As the beginning of a new semester approaches, you probably do what most online students do to prepare: find contact information for your instructors, purchase required textbooks, enjoy those last sweet moments of mental relaxation, etc… All of these are essential for establishing a positive online learning experience in the semester to come. But here’s some advice you may not have considered: start taking pictures of yourself.
Why? Many online instructors, including myself, ask their students to submit a personal photo with a brief biography as a get-acquainted discussion topic in the first weeks of a course. This is an excellent ice breaker as students from all over the U.S. (and some overseas) comment on each other’s bios and photos. I’ve found that such an illustrated discussion quickly enhances class cohesion, and helps students build better relationships with one another.
Think about it, as an online student, your personal photo is the first impression you’ll make to your peers and your instructor. This is important not to necessarily show off your good looks, but rather, to make connections you might not have otherwise made by sparking curiosity or helping you discover common interests.
To achieve these goals with your picture, I recommend taking an “environmental portrait.” This differs from a conventional head-and-shoulders portrait in that the background of the photo communicates additional information about the subject of the image. I’ve seen students in a photography course I teach on campus at Colorado State University photograph such diverse subjects as a young pianist sitting in a formal gown at a grand piano on a concert stage, a student’s father feeding hay to the family’s beef herd, and even a portrait taken during a sky dive. These types of environmental and action portraits are staples of magazines like National Geographic and Sports Illustrated.
If your online instructor posts a discussion ice breaker that calls for a brief biography and a personal photo, consider taking more than just the typical “selfie.” Illustrate your profession, a favorite hobby, or an outdoor activity you love. These environmental portraits communicate volumes about where you live, your chosen profession, or your extracurricular interests. They need not intrude on your privacy (a concern of some students) if you avoid including obvious signs or landmarks.
If photography isn’t your forte, enlist the aid of a competent photographer friend or family member to shoot a picture for you. Explain that these need to be shot wider than normal to include more of the background environment.
Experiment with your photographer partner in capturing an action image of you in motion by using the simple “halfway” technique. Most simple cameras and mobile phones have a “latency” problem in that it takes them up to one or two seconds to find the proper focus and then capture the image. As a result, many of your action photos are typically a second late in capturing that decisive moment of peak action. The “halfway” technique simply requires that you push the shutter button halfway down to lock in the focus at a desired spot, then depress it the rest of the way at peak action. Try this technique and you’ll find that your action portraits are much improved.
It’s more than just a cliché; a picture really is worth a thousand words—especially for online students trying to establish relationships with their peers and instructors. So before your semester starts, get a little creative and have some fun taking self-portraits. Then see if your portrait makes a difference in the interactions you have in your online learning experience.