PhotoVoice: Using Technology to Impact Student Learning and Assessment

Photographs on polaroids of different images

As a faculty member, I often hear the blatant dismissal of students and their preoccupation with technology. Students are always on their phones. Many struggle to actively pay attention. So, I began thinking, what if we switch the narrative ever so slightly and find a way to engage those students, increase their satisfaction and increase our satisfaction in a way that everybody wins? 

When I sit in advisory board meetings, what I hear from employers is they want students who can lead and serve. We want students to be globally minded citizens, critical thinkers, effective communicators, and responsible leaders.

The question is, how do we develop those skillsets in and among our students? How can we help develop ethical leaders, solid communicators, critical thinkers, and diversity-minded, community-engaged students if students in today’s generation are focused so heavily on technology and their phones?

I think in many ways we have a laundry mindset when it comes to students. We think if you throw in a red shirt, a green shirt, a blue shirt, a black shirt, and you throw in some laundry detergent—at the end all clothes come out the same—nice and clean. We’ve done the same thing in the context of higher education. We put all students in the same learning environment and expect that one learning environment will lead to the same outcome for all students. The reality is very different.

Another thing I’ve observed in higher education is a fishbowl, where students come and swim around in our courses and in our academic curriculum, but they fail to do anything with that knowledge outside of the context of the learning environment itself.

I wonder sometimes if the work we see students submit that maybe isn’t as awesome as we’d like, if it’s because of the way we’ve set up the learning environment. Our students like their phones and technology, but what if we saw that not as a bad thing, but as a way to enhance the skillsets we outlined earlier.

I think it can be done with the technology that rests in many of our students’ pockets, in their backpacks, and on their desks. I am talking about a process called PhotoVoice. PhotoVoice is a visual method used to understand the world through the eyes of those experiencing it. PhotoVoice is a way to see the lived experience of someone else—not our own lived experiences. It is often used as a research method in the social sciences and is typically used to study underserved populations and how they experience life—such as homeless youth, victims of trauma, and many more.

For classroom use, participants use a camera to respond to a prompt. For instance, in the context of a prompt it might look like this, “Now that you’ve read this week’s chapter on conflict management, take an image that represents how you feel about group work. Students then post an image. They caption it or title it much like they would a picture in an art gallery. Finally, they reflect on that image in two to three paragraphs. These reflections are not a summary of the image. It’s a reflection on the image. The purpose here is to blend the written and the visual. The visual element and the written element come together to become a conversation starter—a jumping off point for further investigation.

Why might we use PhotoVoice? First and foremost, we know that students are highly familiar with using digital applications as a primary means of communication, like smart phones for texting and social media for socializing. So why not harness the power of that familiarity in our classrooms? Using PhotoVoice in the classroom establishes a safe space for responsible communication. Secondly, PhotoVoice can easily be integrated into a course or online classroom. Many learning management systems allow for the easy embedding of photos and images. Furthermore, it works very well as a Classroom Assessment Technique (CAT) or as a way to initiate communication about the week’s content like a meta-assessment. This method also transcends disciplinary content. You can use smartphones and imagery in any course and in any disciplinary area. Finally, it’s a way for students to reflect on their understanding, expand on the ways they don’t understand the course content, and helps describe how the photo aligns with what they feel personally. It’s a great way to get students involved. 

Let’s talk about how it works. When using PhotoVoice, you must first set up a prompt. The prompt should build on applicable course topics and stretch the boundaries of that content. This is a way of getting students to involve themselves in the learning process and with the disciplinary content. It should invite personal application and personal analysis, and really invite a wide range of perspectives and viewpoints. This doesn’t work well with simple yes and no answers. It should be set up in the context where there’s room to disagree and where there’s room to find alternative ways of learning and knowledge. It should make a connection between the scholarly and the personal. It should be creative. We want to encourage creativity and abstract thinking. In fact, the best responses are abstract, and they should serve as a jumping-off point for further conversation.

Visual imagery requires students to think abstractly. When they are encouraged to think abstractly, I think it becomes easier for them to summarize the textbook content in a way that’s powerful and different from what our quizzes and our simple discussion board questions allow us to do. Students should not just find an existing image online. The purpose is for students to take a photo of something they see or experience around them that connects with the prompt and course content.

I encourage you to try it even if it’s just one time in one discussion board in one classroom. It’s fun, it’s interactive, and I think it’s going to show you that our students can do something powerful and impactful with technology. I encourage you to let your students be creative, and I think you’ll see the whole learning process change—hopefully you’ll learn something along the way too. 

Drawing on over two decades in academia, Michele Poulos specializes in general psychology, social psychology, and human growth and development. Since 2017, she has been on the staff at East Coast Polytechnic Institute University, where she initially worked as an online program and faculty director for arts and sciences, after which she advanced to the post of dean of arts and sciences in 2019.

Before embarking on her professional journey, Poulos attended Arizona State University, where she obtained a bachelor of arts degree in elementary education and teaching in 2001. In 2010, she earned a master’s of education degree in psychology and human relations from Northern Arizona University. She is a member of the American Psychological Association and was recognized by Marquis’s Who’s Who in America in 2022.


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