Coventry University - opening up the BA Hons Photography course
Read the summary
What we did
Why we did it
How we did it
The results and benefits
What we did
In January 2009, the new BA Hons Photography course at Coventry University needed to improve the student experience and employment prospects while raising the international profile of the course and the university, without increasing costs. In order to efficiently respond to these challenges, I drew on my experiences as a traditional freelance editorial photographer in a new media landscape. I also made a version of the class freely available online, which would successfully expand the class-community on a global scale. Trials with my professional practice had done just this, ie making my pictures available online while increasing the perceived value of their analogue or “generative” experience. Such “generatives” (as defined by Kevin Kelly) are experiences that cannot be digitised and transmitted virtually – a kiss or a smell cannot be recorded and broadcast. The value of these experiences is actually amplified by the digital. Even the most immersive virtual experience serves only to remind us of how much is lacking in comparison to the physical act.
It would transpire that the successes of this class would lead to supplemental application within the BA Photography programme, followed by a department-wide adoption and adaptation of its key tenets, leading to the development of a uniquely open MA in Photography.
Why we did it - the case for open
The standard economic business model of the freelance editorial photographer has historically relied on restricted access to their product. In other words, people paid for the newspaper/ magazine (distribution) in order to access the photography (content). I had been one of these “content- suppliers” who relied on editorial fees for an income and looked forward to the prospective revenue derived from a well maintained library of stock photography for a pension. However, when the internet made modes of distribution free, and contemporaneous technological advances in digital cameras removed the skill and cost barriers from entry into the industry, my pension went the way of many other similarly mismanaged funds.
I knew that more of my images were being seen than ever before, and thought my decreased revenue was because I no longer had control over their distribution. But unlike many others, I never thought this was the “end of photography”. Evidently, the practice was thriving. I realised instead that my Canute-like approach of writing take-down notices to a World Wide Web of Bloggers who were exposing my work without licences or payment was ambitious, at best.
I realised instead that my Canute-like approach of writing take-down notices to a World Wide Web of Bloggers who were exposing my work without licences or payment was ambitious, at best.
Instead, I turned to someone who appeared to be leveraging the free version of their product whilst monetising another. The science fiction author Cory Doctorow releases e-versions of his books when they go on sale in bookstores and he believes that he sells more by doing this than he would by publishing in the traditional manner. His traditional publisher evidently agrees, as do those of other authors like Paul Coelho, whose first book The Alchemist has sold over 65,000,000 copies, despite being freely available for download. Like me, Coelho did not inform his publisher when he first put his work online for free but went on to reap the benefits of doing so before owning up and then formalising the arrangement. My photography trial involved uploading a high resolution image of Cory Doctorow in his office to the photo-sharing site Flickr for free download, while simultaneously putting a limited edition set of prints on sale at a range of prices:
- Pages 65–111 were priced at £5 or $8;
- Pages 39–64 were priced at £10 or $16;
- Pages 18–38 were priced at £25 or $40;
- Pages 7–17 were priced at £50 or $80;
- Pages 2–6 were priced at £75 or $120;
- Page 1 was £150 or $240.
These were then bundled with signed pages from a Doctorow manuscript, signed and put on sale. (A fuller description of this trial can be found on my blog.)
Contrary to what standard economics had taught me previously, even though there was a prospectively infinite supply of the images available, the prints went on to sell. And the most expensive sold first.
When the social media strategist Richard Stacy imagines a village with two candlestick makers he describes one as considering himself to be a maker of candles and the other to be a maker of light.
The two products from my Doctorow trial (the digital download and the ephemeral print) differed, but understanding this enabled me to consider what business I wanted to be in. The ephemeral print, fixed in time and bearing a unique testament to the hand of the author, cannot be duplicated online. Much like Richard Stacey’s candlestick maker, I had considered myself a supplier of images rather than a supplier of generative experiences involving physically receiving and handling a print. It is a sentiment echoed by people like Stephen Mayes (Director of VII photographic agency) when he says that “VII had to re-think its product and it became apparent that product wasn’t photography, instead it was integrity”. Only when you understand that you are in the business of doing both can you then choose to allocate resources to focus appropriately.
How we did it
One of the most potent dynamics of the Doctorow experiment was the sustained engagement of followers. Cory’s fans and followers had a direct connection with him through his blog and twitter feeds, just as mine were in dialogue with me through my own blog and twitter feed. This meant that they could keep abreast of the Doctorow trial from its inception, and we were able to respond to their comments throughout the process, thereby fostering a sense of mediated ownership of the experiment. When looking to exploit and develop that dynamic with the open classes it meant moving away from simply making lectures available for download and instead considering how I could create a space for a more mediated dialogue. (To enable what the US journalist and author Jeff Jarvis describes as enabling customers taking ownership of your brand.)
The theme of the phonar (photography and narrative) class is to address some of the big concerns of the 21st-century photographer, some of which I described above. Therefore it was most appropriate to make the class itself a model of what it investigates. As the syllabus directs the students to use other people’s work and allow other people to use theirs, the class itself is licensed CC BY-SA (the Creative Commons licence that enables attributed sharing) and draws on the input of both collaborators and attendees.
The theme of the phonar (photography and narrative) class is to address some of the big concerns of the 21st-century photographer. Therefore it was most appropriate to make the class itself a model of what it investigates.
The tasks within the classes encourage photographers to investigate the communities behind a particular subject area and then to draw on their expert knowledge – rather than taking a picture of a homeless person students will investigate the underlying causes and integrate people embodying those causes in their work. The same is true for the class itself.
In practical terms, this means we begin by asking: What is the role of the 21st-century photographer?
This complex question is posed to the community as a framing device to establish the thematic environment in which the class’s conversation can take place. US military strategy teaches that one cannot control a battle, but if one can dictate the battlespace then it becomes possible to affect how it evolves. Similarly, the educator’s role is to define the landscape and curate a coherent learning-journey through chosen specialists who generate a wide range of content. Simultaneously, the phonar programme assigns practical tasks that are necessarily informed and framed by the thematic content but have the latitude for personal interpretation, implicitly encouraging a sense of ownership.
US military strategy teaches that one cannot control a battle, but if one can dictate the battlespace then it becomes possible to affect how it evolves.
Coventry University hosts the live and paid-for version of the course that enables a one-on-one mentored experience and full use of all the university’s facilities. It also positions the attending students at the centre of a global community of participants without forcing them centre-stage. The attending student is able to choose whether they wish to engage with the broader community and so can cherry- pick those aspects of the experience most valuable to them, supported by their instructor. The online manifestation of the class is at http://www.phonar.org.
The results and benefits
In keeping with the overall philosophy of openness, the online version of the course runs on a regular Wordpress blog, so at a stroke removing the institutional barriers to entry that an internal university website might incur.
It also means that the world’s most effective search engines promote our work (and the work of our students) for free. In fact, 21% of our visits come from Google searches. Wherever possible, we use existing online architecture for all aspects of the class. This conscious decision negates the need for participants to alter their existing online habits (which we consider barriers to entry) and means we don’t have to re-build sites like Flickr, Vimeo, Soundcloud or Facebook. In short, we can go where the fish already are and for free.
The class blog acts as a hub, aggregating tagged (the tag being #phonar) content from these various social environments. It is the one place where all of this material is drawn together. We have also devised an iPhone app, which has been downloaded over 2,000 times, to make this hub an active mobile tool for dynamic engagement.
We have also devised an iPhone app, which has been downloaded over 2,000 times, to make this hub an active mobile tool for dynamic engagement.
The blog is also the place where participants’ (both attending and online) work is featured. Much of the psychological architecture of phonar draws on the same behavioural theory that video game designers use, whereby being featured on the website, visible to thousands of other participants, constitutes a reward for the student’s efforts. The complex question at the beginning of the course followed by a series of staccato practical tasks provides multiple long- and short-term aims. Having no clearly defined right and wrong leads to a certain level of uncertainty, though comparing fellow students’ work with their own enables the participants to measure their progress.
Given such huge numbers it is difficult to provide consistent one-on-one feedback, another key gaming dynamic. Our solution is to encourage the community to engage in peer- feedback and provide a sheltered space (online forum) for this to take place. It is also where we can answer frequently asked questions most efficiently, and where we exercise most editorial control by explicitly retaining the right to moderate the group and eject trolls . Feedback naturally occurs through our other most effective channel of communication and dialogue, Twitter, whose feeds we aggregate and stream on to the phonar homepage.
Although Twitter provides an ideal vehicle to engage passively with large numbers of people asynchronously, it is unsuitable for longer-form dialogue. Depending on whether the individual is using dedicated software or their Twitter-feed it can also be too ephemeral. We actively encourage our attending students to tweet their notes (in other words, to hashtag them) to benefit from the greater class’s notes. This also provides less confident students with a potentially fuller experience of the class, and those who speak English as a second language with a secondary stream of recorded content.
The forum requires a considerable engagement involving navigation away from the homepage, a sign-in using a real name with a corresponding email address. We ask for these things to protect the class, in the knowledge that people are less likely to exhibit troll- like behavior when they have to provide their own identity.
Our participants take ownership of the brand when they see the results of their suggestions
To the same end we identify ourselves clearly and personally by using images of ourselves with our real names to encourage participants to identify with us. This in combination with the explicitly Beta nature of the class has been one of its strengths. By dispensing with the broadcast model of teaching and learning in order to actively seek suggestions for improving the content and modes of delivery, our participants necessarily take ownership of the brand when they see the results of their suggestions. Much like when Cory Doctorow adds readers’ names to the footnotes of his books for pointing out typos, we also publicly thank our contributors.
The feedback from the attending students has been overwhelmingly positive and the net effect has been to locate their practices within a broader global context, which often leads to relationships with professionals. These relationships are also markedly different than would be the case were the prospective graduate to take a finished portfolio for a review. The online participant or viewer is able to engage with the student throughout a mediated creative process, as opposed to just being given the yes or no option of the traditional broadcast/supplier portfolio review. For example, when the director of a global publishing house (at that time working remotely in Hong Kong) began to follow and respond to the work of one particular student, that student heeded his advice publicly. The relationship grew further into one of mentor and mentee until the director helped edit the work into a book, which was subsequently nominated for a LUCEO award in New York. Another student went on to assist renowned portrait photographer Annie Leibovitz in New York, yet another assisted Nadav Kander. Still more students developed professional relationships with World Press Award-winning photographer Marcus Bleasdale and Observer columnist Sean O’Hagan, all while still undergraduates.
The feedback from the attending students has been overwhelmingly positive and the net effect has been to locate their practices within a broader global context, which often leads to relationships with professionals.
It is without doubt a result of the open practices that the students were able to nurture and exploit these opportunities; a network of global opportunities, which graduating students have returned to cultivate without the additional pressures of an undergraduate environment. They have come to recognise the many thousands of photo-enthusiasts and creative professionals as a considerable resource amongst whom they occupy a primary status as graduates of the generative version of the class.
At its peak, phonar’s second iteration attracted over 10,000 visitors during one four-week period, with a record 900 students attending one class. Previously, the second iteration of the open class: “Picturing the Body” (picbod) attracted over 5,000 visitors in its peak month, and to date the content uploaded to iTunesU has received over 202,326 hits. The three open classes have been featured internationally, online by the BBC, the Telegraph and WIRED as well as in publications such as The Times Higher Education, Photo District News and the British Journal of Photography amongst others. The BA Photography course (still only in its fourth year) is now one of the most sought-after courses in the whole university.
The next step for the classes is to capitalise on the coverage, attention and responses that continue to demonstrate high levels of impact (even out of term the classes attract in excess of 1,500 people a month and the phonar hashtag reached over 100,000 people via Twitter in December 2010 alone). Ideally, we plan to formalise the opportunity to share, which our CC BY-SA licence implies, by devising an educator’s download. This pack will have the course framework and instructions on how to plug into the phonar network, including links to all of the accrued content. It will enable both teachers and students to tailor the content and engage within their own (accredited) curriculum, encourage greater collaboration and potentially trace out some viable paths away from institution-specific awards. For the BA Hons in Photography, this dissemination will mean a lasting and more widespread impact and a higher profile.
In terms of the class network, this broadening of approach and content offers the potential for exponential growth. For the university and department, the open classes offer a multifaceted model that can be deconstructed and applied where it would seem most appropriate and potentially most fruitful.
The open classes will always be in Beta (work in progress), which challenges traditional didactic thinking, as does mediating the ownership of a course democratically to an infinitely diverse range of learners.
Institutional infrastructures and pre-internet media pose challenges to the broader implementation of phonar and picbod, but our experience has shown that far from devaluing our knowledge product by making it freely available online, the effect has been to increase the demand for the generative (classroom) experience. The added value of the networked community and the subsequent data they provide are also rich sources of opportunity. Whether we can realise the potential of those opportunities depends on what business we consider ourselves to be in; but if we can take advantage of them in the future and actively position ourselves as generators of unique experiences (makers of light) rather than guardians of unique content (makers of candles) then our futures may be a lot brighter.
Jonathan Worth’s website and blog
Jonathan Worth’s report on his Giving Things Away trial
Cory Doctorow’s report on the Giving Things Away trial
A report on the trial on foto8.com
The online manifestation of the class is at www.phonar.org
Jonathan Worth Associate Senior Lecturer, School of Art and Design, Coventry University.