Distance learning students gather to critique each other’s work © JH Engström
Swedish photographer JH Engström has been running photography workshops for the past 15 years, teaching groups of 10-15 photographers for five days in Paris, Berlin or New York. It's intense, but he loves it, he says. "You get to know the students and their work, and they get to know you too. In most cases, we develop a strong connection, and when the workshop is over we try to keep that connection. I still get emails several months after a workshop from students wanting me to take a look at their work."
A busy photography with his own work to do, though, he doesn't always have time to respond. "There are a lot of advantages to these five-day workshops, but the weakness is you can never go back to pick things up," he says. "I wanted to see these encounters last for a year. The only way to do that was to do it online."
This year he launched Atelier Smedsby with photographer Margot Wallard, a one-year distance learning course that aims to help participants realise personal and assigned projects while acquiring a knowledge of photographic culture. The class also teaches them how to critique both their work and other people's on a theoretical and practical level.
Engström says his online workshop is different from his face-to-face workshops, but that both have their advantages. "They are two different things," he says. "It's like apples and pears. I think you can get a fantastic boost out of the five-day workshops, but you are more on your own. It feels like an injection and you do whatever you want with it.
"In the case of the online workshops, there are more follow-ups. In a way, you receive more serious guiding. It's more project-oriented, and the goal is to crystalise things further than you would with a five-day workshop."
Even so, he likes to meet his virtual students face-to-face, especially at the start of the year. "We meet in Paris three times during the year, and everyone comes for two days," he says. "I believe this is important. You need to meet in person first, so you can talk to each other, look at each other's pictures and eat and drink together, get embarrassed in front of each other, laugh with each other. You need to share all the things that make you human. That was a very important starting point. Then I'll ask people to send in a short description of their project for the year, and every month we have Skype meetings."
He also encourages his students to contact each other via an educational platform, helping them to support each other just as they would if they were physically meeting each week. "After just one week, people had already started sharing and talking to each other," he says. "We want them to look at each other's work and advise one another."
Katrin Eismann uses a similar platform for the masters of professional studies, which she co-founded in the digital photography department at the School of Visual Arts in New York. Students can complete the one-year masters degree, either in class or online and, she says. Putting together the online curriculum is just as demanding as real-life classes – if not more so. "Online classes represent about five times more work for the teachers because you have to think ahead," she tells BJP. "You have to think about everything you'd say in a lecture, and you have to write it down.
"We all know that speaking and writing are different voices. It means you need to have a real solid plan for the semester and for each class. In a lot of cases, teachers will walk into a class and talk about what was in the paper that day. You can't do that online. It has to be comprehensive and well researched because you don't have that eye-to-eye contact. In class, if I misspeak, I can see the students' faces and realise they are not getting it. Online you just can't do that."
Eismann often prepares the lecture material six months in advance, adding extra elements she believes are vital for online learning. "You need to produce a lot of multimedia, so each week we have interviews with photographers, retouchers and editors," she says. "This means we have to spend a lot of time in the studio to get that material ready. You just can't prepare that material the day before class."
She says her biggest competitor is Google. "People can find information about how to take a great image online," she says. "My role is to help people know how to think about images, how to develop a strategy, and how to become more critical. That's what a good art school can bring." And, she admits, a lot of her online part-time students, who often have full-time jobs, are more interested in the technical aspects of photography. "So we try to push them to develop their vision and craft."
Plus, she says, her class offers students the chance to really engage with learning, rather than simply skimming through the facts. "Online, people can just turn their computers off, and although it might look like they are reading the required material, you never know for sure," she says. "You need to keep them engaged, and you do that with weekly assignments; for example, each class has between three or four engaging discussion topics, and everyone is required to participate before a certain time. That ensures they are actually reading the material and understanding it."
This engagement also allows tutors to check whether the students are still following the classes. "If someone checks out for a week, we see it right away," Eismann says. "And the other students do too, because they are constantly communicating with each other using the online platform we have and via their own private Facebook group. We've found that they even help each other with their homework using Skype. This year we have one student from Costa Rica and one from China, and they are best friends now."
The Masters of Professional Studies at School of Visual Arts can be completed online or in class
In fact, one of the problems is getting sucked into being on duty 24-7. "Even the faculty has to show a little discipline," she says. "If a student asks a question at 3am, you shouldn't answer it right away. In fact, you should really let the other students have a chance at answering it before going in."
And, like the Atelier Smedsby, Eismann requires her online students to meet her in person before they complete their masters. "If they want their degree, they have to come to New York for a 10-week evaluation at the end of the year," she says. "They come together with our in-classroom students and, I must admit, after a few days you cannot tell them apart."
Jonathan Worth has chosen a different approach for his Picbod and Phonar projects, run in conjunction with Matt Johnston from the photography team at Coventry University in the UK. Both projects are open, free undergraduate classes, and anyone is invited to participate.
Worth started teaching when he realised that his business model as a photographer was failing. "I started working as an editorial photographer," he tells BJP. "My business model was that I supplied content to publishers, but that doesn't work anymore. I had to reconsider what my product was."
When he was asked to teach classes at Coventry University, he wasn't entirely confident he could do it. "I was supposed to be teaching photography at a time when the entire market was changing."
He decided he couldn't be a "broadcast" teacher, he says, just giving lectures to students, and instead created a mediated class in which his role is to contextualise the input from his students. "Basically, I'm not just teaching for teaching's sake," he says. "I'm actually motivated to learn myself. The benefits for me are that I can explore territories I'm not familiar with and invite guest lecturers when they are needed. I don't claim to know everything about photography, and certain aspects of the business have to be taught by the right people."
To make the class as interactive as possible, Worth decided to make it open to anyone, not just Coventry University students. But, he tells BJP, "I couldn't do it within the university's online learning experience. It wouldn't have worked. I needed to do it where the fish were already swimming, and that's Facebook, Twitter and Flickr."
Worth set up Picbod and Phonar just as the UK government announced it was going to pull funding from universities, but Worth's approach was low cost and also helped generate interest in his institution. "A lot of universities were looking to differentiate themselves, asking themselves how they could improve the student's experience and the value of what they were getting and, ultimately, how they could increase their profile," he says.
"I was able to provide figures showing we had 3000 people participating in this class online. These were 3000 people who didn't know about Coventry before, some of whom went on to intern with famous photographers such as Annie Leibovitz. And I had done this without it costing anything at all to the university."
The dean of the school was taken aback when he realised the classes were being given away for free, but Worth says, "that's the point. The dean thought our product was knowledge, and that by sharing it online people would not buy it", he says. "But that's not the case. The product is actually the classroom – the experience of being with others and the one-on-one interactions. The online side of things is different."
For Worth one of the most interesting parts of the job is bringing together the physical and online experience of the same class. "I can be in the classroom teaching, and pull in a Twitter stream and watch a video at the same time, while people are commenting on their blogs," he says.
In fact, he has taken it one step further, encouraging his students to take notes by posting on Twitter instead of writing them down in a notebook. "That way I can aggregate everybody's notes at the end of the class, including both the people in the classroom and those following us online," he says. "I can aggregate those in a narrative that all makes sense and that will be useful to anyone following the class. It's a very rich experience, and people can take it at their own paces."
Worth even set up a forum with a sign-up form to allow all students – both in class and online – to talk to each other. "We wanted to protect the people who participated in the class so we created an identity for everyone – you need to sign up to access this forum," he says. "We created the forum so people could critique each other's work without trolls coming in. We found we didn't need to moderate everything and that people would manage each other. Suddenly, you realise the value of that relationship – they become a part of a family."
Donald Weber has had a different experience with online workshops. He's been invited to manage workshops remotely on two occasions – once by the World Press Photo organisation and once by the Objective Reality Foundation – and has found that it can be hard to keep students motivated and engaged "because you don't have that face time to push them. You know how photographers are – sometimes they can be a little bit lazy," he says. "And when a screen separates you, I find that the laziness can kick in a little faster."
Weber found that – particularly with those students who were especially keen – being in contact online enabled him to spend even more time with them than he might have otherwise. "Because your time is a lot more fluid, I could do more when I had free time," he says. "When I was in the subway in Toronto, for example, I could open up my computer, look at the students' work and write emails. I found myself putting in much more time than I probably should have."
Like Engström and Eismann, Weber also found it was helpful to meet his students, preferably at the start of the project. "For the World Press Photo workshop I spent about 10 days with them, and then they had to go off for three months to shoot their projects," he says. "During that time, they had to check in and give progress reports, and then we met again for a couple of days to finalise their projects. With every student, you respond differently – you get a sense of who they are and what they are looking for. That allows you to address their needs."
For Weber, as for Engström, online workshops are a good forum for photographers working on long-term projects. "But, still, there's something to be said about being in the presence of somebody else," he says. "It can be a lot more engaging."
"If everybody had the time, and if money were not an issue, I would prefer to meet everyone in different cities around the world each month," adds Engström. "But that's not possible – and that's why we turned to the internet."
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