Tech Trumps® Friday Focus: Flickr - On-line photo management

For my Tech Trumps®  Friday Focus this week I'm going to talk about an app that's not usually associated with the classroom. This app is more often associated with photographers, holidays and hobbies than teaching and learning, though that said plenty of innovative educators have adapted it for their needs. This week it's the turn of one of the grand daddies of all web apps, and at 13 years old an app that questions the idea that tech is always changing - this week it's the turn of Flickr.

What is Flickr?

That Flickr strap line - "On-line photo management" - doesn't really do the service much justice. Yes it is a place to store, organise and share photos, but as an app that's been around for so long it's been honing its offering until it's now one of the most complete and easy to use photo management apps available. Let's take a brief look at just what it can do.

First off you can of course upload photos, and organise them into albums. You can then share those albums with others, either privately or publicly. You can edit your photos, add descriptions, add tags, locate them on a map, comment on photos, add people to photos, set the safety level, add a note to describe a specific area of a photo, change the rights of a photo - pretty much anything you want to do with a photo, you can do with a photo. Oh, and there's Groups as well - you can work in public groups or private groups, so have all the functionality above but in a collaborative set-up instead. And as for storage, Flickr offers a huge one terabyte for free! Talk about generous.

Flickr's depth of well designed functionality is a good example of why I favour mature apps for my Tech Trumps®, as generally speaking apps that have been around for a while have solved all their interface problems and designed in all the options users might want after many years of iteration and development. I'm always excited when I hear about a new app, and look forward to exploring what they can do, but at the same time I'm well aware that there is a certain myth about technology that it is changing all the time. As someone who's been working with computers for getting on for 35 years now I can safely say that an awful lot about computers hasn't really changed much at all! 

How can you use it in education?

The Tech Trump® card above shows just how strong Flickr is across the board on lots of different dimensions. In fact it's one of my top ten Tech Trumps®: when I add all the scores together to get an aggregate score of an apps power, Flickr comes in at number 8. But I'm just going to focus here on a couple of Flickr's strengths - Investigating and Collaborating.

The Investigating dimension is all about "finding and evaluating information relevant to your topic". Most people agree that this is something of a key skill these days; as the internet and the world wide web have brought so much information to our fingertips, so the need to be able to not only find successfully but also analyse and evaluate what you find has grown and grown. It's all very well certain people talking about fake news, but how do we actually work out what's fake and what's not? Through practicing our information gathering and evaluation skills in real contexts. Flickr supports this type of activity very well, albeit with the caveat that you are searching for imagery, though most often imagery with annotations. Say you're doing a research piece on birds of the British isles, and how they've evolved and adapted to fill different niches. By searching for images on Flickr and picking-out key characteristics, and annotating them using Flickr's ability to highlight and note on a specific part of a photo, students can rapidly build mini-portfolios explaining their own interpretation of the topic. By searching and looking for 'invariants' across imagery, i.e. things that do not change no matter who took the photo, students can develop their ability to discriminate, and demonstrate their understanding.

Then there's the Collaboration side of things as well, "Harnessing peer knowledge to enhance learning". One of the most powerful aspects of digital technologies in general is that they provide the ability for people to come together in ways which would not be possible in real life - but, crucially, this kind of functionality has to be built it, and it's easy to break this affordance rather than allow it to flourish. Thankfully Flickr supports Collaboration very well, allowing you multiple different ways to work together. In the bird example above you could very easily set students to work in pairs or small groups on the task, gathering photos and annotating them collectively rather than individually. This has the added benefit pedagogically that they're being exposed to other thinking during the learning process, rather than after they've completed the task - think of it like ongoing formative feedback, only from peers rather than from the teacher. Alternatively you could structure the task in multiple stages with individual work followed by peer feedback, followed by more individual work; again helping to develop students thinking by exposing them to more perspectives than they would otherwise experience.

So that gives you a brief insight into Flickr, and what it can do for you - from on perspective just a great place to store, organise and share photos, but from another perspective a powerful way to engage your learners with content in new and challenging ways. I think Flickr in particular demonstrates why I like to think of digital technologies as catalysts for learning, rather than just tools. Flickr provides a strong framework, which does not change - just as a catalyst in a chemical reaction doesn't change. Used well it can facilitate just the right kind of connections between you, your learners, and your content - that together has real potential to accelerate learning.

Do you have any ideas for using Flickr that you'd like to share? Please feel free to add them in the comments!

Would you like your own set of Tech Trumps®?

Do head over to the Tech Trumps® to see Flickr and a host of other apps, all rated against the key challenges you're focused on as a teacher. There's an interactive version of the Tech Trumps® to explore, plus a PDF download version for offline use - or you can go old school, and buy a physical pack of cards for only £4.99 plus postage which I'll whisk off to you first class in the next available post :-)

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