MOOCs and Free Online Photography Courses

By Mark McGuire


There are countless websites, YouTube videos and blogs with tips on how to improve your photography. But sometimes what we really need is a longer, more in-depth set of talks backed up with useful, high quality resources — like a traditional course from a good university. But one that you can start when you want, attend in your own time from the comfort of your own home and still exchange work and opinions with others who share your interests. And it would be nice if it didn’t cost anything.

Although more than 25 years have passed since the release of Mosaic, the first graphical browser for the World Wide Web, and it’s been over 35 years since Stuart Brand argued that “Information wants to be free”, the availability of free, easily accessible, quality-assured, online education remains a largely unrealised dream. However, over the past decade, a worldwide network of public-minded educators has been working to make high quality degree-level courses available to anyone who wants them at very little or no cost. More recently, many of the best universities, forward-looking technology companies and astute investors, have also discovered how open education can make sense as part of an innovative business strategy.

MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses)


MOOC graphic from Wikipedia

MOOC (Massive Online Course) graphic from Wikipedia

In 2008, three Canadian educators, Stephen Downes, George Siemens and Dave Cormier tried an experiment with a course they were planning to teach at the University of Manitoba. The course, Connectivism and Connective Knowledge (CCK08), was based on ideas of connected learning developed by Siemens. Students who were doing the course for credit paid normal fees, but anyone who wanted to access the resources and take part for interest only were invited to register for free. They attracted 2200 participants worldwide. This was the first formal university course to incorporate distributed content and open learning networks, making it the first true Massive Open Online Course, or MOOC, a term coined by Dave Cormier (see his video explainer).

CCK08 Participants were encouraged to set up a blog and a Twitter account to record their thoughts about the course and engage with others. By adding the #CCK08 hashtag to blog posts and messages posted on Twitter and other social media platforms, content and comments related to the course could be easily found and filtered by anyone (the use of hashtags had started on Twitter in 2007). Everyone who registered for the course received a daily email that included announcements, links to online talks and discussions (both live and archived), and links to Twitter messages and blog posts that included the #CCK08 hashtag that participants had published in response to the talks and readings. The idea was that, rather than confining the course to a classroom or private website with closed resources, the connections and discussions would take place and be archived on the open Web where they could be connected to related discussions and resources in an ecology of open educational resources. Downes and others continued to offer connectivist MOOCs related to social and online learning in the years since 2008, most recently offering the E-Learning 3.0 MOOC in 2019.

Beginning in 2012, venture capital-funded companies partnered with elite universities and launched internet platforms to offer MOOCs at a much larger scale, hoping to develop a profitable business model by offering free or low cost courses for interest or credit. Coursera, developed by professors from Stanford University, remains the largest of these (by the middle of 2018 Coursera had over 2,400 courses and 33 million registered users). Harvard, MIT and others formed edX, also in 2012, and were followed in the same year by Udacity (also developed by academics from Stanford), FutureLearn (stated by the Open University in the UK) and others. This led the New York Times to declare that 2012 was The Year of the MOOC. Many more MOOC platforms have launched around the world since then. By the end of 2018 Class Central reported that, collectively, MOOC platforms had more than 100 million registered learners and that 11,400 MOOCs had been launched by more than 900 universities worldwide. Some educators began referring to MOOCs that follow the original, social networking model as cMOOCs (after Connectivism), and the private platform model as xMOOCs (after edX and similar platforms). These two types of open courses are very different both in their underlying philosophy and their practice, as Tony Bates explained in 2014.

Photography MOOCs

Given the large number of MOOC platforms and providers, it can be difficult to find courses on specific topics. A MOOC search engine can be used to find some of courses that are available. Searching the MOOC List for “Art, Architecture & Design” course titles containing “photography” revealed 20 courses. These and other courses can also be found by searching for “photography” on specific platforms like Coursera or FutureLearn. Of course, not all courses of potential interest will have the word “photography” in the title, so some exploration and deeper searching can pay off. There are also many MOOCs and MOOC-like courses that are not offered through the big platforms. For example, the Open Learning at Harvard initiative includes a free 12-module course on photography. Offered through the Alison platform, the course includes downloadable resources and offers official certificates for those who are prepared to pay a fee.

Photography Basics and Beyond (Course Header)

Photography Basics and Beyond course on the Coursera MOOC Platform

An example of an xMOOC from a major platform that you can access for free (assuming you don’t need the certificate) is Photography Basics and Beyond: From Smartphone to DSLR, the first module of a series of four photography courses on the Coursera platform that is taught by two instructors at Michigan State University (Professor Peter Glendinning and Associate Professor Mark Valentine Sullivan). The course consists of four sections that are delivered over a four week period. Each section consists of a series of short pre-recorded videos by the two instructors, several machine-marked multiple choice quizzes, a set of readings and a few exercises. For example, week 1 consist of 9 videos (64 min. total), 5 quizzes, 7 readings, and 4 practice exercises and is expected to take 5 hours to complete. Students are encouraged to contribute work to an online gallery and to join a closed Facebook group for the course. As with most of these xMOOCs, the course is offered during specific dates and the resources and online spaces are only accessible by registered participants and only while the course is in session.

#Phonar and #PhonarNation

Phonar Header

#PHONAR, a course that was known by the hashtag used to share content online, is a variant of a cMOOC. Coordinated by Jonathan Worth at Coventry University, this was a place-based undergraduate photography course that used a website, social media (especially Twitter), audio and video recordings, blog posts and online galleries to extend the classroom into online space and integrate contributions from professionals and interested individuals from around the world.

Jonathan Worth followed the success of the innovative #PHONAR course with #PhonarNation, a free set of organised lessens, resources, exercises and galleries designed so that community instructors anywhere in the world could coordinate their own version of a course on mobile photography locally. Intended to be used with mobile phones and a specially designed smartphone app, the resources are also available through a website.

Phonar Nation

Phonar Nation Website

CC Photos from PhonarNation website

Creative Commons-licenced photos from the #PhonarNation website

Participants, working independently or as part of an informal class, uploaded their photos to instagram using two hashtags — one for the course (#PhonerNation) and a custom hashtag for each assignment. Images for each project were then displayed in the app and on the website as well as on Instagram. Truly open courses, unlike the xMOOCs described above, make a practice of using and creating open resources that remain available after the scheduled course has finished. #PhonarNation uses images that are covered by a Creative Commons licence. The CC BY (Attribution-Only) Licence used throughout the site means that permission has been granted in advance for anyone to use or remix the work, provided the author is attributed (information about Creative commons in New Zealand is available from the Tohatoha Aotearoa Commons website).

#PhonarNation Hashtags on Instagram

#Phonarnation hashtags used on an Instagram post

Design 1o1

A simpler and more focused use of social media for delivering open design courses has been developed by Design 1o1, a group of educators and designers based in Italy. Since 2013 they have offered courses on Design, Architecture, Zines, Storytelling Interior Design and Drawing through Instagram (their account can be seen here). They have not yet offered a course of photography but the format they have developed would work particularly well for such a course. Like #Phonar, these courses are based on face-to-face classes that have been designed so that anyone can follow, complete and post work in response to the projects. Assignments, resources and student work are shared openly online, in this case using Instagram as the main platform (Facebook pages are also used for assignments, for posting work and resources, and for general Design 1o1 posts).

Design1o1 website

The Design1o1 website

Borrowing a practice first used in the #CCK08 MOOC, participants register for free and daily emails are sent out with all the instructions and links to resources that are required to complete each project, including the project-specific hashtags to use on Instagram.

SuperDrawing 101 Lesson 53 Email

SuperDrawing 101 Lesson 53 Email 2

The daily email for week 53 of the Super Drawing1o1 course

The most recent course, Super Drawing 1o1, began on 3 Dec. 2018 and continued for 101 days. Each email contained a wealth of information and links to support the daily projects. The instructor also created time lapse videos showing how he responded to the assignment and these were shared on the superdrawing101 Instagram account along with other submissions and related material.

Super Drawing Day 10 Instagram Posts

Searching for #superdrawing1o1day10 hashtag on Instagram

Super Drawing Day 10 Instagram Post Detail

#superdrawing1o1 and #superdrawing1o1day10 hashtags on Instagram post

Like #PhonarNation, the strategic use of hashtags makes it easy for instructors and participants to post and find work on a public platform like Instagram without everything getting lost in the millions of images that are uploaded every day. Searching for the #superdrawing1o1 hashtag on Instagram displays over 8,300 submissions. Searching for the hashtag for a specific assignment (for example #superdrawing1o1day10) shows only the posts that were submitted for a particular assignment. The instructor set up a separate account, superdrawing1o1tops, to share a selection of the best submissions for each of the assignments.

Design1o1 Community Statement

Design101 focusses on the community of learners


Although the largest open courses attracting the highest number of registrations are hosted by the large, privately-owned MOOC platforms (Coursera, FutureLearn, edX and others), they are not much of an advance on traditional education, apart from their scale. They rely on recorded lectures, machine-marked multiple choice questionnaires and they make limited use of closed forums for discussions. Still, these courses can be useful as well as free (for those who do not require a certificate of completion). Smaller experiments run by open education advocates, like the courses discussed above, are generally smaller in terms of the number of registered students, but they are more innovative in their pedagogy and they make more strategic use of open strategies (including open licenses). They also provide models for how others can design and run their own open course using existing social media platforms without requiring a significant financial investment. Unlike the xMOOCs, which aim to eventually return a profit to their investors, their aim is to use, create and share open resources within an networked learning ecosystem that fosters inclusive and ongoing discussions focussed on whatever topics are of interest to free-range learners.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s