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.

Linking the spiritual with the intellectual quest

In her post, “An epistemological mid-life crisis“, my master’s degree colleague, Donna Sparkes, expressed a feeling that probably anyone with both a brain and a sense of wonder grapples with at least once in their life: the spiritual crisis.  Here it is, in her words:

Over the past few years I have been going through a major personal challenge in my spiritual life as I’ve been questioning what it is I truly believe. I know I am not the first person to experience this, but I’m not concerned about the commonality of this experience; I’m just concerned about me. I have many questions, many doubts, more questions and more doubts, and I feel stuck. The thing with a question is that it opens the door to not knowing. Actually, not know is exactly where a question starts, and that leaves me feeling torn. I am homesick for the truth I once knew as I look for the truth I seek.

I especially like that last sentence – “I am homesick for the truth I once knew”. Certainty feels so great – so safe, comfortable, simple, and I left it behind, too. I spent my teens and early twenties as an evangelical Christian, and thought seriously about becoming a minister. Then I took an amazing course on “The Bible as Literature”, where we applied critical thinking to everything I held dear. At the same time, I started reading liberal biblical scholars, hung out with people who weren’t afraid to ask difficult questions, or to hear me ask them, and spent many hours in reflection.  Prayer, even.  It didn’t happen overnight, but 1987 was a watershed year for me where I gave myself permission to keep asking the questions.  One sunny summer afternoon, it came to me that “If God can’t handle me kicking at the tires of my faith like this, then it probably isn’t much of a faith, and my version of God is probably wrong.”

Thus started a search for spiritual bedrock that continues to this day. I don’t know anything spiritual for sure except that I still have my sense of wonder.  Despite all evidence to the contrary, I can’t shake the belief that maybe god is the energy that holds all things together, that love probably IS the answer (to what question?) and that purpose is a good thing to have.  

I believe these squishy, feel-good principles strongly enough that I want to explore how widely-dispersed religious communities use online media to communicate, learn from each other, and move forward in a spiritual community. Somehow, I plan to build a research topic around this, despite my own questions about the fundamentals of faith. If the spiritual quest is important to enough people (like me) that they continue to meet in person to get to the next level of their faith (whatever that may be), then what are they doing online?  Can a spiritual community transcend physical boundaries and find either truth or joy?  

This topic needs refining, and as the Quakers say when presented with a new idea, “it needs seasoning”… which usually means pulling it apart and putting it back together word by word, until everyone is satisfied or it falls apart. I’d appreciate the help of anyone who has gone on a spiritual quest which has involved looking at spiritual communities online for the answers.