IMEJ main Wake Forest University Homepage Search articles Archived volumes Table of Content of this issue

1. Introduction
2. The Project
3. Pedagogical Objectives & Student Participation
3.1 Related Links
3.2 White Paper
3.3 Mural Galleries
3.4 Maps
3.5 GEOG130 and GeoNotes
3.6 Message Boards
4. Assessment
5. Concluding Comments


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Using the Web to Explore Historical Conflicts in Northern Ireland
Jay D. Gatrell, Indiana State University
Deborah Keirsey, Louisiana State University

This paper documents a web project, entitled "People's Art and Conflict in Everyday Space," that can be used to supplement the traditional classroom experience, as well as to serve as a freestanding educational site on the subject of violence in Northern Ireland. By focusing on the controversial issues of peace and violence in Northern Ireland, the project concretizes and gives voice to the many everyday struggles and geographies that define the ongoing conflict. In the process, the project not only informs but also provides students and instructors with a range of inter-disciplinary tools necessary for a meaningful discussion of the everyday realities and unique histories of both parties, Nationalists and Loyalists. Currently, the website supplements a section of GEOG130 (formerly 330) World Geography at Indiana State University. Included on the course homepage, it serves as a portal for student research and demonstrates on-going conflicts in developed states. Currently, the content includes descriptive text, related links, maps, images of murals, a brief white paper, and a newly added message board.

About the authors...



An external link to People’s Art and Conflict in Everyday Space."


An external link to GEOG130:World Geography.

An external link to GeoNotes.

1. Introduction
The world wide web (WWW) is a useful platform for integrating current events into a range of curricula in both the k-12 and higher education communities (Gatrell 2001; Brailer, Peterson, and Johnson 1999). The use of the WWW as a means of computer-aided instruction (CAI) has also proven helpful in relating the content and context of especially controversial and disturbing events. In the social sciences, for example, the WWW can be effectively used to engage students in a range of sometimes uncomfortable, confusing, and complex subjects (Watters, Conley, and Alexander 2001; Zukas 2000; Cassutto 2000). In geography, cyberspace has expanded the everyday spatial reference of students as it challenges preconceived notions or perceptions of 'far away' places and regions, as well as concretizes the complex issues associated with world conflict (O'Tuathail and McCormick 1998; People's Geography Project 2001). In the process, CAI and the WWW's ability to bring to life abstract concepts and problems in far away places enables students to develop their own knowledge through a process of independent study and critical thinking (Zukas 2000).

This paper discusses an on-going project to chart the relative geographies of Nationalist and Loyalist landscapes in Northern Ireland. Because the web-based learning module focuses on a western European conflict, the module challenges students' traditional perceptions of political conflict around the world. It leads them to investigate questions of religious and ethnic tolerance and re-consider widely held imaginaries concerning the stability of western political systems in a post-Cold War and post-colonial environment. Specifically, the web site documents how the local tradition of mural painting can be transmitted and broadcast globally as a form of protest, historical documentation, and appeals for both militarism and peace. The paper also focuses on how the web can be used to 'give voice' to messages of everyday people and how the clarity of these everyday narratives can effectively transcend political rhetoric (Furstenburg et al 2001). As such, CAI serves not only as a vehicle for classroom content, but also as an independent medium for challenging long held perceptions of regional geographies.

The term "landscapes" is used in a discipline specific way.


2. The Project
Constructed out of a series of research projects and research panels emphasizing a range of political, economic, or broader 'regional' development and cultural themes in geography (Keirsey 1996; Gatrell 2001), the website, People's Art and Conflict, is a case study based on the 1990s fieldwork of Deborah Keirsey. Currently linked to the course, Geography 130: World Geography, at Indiana State University, the website is used to underscore key concepts associated with the landscape approach in geography. It also allows students to research a range of complex issues associated with colonialism, post-colonial violence, and peace in a 'developed' context. Dedicated to understanding and exploring questions of peace and violence in the developed world, the project is important because it underscores the fact that the political and military instabilities that are often associated with the 'developing' world also exist in more 'developed' countries. By communicating the stories and acknowledging the powerful statements and histories of Northern Ireland residents, embedded throughout the contested material landscape of the country, this unique site emphasizes the importance of understanding conflict through the everyday lives and material landscape of residents. Although the components of the website are varied, the main objective of the project is to emphasize the importance of the material landscape and to provide students and other participants an opportunity to view landscapes they would not normally see. Most importantly, however, the project demonstrates that the meaning and power of the mural, not only in such places as Northern Ireland, but also in the daily lives of everyday people, has both local and global appeal. Murals serve two broad purposes. First, Loyalist and Nationalist murals reinforce local political sentiment and identity by memorializing key events or underscoring key themes. Second, the murals inform outsiders of the local dynamics and shape the broader geo-political discourse of the Irish conflict.

3. Pedagogical Objectives and Student Participation
The website is used to supplement and expand the classroom discussions and content delivery in World Geography, but it also serves as a general information site for individuals interested in the Northern Ireland Conflict and/or conflict-related mural projects. The educational objectives of the website are four-fold: (1) to present the conflict within the context of the landscape approach in geography; (2) to provide an example of the utility of web-based learning and research; (3) to serve as a starting point for independent research and the development of related IT skills; and (4) to contribute to the popular and academic discourse on conflict-related murals projects and the Northern Ireland case.

Student participation in the project is not mandatory; however, students are encouraged to utilize the resource for related class assignments and other learning opportunities, such as GeoNotes (to be discussed later). By making participation voluntary, the website preserves the Internet's informality and anonymity. The independent structure of the project and open-ended nature of the materials enable students to view key information and explore controversial themes by choice. As such, the website is a starting point, not an end. Instead of conceptualizing the website as a contained and completely structured lesson, the module's open structure offers students a chance for further exploration. In the process of exploring the topic, students build personal knowledge of the places and events depicted by critically assessing on-line materials and considering the meaning of the material landscape and the legitimacy (or illegitimacy) of specific actors associated with the conflict. Similarly, the independent nature of the project empowers students, not the instructor, by allowing them to determine the specific scale and scope of their own learning agenda.

3.1 Related Links
To meet the inter-related objectives, we have created the following Internet links from our website: (1) Murals and Mural Projects, (2) the Northern Ireland Conflict and Peace Process, (3) the cities of Belfast and Londenderry (a.k.a. Derry), and (4) Geography Sites.

The related murals sites introduce students to United States-based murals projects that similarly challenge and contest the general themes of violence, safety, and territoriality found in the Northern Ireland murals. Additionally, some murals projects emphasize the utility of using murals to build a shared sense of community (Figure 1) and to convey a shared history. These differing approaches towards murals and mural painting demonstrate how the material landscape can be utilized as an effective ideological or socialization device/process.


An external link to Geography Sites.

Figure 1. This mural underscores the everyday reality of the conflict and the unique ability of children to deal with it.

Additional links to regional websites in Northern Ireland and sites detailing the trajectories and foundations of the contemporary crisis, from both the Nationalist and Loyalist perspectives, allow students to know the 'Troubles' from the perspectives of local residents, international organizations, and active partisans. Finally, a series of links are provided to familiarize non-geographers with key concepts and terms, such as landscape.

3.2 White Paper
A white paper has been included that generally charts the ideological importance of the material landscape, or built environment, in defining and reinforcing the politics of conflict and peace in Northern Ireland. The working paper, written after a professional meeting and panel discussion held in New York City in 2001, is academic in structure and content (Gatrell 2001). While the white paper is brief and generic in scope, the audience for the paper is mixed and includes not only students, but also a wider community of critical human geographers and social theorists.

An external link to the white paper.

3.3 Mural Galleries
A limited collection of murals has been used to create representative mural galleries (Figures 2 and 3). The galleries have been presented without explanatory captions or commentary. The lack of commentary allows the viewer to experience the mural rather than see it through the context of a specific interpreted meaning. If students or other viewers desire to view additional murals material, the opportunity exists to obtain more in-depth information vis-à-vis a collection of links, specifically the Conflict Archive on the Internet (CAIN) project at the University of Ulster. The CAIN project was developed to catalog the cultural and political realities of the Northern Ireland conflict, including the tradition of mural painting.

An external link to CAIN (

Figure 2. Thumbnails of murals in Derry.

An external link to the authors' mural gallery page for Derry.

Figure 3. Thumbnails of murals in Belfast.

An external link to the authors' mural gallery page for Belfast.

3.4 Maps
Maps have been created that delimit the spatial geography of the murals. A map of Derry (Figure 4) locates the famed 'Bogside' district that houses a wide-range of nationalist murals. Historically, the Bogside community has been a stronghold for Nationalist sentiment. The Belfast map (Figure 5) details the Protestant and Catholic neighborhoods of the city and provides the viewer with an understanding of the complex geopolitical realities that any peace process must overcome. The maps are a necessary component of the project because they introduce students and viewers to a unique world view that is seldom associated with western nations, one in which places and spaces are defined and differentiated by their faith and politics.

Figure 4. A map of Derry locates the famed "Bogside" district that houses a wide-range of nationalist murals.

Figure 5. The Belfast map details the Protestant and Catholic neighborhoods of the city and provides the viewer with an understanding of the complex geopolitical realities that any peace process must overcome.

3.5 GEOG130 and GeoNotes
The website is also connected and integrated into the GEOG130 Curriculum as an example of violence in the developed world. As an integrated example, the website is a starting point for student participation in the related extra-credit opportunity known as GeoNotes. GeoNotes encourage students to link assigned text readings to real world events vis-à-vis a search for a related web authority. The format of GeoNotes is entirely electronic and intended to promote the synthesis of classroom and lecture materials. GeoNotes require students to perform an effective web search and to detail the specific linkage between the text and the website by briefly discussing the web site's relevance to the class.

Additionally, the website serves as an effective enrichment tool for advanced students who might easily become disengaged in large introductory or survey courses of 90-100 students. Based on informal student feedback (i.e., office hours, student evaluations, etc...) to date, the project appears to have specifically engaged and challenged these students. Additionally, students with ancestral, political, or religious interests in the conflict have commented on the usefulness of the format and the site's lack of political 'spin.'


An external link to GeoNotes.

An example issue of GeoNotes (PDF 17 KB) available for download.

3.6 Message Boards
The most recent addition (October 2001) to the website is an integrated message board, which is freely hosted by BoardHost. Students and other viewers are encouraged to post related messages. However, participation is uneven and unpredictable. The message board is un-moderated, because such a format allows students and other visitors to share their unvarnished opinions and perspectives. To date, it has been under-utilized and points to one of the major shortcomings of the project--the unwillingness of viewers and others to publicaly record their thoughts and concerns regarding sensitive and controversial issues. However, the availability of the extra-credit opportunity known as GeoNotes may also depress student participation in the message board component of the website.


An external link to BoardHost.


4. Assessment
Although the informal response of students and others has been positive and the participation in GeoNotes suggests student viewer-ship is considerable, the open-ended nature of the website and the specific web-site's linkage to the course (i.e., GeoNotes) make assessing and documenting outcomes difficult. Consequently, the students 'progress' or 'movement' through the site is not tracked. Because of this inherent limitation, student participation more closely represents an 'authentic performance' and thus enables students to independently develop their IT skills (web browsing, downloading and viewing portable document files, message boards, and e-mail), as well as to engage related course materials. In fact, the ability of students to map their own learning experience empowers students and enables the web-based materials to effectively expand and supplement classroom and text-based materials.

While participation is not mandatory, preliminary indicators of student participation in the GeoNotes project exist. To date, the overall participation in the GeoNotes has fluctuated between 16% and 33% of students enrolled in a specific section. The inaugural GeoNotes volume (Fall 2000) achieved an overall participation rate of 16%. The highest participation rate was approximately 33%, during the spring semester of 2001. In the fall of 2001, participation fell to roughly 20%. However, the format of the assignment changed slightly in the Fall of 2001. Unlike previous semesters, hard copies of each GeoNotes issue were not distributed to all students. Instead of providing students with their own copies, students were told in class of the new on-line posting. While the original intent of implementing the e-version was to increase overall participation rates among students enrolled in the class by more directly steering students to the web materials, vis-à-vis in-class notices of new on-line postings, the initial 'experiment' with a paperless volume of GeoNotes appears to have been less effective than the mixed media approach used in earlier semesters.

Because of the voluntary nature of using supplementary materials and because of the challenges associated with developing educational websites for both student and non-student audiences, instructors must constantly re-vision the linkages and structure of the website to promote increased participation and the overall educational efficacy of the site. Consequently, this project, like all web-based learning opportunities, is a work in progress and continues to evolve. Few (if any) web environments are static and the ability to continuously update, re-think, and redesign is essential (Foote 2001). Just as the message board has been recently added to the module, the site will be more closely linked to future sections of 130. In the fall of 2002, the website will be listed as 'suggested' reading in the course syllabus for the Europe sequence in GEOG130. In this sense, the project's open-ended nature will be preserved and overall user-ship may increase.

In spite of some of the inherent frustrations that often accompany designing and implementing a web-based learning experience, this project illustrates the value of an open-ended approach towards web-based learning. By emphasizing self-exploration of the landscape approach in geography, our module provides the core infrastructure necessary for students to enrich and expand on the classroom content. The open framework enables visitors from outside the university to access and utilize the materials.





Authentic Performance
'Authentic Performance' refers to a student's ability to perform a task, rather than merely to respond to a test question.

5. Concluding Comments
Information technologies and computer-assisted learning environments are useful and no doubt will continue to transform classic pedagogical approaches. In the case of controversial topics and important, if sometimes uncomfortable debates, web-based learning modules provide an opportunity for students to gain access to required information and necessary knowledge and synthesize these materials as they explore and develop informed opinions.

While CAI and web-based learning modules can be used to transmit required content in courses, this project, based on actual fieldwork, has intentionally served as a loosely structured portal for student exploration; it is not an assignment. Instead of mandating student participation, the web site and related curricular incentives, such as GeoNotes, empower the student to develop and explore the conflict and landscape independently. And it is the ability of the WWW to afford students the opportunity to independently supplement and expand the classroom experience that facilitates the development of critical thinking skills.

6. Bibliography
Brahler, C., Peterson, N., Johnson, E. 1999. Developing on-line learning materials for higher education: An overview of current issues. Educational Technology & Society 2(2).

Cassutto, G. 2000. Social studies and the World Wide Web. International Journal of Social Education 15(1):94-101.

Furstenberg, G., Levet, S., English, K., & Maillet, K. 2001. Giving a Virtual Voice to the Silent Language of Culture. Language Learning and Technology 5 (1):55-102.

Foote, K. 2001. Putting your course on-line. University of Colorado at Boulder, Department of Geography,

Gatrell, J. 2001. Structural, technical, and definitional issues: The case of Geography & GIS in the k-12 classroom. The Journal of Educational Technology Systems 29(3):237-249.

Gatrell, J. (chair). 2001. Space, place and conflict: Student research in contemporary regional development and planning issues. Annual Meeting of the Association of American Geographers, New York City, NY.

Keirsey, D. 1996. A Pagan in Ireland: Postmodern Deconstruction of Landscape as Text, Department of Geography and Planning, The University of Toledo, Unpublished Masters Thesis, Toledo, Oh.

O’Tuathail, G. and McCormack, D. 1998. Global Conflicts On-Line: Technoliteracy and developing an internet-based conflict archive. Journal of Geography 97:1-11.

Peoples Geography Project.

Watters, C., Conley, M., and Alexander, C. 1999. The Digital Agora: Interaction and Learning in Political Science. Interactive Multimedia Electronic Journal of Computer-enhanced Learning. 1(2)

Zukas, A. 2000. Active learning, world history, and the Internet: Creating knowledge in the classroom. International Journal of Social Education 15(1):62-79

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IMEJ multimedia team member assigned to this paper Yue-Ling Wong