Learning for a Sustainable Future and Using Social Media for Social Change

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Seeing photo elicitation and social media as powerful tools for learning and social change, this ePortfolio-based pedagogy engages students in authentic and generative processes for constructing and representing emerging understandings of complex ideas relating to sustainability and for motivating social change for a sustainable future.


This social pedagogy practice was developed for a First-Year Seminar entitled Sustainability: Creating a Future We Can Live With. It requires students to engage in two interrelated ePortfolio-based projects.  In the first, entitled Learning for a Sustainable Future, students use ePortfolios as spaces for reflecting on, integrating and representing their learning about sustainability and for engaging seminar peers in a collaborative process of learning from each other.  In the second, entitled Social Media for Social Change/Action, teams of first-year students work together to use ePortfolio as a social media platform through which they seek to convince peers outside of their seminar to reflect and take action on an issue that is affecting the Manhattanville community’s capacity for living sustainably and contributing to a sustainable future.

As Bass and Elmendorf (2012) suggests, social pedagogy is most meaningful when it engages students in deepening their construction of understanding through a process of communicating that understanding to an authentic audience.  The two interrelated ePortfolio projects  within this practice were motivated by and share the goals that Randy Bass outlines for meaningful integrative social pedagogy. In the first, students are asked to reflect on their learning over the course of their year-long seminar, to develop an understanding of themselves as learners and to make connections between their lived experiences, their interpretations of the course readings and their interactions with their peers.  In the second, students are asked to make connections across disciplines, contexts and communities, and to communicate their understandings to an authentic audience.

Author: Sherie McClam



In 2011, I was asked to develop a new First-Year Seminar because of my passion for and commitment to integrating the principles and values of sustainability into the culture of the Manhattanville College community.  I turned to the curriculum design framework developed by Wiggins and McTighe (2011) and began to think about compelling learning outcomes for a seminar that I entitled Sustainability: Creating a Future We Can Live With.  Through an exploration of the essential questions listed below, I sought to develop in my students the

capacity for using their learning to 1) make decisions that demonstrate an understanding of natural and human communities, the ecological, economic and social systems within them and awareness of how personal and collective actions affect the sustainability of those interrelated systems and 2) design and implement actions for the present, in the knowledge that the impact of these actions will be experienced in the future.

Essential Questions:

  1. What should a citizen in our society know and be able and motivated to do if we are to create an ecologically sustainable society?
  2. What is my place in this place?
  3. What is my vision for a future we can live with?
  4. What changes need to be made by individuals, local communities and countries if my vision is to become a reality?

More specifically through their engagement with this seminar, I wanted students to become skilled at:

  1. World viewing and valuing: becoming aware of, developing and discussing their beliefs, perceptions, values and ethical principles, and those of others.
  2. Systems seeking and testing: understanding and working with complexity, uncertainty and risk.
  3. Futures thinking and designing: influencing the future and designing and creating sustainable communities.
  4. Critical analysis: recognizing and articulating clear, well-organized thought in which the language used and claims made are appropriate to the subject and context of the thinking. (Note: this learning outcome is required for all First-Year Seminars)

With a clear understanding of my desired outcomes, I moved on to developing assignments/assessments that would enable me—and my students—to determine the degree to which these outcomes were being met. While I was in the process of developing these outcomes, I completed a half-day ePortfolio professional development seminar for new First-Year Seminar instructors in which one of the facilitators suggested that ePortfolio could be thought of as a sort of “academic Facebook.” This idea really struck me and stuck with me. I was not an avid social media user and, in fact, had some very real concerns about how it is used, abused and the ways in which it can consume people.  At the same time, I found myself reflecting on the ways in which social media was used in the Arab Spring and the ways in which it could be used for a higher social purpose.  With all of this in mind, the comment about ePortfolio’s potential as an academic Facebook took root, and ePortfolio became central to my First-Year Seminar assessment strategy.

Two ePortfolio-based projects emerged from this line of thinking.  The first is driven by my desire to ask students to create and share photographic essays on their understanding of three interrelated aspects of sustainability: 1) environment/nature, 2) social/culture and 3) economic/economy.  In this practice, students construct an understanding of sustainability by engaging in a process of looking for evidence of and representing their understandings of nature, culture, economy and the intersections of these three elements in their daily lives. Using their Learning for a Sustainable Future ePortfolios, students communicate their representations to their peers, carefully examine the representations of others and develop a richer understanding of sustainability through their collaborative considerations of the ways in which nature, culture and the economy are connected, interrelated and integrated.

The second ePortfolio-based project connects directly to the comment that I heard about ePortfolio being like an academic Facebook.  In this practice, I use an ePortfolio-based project to assess students’ exploration of the following essential question: What changes need to be made by individuals, local communities and countries if my vision is to become a reality? And their capacity for demonstrating the following learning outcome:  Futures thinking and designing: influencing the future and designing and creating sustainable communities (with an understanding that communities, practices and products can be assessed for and changed toward a sustainable future).

Inspired by the role of social media in the Arab Spring, I engage students in a process of thinking about how social media can be used for social action or social change within the Manhattanville College community.  In this assignment, students create an ePortfolio through which they work to convince Manhattanville peers that an issue associated with achieving a sustainable future is important and requires them to take action.  Working in groups of three to five, students use ePortfolios as a social media platform through which they communicate their understanding of their selected issue and the changes that need to be made to their peers in a compelling fashion that would provoke action on the part of those peers.  In addition, students develop and implement a method (using their social media ePortfolios) for evaluating and reflecting on the effectiveness of their social media project.

The Role of Social Pedagogy and Design Principles in Advancing Student Learning

In the first photo elicitation practice, students are asked  to provide captions in which they offer explanations for the photographs that they took to represent their understanding of nature, culture, economy and the intersections of these three ideas as they relate to sustainability, and they are asked to comment on the photographic essays of their peers.  Interpreting the work of

John Dewey, Rodgers (2002) explains that learning through reflection requires that students engage in reflection as:

  1. A meaning making process
  2. A rigorous way of thinking
  3. A process benefiting from interactions with others
  4. A process of valuing the personal and intellectual growth of themselves and their peers.

In this practice, as students seek to capture, reflect on and share their interpretations of nature, culture, economy and the ways in which these concepts intersect, they actively use reflection as a meaning making process.  Through a process of inquiry, they are asked to carefully consider and to find representations for their understanding of the following questions: 1) what is nature, 2) what is culture, 3) what is economy and 3) how are these ideas integrated in my daily life.  Answering these questions through photographic interpretation and concise captioning, students engage in reflection as a rigorous way of thinking, and as they reflect and comment on this intellectual work on the part of their peers, the entire class engages in a community-based reflection process through which they benefit from interactions with others and come to value their personal intellectual growth and that of their peers.

In the second social media for social change practice, I divide my students into groups of three to five and support them as they engage in an inquiry process of determining changes that need to be made, individually and collectively, by the Manhattanville College community if their vision for a sustainable future is to be achieved.  This process leads to an understanding of issues that teams can choose to address in their social media for social action projects.  Once groups select an issue that they find to be the most gripping and interesting, they begin the process of becoming knowledgeable enough to craft and communicate a compelling call to action for their peers using ePortfolio, which allows them to be highly creative and multimedial in developing  communication strategies that are convincing and likely to incite action.

Knowing that they are trying to convince their peers to take action is a significant factor in shaping my students’ understanding of the role that social media can play in social change and the nature of the communication necessary to make a case for change.  This requires them to think carefully about the ways in which they will help their peers understand the complexity of an issue facing the sustainability of our future and the actions that must be taken to address that issue.  Asking my students to evaluate and reflect on the effectiveness of this ePortfolio-mediated communication serves to strengthen their understanding of the issue itself and their capacity for Futures thinking and designing: influencing the future and designing and creating sustainable communities.

The design principles of inquiry, reflection and integration permeate all aspects students’ engagement with these two social pedagogy practices.  They are consistently asked to consider, explore and then communicate their understandings of questions about what is nature, what is culture, what is the economy and how these concepts are connected in our daily lives, and further, how does this new knowledge help them approach, interrogate and seek to find solutions for complex issues associated with creating a sustainable future.

Evidence of Impact on the Student Learning Experience

We have a number of indicators to suggest that these two social pedagogy practices had a positive impact on first-year student learning experience:

  • In their first semester in college, 5 students from my first year seminar enthusiastically volunteered to present their ePortfolios in a campus-wide ePortfolio showcase, and their photographic interpretations were equally enthusiastically received by showcase visitors.
  • One of the students from this first-year seminar has presented her Learning for a Sustainable Future and her Social Media for Social Change ePortfolios at two AAEEBL conferences and an ePortfolio Showcase at LaGuardia Community College.
  • One group of four of these first-year students presented their Social Media for Social Change ePortfolio in our Spring 13 Undergraduate Research and Creative Achievement Fair.  Their Sustainable Food Systems project was so well received that they continue to work on their project long after the completion of their first-year seminar course.
  • One of these four students chose to design her own Sustainability major and plans to build her senior research on the foundation laid in this Social Media for Social Change project.
  • Two students from my first-year seminar have served as student co-facilitators in our Teaching and Learning Circle ePortfolio professional development program.
  • Two years after completing their first-year seminar with me, four of my students are serving as leaders in our eTern student assistant pool.  They constitute half of this group of talented and highly-motivated students who work within our Center for Teaching and Learning to promote and support our campus-wide ePortfolio initiative.
Practice Identifiers

Location and Scale
This practice was designed for one section of one year-long first-year seminar course,part of our general education curriculum.  Each first-year student is required to take a first-year seminar course that is coupled with a first-year writing course in a learning community.  For

each incoming freshman class, we offer approximately 30 sections of first-year seminar.  The seminar instructors select the topics of the seminars, and these seminars provide both content engagement and a context for writing development in the first-year writing courses.  In the case of my seminar, students develop an understanding of sustainability as an urgent social issue, create visions for a sustainable future and take actions that they believe will work toward realizing their vision.

High Impact Practices
This practice is connected to three High Impact Practices:

  1. First-year experience
  2. Experiential learning
  3. Undergraduate research
Connections to Other Sectors of the Catalyst

Professional Development
The author of this practice participated in one professional development workshop for new first-year seminar instructors.  This session was approximately 2 hours long and was facilitated by our campus ePortfolio leadership team. Participants in the workshop represented disciplines from across the campus.  In addition to providing training in how to use ePortfolio, the workshop involved discussions about the ways in which ePortfolio pedagogy could support first-year seminar learning outcomes.  It was in this workshop that the author heard a colleague describe ePortfolio as a form of academic Facebook, which gave rise to the idea of using ePortfolio as a social media platform for social change.

Outcomes Assessment
This practice supports my first year students in the development of their Freshman Essay, which is used for assessing the critical analysis and reasoning competency in our General Education curriculum.

The role of technology in this practice is interesting. The ease of uploading photographs to the ePortfolio platform (Digication) caught my attention.  I had used photo elicitation as a pedagogical approach in the past that involved giving students disposable cameras and having to have film developed.  This was always a tedious and time-consuming process, so I was very excited when I realized that students could easily take digital photographs, upload them into their ePortfolios, provide captions that enabled them to reflect on the meaning of their photographs and offer thoughtful questions and comments to their peers.  Digication works perfectly for this photographic interpretation process.

When it came to using Digication for our Social Media for Social Change projects, students found it to a little more limiting.  One of the Facebook-like functions that they wanted to be able to capitalize on was the “like” function.  They see this as a way of measuring the effectiveness of their social change message.  For this reason, most groups linked their ePortfolios to Facebook.  When I originally designed the project, I envisioned them engaging only their Manhattanville peers with their ePortfolio social change projects because Manhattanville students had Digication accounts.  This felt limiting to my students.  The issue became, how to manage the degree to which their projects were made public.  Digication does not have the same capacity for inviting friends to your project.  Inviting peers from outside of the Manhattanville community to engage in rich interactive ways with their social change ePortfolios proved to be cumbersome.  I do believe that students found ways to make it work for them by using their own Facebook accounts, and they gained a great deal from thinking about social media as a platform for social change.

Scaling Up
If this practice has played a role in scaling up ePortfolio usage on our campus it has come in many small instances of intrigue and inspiration.  The first-year students who have engaged in this practice actively share their photographic essays and social media for social change projects in campus-wide showcase events, in Teaching and Learning Circle professional development sessions and as eTerns in our Center for Teaching and Learning.  This has inspired faculty and teaching staff who knew very little about ePortfolio or who had very limited conceptions of how it can be used to ask more questions and to begin to conceptualize their own social pedagogies.t year students engaged with o usage on our campus it has come in many small instances of intrigue

Attachments and Supporting Documents:

Part I: Assignments, rubrics, etc.

  1. Sustainability: Creating a Future we can Live With—(First Year Seminar Class ePortfolio)
  2. Learning for a Sustainable Future—(First Year Students’ individual ePortfolio template) (Guidelines and Rubric)
  3. Seminar Syllabi (Fall and Spring)
  4. Social Pedagogy Assignment (Guidelines)

Part II: Student work and/or ePortfolio examples

Students’ individual Learning for a Sustainable Future ePortfolios—Photographic Essays:

  1. Patricia Rodriguez-Diaz
  2. Andrea Collazo
  3. Arsalan Danish
  4. Brandon Alicea

Student Groups’ Social Media for Social Change ePortfolios:

  1. Sustainable Food Systems

Part III: Connection to other polished practices:  Reflective pedagogy practice

The photographic interpretation portion of this practice connects with our Reflective Practice as it asks students to comment on each others’ photographic essays.  Students were asked to be ePortfolio “coaches” for one of their first-year seminar colleagues.  As coaches, their job was to carefully review and comment on the photographic essays that their classmates placed in their Learning for a Sustainable Future ePortfolios.  All students in the class were encouraged to comment on all of their classmates’ ePortfolios, and they were required to comment on the ePortfolios for whom they were assigned to be a coach.
social technology.  They are completely comfortable with this process and hindsight now tells me that if I had really understood the depth of Randy Bass’s conception of this participatory culture, and if I had really understood the way in which my students use social media in their lives, we would have been able to accomplish much, much more. My lack of understanding and appreciation contributed to a rather awkward and narrowly defined use of our Digication platform.   The good news is, however, that taking the leap of faith that I did and engaging with my students in this way have given me far greater insight into the power and possibilities associated with tapping into this participatory culture and creating pedagogical spaces where it can flourish.


Randy Bass (2012) reminds us that our students—21st century learners—come from and are deeply immersed in a participatory culture.  From voting people off of islands and selecting the next pop star to building a free and open encyclopedia, this new brand of learner is comfortable with and has grown to expect active participation and elements of production in events that occupy their time and their minds.  When I first envisioned the two social pedagogies described in this practice, I did not fully understand what Randy Bass was trying to say.  I knew (with admitted distain) that students in our culture had little to watch on television other than reality shows and that they were growing more and more obsessed with what I perceived to be narcissistic social media that seemed to be taking the place of authentic personal interaction.  I hoped that by using ePortfolio as a social participatory tool I would be able draw these new 21st century learners into the learning experiences that I had planned for them and, with any luck, to convince them to put their time, their intellect and their social sensibilities to use for nobler objectives like sustainability.

I am so pleased to have taken that leap, even if it was rather narrow in its understanding of the nature of the participatory culture from which and with which my first-year students came to me.  So in the end, we—as it should be—taught each other.  While my intentions may have been motivated by a belief that I needed to change their perspectives on the ways in which social media could be used, my experiences with these students showed just how limited my motivations were.  I learned how readily and how enthusiastically my first-year students would embrace the idea of social learning and meaning making that was mediated and enhanced by a social technology.  They are completely comfortable with this process and hindsight now tells me that if I had really understood the depth of Randy Bass’s conception of this participatory culture, and if I had really understood the way in which my students use social media in their lives, we would have been able to accomplish much, much more. My lack of understanding and appreciation contributed to a rather awkward and narrowly defined use of our Digication platform.   The good news is, however, that taking the leap of faith that I did and engaging with my students in this way have given me far greater insight into the power and possibilities associated with tapping into this participatory culture and creating pedagogical spaces where it can flourish.


Bass, R. (2012). Disrupting Ourselves: The Problem of Learning in Higher Education. Educause Review March/April.

Bass, R., Elmendorf, H. (2012). Social Pedagogies White Paper.   Excerpt from “Designing for Difficulty: Social Pedagogies as a Framework for Course Design in Undergraduate Education.”

Rodgers, C. (2002). Defining Reflection: Another look at John Dewey and Reflective Thinking. Teachers College Record, Volume 104, Number 4, p.p. 842-866

Wiggins, G. & McTighe, J. (2011), The Understanding by Design Guide to Creating High Quality Units. Alexandria, Virginia: ASCD.

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