Innovative Smartphone Photography Course Grows

Photo: Student using smartphone for photography

Reflecting on her experience taking Smartphone Photography at the high school, senior Sadie Morgan explained, “If you commit to the class and really do the projects, you can end up with really cool stuff from it. You learn so much that you can use in the future. It is cool. I now use one of the editing apps whenever I do smartphone photography and certain tips on composition.”

Photo: Sterling Worrell

Photography teacher Sterling Worrell.

Last year, Sterling Worrell created and began teaching Smartphone Photography, a hybrid course, in the high school art department. The course focuses on the fundamentals of photography, specifically creating with the tools and technology available using mobile devices. It is one of the school’s more innovative efforts that integrates technology and teaching in new ways that capitalize on changes forge new possibilities.

Since the beginning, the course and students have featured at major educational technology events in the commonwealth, including Learn Launch’s 2016 Across Boundaries Classroom of the Future and Massachusetts Computer Users in Education (MassCUE) fall Global Connections, Digital Learning conference.

Looking back on the inspiration for the course, Worrell said, “Two things: I was looking forward to the challenge of utilizing mobile devices in the classroom, instead of banning them like so many teachers do. Also, there are just a lot of bad pictures taken with phones. So I wanted to teach students how to treat their phone like a camera.”

Worrell has been teaching film and digital photography for years, making this course a natural progression. “This is taught like a photo course. It is almost all about how to take good images. The focus is on the type of technology and learning how to use the tool to create the images. Each kind of camera has different pros and cons.”

Photo: Paige O'Connor editing photographs

Paige O’Connor reviewing photographs
with fellow students.

Freshman Paige O’Connor underlined the importance of capturing and making high-quality images. “The angles and composition of you place your subject is so important,” O’Connor said. “I enjoyed just learning how to compose, how to compose, and bring the audience’s eye to the actual subject of the image, as opposed to all of the other things that might be in the picture.”

Course alumnus Morgan had previously taken film photography and explained some distinctions, “This was different in that you can see right on the screen and take as many pictures as you want. It was a cool course to take because I got to learn different functions that were on my phone that I didn’t know that were there and basically how to take good photos.”

With such a sharp technical focus on how to take a good photograph with a phone, Worrell can be more flexible in the course. While there are tasks to develop keener vision, like lessons in composition or light and shadow, students drive the goals and inquiry of the course.

One significant and consistent development is student interest in how to skillfully edit their images. This has become a theme in every iteration of the course so far.

Photo: Sadie Morgan in art class

Sadie Morgan inking a drawing for art class.

“It is a different kind of platform that you are working with. Everything can be so easily edited on a smartphone. There is such instant gratification with smartphone photography,” Morgan said. “We learned the best apps to use for editing, the best ways to edit without overdoing, so you can make a nice photograph. You learn to edit yourself, instead of just using Instagram filters.”

The hybrid nature of the course means that class meets three times face-to-face in traditional classroom sessions and two sessions are conducted completely online. It is a format that the high school has employed for several years now, a blended learning experience that also includes flexibility in scheduling. Worrell helped pioneer the approach in Hopkinton beginning over six years ago.

Worrell has been an avid advocate for hybrid courses and sees multiple benefits. “It gives students the chance to be more efficient. They have more freedom to do what they need to get done during a day. Another thing is if I present something online, the student that already knows it can move on and the student who might need more time can review it as much as they need. No one has to be limited to the speed of my presentation.”

Online sessions provide lesson content delivery based on course themes and broader opportunities for student-to-student interaction. Using the learning management system (LMS) Canvas, students access project tasks, review photographic works from professionals and fellow students, as well as engage in virtual critiques which compliment the face-to-face ones that are at the heart of any art course.

Photo: John Thornton edits photographs

John Thornton editing photographs for class.

Current student and senior John Thornton has found the hybrid schedule to be truly beneficial. “It’s given me the first and last periods free which has given me a lot more flexibility with my schedule, especially with applying to colleges and managing my other classes. I can actually do more,” Thornton said.

O’Connor added to the benefits of the hybrid aspect, “It’s good because you can do a lot on your own with more independence.”

The course also attempts to develop responsible and effective use of social media to find and reach audiences for student work, although negotiating the division between personal and school presences online poses a challenge. The pros and cons of personal versus professional accounts on social media channels remains a theme that is discussed in the course.

“We use VSCO as our portfolio but we don’t spend as much time on the sharing of work on social media,” Worrell said.

Still, considerable amounts of student work are made public with the possibility of reaching broader audiences. In fact, the culminating project for the class is ambitious with Worrell challenging students. “They have to use photography to make the world a better place, to bring awareness, and try to provoke change around their topic of choice. Then get it to their target audience,” Worrell said.

Photo: Student editing photographs on smartphone

Student reviewing photographs
from a recent shoot.

The project requires students to research and speak through photographs about a concern of interest. It can be personal, local, regional, or even global. Students are asked to bring attention to the topic and use photographs to provoke others to act. It is driven by the challenge of empowering young artists to institute change through their work.

The project yields thoughtful results.

Morgan’s final project examined human obsession with media and digital devices. “It is a common theme in pretty much all the work I do,” Morgan said. “It is so prominent in people today. It is a problem that I have too. So I wanted to get that across, that it is important to disconnect, and see the world a little bit.”

O’Connor’s “The Bystander Effect” project responds to the stormy topic of bullying. “I wanted to show the effects of bullying and its bystanders. So I have someone covering their eyes, ears, and mouths,” O’Connor said. “If they didn’t see anything, they pretend nothing happens. If they didn’t hear anything, they can pretend nothing happens. If they didn’t say anything, they can pretend nothing happens.”

Thornton’s The Faces project takes on an even more politically charged topic. “It’s a collection of portraits of queer students at our school. Because of a lot of contemporary media, we can’t have “coming out” stories anymore. So, I wanted to show more than that narrative about this community.”

The course serves as a gateway to a more formal study of visual imagery, its ability to communicate power and provoke. Worrell sees additional benefits as well. “It definitely is attracting kids that are not usually taking art classes.”

Photo: Group of students reviewing photographs

A group of students reviewing photographs after a class shoot.

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