University's first MOOC teaches cell phone photography to over 1,000 students

Arizone Sunset
Photo courtesy of Adam Brachmann
Students in Cox’s MOOC learn three fundamentals of photography: composition, lighting and color/black and white. This Arizona sunset was part of the composition lecture using background control.


Professor Jon Cox has 1,343 students in one of his art classes he is currently teaching. Cox’s students hail from around the globe, including Arizona, Tanzania, Jordan, Iraq and South America.

Cox’s five-week course, “Phoneography: The Basics of Cell Phone Photography” is a Massive Open Online Course, or MOOC, the first of its kind at the university.

In his course, Cox teaches the fundamentals of photography––composition, lighting as well as color and black and white photography. At the end of the course, students will have a website of their works.

These courses allow for an unlimited number of people to take the course from anywhere in the world, Cox said.

“Basically you are putting your information out there and anyone can take advantage of it,” Cox said. “A lot of MOOCs are set up so students can pop in and out but I designed the class to be start to finish because to me, photography is a progression where you learn A to get to C.”

In addition to allowing anyone in the world to take the course, MOOCs differ from traditional online courses because there are no grades and they are not for credit, Cox said.

Since he cannot grade every participant’s work himself, Cox has the students critique each other’s photos via their websites or Instagram, where #udphoneography is used by the class to track images. Not being able to give feedback and grade students, however, is a negative aspect of MOOCs, he said.

Not only does Cox teach his MOOC, he is also teaching ART180, an online course through the university. These students are following the same path as those taking the MOOC.

“The goal of the MOOC is diversifying my students and letting them interact on a global level,” Cox said.

While Cox’s course has over 1,300 participants, MOOCs are notorious for low completion rates.

“[Completion rate] is definitely lower than what we see in common education, but if [the MOOC] reaches a large number of students, it is still doing well,” Chrystalla Mouza, an associate professor of instructional technology said. “Some people sign up just for the experience or for a few modules and not entire course.”

Instructional technology can be used to help present material and make information available to students 24/7, Mouza said.

While MOOCs are available through some institutions and throughout the world, traditional universities should not be concerned about them taking their students, she said.

“Personally I wouldn’t worry about that until MOOCs figure out how to be used for credit,” Mouza said. “Degrees are still important and a role that traditional universities are still a big part of, but MOOCs can be used for professional training.”

Cox believes MOOCs can enrich the university experience, though they are unlikely to replace traditional classes. His class––and photography being used as a mode of communication––is changing the world by making it ‘smaller.’

Adam Brachmann is a career and technical educator in photo imaging and photo/yearbook graphic design in El Mirage, Ariz., who is taking part in Cox’s MOOC.

He also signed up 78 of his students after he heard about the course from his mentor, not realizing at the time that the course would be worldwide, he said.

Brachmann said he thought the MOOC could complement the classes he was teaching and help improve his students’ skills.

“I noticed that it utilized basic composition and fundamentals of photography, so that was a good thing for my kids,” Brachmann said. “I have cameras for my students to use in class but it’s really cool that they can use their phones.”

Brachmann said he grades his students on the four photos they have to take each week for the MOOC’s lesson and will grade the students on their final websites once the course is complete.

The MOOC has allowed his first year students to slowly ease into the techniques and not feel the pressure to be perfect with their first assignments, Brachmann said. He said it has also enabled some of his students to take on a self-proclaimed student-teacher role and help fellow classmates with the assignments and techniques.

Mouza also uses technology to improve her teaching and student learning experience, and has noticed an increase in interactive components used by other faculty, she said.

Students at the university will not be able to find Cox’s MOOC via courses search or anywhere else. It is offered through, a different website than the one used on campus.

The reaction to his MOOC has been mixed, Cox said. Some question the appropriateness of MOOCs, but Cox is just happy they are being discussed.

“I think what’s exciting for me is whatever your stand is on a MOOC, it’s definitely starting conversations here,” Cox said. “UD is not at the forefront of them, so it’s getting people to realize that we should talk about it and figure out what the proper steps are to talk about MOOCs.”

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