Pinterest, Gender, and Platform Selection

Last week, I had the pleasure of guest teaching in a digital humanities graduate course in the French department. The course is team-taught by Lynn Ramey and Holly Tucker of the French department and Todd Hughes of the Center for Second Language Studies. They’ve been exploring a variety of topics in the digital humanities this spring: intellectual property, professional digital identities, crowdsourcing, open access publishing, and digital tools such as ArcGIS, TEI, Omeka, Diigo, and WordPress. They asked me to visit the class and help them think about ways to use digital tools in their teaching, and I was happy to do so. I shared some thoughts on social pedagogies, including course blogs, social bookmarking, and backchannels, and we had a very lively discussion. The Prezi I used is available here, and Lynn was kind enough to post some photos of the ideas generated by the group.

One of the aspects of “digital pedagogies” we discussed that I found particularly interesting was the question of platform selection. I talked about giving my statistics students the choice between using Diigo and Pinterest this spring for their social bookmarking assignments. I have about 70 students in the course, and most of them went with Diigo. Only about eight students decided to use Pinterest. Why did most of my students choose Diigo? Since I haven’t asked them (yet), I’ll float a couple of hypotheses here, both predicated on the assumption that most of my students weren’t using either service.

Hypothesis 1: Students choosing Diigo over Pinterest selected the service that seemed more academic. Why might Diigo seem to be more academic in nature than Pinterest? There’s the fact that Pinterest is full of photos, and academic technology tools usually aren’t that visually dynamic. And there’s the impression that Pinterest is for non-academic uses. For example, Pinterest’s About page suggests that “people use pinboards to plan their weddings, decorate their homes, and organize their favorite recipes,” and most of the popular press Pinterest receives supports the idea that people use Pinterest for personal hobbies and interests.

Hypothesis 2: Pinterest has the reputation for being a site mainly for women. Most of my engineering students are men, so they opted for the less gendered option, Diigo. Pinterest’s gendered reputation is not undeserved, since women account for 80% of users by some accounts. And wedding planning, home decor, and recipes (those activities suggested on the Pinterest About page) are certainly gendered activities in the US. I don’t see Pinterest as an inherently gendered platform–it’s just an image-based social bookmarking service. When I log on to Pinterest, I see some recipes and fashion pins, but I also see a fair amount of photography, data visualization, and generally geeky pins:

What you see on Pinterest depends entirely on whom you follow. That said, there must be some reason why 80% of Pinterest users are women, and given that many perceive the site as geared toward women, it’s perhaps understandable that my male engineering students opted for Diigo.

I can see both of those hypotheses playing out in other contexts in which students get to choose tools or platforms for use in their coursework. If students perceive a particular service as non-academic or geared for some demographic to which they don’t belong, they may be less likely to adopt it for academic use. For instance, could I persuade my students to use StumbleUpon as part of a course? I think many students who use StumbleUpon see it as a way to waste time, not learn about topics of academic interest, so that might be a hard sell. Some of my students might perceive Twitter as a platform for following celebrities and comedians; others might see it useful professionally, but only for those out of college. Either way, they might be hesitant to jump into Twitter as part of a class backchannel.

The two hypotheses above both assumed that my students weren’t already using either Pinterest or Diigo. However, it’s clear to me that some of the students who chose Pinterest were already Pinterest users. That observation leads me to two more hypotheses:

Hypothesis 3: Asking students to use a tool or platform they already use can mean less of a technological learning curve for them. This seems like a pretty safe assumption. I didn’t need to teach my Pinterest-using students how to use Pinterest. If I asked my students to use Facebook for my course, I feel that I could safely assume some basic facility with the platform. This isn’t a reason to rule out the use of other tools, but (a) it does mean you might save some time and effort by adopting tools that students already use and (b) if you go in some other direction, you might select a tool that has an interface similar to tools students already know. For instance, I can see using Yammer as a social network for a class since the Yammer interface is intuitive for someone used to using Facebook.

Hypothesis 4: Asking students to use a tool or platform they already use can mean navigating personal / professional boundaries. A couple of years ago, the question faculty often asked about Facebook was whether or not they should “friend” their students. That’s not as much of a live question these days: Most instructors make it a practice not to send a friend request to a student, although many will accept a friend request sent by a student. However, if students start leaving Facebook behind for other social networks like Pinterest, Spotify, Instagram, or even Twitter, the “to friend or not to friend” question will travel with them. I’ve chosen not to follow my students on Pinterest or Twitter, even though I know several of them use Pinterest and a couple of them follow me on Twitter. Will I follow them after they’ve graduated, a policy that many high school teachers use in regard to Facebook friending? Perhaps.

What do you think? Do you buy these hypotheses? Are there other factors you consider when selecting a digital tool or platform for use in your courses?

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