Using Technology in Teaching Social Justice in the Social Sciences

Published in:

A National Symposium

November 20–21, 2015

New York University
Washington, D.C.

Johnson C. Smith University (JCSU) has long embraced technology to deliver quality, enriching learning opportunities for its students. In 2000, the university gained national recognition when it became one of the few colleges in the country (and the first HBCU) to issue an IBM laptop computer to every student through the ThinkPad U initiative. It furthered its commitment to technology in Fall 2013, when it became an “I” institution by issuing every student and faculty member an IPad product.

The Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) identifies a number of high-impact educational practices that are effective in working with students of diverse backgrounds, including common intellectual experiences, learning communities, and global/diversity initiatives (Kuh, 2008). In response, for the last 30 years, the criminology program through the Urban Research Group has been involved in community-based participatory research (CBPR) and has engaged undergraduate students in research projects involving the local housing authority, the United Way, local law enforcement and courts, various community development corporations (CDCs), and over 15 neighborhood associations in an effort to promote social justice (Carter, Fox, Priest, & McBridge, as cited in Davis Bivens, Fox, Byrd, Quick, Priest, Bledsoe-Gardner, 2014).

Faculty from the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences have promoted the use of iPads and various applications to engage students in social justice initiatives in a number of courses and special projects. This article will present these AAC&U high-impact practices and initiatives and show how JCSU criminology faculty have successfully incorporated student learning outcomes and improved student learning by employing instructional technology (Lawless & Pellegrino, 2007) in three different courses and program initiatives.

High Impact Practices

A number of external stakeholders (e.g. the contemporary workforce, United States Department of Education) have placed greater accountability on higher education to produce graduates with effective communication, critical thinking, reasoning, and analytical thinking skills (Davis Bivens, Bledsoe-Gardner, & Johnson, 2014). In response, organizations such as AAC&U proposed a number of high-impact educational practices to guide colleges and universities in developing successful learning activities and measurable learning outcomes. The AAC&U high-impact learning outcomes include (1) learning communities, (2) service learning and community-based learning, (3) diversity/global learning, (4) undergraduate research, (5) internships, (6) common intellectual experiences, (7) writing intensive courses, (8) first year seminars and experiences, and (9) capstone projects and courses. The JCSU criminology program has implemented all of these strategies in the degree curriculum and courses. The next section will discuss program implementation and assessment, which involved a number of technology resources.

Implementation in the Criminology Program at JCSU

CRM 230 Crime and Society

All students enrolled in CRM 230 Crime and Society completed a capstone research project that related to issues encompassing race, economics, politics, morality, and/or ethics in contemporary society. Students employed a variety of technological tools (e.g., iMovie, iPads, YouTube, and NewTV) to demonstrate their research findings.

The course in Crime and Society sought to analyze current issues in the criminal justice system with an emphasis on opposing viewpoints. Students learned to understand and evaluate the debates surrounding issues and how they relate to race, economics, politics, morality, and ethics. The primary objectives of the course were to:

  • Understand the history and theories of debates associated with society and the criminal justice system in America;
  • Identify the important components of and debates over justice in the United States;
  • Describe major philosophical debates within the American justice system regarding due process, adjudication, and dispositions as well as alternatives to incarceration; and
  • Afford students the opportunity to use technology to enhance their perspective on social justice.

Initiative evaluation and assessment: The course was evaluated via the university’s course evaluation process and a special qualitative evaluation with students specific to this publication.

Student reflection: Student reflections provided an authentic platform for learners to integrate individual experiences with contemporary social justice issues. Additionally, these reflections challenged learners to connect course objectives and critical thinking skills to problem solving in two primary areas: (1) overcoming the challenges of manipulating technology and (2) navigating the research process and becoming more cognizant in the matter of social justice. Project participants noted the following realizations and achievements:

  • Understand the history and theories of debates associated with society and the criminal justice system in America;
  • Identify the important components of and debates over justice in the United States;
  • Describe major philosophical debates within the American justice system regarding due process, adjudication, and dispositions as well as alternatives to incarceration; and
  • Afford students the opportunity to use technology to enhance their perspective on social justice.

“Students learn better by… displaying visual esthetics.”

Technology “gives a visual perspective of the information…and gives the audience an opportunity to actually see what we are demonstrating in a different light….”

Using technology “provides a more realistic view of situations being researched.”

Specifically students noted that, “technology aides in better understanding social justice by using live and current data to understand everyday phenomenon.”

“The challenges with using technology [include] … making sure we obtain information from reliable sources and … [responding to the] malfunction of presentation equipment.”

Faculty reflection: The most challenging aspect of the project was equipment malfunctions using the SMART classroom. Students with MacBooks experienced the most difficulty with compatibility. However, students were able to increase their technological aptitude using a range of computer applications and electronic resources.

Focus group data frequently indicated that students increased their usage of technology via employing a variety of applications, which they used in integrating theoretical frameworks with social phenomenon and research questions discussed in lecture. Projects included, but were not limited to, substantive areas such as rape, police brutality, and prostitution in the 21st century.

CRM 490 Senior Investigative Paper

The Senior Investigative Paper (SIP) for criminology majors involved original research on a criminology topic of the student’s choice. The paper was required to address a theoretical or methodological issue in criminology with original data collected by the student. The SIP was a reading, thinking, writing, speaking, and quantitative reasoning course.

The primary objectives of the course were:

  • To help students read and critically evaluate the criminological literature related to a topic chosen by students;
  • To assist students in developing rational thinking processes through the modeling of social relationships. This included identifying cause and effect relationships among dependent and independent variables and operationalizing those relationships;
  • To aid students in the creation and self-evaluation of their writing with an emphasis on editing and proofreading skills;
  • To assist students in the creation and evaluation of their oral communication skills, including emphases on organization and delivery in the SIP Oral Presentation; and
  • To help students develop quantitative reasoning skills through the analysis of tables, graphs, and charts; through the creation of tables; and through the interpretation of basic statistics such as chi-square in their SIP.

All students majoring in criminology had to complete original research using quantitative or qualitative research methods. Students presented their research findings in the program’s undergraduate research forum. Students used the iPad not only for conducting their literature review, but also for part of their senior paper presentations.

Initiative evaluation and assessment: The course was evaluated via the university’s course evaluation process and a special qualitative evaluation with students specific to this publication.

Student reflection:Students who did not have their own laptops had to spend more time in the library using campus computer labs (with a great deal of competition for computers in the labs). The iPads had limited functionality for multi-tasking (such as split-screen options) in comparison to PCs or laptops. Students could readily store articles included in the literature review in the cloud, but could not access them without Internet access.

Faculty reflection: Since the Initiative, there has been an increase in the number of students who are completing qualitative studies for the senior paper. Because fewer students are bringing their own laptops to school (as iPads replaced laptops), fewer students are willing to go to go to computer labs to use SPSS for data analysis.

CULTURE in Criminology

In Fall 2014, faculty received grant monies from the Duke Foundation for program enhancement. Creating Undergraduate Learning Techniques Using Research and Experiential Tactics (CULTURE) in Criminology sought to further uncover information about the men who volunteered to serve for early public safety in Charlotte and Mecklenburg County. Students used iPads and various applications while working in the North Carolina State Archives to document and store archival data and artifacts.

CULTURE in Criminology sought to accomplish the following goals:

  • To create collaborative research opportunities between criminology faculty and students to enhance academic rigor at JCSU.
  • To incorporate humanities and historical research into criminology.
  • To enhance interdisciplinary knowledge of criminology and public safety.
  • To increase the number of student articles submitted and accepted for publication.
  • To afford students the opportunity to present research findings in a public forum.
  • To afford students the opportunity to complete a service-learning project.

Initiative evaluation and assessment: Project participants in CULTURE were given a pre- and post-test evaluation measuring their understanding of historical research and methodologies. Qualitative project evaluations were also conducted at the conclusion of the project.

Student reflection: Participants had a better understanding of historical research methods after their participation in this project. They were likely to incorporate historical research in their course assignments and at least one was considering using historical research for the Senior Investigative Paper. Participants reported being able to examine criminology through an interdisciplinary lens. They also reported that they enjoyed the applied research aspect of this project.

Faculty reflection: As a result of the funding of this project, the criminology program has enhanced its technological resources. Through the use of the Apple Store Cards, students and faculty were able to secure apps to allow iPads/iPad Minis to be used to scan documents and photographs and edit digitized documents and photographs.

Project funding was also used to purchase a MacBook Laptop, allowing faculty to use more i-resources in the classroom. Existing faculty notebooks, PCs, etc. are limited in how they may work with devices using the i Operating System, such as the students’ iPad Minis. The MacBook will expand resources for faculty to implement the i-Initiative at JCSU. Project funding was also used to purchase camera lenses for iPads and iPad Minis, affording students and faculty greater functionality of these resources.

The students who participated are to be commended as they forfeited their spring break to be a part of this project. And they are to be commended for engaging in research that they usually do not conduct. Though students had little to no interest in the topic in and of itself, they took great care in gleaning the resources and artifacts, not only for this project, but for their service learning project for the North Carolina National Guard.


As Davis Bivens, Bledsoe-Gardner, and Johnson (2013) noted:

A study conducted by Hart and Associates on behalf of the Association of American Colleges and Universities (2010) reveals that employers believe that two and four year institutions need to place more emphasis on written and oral communication as well as critical thinking, and analytical reasoning skills.

Implementing the various initiatives discussed above has resulted in the criminology program effectively graduating majors with the necessary and desired skills to be competitive candidates in the 21st-century workforce.

The United States Department of Education has released its College Scorecards which examine the average family income of students; the characteristics of the average student’s ZIP code; transfer, debt, loan payment, and completion metrics; and, most importantly perhaps, student earnings data for thousands of colleges. When reviewing the College Scorecard, in the area of gainful employment and starting salaries upon graduation, JCSU criminology graduates earn more than those persons who enter the workforce with a high school diploma. Criminology program graduates typically work in law enforcement, as correctional officers and probation officers, and in public safety. Bureau of Labor Statistics (2014) data reveal graduates in these areas earn salaries that are 24.5% – 90% higher than the current year scorecard for high school graduates. Successful implementation of the various AAC&U high-impact initiatives not only make our graduates workforce ready, but also afford them the opportunity to develop technology skills and promote social justice issues, making them more responsible citizens.


Arum, R., & Roksa, J. (2011). Academically adrift: Limited learning on college campuses. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.

Bureau of Labor Statistics (2014). Occupational outlook handbook. Retrieved from

Davis Bivens, N., Bledsoe-Gardner, A., & Johnson, D. (2014). Back to the basics: Innovative strategies to prepare traditional and adult learners in the social sciences for 21st century workforce. NETWORK: A Journal of Faculty Development Fall 2013.

Davis Bivens, N., Fox, L., Meade Byrd, Y., Quick, D., Priest, T. & Bledsoe-Gardner, A. (2014). Three decades of community based participatory research: Effective pedagogy, community activism, and impacting communities. Journal of Justice Studies, 3(1), 92- 100.

Kuh, G. (2008). High-impact educational practices: What they are, who has access to them, and why they matter. Washington, DC: American Association of Colleges and Universities.

Lawless, K. & Pellegrino, J. (2007). Professional development in integrating technology into teaching and learning: Knowns, unknowns, and ways to pursue better questions and answers. Review of Educational Research,77(4), 575-614.

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Spring 2016: Advancing Social Justice from Classroom to Community