Using the Photovoice Method to Elicit Authentic Learning in Online Discussions: An Exploratory Study

Concurrent Session 7

Brief Abstract

The photovoice method asks people to express their points of view by photographing scenes in their communities, which are then interpreted by the community at large. Presenters will share results from a study that examined the incorporation of photovoice within online discussions in an undergraduate anthropology course. 

Extended Abstract

With the rise of the Internet and mobile devices, “real learning happens anywhere, anytime, with anyone we like…it happens around things we learners choose to learn, not what someone else tells us to learn” (Richardson, 2012, p. 13). The conventional college classroom is struggling to adapt to this innovative, flexible context. Students quickly forget course content when they never actually apply it (Pahomov, 2014).  Therefore, it is important to offer authentic learning opportunities to students in order for them to construct knowledge and learn from each other. To support authentic learning, it is suggested to offer tasks that provide opportunities to connect course content to the real world. Technology can facilitate this, as devices such as smartphones can capture events in the moment and share them immediately to the classroom community and beyond. This allows learning to become more personalized and flexible (Pahomov, 2014).

With the rise in online and blended college courses in the last decade, there is a challenge in providing students the opportunities to clearly demonstrate authentic learning and meaningfully interact in an environment that is often asynchronous. Asynchronous discussions are often used to encourage students to think and interact, although mixed findings have been found about their overall effectiveness (deNoyelles, Zydney, & Chen, 2014). It is important to conduct classroom research in order to identify specific online discussion strategies that support authentic learning.

This study explored the effectiveness of incorporating the photovoice method into online discussions to facilitate authentic learning. Photovoice is originally a research method combining photography with social action, in which people express their points of view by photographing scenes that highlight certain themes. The photographs are interpreted by the community, and insights are used to drive further action. While empirical studies exist concerning photovoice in online courses (see Edwards, Perry, Janzen, & Menzies, 2012), no empirical studies could be found concerning the use of photovoice within online discussions. This study fills that gap by systematically investigating the influence of photovoice on students’ authentic learning within an online discussion.

Participants (n=67) were from one class section of an online undergraduate anthropology course in a university in the United States. The online discussion in question was the fourth that took place in the class, and the purpose was for students to connect course content (specifically, the concept of “performance”) to their lived experiences. The discussion contained three parts. For the first part, students were asked to post an image of something that exemplified a “performance”; this image had to be taken by the student. Instructions specified that only an image should be shared, with no interpretation offered. For the second part, students were asked to interpret a peer’s image, relating it to the readings and other course content about performance and performativity covered in class. For the final part, the students were asked to reveal the concepts they were originally trying to illustrate in their images, and reflect on their peers’ interpretations.

Authentic learning, along with factors such as critical thinking, engagement, and interaction, were measured through a 30-item survey. All were 5-point Likert style questions except for one open-ended question which asked for general feedback about the discussion. Correlations between factors (critical thinking, engagement, authentic learning, interaction) were calculated. It was found that the relationship between critical thinking and authentic learning was most significant (r = .83, p < .01). However, when controlling for engagement and interaction, the correlation was noticeably weaker (r = .44). This suggests that all factors indirectly contributed toward the overall experience.

Concerning authentic learning, most students agreed that the discussion prompted them to put their knowledge of “performance” into action (M = 4.73) and encouraged them to relate their experience of the world to the course content (M = 4.52). Students also agreed that choosing an image to share encouraged them to think more critically about the term “performance” (M = 4.70). A student explained, “Before I chose a picture, I had to analyze the things I typically do and encounter, which helped my understanding of the material.” Most students agreed that interpreting others’ images prompted them to think about the concept of “performance” in multiple ways (M = 4.70). One student shared, “Instead of being told what to think about a picture or informed what was going on ahead of time, this assignment allowed for thinking outside the box and use of life experiences to interpret the photo.” Lastly, the discussion promoted interactions with peers (M = 4.60). One student noted, “This is a great assignment because it takes us away from the usual book work for a while and lets us interact in a more comfortable and casual way where we can express ourselves through an image.”

While we found supporting evidence that this approach is effective, there are some lessons learned and recommendations to offer. Students suggested that the instructor should specifically encourage them to think “outside of the box” and post images that are more unconventional in nature. Several students also expressed an appreciation if the instructor would provide an example. One of the biggest challenges occurred when students did not receive a response from their peers, despite the explicit instructions that everyone should receive a response. It is recommended that a contingency plan be articulated by the instructor. Also, instructions on how to upload and post the image is important to ease the technical difficulty of the task. We also encourage a debriefing of the activity, allowing the students to interpret the images as a community at large.

Sharing the results of this research study with colleagues from other institutions is valuable because it provides evidence that this strategy supports the use of photovoice to support authentic learning along with critical thinking, engagement, and peer interaction in online discussions. Session attendees will be provided the details of the assignment, but will also be exposed to multiple examples in which the photovoice method could be incorporated. To increase the interactive nature of this presentation, we will also distribute a few discussion posts for the attendees to interpret and analyze.


deNoyelles, A., Zydney, J., & Chen, B. (2014). Strategies for creating a community of inquiry through online asynchronous discussions. MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 10(1), 153-165.

Edwards, M., Perry, B., Janzen, K., & Menzies, C. (2012). Using the artistic pedagogical technology of photovoice to promote interaction in the online post-secondary classroom: The students’ perspective. The Electronic Journal of e-Learning, 10(1), 32-43.

Pahomov, L. (2014). Authentic learning in the digital age: Engaging students through inquiry.

Richardson, W. (2012). Why school? How education must change when learning and information are everywhere. TED Conferences.