Photo Portfolios on Flickr
This post is part of a series that are components of my “Expert Plan” at my school, looking to create a shared resource for my colleagues as the school moves towards greater adoption of laptops and technology in our pedagogy.
My idea was that my students could get to know one of the standard photo sharing services as part of the new media design experience. Using Flickr would expose them to some of the new media concepts inherent in working with Web 2.0: hosting information online and then reusing that information in other forums (for example, embedding their Flickr-hosted pictures in blog entries on our blog server). As Flickr also supports sharing within groups, comment boards and tagging, my hope was to have the students engage with each other’s photos online via Flickr.
Signing up for Flickr was a real challenge for my students. Partly this was because they needed more support from me in understanding how to sign up for access to a web site. Partly this was because Flickr is owned by Yahoo, so they needed to (confusingly) sign up for a Yahoo ID and then link that Yahoo ID to a new Flickr account. (I had signed up for Flickr so far back in the day that I hadn’t had to jump through those hoops — and had already had a Yahoo ID to link to my Flickr account when they merged). The sign up process provided an opportunity to discuss digital footprints and privacy online, to help my students think about both protecting their privacy (concurrent with the school’s legal obligations under FERPA) and about how they present themselves to future employers and the like.
My students also wanted a significantly more structured guide to how to upload photos and share them to our class group on Flickr. Note that I say “want” — they were not eager to explore and figure out features on their own (or to read the help documentation from Flickr itself). I gave them a (privately throw-away) assignment to post their first few pictures that only one student completed, who already had a Flickr account before the class.
When it came to linking our class blog to their Flickr accounts, my students also ran into difficulties. The process, while well-documented on Flickr, is somewhat technical and they did not have a clear enough idea of the purpose or desired outcome to really dig in and engage with the process. Plus, they had a lot of typos trying to enter the blog XML-RPC address by hand. It was not a confidence-inspiring performance. Similarly, when it came to posting to the class blog from Flickr, very few of the students really grasped that this was a one-click process — almost all opted for much harder (and, frankly, lower quality and more annoying, approaches to embedding their photos in the blog initially).
By and large, once photos were uploaded, students were successful in sharing those photos to the group photo pool. They were also good about going in and providing comments to each other, when assigned to do so. Interestingly, they could spend an entire class totally obsessed with flipping through each other’s photos online, but actually adding comments was not a voluntary instinct.
After the first few photo uploads, we ran into Flickr’s free account limitations (which, again, I had forgotten about because I don’t run up against them): only 20MB of uploads a month, only 200 photos per account maximum. Complicating this was that the Flickr interface (uniformly reliable in other environments), routinely hung when attempting to upload files from the media lab (probably having to do with the school firewall). Students would spend 20 minutes trying to upload three photos and find that the process had, in the end, failed. To get around this, by the end of the first quarter, I was uploading the lion’s share of the classes photos to my own Flickr account.
In addition, once uploaded, the photos in free accounts are not available at full resolution. My hope had been to use Flickr as a repository for the class’ photos. Instead, it was at best a secondary viewing area: the students didn’t have access to the full resolution images for editing purposes via Flickr. Worse, several of the students didn’t grok that they could download photos from Flickr at all and opted to take screenshots of the photos at very low resolution on the web. And then edit those screenshots. Rather than working with their original files. And I discovered this not because they asked me how to do this, but because I saw them at work editing the screenshots. Enterprising. Stupid, but enterprising.
Flickr did provide a great basis for discussion of photography, composition and style. Flickr’s gallery function allowed me to collect sample photos “live” from the web to present concepts and be the focus of class discussions. This could be a useful tool for having students do a photo scavenger hunt, for example.
I was distinctly underwhelmed by the experience of trying to use Flickr in the classroom. I think that there were really three things that were a marked failure in this:
- I really failed to anticipate all of the limitations of a free account on Flickr (and the complexity of needing a Yahoo ID to play the game at all). This was totally my bad: I knew all of these limitations, but either didn’t think that they would be an issue (“oh, we won’t take that many photos…”) or just didn’t process their ramifications (“20MB a month should be enough!”). I had actually looked around at other photo sharing sites, including Google’s Picasa, SmugMug and using our FirstClass class conference and decided that Flickr provided the best interface and flexibility for what we were doing in class.
In retrospect, I think I would have separated the photo sharing from the photo archiving plan and explicitly started my students off using the Classes share as a repository for all their images, and then having them post images directly to the class blog for discussion and portfolio purposes.
- I mistook “digital natives” for web experience. Which is pie on my face, since I’ve long made the argument that these are not one and the same, and that our students really benefit from our teaching in terms of critical analysis, literacy and just plain common sense online. The students just didn’t get how to sign up for an account on a web site online by themselves, and they weren’t really interested in learning. I should have structured that process differently, and, well, in a more structured manner.
I think that I came in with misplaced expectations about both the background and attitudes of the students. I anticipated a more web-savvy crowd and they were not. In retrospect, I was rushing through much of my material at that point, trying to “stay on top” of the course outline as I understood it. Everyone would have been better served if I had taken a day or two out of my outline earlier in the semester to sit down and talk through:
- Sharing files online. Literally: where are those files and how do you put them there.
- Accounts on web sites, how to get them and how to use them
- How different web sites can be made to work together.
- The school firewall and web filter did me no favors. As I learned over the course of the first quarter, any time that I decided to rely on sites not directly hosted by the school, I was in for a world of pain at some point along the way. Usually, this pain took the form of problems signing up to use the site (as happened with Flickr) or uploading content to the sight (as happened with Flickr). On the one hand, this is a strong reminder that the school does host a number of useful tools and that I should turn to those tools first, where appropriate. On the other hand, this was just infuriating — I was having experiences with web sites that I have not had ever before — and that I didn’t have when I left our campus network. They claim that the the home crowd is the 12th player on the field at football games. The school network was definitely the 12th player on the field in my classes this fall.
Using external sites does raise very real and very consequential privacy concerns — and concerns that need to be presented clearly to faculty at the outset in the form of simple guidelines. The rule of thumb that students’ last names never appear online is great, and workable. But cutting us off from free and useful technology is really just exasperating.
In the end, I came away from this experiment feeling pretty dejected.
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