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Teaching Photography in the Time of the Pandemic

Teaching Photography in the Time of the Pandemic

Posted on: January 28, 2021

Written by Mark Chen and Chelsea Shannon, authors of Photography: A 21st Century Practice.

Even in the best of times, photography educators are challenged with articulating visual and abstract ideas through words. To describe a scene, analyze a composition, or explain an artistic concept is no easy feat. The bridge between the visual and the verbal is not only pedagogical but is also an important part of the artistic practice that mentors must pass on to their apprentices. Afterall, artists don’t just use words to communicate; they also use words to organize their artistic concepts.

This challenge has been complicated, if not outright exacerbated, by the COVID-19 pandemic as classrooms became virtual and conversation turned online. Most of us know from our own experience that online conversations can be difficult, often without the same benefit of gesture and affect as in-person communication. Further complicating the matter are asynchronous course formats, in which no synchronous online meetings are regularly scheduled and teaching manifests as media like video, reading and text-based chats. To maintain quality of instruction under these new parameters, educators must rethink and reinvent many things they once took for granted.

Below are some challenges faced by many educators during the pandemic, and solutions the authors have found in their own practices:

  1. A textbook’s importance is reinstated. Reading assignments from a textbook can supplement an online class’ reduced facetime as well as the lack of structure inherent to many social-media style teaching platforms. Photography: A 21st Century Practice was written prior to the pandemic and, interestingly, our mission to create a reader-friendly book for today’s photography student yielded a book which also benefits online teaching. Reading and artistic learning are both internal processes; they are activities innately harmonious to each other. For many educators and students alike, the pandemic has reminded us of the importance of reading, which might end up being this era’s silver lining.
  2. Online teaching lacks physical presence. For example, in the physical classroom, camera operation can be easily demonstrated on the students’ own cameras, personalizing instruction; not so in online classes. While of course it is possible to demonstrate in front of a webcam, the fundamental solution to the lack of physical presence is a change of mentality. Rather than demonstrating, give students tips on how to acquire know-how through menus and online resources. Organize support groups according to camera brands so students may help each other. Finally, use a quiz to motivate and verify achievements. In Photography: A 21st Century Practice, the list All You Need to Know About Camera Operation provides a complete learning checklist with basic, intermediate and advanced levels. A list like this shifts focus from how to what. The spirit of a checklist is in harmony with today’s abundance of online self-directed learning information and is increasingly necessary due to the complexity of technology: almost no two camera models operate the same way.
  3. In the case of asynchronous teaching, in-the-moment verbal exchanges are eliminated. When teaching is conducted on a platform like Microsoft Teams, the environment becomes a social medium not unlike Facebook, with information often becoming fragmented and sporadic. Yet again, the remedy to this issue starts with a shift in mentality. Asynchronous classes do not demand commitment on certain hours in a week, but they do require attention every now and then. For both teachers and students, it is very important to get into a groove. The good news is that because this class format affords great flexibility, each can develop their own way to work that matches their lifestyle.
  4. Online formats can weaken a class’ sense of community. Instructors must not only keep this from happening, they need to build connections among students that surpass what physical classes can often effortlessly facilitate. Strong connections between students can enhance communication, strengthen support between students and thereby enhance learning, and bring the “fun” back to virtual classrooms. Assigning buddy groups, encouraging interactions through collaborative projects, and, in asynchronous classes, conducting chat-based group critiques are a few ways educators can build community into their online classes.
  5. Physical field trips may be limited, but online resources are abundant. Assignments requiring online research introduce students to research as part of their artistic practice and hone their 21st century skills of seeking out credible information. During the pandemic, arts and culture institutions have invested tremendous resources in increasing access to their collections through online exhibitions, streamed programs, and other multi-media content, opening up new ways for students to explore the art world online. A textbook can offer a road map for this exploration: Photography: A 21st Century Practice, for example, delivers a curated selection of over 150 contemporary photographic artists, serving as a starting point for students’ research.

The pandemic is a terrible and on-going crisis, but it also presents an opportunity for educators to rethink our methods. As we move forward into a new year, it is our hope that the ideas in this article will boost your creativity and provide you with some tools towards meaningfully improving your online teaching experience.