Open class models

There are several narratives to consider in looking at how the Coventry open media classes developed and have since been adapted. These include the stories of managers, teachers, registered students, open students and open professionals and interested amateurs. This study aims to bring those narratives together into a coherent story.

 A range of people were involved in establishing and supporting the open classes. Lecturer Jonathan Worth led the transformation of teaching approach with the establishment of the Picbod (Picturing the body) and Phonar (Photography and narrative) classes. Matt Johnston, was originally a teaching assistant on the Picbod course and later joined as a lecturer on the open classes. Peter Woodbridge led the Creative Activism classes and Martyn Lee led the Living in a digital world class. Shaun Hides as Head of Media Department wrote the JISC OER III funding application and provided managerial support, enabling and encouraging innovative practice and Jonathan Shaw (Associate Head of Media Department (Innovation, Profile and Research) developed the second generation of apps and other platforms. (Both are now Co-Directors of the Disruptive Media Learning Lab). Different approaches, based on participation within open networks, were adopted and trialled in 10 week open classes which has ultimately led to the most effective elements being permanently incorporated into the undergraduate programme and the development of a new Open Masters Degree.

The coming together of this group of people at the right time is an important factor in the innovative approaches, but much of the inspiration, guidance and mentoring came from outside the HE sector and probably accounts for some of the more innovative methods used.


One of the most interesting aspect of these classes is how much they reflect the changing media landscape and how far they were informed and led by the parallel activities of several innovative media professionals. Jonathan Worth, as a freelance editorial photographer, had been experimenting with ‘new business-models for photography that leverage, rather than fight, the Internet’, which is illustrated in his experiment with author Cory Doctorow1.

 When Jonathan Worth joined the Department of Media at Coventry he brought three essential elements that informed the development of the Open Media Classes:

  • a fresh view of what it meant to be a professional photographer in an open networked world

  • a network of innovative individuals from a range of professions such as Cory Doctorow (Author), Fred Ritchin (Photographer and now Dean of the International Centre of Photography in New York), David Campbell (Head of International Centre of Photography Media Lab in New York), Stephen Mayes Director of VII photo agency) and John Levy founder of FOTO8 and HOST Gallery

  • no traditional teaching background

Jonathan was not wedded to traditional academic practice and was open to considering different approaches to teaching – both in terms of what a modern photography course should include, but also in which methods to use. He was able to engage a network of professionals in deciding what to teach but also involved them in the classes as well. In terms of actual teaching practice Jonathan offers the following list of people that inspire and inform his practice:

I adapted (and adapt) from the writings of Jeff Jarvis (What Would Google Do? and Public Parts), Chris Anderson (Free, the future of a radical price and The Long Tail), Clay Shirky (Here Comes Everybody and Cognitive Surplus), Dan Ariely (Predictably Irrational and The Honest Truth about Dishonesty), Dubner and Levitt (Freakonomics), Malcolm Gladwell (Outliers and The Tipping Point), Steven Johnson ( Where Good Ideas Come From), William Poundstone (Priceless), Nick Bilton (I live in the future and here’s how it works) James Boyle (The Public Domain), Laurence Lessig (Remix and Free Culture), James Gleick (The information), Ulrich Boser (The Leap), Charles Duhigg (The Power of Habit) , Daniel Pink (Drive) and Daniel Khaneman (Thinking Fast and Slow) (Jonathan Worth, 2015 email correspondence)

It is significant that the staff at Coventry were open to this fresh perspective, which was further enhanced by input from Matt Johnston and Peter Woodbridge. Jonathan, Matt and Peter all highlighted the value of having Shaun Hides, Jonathan Shaw and Gary Hall to ‘navigate the institution’ on their behalf, which meant they did not have to negotiate with University IT, marketing and legal departments, and allowed them to concentrate on the classes.

 Development of the open classes

‘This approach is driven by the desire to reveal and facilitate the individual learner’s practice and to explore the potential of visual storytelling using a medium in perpetual technological motion. In itself this is not that new, but the real game changer is the resulting collaboration in a live, mentored and open space with the class (lecturers  and learners) in direct dialogue with its wider external community of interest. (Jonathan Shaw NewFotoScapes, 2014)

 As early as 2009 Shaun Hides produced an Open Media Strategy to inform the activities and development of the Department of Media in Coventry University’s School of Art and Design. This approach reflected developments in the wider media professions, the educational landscape and the intellectual experiments around piracy and open access in humanities scholarship instigated by Gary Hall; it also framed the recognition of the need for Coventry’s media courses to adapt to these changes. The strategy meant that it was possible to support the initial two classes opened-up as a way of enhancing the existing degree course in photography. The Picbod  (Picturing the Body) (from 2009-10) and Phonar (Photography and Narrative)(from 2010-11) courses were the first courses to include two ten week open classes as part of the Undergraduate Photography Degree. In 2011 During the UKOER COMC project the Creative Activism Class and the Living in a digital world class were added. This enabled a low risk approach to try different technologies, teaching approaches and support methods which have been adapted, re-mixed and re-written over the last five years.

 The last ten week iteration of phonar had over seventy people with editing rights on the schedule representing over 45 different Universities and the last iteration of Picbod was adopted, adapted and run independently by Matt Johnston applying his successes at turning [online] numbers into names and actions (with the The last iteration of Phonar had over 35,000 people come to the WordPress version of the class from 139 countries, we haven’t had resources to accurately record the Flickr, Soundcloud, Youtube, Google+ and Twitter environments though the classes thrive there also. Following Phonar2012 the students demanded their next class be run open and along the same lines – which Coventry University assented to – our proviso being that they (the students) designed it. Phonar2012 graduated with the highest percentage of First Class Honours in the history of the course. From Reclaim Open Learning, September 2013

 This has informed the re-approval of the Photography Bachelor of Arts Degree course and an open Masters course (launching Sept 2015). This is a remarkable illustration of how far the experiences of the department, academic staff and registered and open students have convinced institutional managers of the scalability of the model/s. By opening up the classes the teachers developed a network of connected professionals and learners, which enrich the experience of the paying and attending student. The course has become the ‘most over subscribed in the University’. Equally, the open photography classes have enjoyed engagement by individuals and communities who have traditionally not been able to access Coventry courses through geographical, financial or cultural barriers.

Open class models

Initially the Coventry open media classes enhanced traditional classroom-based UG courses, which included lectures, seminars, assignments and project work. The open elements were delivered across ten weeks during the second or third year. Attending students remained the central focus of the course and had the opportunity to engage with a much broader community of open students and professionals. The element of choice was important and paying students had control of which aspects of the global community they engaged with and, with the support of their instructors, identified which would be of value to them individually. These conversations and connected experiences enriched the content authored by the team and had the potential to transform the relationships between learners, teachers, working professionals and interested amateurs. In the early stages, course content was uploaded to a blog (as well as onto the institutional platform) with the presumption that ‘all material generated/curated by staff will be ‘open access’, as will any material, or contributions made/offered by external contributors – the terms of these contributions will be explicit and visible to all. As contributors add comments, review students, send commentary ideas or links, or when they come to give talks/specialist classes, their contributions go live as soon as possible.’ COMC project, 2012

 The open media classes aimed to be connected, participatory experiences which relied on online contributions from the range of participants and as such, generated a significant amount of content from a diverse range of contributors. Practical tasks, informed by the thematic content, were assigned, but allowed space for personal interpretation, implicitly encouraging a sense of ownership. These contributions included blog posts, comments and responses, images, videos, soundfiles, tweets, and conversations. It was important to try to ensure that this content was aggregated effectively and made accessible, and that the process resulted in resources of a high standard, establishing Coventry as a trusted provider, so a clear and visible code of conduct was developed alongside a collective review system /moderation group.

 The utilisation of various social media (as appropriate for each class) meant that staff and students may have had to learn how to use different media effectively. This approach required students and staff to enhance their digital, visual and media literacies and ultimately started to transform the focus of the course. This experience informed the development of the Department’s social media good practice guidance, and in turn influenced the code of conduct adopted by the university. Beyond such baseline good practice, in order to work effectively as media professionals digital media and visual literacies (fluencies) are essential to enable people to adjust to new models of professional practice, which include a range of knowledge and skills such as digital storytelling, managing an online presence, networking, licensing and ownership issues, managing content and metadata and marketing. Coventry Open Media Courses focus on equipping students to become accomplished professionals that can adapt and respond to changing professional parameters.

 Staff activities to support the classes began to adapt as they increasingly became curators of open online content and as boundaries between learner, professional and teacher became blurred. The changing roles of both staff and students is an important aspect of this story. In the case of these classes ,the educator’s role is to define the landscape and curate a coherent learning-journey through chosen specialists who generate a wide range of content. Jonathan Worth, 2012 Jisc online case study, 2012 


The Coventry open media classes made use of existing technologies with the intention that participants would not have to alter their online habits – both content and participation are made accessible through various desktop and mobile platforms (laptops, tablets, iphone /android phones, ipod touch and PCs). They were supported by light and readily available software: free blogging software, twitter, i-tunesU, pod casts, vimeo etc., as well as Coventry’s online learning platform CUonline (which is moodle based). This approach meant that time and resources were not devoted to establishing and testing new platforms. Adopting a regular WordPress blog to host the online elements of the course, removed some of the institutional barriers to entry that an internal university system might incur and also meant that the course content was accessible to search engines. (21% of visits came from Google searches). This blog acted as a hub which aggregated content using tags (for example #phonar), and an iPhone app was also created as a mobile tool for dynamic engagement with this hub, which has been downloaded over 2,000 times. A recent development included the need to establish fully SSL Certification Encryption and Authentication for the WordPress blogs to prevent hacking and security breaches. It is notable that the University marketing department did initially question the use of a wordpress blog but on seeing the significant number of hits (over 6000) compared to the University website, realised that this approach was generating considerable traffic – other University departments are now encouraged to do the same.


‘Traditional2’ approaches to assessment continued in the campus-based elements of the course, but the open online aspects offered an opportunity for students to receive individual feedback from a diverse mix of teaching staff, other students and the professionals who agreed to participate in the course. Peer assessment and feedback have been discussed widely in recent research (Evans, 2013) and brings it’s own challenges and benefits. Whilst many of the research studies are with small numbers of students the Coventry open models are interesting in that there are potentially large numbers of participants (up to 900 students attending an online class and thousands of potential visitors who could comment or feedback of student work). These kinds of numbers can, inevitably, raise issues around consistency so the team responded by providing a sheltered space (online forum requiring sign-in) for feedback to take place – aiming to develop the trust and confidence needed to offer and receive one-to-one feedback. This approach gives some editorial control to moderators who can deal with negative or ‘trolling’ behaviour and the sign-in was expected to limit troll-like behaviour. Another tool used to support feedback was the aggregated twitter stream, although the limited character format limits in-depth feedback.

 Staff implementing the open classes tried to be flexible with learning outcomes and assessment with a view to ensuring that the focus for students was on developing their portfolios, rather than their grades. The aim was to encourage autonomy, self-direction and critical thinking and to support the development of twenty first century skills (Jenkins, 2009).

Ownership and licensing

The team developing the Coventry open media classes obtained support and approval from the senior research management of the University. However, the Creative Commons licensing of content  (CC BY SA ) and their extensive use of un-restricted platforms did not strictly conform to existing University IT policy3. The University Deputy Vice Chancellor for Research was aware of this ‘conflict’ and nonetheless endorsed the project.  This enabled the team to adopt and test open approaches.

In relation to ownership of student contributions, the Legal Compliance Officer confirmed that the University asserts IP and copyright over all Coventry University Student work produced within a teaching and learning environment. However, in practice the University always recognizes the moral rights of students over their own intellectual products and would always work to enable them to exploit any potential tangible/financial benefit under specific permissions. The University agreed for student work to be part of the classes under a CC BY SA licence i.e. with their proper authorial acknowledgment/recognition.  Indeed raising awareness of ownership and rights is a significant part of digital and media literacy and, by nature, of the classes themselves.

2 This is of course a relative term, alongside the development of Open classes the Media Department and its courses were also establishing a reputation for innovation within “conventional” teaching learning and assessment; so a course like photography incorporated self-defined assessment tasks, innovative collaborative professional projects and assessments requiring external collaborators.