Media, Technology, and Education

Choosing Learning Materials

Flame and Horsehead Nebula

I started in astrophotography about 6 months ago. I have consulted a lot of different sources to learn all kinds of stuff during this time. One of the most interesting places to learn has been online forums. There are a number of them on Facebook and on a site called Cloudy Nights as well as various other places. On Facebook, one of the forums is called Learning Astrophotography and another is called Astrophotography for Beginners.

After 6 months, I’m still learning from these forums but I am also beginning to see repetition, patterns in the kinds of posts there. For example, a couple of times each month, someone on one of these beginner forums makes some comment about wishing people would think before they post their (stupid) questions about some aspect of astrophotography. The people making these comments regularly get called out for suggesting that beginners should not use a beginner’s forum to ask their questions. Sometimes, the person making these comments gets belligerent and doubles down on their opinion in an aggressive way. When this happens, the commenter might be banned from the forum. I think that’s an appropriate response to someone who insists that beginners should look somewhere other than a beginner’s forum for the answers to their questions before they waste the time of the members of the forum. I’m genuinely confused by these comments. I don’t understand why people would join a beginner’s forum, a learning forum, if they think beginner’s questions should not be allowed, that somehow beginners should be going somewhere else to get their questions answered.

The other thing that happens a couple of times a month is that someone will suggest that certain types of photos are not “real” astrophotography and so shouldn’t be allowed to be posted in these forums. The commenter typically says something like photos taken with phones don’t count as astrophotography or photos taken with a basic DSLR when the photographer has no idea what they are pointing at don’t count. Others typically respond with comments about the dangers of gatekeeping in a beginner’s forum when people are excited to share what they have just discovered about the night sky. I again don’t understand these comments about what counts as astrophotography and what doesn’t. The commenters usually have some criteria related to effort or knowledge or types of equipment that they think should control what is allowed on these forums. But I don’t understand who they think should decide what counts as the appropriate amount of effort or the right kind of equipment.

Both of these kinds of conversations make me realize that people have misunderstandings (or at least ideas I disagree with) about what learning is all about and how it happens. The other place this comes up in these forums is when people ask for advice about books to read as a beginner. Such questions inevitably lead to lots of comments about books being out of date as soon as they are printed and that the person asking the question should look to YouTube videos in order to learn how to do astrophotography. I regularly use YouTube tutorials to learn new techniques about processing using various pieces of software on various targets. So I have nothing against YouTube videos. They are very helpful. But I do have a problem with the idea that books are automatically bad because they are out of date as soon as they are printed. It is true that certain kinds of books may not be as helpful as YouTube videos. If you want to learn how to use a particular piece of software, for example, a YouTube tutorial might be better than reading a book because the tutorial demonstrates where things are and, since software changes pretty frequently, is probably more up-to-date than a book that was published a year or more ago. But YouTube tutorials are often so focused on how to do things that they often neglect discussion of why we do things. For me, understanding why we do certain things is a necessary piece of information for me to be able to transfer my knowledge from one context to another. Let me give an example.

I have followed along with lots of tutorials about stacking images. This is a process in which we take multiple, nearly identical images (called subframes or subs) of the same target and then use software to combine them, one on top of the other. There are lots of software programs that will allow you to stack your subs, many of which are free. I have used Deep Sky Stacker (DSS) and SiriL and even GIMP to stack my subs and have followed along with tutorials for each. The first couple of tutorials I watched were good, showing me the details of DSS or SiriL or GIMP. But the tutorials didn’t explain why we do this stacking. They only explained how to stack. I only learned why we stack by reading a book called Making Every Photon Count by Steve Richards. From Richards I learned that we stack because each individual subframe has a variety of kinds of noise and we want to reduce the level of noise in relationship to the amount of signal we have in our final image. Because our signal is relatively constant and noise is relatively random, software can determine which pixels in a subframe contain noise (and throw those pixels away) and which contain signal (and amplify those pixels). We stack subframes so that we can increase the signal to noise ratio. Knowing why we stack subs in astrophotography then helps me to understand some of the options in the software that the particular tutorials I watched didn’t mention. In other words, the why helps me to connect concepts while watching tutorials about each individual issue makes it harder for me to make those connections. Don’t get me wrong. The tutorials are helpful and I sometimes want to go directly to a tutorial to learn exactly how to use this particular piece of software to process my images for this particular target. But the more coherent, complete explanation of why we do what we do is also valuable, maybe even more valuable in the long run as software changes and new tools and techniques are introduced into the hobby.

This makes me think about the learning materials I provide for students in my classes. One of the things I notice is that students sometimes skip the carefully curated materials that I provide to help them understand the theory, the why, of what we are learning. They sometimes want to jump directly to the assignments, to what they need to do, to those things that directly contribute to their final grade. I have written about this issue before. In those previous posts, I reflected on the lessons from the article β€œIntroducing the Tri-layered Student Online Experience Framework: Moving from file repository to narrative journey,” by Eager, Lehman, and Scollard. The main idea I took away from this article is that, as teachers, we need to help students understand what they will gain by reading/watching/engaging with the learning materials we have chosen to put in front of them. If an activity has a direct effect on a student’s grade in the course, the gain they receive by engaging with that activity is immediately obvious to them. Helping students understand the longer term gains of engaging in activities that don’t directly impact their grade helps them to be better learners and to get a deeper understanding of the material they are learning. Similarly, following a tutorial that immediately results in an astrophotograph is tempting when you are focused on the products of this hobby. But understanding the why of what you’re doing in that tutorial will be more valuable in the long run as you think about and refine your astrophotography practice.

As always, I am struck by how the things I’m encountering while engaging in my astrophotography hobby relates to and shows me a lot about my teaching. I created the featured image on January 30 from five 2-minute subs captured on January 28. The image shows the Flame Nebula and the Horsehead Nebula.

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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