Alex Syndikas lectures in photography at RMIT University. He is a former Co-Director of the BA Photography Program, and Co-ordinator of photography electives. In addition, he has a deep background in online learning with Open University Australia (OUA) through the partnership with RMIT University.
Alex shared his journey from teaching in distance mode using print-based materials to online environments and then into Facebook.
Alex started teaching in the Photography Department at RMIT in 1984 and began offering a photography unit to OUA in 1994 when RMIT University became a provider university partner with Open University Australia (OUA). His extensive engagement with online learning began in 1999 when he enrolled in an online graduate diploma offered by the University of Sheffield, which was about “teaching online, online”. He reflects that being an international student in a diverse, global cohort during this time was an instructive experience. It helped him to reflect on the value of making content accessible to all students, regardless of their background. This has fed his philosophy for designing online learning: “One of the things I picked up was that you can’t just talk about what’s going to be happening round the corner. You’ve really got to think that it’s got to be global,” he says.
In 2000, the OUA photography course went online. “What I loved about being online was that we could be with participants in very, very remote areas,” Alex says. Online teaching freed students from the laborious processes of shooting an assignment, having images commercially processed, editing the prints and mailing them to the university. By contrast in online environments, students were able to share images almost immediately.
In terms of online learning, Alex uses Blackboard, but finds aspects of it restrictive. For large files, he prefers tools like DropBox, which is better at handling large files.
Facebook: Immediate and Social
The online tool that has had the greatest impact on Alex’s teaching is the closed-group feature in Facebook. “I also use closed groups on Facebook… You’ve got that immediacy and I think that’s the advantage… I use Facebook all the time in my teaching now for posting, uploading, critiquing.”
Alex reflects that the immediacy, social interaction and easy access to Facebook combine to support an organic student engagement. Part of this is due to the notification system that alerts users to new messages via the Facebook icon.
Alex describes sharing a photography activity through Facebook: “Everybody has it on their phones. I send something out, they can immediately shoot it; post it on the group; and say, ‘Well, this is what I’ve taken. What do you think?’ And the whole group can see this… And I find that students tend to speak more freely on Facebook than maybe Blackboard. Blackboard is very territorial; it has a fence around it. Whereas students are using Facebook a lot more, I tend to jump on with it and the class continues like in a classroom situation.”
Alex’s extensive experience allows him to contrast previous learning and teaching approaches with online learning, especially for OUA students. One of the rich affordances of tools such as Facebook is the ability to share images and feedback with the whole student group. Alex explains, “When it was face to face, or by print material, a person could have been in very, very remote conditions. And it would have been just a tunnel vision between that person and myself. And the dialogue of very mono.” Alex feels a stark contrast with his current approach to digital learning, which enables all students to view each other’s images and critique.
“It’s all about the immediate image and the discussion of the image online, rather than sending an image that has to be printed. The printing days are gone… One of my courses that I teach is off campus. It’s overseas in Paris. So to try and use Blackboard over there is really hard. But using closed Facebook (it’s not like it’s a big, open thing!)… We’re walking around Paris and we’re taking images. People are immediately – Boom! – just sending it on to the main page. So they can see everything that’s happening. So it seems to be a lot more transparent, a lot more fluid than Blackboard, I think.”
Alex reflects on how much easier folios have become now that images are stored online. He remembers that in the past, third year students shared cumbersome folios of large, hardcopy photos. Now students bring their folios in on an iPad.
“Now they bring in iPads and we just flick through their images that way. Presentations are all done by data projectors… As long as we have good quality data projectors and all that, then it makes everything so good.”
Facilitating Digital Learning
Alex shared the expertise and strategies he’s developed to facilitate online learning for his photography students. Firstly, he models for students the value of sharing only photography content: “I don’t post other things on Facebook. I don’t really want to know what students had for breakfast.”
Alex is also able to contrast the affordances and facilitation skills required by Blackboard and Facebook. While Blackboard is useful for official records, Facebook supports immediate communication and engagement: “Blackboard is good because you’ve got records, you can do all sorts of wonderful things. And you’ve got good evidence: Have they done this? Have they done that?… With Facebook, even though it’s a closed group, you have to scroll until you can put all these things together. Because it’s immediate. It’s happening now; it’ll happen within the next five seconds; and within another five minutes it’s gone.”
However, Facebook requires the facilitator to display certain skills, similar to an orchestral conductor. “It’s the thing about keeping everyone in tune at that particular time and moving on, rather than putting something on a silver platter… It’s a moving thing and I think that’s what online’s about.”
Facebook has also assisted photography students to build relationships with professional photographers as mentors from around the world. This has not only enabled students to gain valuable professional feedback, but has also created possibilities for international experiences when their program of study finishes.
Alex explains: “One of the very important things that we’re doing in the third year of the program is that we not only have critiques between the student colleagues on campus, but we ask for mentors. Before, the mentors were (fairly local) in South Yarra, or maybe in Sydney and students could get feedback that way. Nowadays, when I ask the students to try and find a mentor who you can show your work to we’re talking about Barcelona, we’re talking about France, we’re talking about the States. Their mentors are someone that’s thousands of miles away, but because the internet system and social networking is so immediate, they can get feedback within seconds. It’s very exciting. And not only that, it has opened the possibility of global connections, because they become so close to those mentors… And they finish the program and the mentor says, ‘Well, come and spend six months with me in London or other places around the world.’ So it’s really made this a global program.”
By using closed groups in Facebook, Alex is supporting his photography students to learn in immediate, social and global ways.
Do you teach in higher education or vocational education? Leave us a comment about how Alex’s story has got you thinking about your own online teaching and learning.