Learning with Digital and Participatory Maps

In the digital era, maps are everywhere -from large-scale displays within galleries and museums, to mobile smartphone screens. Not only do maps allow us to navigate the places where we live, they also have great potential as educational tools, especially when learners engage in their creation. Next Monday I will be at SXSWedu moderating a conversation about maps, learning, and participation. Together with Debora Lui, Claudia Silva, and Giuliana Cucinelli, we will discuss the use of digital maps in educational and cultural settings and talk about how they can foster the acquisition of multi-literacies and 21st century skills, the implementation of innovative pedagogies, and support civic engagement and community building. What kind of learning processes can be supported by the creation of digital and participatory maps? How can digital maps provide opportunities to tell stories about our communities, cities, and neighborhoods? How does digital participatory mapping allow learners to connect with their communities and cities thus transforming them into laboratories for experimentation, survey, and exploration?

Discussing projects developed in Montreal, New York, Philadelphia, and Austin, we will illustrate the life cycle of digital participatory maps. We will address how the making of digital maps provides unique opportunities to share data, persuade, and tell stories about local communities, allowing learners to connect with their cities and neighborhoods. Furthermore, we will talk about how digital participatory mapping generates an appropriate pedagogical context for critical and systemic thinking, the application of academic concepts across the curriculum, and supports a kind of learning that is situated, experiential, hands-on, relational and applied to real world problems.

The practice of digital and participatory mapping has evolved during the last 20 years along with the development of the Global Positioning System (GPS), the World Wide Web, mobile communication technology, ubiquitous computing, and the interactive, multimedia, and visualization capabilities of digital media. Although at the beginning the mapping practice was a privilege of scientists and avant-garde new media artists, in recent years this practice has been democratized and popularized among the users of mobile devices and the Internet. Today we search, record, share, discover, and navigate geographic information anytime and anywhere with the help of networked devices and software applications.

I would like to review, briefly, the technological resources that are available for developing the digital and participatory mapping practice. These tools and networks allow users to not only get directions and navigation assistance, but also to annotate the physical space with digital information (e.g. check-ins), tag digital content with geographic data (e.g. pictures and videos), search information according to location (e.g. Google), record their locations and space-time trajectories (e.g. GPS logs), discover places nearby (e.g. Foursquare) and create multimodal designs that display content on the top of a map (e.g. mashups, interactive maps, mobile apps).

In order to illustrate the potential that digital and participatory maps have in education, I will present a case study of an action research project I helped to design and implement in a public high school in the Austin Metropolitan Area.

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