The chart suggests they write “research” questions, which the instructor may evaluate to understand how they approached the assignment.
This is also an opportunity for students to consider the politics of archives, problematized by historians since the 1980s as spaces shaped by the interests of curators and nation-states. How do wearable devices democratize archives and offer us an entirely new model for social science research?
Additionally, as demonstrated above in the Skills Workshop, a tremendous amount of data can be collected from a simple tweet; research questions may now be asked that were previously unanswerable. Instructors may thus evaluate the creativity of research questions students identify.