Using Pinterest to think visually… and academically!

Square Peg in a Round Hole

It has taken a little improvisation…and whittling!


What do you do with a largely visual medium when you have a textual task to complete? In our case, using and evaluating Pinterest, you see where you can get a word in, edgewise or otherwise.

For the last ten days, I have been working with a small group of fellow Master’s students on evaluating both a digital technology – and the evaluation model itself! Our professor, Jo Axe, asked us to conduct our research and our discussions using the technology we were evaluating, and to revise the evaluation model to meet the needs of 21st-century teaching and learning. The model is called SECTIONS, an acronym for Students, Ease of Use, Cost, Teaching and learning, Interactivity, Organizational issues, Novelty, and Speed. Jo also provided us with a guide to evaluation created at the University of British Columbia, which gave us questions to help frame our research. So far, so good; we just needed to pick a technology and get to work.

We didn’t make it easy when we chose Pinterest as our tool. As a visual bookmarking site, it is ideally suited for images: charts, diagrams, infographics, and of course pictures and videos. One member of our group balked at the whole procedure. If we couldn’t write an academic essay using Pinterest, he said, we were setting ourselves up for failure. The rest of us carried on, figuring that even if the process failed, we would learn from it.

Personally, I’ve found the experiment to be amazing. I already had a Pinterest account, signing up for it in February, just as the online world was starting to take notice of it. But I had only used it for about six weeks when the novelty wore off for me, and I got busy with applying for grad school, and starting my studies. This project meant that I dusted off my account, and would begin to use Pinterest in a different way than before, not only repinning things that I liked, but searching for appropriate academic articles with images, adding my own pins, using boards collaboratively, and adding extensive descriptions and comments. For me, the project was pushing the functionality of Pinterest to its limit, a prospect I found very exciting.

I now know that my previous experience was a bit of an advantage. I already knew how to create a board and how to add a cover picture, as well has how to repin, like and comment on images from users that I followed. These were tasks that my colleagues had to learn from scratch. Pinterest is quite easy to learn, with relatively few functions compared to social media behemoths like Facebook, but there are still a number of considerations that challenged us, especially as we used it in an academic context. How would we manage attribution? Would there be enough space in the text fields for us to complete our thoughts with the appropriate amount of back-up? How do we make an image for an academic link, so we can pin it? Was all of this adding more work to our research?

In fact, we did have to shave off some of the edges to make Pinterest fit with our task. I found myself carrying thoughts over more than one comment. One colleague pinned her synthesis using her blog. Another, already adept with images, edited an image of RefWorks and showed how it has social media sharing – but not Pinterest – built in. Some of the workarounds felt like turning right three times to turn left, and some were simply slippages as we climbed the learning curve. Ultimately, as we gather to discuss our work this evening, I think we’ll have some suggestions for the wider academic community – and for Pinterest – as we learn to turn a picture into a thousand words.

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