Media, Technology, and Education
AstrophotographyLearningMaking MeaningTeaching

Obsession, Learning, and Teaching

Orion and Running Man nebulae

I didn’t write a single blog post during the Fall semester. My blog post from the end of July gives a little bit of a hint about the reason. In that post, I explained that I was embarking on a new hobby, astrophotography, and I was spending mental energy reflecting on my learning and what it could tell me about being a better teacher. But at that time, I didn’t know how obsessed I would become. I have thought about writing this reflection on my obsession and what I want to remember about it that will help me to be a better teacher but I have been so obsessed with engaging with this hobby that I haven’t wanted to make the time to reflect on my experience. And even that fact should help me be a better teacher.

So, the obsession. I have fallen completely in love with astrophotography. I love everything about it. I think about it all the time. I check the sky conditions multiple times a day. When it’s cloudy, I step outside multiple times an hour to see whether it’s clearing up. Every morning before I start work (and every night when it’s cloudy), I work on processing the images I’ve captured. I watch video tutorials about how to better use the software I have. I practice the post-processing skills required to get the most detail out of the images I capture. I look at images that others have made and pour over the details of the equipment and processes they have used. I research the detailed specifications of the hardware and software that I have and that I might want to purchase to figure out how to push my resources to make better images. I think you get the idea. I have very modest equipment and compared to so many people on the Internet, I am not very good at this hobby (yet). But it has completely hooked me. So I keep asking myself two questions: why am I so obsessed and how can I use the reasons for my obsession to inform my teaching? Here are some quick thoughts about why I am obsessed.

  1. I have been engaged with photography for nearly 40 years and have been working on a daily photo project for nearly 3 years. I felt that I had gotten a little stale and wasn’t really learning much new about photography which is one of the reasons I decided to take up astrophotography. I thought that deal with the low light conditions and distant, dim subjects would challenge me to learn new things. And I was certainly correct in that thought. The new things I was learning were kind of adjacent to the things I already knew which made them accessible. For example, because I had done some macro photography, I knew how to achieve sharp focus on non-moving objects. But I had never tried to achieve such focus in low light which is significantly more difficult than doing so in “normal” lighting conditions. So I learned some new focusing techniques using live view on my camera and using a Bahtinov mask (which I had ever heard of before). Part of the reason for my obsession is that these new skills are just slightly beyond my current skill level so they are challenging but achievable.
  2. Besides skills, I have learned a lot of new content. I already knew a lot about how computers store files. I knew about a variety of file types and compression algorithms. I understood how colors are represented in images. But I didn’t truly understand that the pixels in a digital camera’s sensor are overlaid with a Bayer filter so that half the pixels capture green, a quarter capture red, and a quarter capture blue. I didn’t know that each digital camera uses a slightly different pattern for these colors and that you need to know the pattern for your camera in order to post-process your image files. This information about the Bayer filter would probably not have made a lot of sense to me if I didn’t already understand how colors are stored. And I can see by the questions on many of the forums I participate in that post-processing requires an understanding of file types and compression algorithms. The content I need to know is related to the content I already know but each new piece of knowledge deepens my understanding of what I thought I already understood.
  3. I have downloaded and learned to use several new software programs. I’m a bit of geek in that I actually like learning to use new software. I like poking around the software to figure out what the various features do and how they work. I like finding online tutorials for the stuff I can’t figure out on my own. I also like standing outside at night (and during the day) looking at the sky. And I had been wanting to learn more about what I was looking at than the basics that I already knew. Learning to do astrophotography gives me a new purpose to engage in activities that I already enjoy.
  4. I owned a great DSLR camera, several awesome lenses, and a sturdy tripod. When I purchased each of these options, I enjoyed researching their technical specifications and learning the pros and cons of my various buying options. But I didn’t always understand why those specifications would matter to me. In learning to do astrophotography, I have needed to learn more about the specifications so that I plan my image captures and in order to make additional purchases. For example, I now know that my new dedicated astro-camera has a pixel size of 3.76Β΅m compared to my DSLR’s pixel size of 6.54Β΅m. This means that with my longest lens (at 600mm), I can achieve a resolution of 2.25 arc-seconds per pixel with my DSLR but a much better 1.29 arc-seconds per pixel with my new camera. This means that I’ll be able to get finer detail out of my new camera (which excites me!). The information that I’m learning as I research the specs of my equipment and what they mean is directly applicable to the work I’m trying to do. And I can see the impact of technical differences on that work.

That’s what I have come up with for why I’m obsessed with astrophotography. It sits at the nexus of a lot of what I have been interested in for years and allows me to engage in activities that I enjoy. What can this tell me about teaching? I should say that I don’t think students have to be obsessed with every topic they’re studying. But if we think about this kind of obsession as we are designing our classes, we might try to create conditions that inspire students to learn.

One of the consequences of my obsession is that it makes me wonder about a lot of things. As I was writing the last bullet about why I’m obsessed, I trying to explain why knowing the pixel sizes of my cameras was useful and I realized there were a couple of things that I didn’t quite understand. When I was looking up pixel sizes, I came across the terms “undersampling” and “oversampling” and, although I understood the basic gist of these terms, I didn’t really understand what the impact would be on my images. So I did a bit more research about this even though those terms didn’t matter for the example I was writing about. I did this research simply because I wondered about something and wanted to know the answer. This wondering is something I’d like to inspire in my students. When they encounter something that they don’t quite understand, I want them to wonder enough to investigate on their own, to investigate for the sake of learning something new.

As I write this post, I also notice my desire to explain more of what I have learned. I find it all so fascinating that I want everyone to know what I know. I have tried to keep that impulse in check but I want to spark similar impulses in my students. I want them to be excited about what they are learning so that they want to explain it to others.

One of the most important lessons from my own obsession seems to be about making connections between new skills, content, knowledge, etc. (I’m going to call all of this “understandings”) to what students already know. I want to create learning environments in which each student reflects on their current understandings and genuinely wonder about the things they don’t already know. We might call this “curiosity“–I want to create learning experiences that spark students’ curiosity.

My obsession also reminds me that it is really challenging to learn new things if they stray really far from what you already know. I need to think about how I can build assignments and activities that help students make connections between what they already know and what they are trying to learn. Ideally, assignments and activities should be challenging but achievable for each student, maybe just beyond what they currently know how to do. Again, to be effective, these assignments and activities have to be at least somewhat individualized, especially in introductory classes where students enter with such different experiences and understandings.

One of the things that keeps driving my obsession is the clear evidence of my improvement. I can look at my own photos and objectively see that they are better now than they were 4 months ago. In fact, each time I learn a new technique for capturing or processing images, I can see improvement in small details. So I want to find ways to make the consequences of student learning visible to them. How can we design assignments and activities that allow students to see their learning for themselves? This feels like it would be easy to do in some classes but hard in others. I don’t think my feedback on their demonstrations of learning is motivating enough often enough. Is there something in the assignment or activity itself that could demonstrate their improvement in a way that motivates them? This feels like an idea that I need to explore and think about a lot more.

Speaking of demonstrating learning, in my obsession, I have not wanted to demonstrate my learning by writing about it. Instead, I want to demonstrate my learning by producing images, the “natural” output of what I’m learning. This makes sense to me. When I was learning to program, I demonstrated my learning by creating programs and I loved that too. The question is how do students demonstrate their learning when the learning is really about the way they’re thinking about something or their deeper understanding of something? This point seems related to conversations we have had in the CPLC about work that matters vs. throw-away work. As I’ve written before: “Who gets excited about throw-away work?” How can we provide environments that give students exciting opportunities for demonstrating their learning?

These are not new insights about teaching but thinking about them in terms of my obsession gives me a new perspective about choices I might make in my teaching to inspire student learning.

I made the featured image of the Orion and Running Man nebulae on December 26, 2022 from 360 images stacked with calibration frames using SiriL and GIMP.

Article written by:

I am currently Professor of Digital Media at Plymouth State University in Plymouth, NH. I am also the current Coordinator of General Education at the University. I am interested in astrophotography, game studies, digital literacies, open pedagogies, and generally how technology impacts our culture.

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