January 23, 2014

Phonar: A Massive, Free, Open Photography Class

Category: Digital Learning
phonar students working on photo project on computers

When asked to explain his attitude toward arts education, British photographer Jonathan Worth describes what he is teaching as “storytelling” that should be an integral part of everyone’s “digital literacy and digital citizenship” rather than a rarified artistic skill for niche training of a cadre of aesthetic elites.  Worth is currently the instructor of Phonar, the sprawling massive, free, and open undergraduate photography course that he teaches to as many as 30,000 participants at one time.

Worth’s initiative was one of five recognized recently for outstanding innovation in the international Reclaim Open Learning Challenge and SymposiumHoward Rheingold and I have so far profiled two of the award-winning projects on this blog – Jim Groom’s Digital Storytelling 106 class and the Jaaga community learning space in Bangalore.  Rheingold plans to wrap up our five-project coverage with stories on FemTechNet and DigiLit in Leicester.

In my interview with Worth, he explained that in navigating his own path as a student through higher education – many years before becoming a professor – the purpose of classes was rarely made clear by instructors and administrators.  He described switching careers from  “professional sportsman,” after having been a rugby fullback for the Leicester Tigers.  “I wanted to be a writer, but I was no good at writing.  I was good at making pictures.  I could tell stories, and other people could write them.  But it took me two years to get my first editorial photography job; I didn’t know anyone who was a photographer.”

Fifteen years later, when he agreed to teach a class at Coventry University, Worth wondered what he could do to make the academic enterprise of investing so much time in learning photography seem legitimate, given the fact that his field was obviously in crisis due to digital technology.  In the past, as he noted, “one provided a scarce product, and I trained up to do this skill that other people didn’t have.  I could make pictures.  Then overnight my photographs became images, and the world changed.”

At the time that Worth was grappling with the perceived catastrophe around intellectual property that was taking place in his field and the rise of “a whole generation of makers,” he was asked to photograph Cory Doctorow, a writer who gave away digital copies of his book for free, and yet still made money from those who bought physical copies of the text.  Worth realized that now that his photographs had become digitized images, he would need to market actual artifacts to consumers and experiment with variable pricing systems that relied on participatory price setting of the kind described by Yochai Benkler in The Penguin and the Leviathan.

As an experiment, Doctorow urged him to take his portrait and then release it with a Creative Commons license to see how price is affected by supply and demand.  The two had been discussing the draconian copyright policy of the National Portrait Gallery, where some of Worth’s work had been collected.  Although the image Worth had shot of Doctorow was “infinitively abundant “ and would be valued at “zero immediately,” Worth made 150 prints that were exactly the same with a page of the author’s manuscript.  In this trial he decided to charge 150 pounds for #1 and then reduce the prices through the numbers up until the last hundred were five pounds each.  Very quickly there was a “fight for the most expensive,” and after that “huge scrap,” numbers two three and four were bought by the same person.  Worth notes that there were also “a bunch in the middle that didn’t sell at all.”  He explained that “my product was not the image: to this day there have been four downloads of the high resolution image that was available to download throughout.  For the artifact there was a huge raft of different purchases at different prices, and the image did other things – it reached out to geeks.” He credited the public’s “keen interest” in his marketing efforts to the mix of high prices and low prices that he had structured (You can see Doctorow’s account here).

Now that Worth recognized that “our business model was fatally flawed,” he found himself “reaching around for people making sense of this moment, but none of these people I knew were in photography.”  He cited cyberutopian Kevin Kelly’s idea of creating an experience for the user to aim for “better than free” as influential as well.  Worth insisted that the main reason that “legacy media doesn’t work” is because “carpet bombing is not a discerning way of reaching other people.”  About this time he was asked to teach his first photography class.  “I said that I would only teach a class if it dealt with the problems that I had to deal with as a professional.”  The college agreed, although Worth “wasn’t a teacher” and “didn’t know exactly what or how to teach.”

With his first class, Picturing the Body, now taught by Worth’s ex-student and assistant Matt Johnston, Worth was reluctant to tackle the subject matter, because he didn’t consider himself very knowledgeable about gender studies, although he did think he could do interesting things with “with the mode of delivery – both in terms of content and outcome.”  For example, Worth asked his students: “What is it that you do that a digital environment can’t?”  As he explained, “just as a kiss and hug is something that you can’t digitize, a physical print is an object fixed in time and space, that you have to be present to experience.”  The class eventually produced a spontaneous exhibition that capitalized on offline experiences.

He also knew that he “had to make the class a blog,” and in the 2008-2009 academic year, he made it an open class.  His next class dealt with the idea that everyone’s a storyteller. His current course, Phonar, addresses multimedia journalism that incorporates audio.  In this way, each of Worth’s classes has dealt with a different critical issue: “1) the artisan, 2) the trusted source, and 3) the publisher.”  Using simple WordPress sites, he has reached students in 154 countries over the course of four years and has provided learning resources to as many as 35,000 people during a given course cycle.  Now that he is on his fifth iteration, he noted with surprise that “it turns out that I’ve been running open classes, and I’m a teacher.”

Starting with Not Knowing the Answer

In characterizing the challenges faced by his students, he observed that “the hardest problem is that they arrive having been pumped out of a system that is an educational factory based largely on tests.”  Such students are “are used to being given an answer and then shown the correct way to arrive at this answer, which is algorithmic learning – not heuristic problem-solving, which is what they face with me.”

At the start of his classes he announces that “I don’t have the answers to the problems that we are going to deal with.  We are going to have to make you a job, because there is no rigid or defined career structure, and for the portfolio we are going to build every single student has to take a unique path through the learning process,” which is “philosophically a big deal for a seventeen-year-old.”

In making the transition from “algorithmic learning” to “heuristic learning,” Worth emphasizes the importance of being attentive to social norms about “being a good person.”  As Worth says, “everything that is important in an analog situation still applies.”  For example, “a student will come to me and say ‘no one commented on my blog.’  I have to explain that you can’t expect Valentine cards or Christmas cards if you don’t send them yourself.”  He also emphasizes consistency.  “What if you come to a pub every night, and you are really friendly the first night.  Then Tuesday and Wednesday you speak to no one and start asking for favors on Friday, what do you think people will think of you?  On one level digital fluency is about humanizing all of these different kinds of experiences.”

In talking about how the MOOC student experience in more impersonal massive open online courses differs, Worth stresses the importance of “inculcating a culture of peer support in which there is always a face and an identity on the issue.  Generally people want to help people.  If people fall over, you catch them.”  Although celebrity culture and controversy draws many to the course, because Worth recruits “people who have a social media following or have relevance within a moment” to be guest participants, he insists that such star power only demonstrates “the value of the network” and “involving people in the process of the class.”

Banner image credit: cogdogblog http://flic.kr/p/hm193k