Lisa Schirch, ND Learning grant, teach students how the use of digital technology is shaping peacebuilding and can influence policymakers

Author: Lisa Gallagher

Walking down Hastings Street in Vancouver, Canada, the air feels crisp. Honking horns, activated car alarms, and idling motors create a rhythmic hum and energy to the area, one decorated by expansive tent encampments. Commonly referred to as “Tent City,” this stretch of Hastings features a string of homes made of bright blue tarp butting up against long-abandoned buildings adorned with graffiti. It’s a tight squeeze, as walkers cut narrow paths in between the tents, along the city’s sidewalks. 

For those who have never been to Vancouver – or Canada for that matter – the use of immersive 360-video technology gives viewers a front row seat to experiences like this, on homelessness and gentrification, without having to travel. The video is a product of the course, “Digital Peacebuilding & Peace Technology Computing & Digital Technologies,” taught by Lisa Schirch, Richard G. Starmann, Sr. Professor of the Practice of Peace Studies. 

Social media and other new technologies, like virtual reality (VR), are profoundly shaping the world, impacting democratic institutions, social cohesion, conflict and the peacebuilding field. In her course, Schirch engages her students in deep-rooted analyses of technology’s positive and negative impacts on society, drawing on neuroscience, psychology, political analysis, and economic research and designs of current technology platforms. 

“The burgeoning technology can be particularly worthwhile for policymakers,” said Schirch. “By understanding the complexities of homelessness, 360-video can enable them to understand and have empathy toward issues policymakers are trying to address.” 

Through a call for proposals in spring 2022, Schirch – along with co-author, Ph.D. student, Fr. Joachim Ozonze (Peace Studies & Theology), and the Navari Family Center for Digital Scholarship’s Adam Heet and Arnaud Zimmern – was awarded a $5,000 grant from Notre Dame Learning. Its intent was to support and conceptualize a way for students to develop an understanding of the plight of the oppressed through the use of cutting-edge technology. The grant allowed Schirch and her partners to acquire GoPro Max equipment and hold two workshops during the fall semester, teaching students how to use the cameras, record video footage, and operate professional editing software to create the final product.

Intimidating at first, the technology soon got students excited; they saw it as a brand new toy to learn and use for storytelling.

“360-video is a form of artistry,” said Schirch. “It is the art of creation, of being able to tell a story and make it come to life.”

Schirch plans to teach the course again this fall, and she hopes students from other programs – not only from the Keough School but also from the broader Notre Dame community – will take advantage of this new technology.

This includes students interested in the technology who aren’t enrolled for her course; they’ll be offered training, too, through Notre Dame Learning, which brings together teaching and learning expertise from the Kaneb Center for Teaching Excellence (KCTE), the Office of Digital Learning (ODL), and the Office of Learning Analytics (OLA), as a hub of learning excellence and innovation at the university. Working in collaboration with instructors, departments and colleges, Notre Dame Learning’s seeks to offer effective and engaging learning for all students through research-based strategies, and successful use of technology across all modalities.

“We are preparing the next generation of policy influencers,” said Schirch. “We need to prepare them to use new technology, like VR, to document settings where research is taking place.”