Sunday, 29 March 2009

Photo sharing on project Ning

I have been tracking the process of our international online school project WHAZZUP? in this blog. This time I'm going to reflect on the photo sharing feature that the Ning platform offers.


In only 3 months an amazing 757 photos have been uploaded by the 207 members of the project. Of interest is that the membership has been steadily increasing and we only hit the 200 mark last week. In the first month we reached 113 members, who uploaded 304 photos. In other words, in the last 2 months the number of photos has increased proportionately more than the membership.


The way the Ning photo sharing system works is that each member has a 'My photos' album on their profile page, where an ongoing slideshow of that member's photos is running.

When you click 'My Photos', you will be able add more, rearrange them, make albums, rename them, as well as add tags, titles and captions.

In addition to each member's profile page, a joint pool of all network photos is collected with each new individual photo being added there, and a slideshow being shown on the network main page.


I made a quick list of all the 757 pictures, trying to find common themes to them and came up with the following list:

  • with friends 192
  • self-portraits 170
  • travelling 152
  • hobbies/freetime 112
  • scenery 95
  • artistic 71 (eg. their own drawings)
  • school 52
  • family 31
  • pets/animals 31
  • celebrities 25 (question of copyright violation here!)
  • miscellaneous 25

There is some overlap between these categories, since the same photo can come up in several (ie. a travelling photo with a scenery, a hobbies photo with friends). When given free hands to choose the photos young people want to upload, self-promotion through several self-portraits, and many pictures where they pose with their friends top the list.

Some time ago I posted some questions for students to answer in the discussion forum to gain some insight into their thought processes. Question number 3 read:

How do you decide what photos to upload? Why do you upload photos here in general?

Disappointingly, only 12 students have answered so far. They say they post pictures, because they hope others will like them, or to enhance their page. Some say they are trying to find others who share their interest through the choice of pictures. Some fall into the stereotypical 'generation me' category by stating, for example "I choose photos which I look good in. I think it makes you feel good to see a nice picture of yourself." It would be easy to draw conclusions about young people today being more self-centred than before - a trait even more accentuated by the easy access to online self-promotion. Just as was stated in a New York Times article last year:

Conventional wisdom, supported by academic studies using the Narcissistic Personality Inventory, maintains that today’s young people — schooled in the church of self-esteem, vying for spots on reality television, promoting themselves on YouTube — are more narcissistic than their predecessors.

Yet, as Stephanie Roosenbloom in the article goes on to reflect, this may be largely a myth, and just part of the natural cycle of the behaviour of the young through the ages being a shock to their elders.

ISSUES TO CONSIDER 1: guidelines for photo publishing

We did provide the NETIQUETTE, which also contains advice about the use of photos, and have told teachers many times to make sure that they go through these plus the COPYRIGHT guidelines with their students. To my delight, I can say only a few cases have called for teacher censorship - weekend boozing pictures or insignia of extremist political movements have been strictly deleted by teachers, for example. Once again proof of the blurry line between freetime social networks and a school project environment. This is a crucial question, I think, when deciding what the eventual value of the use of social networks in a school setting is. At least I keep questioning to what extent they actually enable student learning, or whether they are just 'something fun' to occupy the students and, for the teachers, proof that they are 'in with the times' by using the latest online tools.

ISSUES TO CONSIDER 2: managing the large pool of photos

One problem at the moment is that making sense of close to 800 pictures is quite a task. Only 10 albums have been created so far. In my opinion, what could be improved on the services of Ning is to give the network managers the facility to later on regroup the existing photos from all the members into suitable albums, for example.

ISSUES TO CONSIDER 3: a purpose for the photos?

From a case study point of view, giving students free range to upload any photos they like (within the parameters of a set netiquette and copyright, of course) gives an interesting glimpse into their lives - or, on second thoughts, maybe a rather expected one. Unsurprisingly really, friends, hobbies and travelling feature strongly in the choice of uploaded photos. What I am wondering is whether it would be 'more educational' to give them clear tasks of what photos to take and choose with the international student audience in mind. Then again, this might easily lead us in the trap of the students losing their sense of 'ownership' of the site, where they have certain freedoms of self-expression and the photo feature just becoming yet another boring teacher-dictated homework chore. Would we perhaps see very few photos uploaded as a result of such an approach? If you read my earlier posts (this one for example), various aspects of this same dilemma have troubled me all through the project.

Once again I come back to the recurring problem of finding a working compromise between social and educational networks. Young people typically join a social network to mainly keep in touch with their everyday face2face friends - for example, to share pictures of their weekend adventures, to exchange gossip, or to plan events. Recently I came across an interesting interview with Danah Boyd, who has done a lot research into social networks and youth behaviour, where she said the following about sites, such as MySpace and Facebook:

These are frequently discussed as social networking sites, as though the primary activity of these sites is to meet new people and interact with strangers. In fact, young people are using this to socialize with the people they already know, their pre-existing social network. They’re communicating with their friends, people they know from church, from summer camp, from baseball. We have this belief that kids are just addicted to social network sites. If anything, they’re addicted to their friends.

The same seems to go for our project, where many still seek their own classmates - for safety, familiarity or to have yet another forum for their casual daily exchanges. Mind you, in a foreign language for many of them, but this doesn't seem to deter them. The 'birds of a feather' syndrome seems to apply in particular to students who are struggling with English the most. Maybe this same phenomenon explains why students seem to upload mostly pictures of themselves with their friends, because their friends are truly the audience they are uploading them for - forgetting the more edifying purpose of cultural sharing that their teachers might have in mind. Maybe for this reason also they don't even think to give their photos good titles or write captions to explain what is happening - their friends know exactly what is happening anyway. Comments on photos are almost non-existent, too (unless it's us teachers trying hard to break the ice there). Possibly it's the sheer overwhelming number of the photos that makes students lose interest and not even bother to go through all of them, even though they might find truly interesting gems amongst the mass. Naturally all this is merely my speculative guess-work into students' motivations, but it does raise questions about the possible need for teachers to guide their focus somehow to enhance the learning experience. Or am I just unable to see the true educational value of the new style of social interactions taking place on these sites?


Speculations aside, the urgent question remains – how to now make use of this magnificent resource of photos for learning? I have started collaborating with our arts teacher at school to design various 'photo quest' type activities to introduce to all the members. Students could, for example, analyse the style of the hundreds of self-portraits and see if there are common trends across the continents. Or they could find all the students' drawings and make a slideshow of them by using the online Animoto service, for example. Alternatively students could find trends in fashions in the different countries, compare any school-related information the photos convey, or simply produce a collage or a slideshow to depict the diversity of the members in our project. For the slideshows, we will need to update our COPYRIGHT information to really highlight the responsible use of background music and to avoid too much censoring afterwards. I can just imagine students producing countless slideshows of their own photos with their favourite top hits blasting in the background!

Finally, I think there is one thing we still need, though - a tempting enough perk to make students take up these activities. Unfortunately, the reality in institutionalised education in many countries is that many students are so used to being spoon-fed information by their teachers that they haven't found the need to develop very advanced skills in self-directedness and self-motivation. Standardised curricula, testing and grading also tend to lead to a vicious circle of motivation only through threats of penalties in their grade, which is hardly a desirable starting point for participating in collaboration and dialogue with students around the work. If students don't see an instant materialistic gain in the form of a higher grade for an activity, many opt out and don't bother to make any effort. Sad, but true... It takes a lot of enthusiasm, courage and pioneer spirit from teachers to still persist and carry on international projects in this environment. I am so happy that I have found many like-minded teachers around the world, who work hard to initiate some change in schools.


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