Accessing Augmented Reality Experiences

Below I give an overview of why I use an Augmented Reality approach followed by a link to three existing app-based experiences I have created for my UBC students.

Why Augmented Reality?

One of the fundamental aspects of beginning a learning journey is to start by understanding where you are—your local place and context. The undergraduate students I work with at UBC are from all over the world, have experienced various institutional learning contexts, and have diverse cultural learning preferences. I adopt experiential pedagogies (Kiili, 2005; Kolb, 1984) to help students exercise awareness of their learning process while deepening their geographical imaginations (Mills, 1959; Norton, 1989). As Sinacore & Boatwright (2005, p. 110) argue, “students know how to receive knowledge; what they lack is experience assuming prominent and active roles regarding their learning”. Experiential opportunities can create “critical citizens who are able to exercise power over their own lives and especially over the conditions of knowledge production and acquisition” (Giroux 1997, p. 218). Class field trips are one way I have cultivated students’ spatial and sociohistorically-specific awareness and hence their experiential learning. Yet field trips can be logistically challenging and costly with larger classes (Friess et al., 2016). The use of geospatial aware technology and AR is one path allowing me to address experiential learning in my courses.

Geospatial aware experiences and maps are embedded in everyday life beyond the ‘traditional’ use of directional navigation (e.g. Google Maps), and have immense potential to enhance learning Farman, 2014; Nah, Zeng, Telaprolu, Ayyappa & Eschenbrenner, 2014). Yet, geospatial experiences are underdeveloped in educational contexts. The use of public spaces or public discourse in education is an important part of experiential learning, but is challenging in larger courses. AR technologies allow educators to bring the machine out into the world through a combination of simulated objects embedded in the “real” world. In the search for ways to make social justice and public engagement more real for our students, the ability to not just manipulate the spaces of the classroom but to make actual public spaces into ‘classrooms’ is central and so the use of AR technologies is an important avenue.

Using technology provided by a startup company (, I researched disciplinary content and developed an app-based experience that students could download to their smartphones. Using their smartphones gives students independence and control over their learning process. The audio triggered as students approached relevant locations in the city and quizzes and archival images popped up at designated GPS points. Engagement through gamification and interactive elements in public spaces uses technology valued by  students and enables a seamless incorporation of experiential learning. It also facilitates the need to adapt curriculum based on the diversity of  students’ educational and cultural learning experiences.


Farman, J. (2014). Map interfaces and the production of locative media space. In Locative Media (pp. 99-109). Routledge.

Friess, D. A., Oliver, G. J., Quak, M. S., & Lau, A. Y. (2016). Incorporating “virtual” and “real world” field trips into introductory geography modules. Journal of Geography in Higher Education, 40(4), 546-564.

Giroux, H. (1997). Pedagogy and the politics of hope. Boulder, CO: Westview.

Kiili, K. (2005). Digital game-based learning: Towards an experiential gaming model. The Internet and Higher Education, 8(1), 13–24.

Kolb, D. A. (1984). Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development. New Jersey: Prentice.

Mills, C. Wright (1959) The Sociological Imagination. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Nah, F. F. H., Zeng, Q., Telaprolu, V. R., Ayyappa, A. P., & Eschenbrenner, B. (2014). Gamification of education: a review of literature. In International conference on hci in business (pp. 401-409). Springer, Cham.

Norton, W. (1989). Human geography and the geographical imagination. Journal of Geography, 88(5), 186-192.

Sinacore, A. L., & Boatwright, K. J. (2005). The Feminist Classroom: Feminist Strategies and Student Responses. In C. Z. Enns & A. L. Sinacore (Eds.), Teaching and social justice: Integrating multicultural and feminist theories in the classroom(pp. 109-124). Washington, DC, US: American Psychological Association.

UBC AR experiences:

  1. Political Economy History of Downtown Vancouver – location based AR experience
  2. ‘Journey with Me’ – movement based AR experience on the lives of five Syrian refugees making their way from civil war to Vancouver
  3. Congress 2019 – location and visual based AR experience providing a short tour of UBC campus for Congress 2019 participants



The Scholarship of Educational Leadership – some reflections

It all seems a little utopianistic trying to frame my own personal experiences and observations within a literature of the ideal avenues or traits for educational leadership. It seemed apt to write this piece now as The Times Higher Education university rating came out last week with Oxford University in the UK making the top spot for the first time. With a methodology which encompasses teaching, research, knowledge transfer and international outlook, it does appear to cover all the ‘bases’ necessary to assess how a university is performing. I would question though, in the vein of the theme of SoEL in university contexts, how can we measure good leadership and more specifically in my interests how are we assessing the scholarship of teaching and learning?

I draw in my discussion on three pieces but which in my view together frame my thinking and reservations on the possibility of an ever strengthening Scholarship of Educational Leadership (SoEL).

The first is an article focusing on what is needed in terms of leadership for the future of student learning in higher education (Quinlan 2014); the second is a short piece on how we might best map advocacy and outreach in teaching through their presentation of a matrix (Huber & Robinson 2016); I choose the third piece because I was intrigued by the use of the terms culture of innovation in the report title, there is much discussion currently on technological or scientific innovation so I thought it an interested perspective and way to look at leadership in higher education (Setser & Morris 2015).

I face a growing dilemma on a daily basis given my role within UBC’s new international student program and how the university has progressively embraced the marketization of higher education (Quinlan 2014). Despite the creation of the educational leadership stream at UBC there is still a premise that research (not that on teaching and learning) is the keystone of the academy. I do not dispute this; indeed I battle for the ability to continue my own research endeavours despite my role as a faculty member with the educational leadership stream. Entwined in this is the lack of recognition of educational leadership in higher education research, while in contradiction faculty are expected to be the best teachers and win awards based on their innovation and teaching and learning techniques. Quinlan advocates for a holistic approach, and a reality where students develop their values, sense of self, identity and purpose (Colby et al. 2003) rather than simple focusing on instrumental and economic goals such as employability skills. In order to achieve this teaching must be treated seriously (Huber & Robinson 2014), and a big piece of this is through relationships with the wider community. Ultimately, who are we serving as academics?

I truly believe that in order to remain relevant as institutions and practitioners of what we preach we must be engaged with community partners. Indeed many of our students may be the community partners of tomorrow and by engaging with people beyond the walls of the academy we get a better sense of what it is out students really need to face the world in its entirety rather than just trained to complete certain tasks. As a scalar exercise this step in developing a SoEL practice is a powerful one in my opinion. Beginning with small immediate networks developed through working with faculty at other institutions and their outreach and advocacy within their specific communities will allow these networks to grow. In doing so as academics we are being the transformative leaders that Quinlan presents as a necessity in creating a holistic teaching and learning experience for students.

I challenge Quinlan though and indeed she accepts the contradiction that what is really needed within academic institutions is instructional leadership as a more effective tool than transformative leadership. By focusing on the traits that she thinks are necessary for good leadership in higher education, she determines that there are three key components. These are: the need to create organizational conditions for successful educational change, the need for leaders to be self-reflexive and the need for instructional leadership or direct involvement in curriculum. These three components, although all necessary I would argue need to be thought of in a more scalar chronological relationship. There needs to be acknowledgment and appreciation from the most fundamental level of the importance of curriculum development and what is working and not working for students in teaching and learning. As Huber & Robinson (2014) advocate, there needs to be more people writing about what they have done in their teaching and learning designs, what has been successful and what requires more support. Once again we are back to the issue here of a lack of broader institutional support for these educational leadership activities. Conversation is losing out to a society which is interested in the end goal of getting a high-paying job or having the most research funding for the university, and are hence ignoring the process of getting to that end goal. Although idealistic this is what the Educuase report on Cultural Innovation focuses on – there needs to be a shift in labour economics in how people work and this change needs to come from within education at all levels. At present there is a culture of improvement or just fixing problems as they arise, but the report argues for a culture of innovation which entails building new ways of approaching higher education. The real change will occur when there is institutional support for the scholarship of teaching and learning at all levels. This includes offering national grants as well as institutional support from within universities and departments.

Bringing the world to a classroom

It was tasked to me this year as part of a role as faculty fellow on the welcome program for international students at UBC, to expose their minds to life in the academy. I did not wish to spend seven days giving them tips on how to study, take notes or use the library. Rather, I wanted to expose them to these aspects of learning and others through a content based approach.

Many of our international students at UBC have come from international schools in their native lands but this does not mean that they have been exposed to a wide array of cultures. Additionally through my teaching on the international program for first year students I have witnessed miscommunication and hurt due to lack of understanding: not linguistic misunderstanding but rather cultural. This experience coupled with my desire to enable students to acculturate into a welcoming common learning environment, led me to embark on designing a syllabus that focused on multiculturalism, globalization and identity. It might seem an accessible endeavour given my research interests and disciplinary approach, but designing a 7-day syllabus was certainly a challenge. I wanted to introduce discussion, group work and reflection but not make it seem tedious and pedantic to students. I wanted to have them realize that the world was right were they were but also have them marvel at its vastness and diversity.

I had a group of 33 students who were from 16 different countries a phenomenon in itself when we think about the vastness of the places they have come from for the single aim of gaining a good education. With a premise of engagement and critical thinking the first hurdle always faced in this instance of a diverse group of students, is cultural norms around speaking publicly or indeed in offering one’s opinion at all. It is a slow process for many students and one that they must be gently coerced into through their engagement in classroom activities. I decided to adopt a scalar approach where I had students begin by thinking about themselves, their routines, their worlds, before asking them to think about how their lives are connected a a global sense of being. Each day was based around a series of short activities framed by images, videos or audio that addressed an aspect of individual identity. Additionally each day students worked in groups of 4 on a project that showcased the multicultural nature of their group. They were given the creative freedom to produce a final project from a range of options including a video, a google tour map (you’ll remember from previous posts how much I like this tool), a poster or a power-point presentation. One of my groups actually made their presentation into a talk-show format for our last day presentations. At the end of class each day I asked them to reflect in their individual journals on what the activities had triggered for them. On the final day they reflected on their group work and project; some excerpts are below used with the students permission.

“I had a lot of fun doing this project and exploring the idea of what a home is. I realized that home doesn’t always have to be a physical place, rather it can be an aspect of yourself that reminds you of home, or even an object. This also brings to mind the fact that by reminding of ourselves of aspects of our home in this foreign country, we do not forget our roots and truly show the meaning of multiculturalism, since we want to create a more diverse society at UBC. With this movie I hope that I can show some aspects of this multiculturalism to the people watching it and also keep it as a personal memento of something that we did in our first weeks at Jumpstart and something that we can show in the future. ”

“Overall I found the week to be both enjoyable challenging but also quite
intellectually stimulating. This was because for the first time I was working on a project with individuals with whom I could share ideas with the intention of having them critiqued and refined into a more coherent thought. What I feel I learned most from working with my classmates was that despite the obvious presence of our diverse backgrounds there was something we all shared in common. All of us from every corner of the globe had chosen UBC out of a multitude of universities, we then had to be chosen, sorted though if you will, and eventually we all ended up here together, diverse yet at the same time united.”

The experience was really rewarding for me and I sense that the students benefited from it immensely as well. Over the course if the 7 days I witnessed an excitement growing among the students as they realized how much of their realities they could apply in an academic setting in order to grasp larger social science questions. The moment when a student pushes aside the belief that they are expected to memorize ‘facts’ from a book or regurgitate every word their professor says. Their opinions and thoughts matter – they must question their reality in order to understand it. Now I would be naive to think that a 7 day 3 daily hour course could accomplish this but it is a step. It has also triggered a research interest in me to explore cultural approaches to active learning, and how this affects students ability and indeed confidence to be a critical thinker.

Below I include my syllabus for the 7-day program as well as my daily slides where appropriate. Please feel free to use these adapting them to your purpose. The material I incorporate is all available open access online but please remember to cite creative commons and share the sources with others. As always do not hesitate to contact me if you have any questions or comments.

  1.  Syllabus
  2. Name Game overview
  3. Day One PowerPoint
  4. Day One Canada Quiz – a good ice breaker
  5. Day Two PowerPoint
  6. Day Three PowerPoint
  7. Day Four Immigration-data-worksheet
  8. Day Four Immigration-stories-from-Ellis-island
  9. Day Five PowerPoint
  10. Day Six First Nations Worksheet to accompany videos

Accounting for academia

I had a rather unpleasant experience recently with the editor of a renowned Geography journal. Following some revisions suggested by two blind reviewers I naively assumed that the process was almost at completion instead the editor decided that my paper should be written in a very particular way. The next four months involved the editor sending me PDF scans of my paper which included their hand written comments in the margin. I was surprised at first as this did not seem like a usual course but assumed that since the editor was known to me that maybe this was a personal touch. As time went on and each retuned PDF included new comments my confusion increased and gradually my article began to lose all familiarity. I love to write and I am acutely aware that academic journal writing is a very particular form and one which I have spent the past 10 years trying to embrace. The situation I found myself in was strange and suffocating. All sense of ownership was removed and still the editor was not satisfied. Eventually I insisted that if they were to return the article to me again that they provide a narrative of their sense of the article and what they wanted from me. The response was a rejection.

At first I was devastated then I was livid and now I am resolved that academic writing is in fact not at all creative. Academic writing is formulaic and involves satisfying the whims of reviewers and editors in terms of style and content. Do not misunderstand my comments here for those of someone who is bitter because of some perceived failure – I can write and I am undoubting that my research is accurately done. My concern is that I am required to write according to a formula, and simultaneously I am expected to encourage my students to be creative and to be critical thinkers.

As I delved deeper into different theoretical avenues during the course of my PhD research, I also encountered a pattern which I found extremely vexing – academics I admired publishing the same data in different journals. Data gathered reused with a different research question framed to comply to the journal’s audience. The realization that writing is not being carried out for the joy or beauty of the exercise or in order to transfer knowledge, but rather to meet career requirements. It’s less about the production of knowledge than where that knowledge will be showcased and what effect that will have  on the author’s career.

I am not saying that academic publishing has no value. Certainly well-researched, clearly written scholarly research has its own value: it shapes and reshapes understanding, and can inform policy, but the work must be accessible. Accessibility is the key question and for the present I have the strong sense my voice needs to find a different avenue.

Tourist in your own backyard

I have been blessed there is no doubt having had the opportunity to see so many places around the world. Growing up in Sudan gave us the opportunity to explore the region of East Africa, living in the UAE for my first ‘proper’ job presented Australia, Hong Kong and Egypt as destinations, and working in Bangladesh opened up Nepal, Thailand, India and Cambodia. So I have been to my fair share of trips to the ‘exotic’. When living in Ireland from 2008 to 2013 I embarked on a mission to visit many of the historical and natural wonders of the island. My mother encouraged and accompanied me and then I explored even more locations when my partner and I started dating. It is an incredible gift to fall in love with your own land, a place and space I had been visiting my whole life but never really appreciated it as a ‘tourist’. It made me realize how important it is for us to understand where we come from before we can truly know who we are or where we are going.

When I accepted my position here in Geography at UBC, I wanted to not only apply the same approach for myself but also I wanted to share this realization with my students. Hence, during my first year I applied and was awarded a grant to design and develop a field school course which would take students to Williams Lake a small city in the interior of British Columbia. Williams Lake was selected given its scale, easy to visit in a limited time frame, but also the fact that despite the fact it is a 5 and a half hour drive from Vancouver it is a vastly different world right at our doorstep.

Now a field school course in my opinion should be a very different design and expectation level than your average course taught within the walls of the academy. I want students to really understand what it is like to function in day-today life addressing and dealing with some of the issues that we study and read about in books. I therefore designed the course so that student groups (I suggest 3 in each) work with a local community partner in Williams Lake (or your chosen location). It is then a relationship of reciprocity where students can engage in real-life experiences but community partners also gain by having the students apply their skills in answering a question for the community partner. My students work with a wide spread of community partners from within Williams Lake. So is it easy? Not at all but the reward is worth the effort. The key is to have students engage deeply with the community partner and with the issue, and this cannot be done in a week or two. I therefore have my students work with the community partners virtually during the term time, communicating via email, Skype or phone, before the actual site visit at the end of term for a period of two weeks. In order to prepare the students for their research we spend the term time working through some of the main social science methods enabling the students to apply their own project to the tasks required.

It is key that good relationships are established and maintained between the department and the community partners. There is an opportunity here for the academy to give back to the community but also we must not take advantage of their generosity. Students have the independence in their communication during the projects and while in Williams Lake, but these are long term relationships that must be nurtured. Students and community partners both offer nothing but positive feedback around the experience. I am including my syllabus here along with all the weekly worksheets in the hope that I might encourage more of you out there to design and develop local field schools in your areas. We can learn so much from the experience of places just a little outside our daily lives. This was very much reflected in the feedback from my students who were Vancouver born and raised but had never been outside the Lower Mainland – it was a whole new world for them.

Please do not hesitate to contact me if you would like to know more about the experience.


A little lingusitic education 

The incident on a Southwest flight in mid-April has bothered me terribly. It has troubled me deeply because it is a result of ignorance and a lack of awareness of the other. How easily we create stereotypes out of fear – a fear which stems from a place of not knowing our neighbours.

When ever I travel to a new country the first thing I do either just prior to arrival or on arrival, is to learn how to say thank you and hello in the local language. I have found that the reaction I receive when I am able to extend this simple gesture is worth more than the thousands of more words I wish I could utter. The expansion of English as the global language for communication has certainly made travel very accessible for so many, but it has also created a sense of what I can only term as arrogance. I have too often encountered travelers who are shouting in English at a bewildered shop keeper or waiter, thinking that by raising the volume of their voice they will somehow make themselves understood.

Language and culture are intricately intertwined. Language carries meanings and references beyond itself because the meanings of a particular language represent the culture of a particular social group. We can therefore not understand a culture without having direct access to its language. Learning a language is not only learning the alphabet, the meaning, the grammar rules and the arrangement of words, but it is also learning the behavior of the society and its cultural customs. Culture is the whole from which the particular language is extracted, and hence by being unmindful of people ability and indeed right to converse in their mother tongues, we build walls around ourselves. These walls in turn create a situation where people have a choice of either to conform to what is seen as ‘culturally’ appropriate or face exclusion. I was deeply troubled after I spoke with a group of young Iraqis and Palestinians in London after the 2005 attacks as they relayed with all certainty that they would never teach their children Arabic as this would single them out. Is this the way we wish to proceed? A world where being linguistically different, just one of many cultural traits which can differentiate an individual, isolates and  ostracises. It is not only Arabic speakers who make this linguistic choice, indeed there are many Asians here in Vancouver who only speak English having never been given the opportunity to learn their parents native tongue.

I return to my original motivation for writing this post and add that I do not expect everyone to learn all languages – this would be impossible and meaningless. I do implore however that we must make a conscious effort to be aware that other languages exist in our society and that their speakers are not all ‘terriorists’! We should remember that many of the ISIL recruits are not native Arabic speakers and we can therefore not make assumptions based on linguistics. Educate yourself and ask the person beside you what language they are speaking – ask them about themselves – introduce yourself – reach out – break down the linguistic barriers…

“Culture, then, began when speech was present, and from then on, the enrichment of either means the further development of the other” A.L.Krober (1923).

What’s in a name? 

The famous line from Romeo and Juliet

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other word would smell as sweet.
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo called,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title”
is one of the most quoted lines when we think about the power of names and what we call objects are people. I agree and disagree with Shakespeare, indeed a rose does smell as sweet no matter what we call in in any language – ورد – la rose – una rosa – ar rós; but a rose is a rose because that is the name it was given were we to call it a Lilly there would be much confusion. I am returned to a conversation had nine years ago over lunch at the University of Sussex after a class on the meaning of social constructivism. We were debating the name given to a ‘mug’ and how name and function become one the same. We contemplated creating another word that our group would attempt to apply to the object used for consuming tea or coffee, but after a week’s trial we shelved it as a failed experiment. The reason was that we would have had to convince everyone around us and whom we interacted with to use the same word.
I am reminded of this issue of naming objects or in my specific discussion case people, in my attempt to understand the cultural practice of adopting a different name. What I refer to is the cultural custom where an individual gives themselves a name which they consider to be more culturally ‘appropriate’ to the context they find themselves in. I know how this transpires as I have been a participant in it. Aged 10 growing up in Sudan a military Islamic government had taken hold and the society was awash with Islamic symbology. I had lived there for 6 years already without feeling any necessity to be referred to by anything except the name given to me at birth. But I was a stubborn child on the verge of adolescence and I was determined to be a part of the wave sweeping the country – how naive I was. I selected a name I considered more appropriate and required everyone to call me by that name. We left Sudan when I was 12 and the name remained there a symbol of those 2 years of change and turmoil for the country – one from which it has not yet recovered. I have been back three times since leaving aged 12 and everyone always refers to me as Siobhán and not by the name I choose for those final two years.
I use my own memory to raise the question that has intrigued me since first going to China in 2000 and especially the past two years having a large number of Chinese students in my courses at UBC. An ‘English name’ would appear to come hand in hand with speaking the language. Despite several attempts to encourage students to educate me in the pronounciation of their names, their insistence remains on the use of their ‘English name’. I find it a prohibitive process when grading assignments to associate a face with an official name and with an ‘English name’. Do not misunderstand and think that I am critiquing the practice, I am endeavouring to comprehend it. How do my students feel being referred to by different names depending on the context? Does it change their approach or behaviour? I contemplate this on a daily basis. I would encourage you to share your experiences here or privately with me via email


‘Doing’ Multiculturalism

This entry is in a sense a practical extension of my previous entry on being cultured. Multiculturalism is a difficult concept for those who work and study immigration and the impact of immigration on receiving societies, but attempting to convey some of this complexity to students is certainly a challenge. We are faced with concepts of a society which strives towards assimilation such as the US and France, while other societies such as Canada and the UK have pitched a policy of multiculturalism.

The distinction between these two concepts is one that has plagued my own academic career and research projects I have been involved in.  If the ultimate goal is cultural homogenisation and can “Can liberal pluralism be exported?” (Kymlicka 2001) . Berry captures this in an image in an online article from 2011.

Screen Shot 2016-04-07 at 4.47.51 PM
Two approaches to a pluralist society

I would suggest that Berry’s Melting Pot visual is equated to that of an assimilation model, there is one dominant society, while immigrant groups or other minorities remain on the margin because there is not process in place for communication. The circle on the right represents a model of multiculturalism where there is a national framework of institutions which accommodate the needs of all groups in society. The premise being that there is no dominant group but that all groups are ethnocultural with equal cultural rights in the society.

Both models have several drawbacks, for the assimilation model cultural differences are largely ignored except possibly through a acknowledgment of increased diversity in terms of food or music – tokenistic gestures towards a country’s different cultural groups. This in my opinion is the case in Germany, France and the US. For the multiculturalism model there is a shift almost to the other extreme of the spectrum where a hyper-awareness of cultural differences and an attempt to accommodate all of these means that a country as a whole loses a sense of identity and creates extremely segregated groups who are all tolerant of each other, such is the case in Canada.

The task for my international students was to illustrate to me their understanding of multiculturalism in the city of Vancouver. Vancouver is often refereed to as a cosmopolitan city by visitors, by the media, and by academics (see chapter by Dan Heibert).  If we define cosmopolitan as “including people of many different countries,” Metro Vancouver is the fourth most cosmopolitan major city on the planet.


More than 45 per cent of Metro Vancouver residents are foreign born, according to the 2011 census. The infographic above indicates that there are only three major cities on the globe that have a higher percentage of foreign born residents, they are Dubai, Brussels and Toronto. However, if we look to the bottom graph we see that Vancouver does not even feature in the top 10 as a city with a ‘cosmopolitan’ reputation; nor do Dubai, Brussels or Toronto. So simply have a large percentage of foreign born does not maketh the city ‘cosmopolitan’ or multicultural despite what it might say on paper.

I asked my students to create a walking tour for me in the city which should take me one hour and provide me with an understanding of how multicultural they see Vancouver, or indeed what aspects of the city made them see a diversity of cultural in the city which was not their own. I provided them with the instructions on how to build using Google Tour Builder and encouraged them to think beyond the socio-romantic categories of food, art or music, or at least to use their imagination beyond the norm. The results really astounded me and gave me a new understanding of the different perspectives groups of students have on the city. I include the best four below with the students’ permission. I would strongly encourage the application of the assignment in different cities – who knows maybe we can set up a website of comparisons (contact me if you think so).

Tour 1 Digging Back Through Time – A Multicultural Religious Blast from the Past

Tour 2 Stanley Park

Tour 3 Multiculturalism in Vancouver: A Walking Tour in Mountain View Cemetery

Tour 4 The Discovery of Multiculturalism in Gastown through a four course meal

Born cultured?

The focus of my first year Geography this week was culture and globalization. The challenge is how to broach culture with students from a multitude of different backgrounds. It may seem a simple task to think about global culture in abstraction and focus on how the diverse localities of the earth all feature similar trends in terms of food, music, consumerism and of course Starbucks! But in doing this the all important dialectical relationship between the local and the global, an all important concept to geographers, is lost. Culture does not materialize in a vacuum, it is born or created in place and according to a set of circumstances or processes which are unique in time and context. Even when we think about the global chains which are eating up local small businesses, they too base their advertising or local appeal on the culture of the country they are in.

I gave my students the example of the ‘birth’ of hip-hop music in the South Bronx at the end of the 1960s and through the 1970s. Hip-hop music grew out of the social destruction of the South Bronx through the building of the highways though local communities, and the tearing down of the low-income housing to replace it with tower blocks. Young people were left with little to aim for except joining a gang or joining a block-party: the birth of hip-hop. More than half my students had volunteered at the start of the lecture that they did enjoy listening to hip-hop music, but there were faces of shock and awe as I transformed their understanding of where the music actually comes from. Hip-hop today is a global brand with artists singing in a multitude of languages and on an array of topics but we should not forget the origins of the beat and the lyrics.


The example of hip-hop was in order to open up a wider conversation on what culture means particularly given our increasingly interconnected world. The challenge seemed to be how can people relate to each other but at the same time remain rooted in their local culture. In exploring this with the students and giving them the platform to discuss and share examples of elements of their societies, the question of whether culture is something we are born with or is something that we learn, became the focal point. Half of my students thought culture is something you learn while the other half thought it is something you learn but are also born with. For an instance I was stunned as fear that all our discussions of environmental determinism and eugenics had fallen on deaf ears. Probing deeper though and the consensus was that where we are born and into what home/family plays a huge part in shaping who we are, this was what many of my students were suggesting.

The discussion stayed with me as I contemplated the origins of culture. I have often thought of myself in the past as belonging to a ‘global’ culture, one produced and maintained by my diverse homes and connections. However, recent events in my own life including a major relocation for professional reasons 3 years ago and the untimely tragic passing of my mother last year, have made me reflect a lot more on where my own cultural identity originates from. It led me to delve deeper on contemplating on identity in contemporary life and a growing sense of what I would term dislocation. I do indeed contend that our global connections, our social network ‘families’ are important parts of our contemporary identity and culture, but it cannot be at the expense of the more local. By local I do not mean inward-looking and exclusionary but rather a sense of “bloom where you are planted“. We have become increasingly disconnected of the present moment and from the place in which we are – I very much include myself in this. We are constantly looking for the next ‘fix’ and this has become a cultural norm. Our desire for constant progress and change has resulted in symbolic vocabulary for discussing anything that does not conform to expectations of cultural mainstream norms. It is the world out there rather than the world right here we are obsessed with.

I return to my students discussions on our culture as a mixture of something we learn as well as something we are born with. Suddenly the notion that we are born with a culture becomes so important to me, it is something that is fighting to survive in a life where I am increasingly becoming indistinguishable from my colleagues and friends. Culture is something we learn and the more we are exposed to cultural variety the richer our own understanding of the world becomes. I am drawn to the work of the sociologist Friedrich Heckmann on multiculturalism, where I think we are in grave danger of allowing Heckmann’s fifth and seventh definitions to become the only way we understand cultural differences. His fifth focuses on the superficial level of culture such as folklore and food for example, while the seventh argues that a nation-state is striving for cultural unity and that multiculturalism is hence an illusory concept. Only by being completely comfortable with who we are/where we have come from, can we hope to truly engage with the ‘other’.

Photo taken by Amy Brathwaite in Tacloban, the Philippines

Back to my international students: my aim I resolve is simple, I want them to embrace their own culture that which they were ‘born with’ as they embark on their journey of learning about and living in a different world. I viciously want to avoid a situation where what draws them to each other is what they perceive as a global culture rather than the creation of a forum where they share and respect each others differences as well as similarities. It is back to that dialectical relationship between the global and local and the continual reshaping of both by the other.

I dedicate this blog entry to Doreen Massey who passed away very suddenly on Friday. Her monumental work in geographical research has shaped so many minds including my own.

Teaching urban history

International students arrive in their new setting bewildered overwhelmed animated. Eager to learn open to new ideas a whole new world to navigate. I am a geographer and hence for me one of the fundamental aspects of beginning a learning journey through anything is to start by understanding where you are – your context your place. Not only is an understanding of place important but also a grasp of how that place has come to be, “If you don’t know where you’ve come from, you don’t know where you are” James Burke. Space and time are dynamic and therefore are constantly changing due to and with human activity.

Official records affirm the founding of Vancouver as the year 1886, this of course neglects the rich indigenous history of the land on which the modern city is built. If you are in Vancouver I would encourage you to visit the wonderful exhibit ‘The City Before the City‘. Hence, Vancouver may not be as ‘old’ (in a recent settler historical perspective), a city as Rome or Dublin or indeed as old as the cities of the east coast of North America, but it has a substantial history very much tied up with how the political economy of the present day has unfolded.  A history which has shaped the physical face of the city but also its social fabric.

International students arrive from all over the world excited at the prospect of gaining an undergraduate degree from the University of British Columbia and improving their English language skills. They spend their days immersed in lectures, mountains of assignments and ingesting the different mediums of knowledge acquisition set before them. I fear their removal from reality as they fall into the world of word; I fear their lack of context in what they are absorbing. It seemed an impossible task to design a real-life experience which would present students with the opportunity to apply their book-smarts. The rationale driving me was to offer students the opportunity to learn by doing. Learning by doing is the cornerstone of geographical research, and by engaging in this field trip/assignment students apply their knowledge in context hence removing it from abstraction and making their experience richer.

So let’s get to the details of the design and how to provide an infinite number of students with an experiential experience. There are two stages over the course of two years, different approaches each with its positive elements:

Stage One:

Using MP3 files and a Google map I spend a number of days walking the streets of where the modern city had been born. I researched the background of the Canadian Pacific Railways and its influential role on shaping the modern city, I explored the complex labour history including the intricate and often dark discrimination against indigenous, Asian and Eastern European workers. I had pages of information, an arduous task to select what was of most significance and interest to my student audience. The starting point of course must be a map, providing a visual context and guide. The map embodied the instructor or teacher leading the students on their walk  without being physically present with them on their journey. For the transfer of information students are requested to download 18 MP3 files corresponding to a point on their map, and which take them from the UBC campus downtown Vancouver and guide them on the hour walk. Students were asked to complete a worksheet based on their experience.

I encourage you all to please try and use these resources for Vancouver and adapt them to suit your own cities. The student feedback was overwhelmingly positive: “After this walking tour, I now know Vancouver better in the Geographical, political and historical fields. Especially in the downtown area, as the commercial center of Vancouver, it combines historical and modern buildings in almost every street.This combination impressed me most in this walking tour because it demonstrates the history and development happening in this beautiful city. I enjoyed the way that we used audio as we could hear clearly without distractions” (international first year student).

Stage Two:

In the second year I wanted to address the two issues which I saw as an obstacles to the smooth delivery of the experience for students – that is that students were obliged to download all the the MP3 files prior to embarking on their journey. The second issue I identified was a geographical one – students needing to navigate their way in a strange city. Of course I want to encourage students to maneuver their way through the streets of the city but this can be a daunting task and can take away from the learning experience. I identified a platform,, which allows me to easily create an interactive walking tour where content is Geo-location triggered removing the need for students to download all the MP3 files prior to the walk (this is done automatically by the app). Additionally the platform allows me to build in quizzes and supplementary information, including images and videos, which appear on the student’s phones when they reach the appropriate location. I am able to create tours using online authoring tools; these tours become immediately available on the accompanying app on the students’ smart phones. Once again students are asked to complete a worksheet but this time they also have short interactive quizzes which appear in location. A small cost was involved in using but this was off set by the rich interactive experience which the students have, “I feel that the walking tour is amazing, it just something like magic. When I walk to a point I suppose to go to, the audio starts speaking automatically. It is very interesting. I enjoyed it so much” (first year international student).

I cannot provide the app in its entirety here on the blog but below are some snapshots at how the platform works:

Choose a tour
The App can host a number of different walking tours
Welcome Screen
A historical image welcomes the students to the walking tour

Inventory Message
All audio files are automatically added to students’ inventory so that they can listen to them more than once
Map Screen with Flag
An icon illustrates to the student where they are located and the flag points them to the next audio point

Which ever avenue you choose to take as an instructor or educator I spur you on your task of providing experiential learning experiences for your students whether they be historical or contemporary – providing them with the taste of the intricacy of the knowledge embedded in their everyday urban surroundings and encouraging them to embrace them.