Of course, every institution has it's own process. In its simplest form, online photography courses can consist of a lesson that, instead of being lectured, is written out and accompanied by explanatory photos. Assignments can be completed and turned in electronically so the instructor can return feedback. Many programs provide an opportunity for group critique in forums for students to comment and ask questions.
We spoke with Chuck DeLaney, Director of the New York Institute of Photography (NYIP). He explains that some online courses are synchronous, in which classes take place on a certain date at a certain time for live online discussion. But many are asynchronous, which means students can study lectures or complete assignments when they have the time. Kerry Drager at BetterPhoto.com tells us that classes can be for any skill level, from beginners who want the basics to advanced photographers who want to learn the latest techniques.
In addition to online resources, however, DeLaney says NYIP sends students printed materials, full-color lessons, and audio and video instructional materials. When you submit your work, an instructor records his commentary about your piece and provides a link where you can download and listen to his feedback. Faculty also regularly gather to record podcasts to discuss the best student submissions to "photo challenges."
DeLaney argues that photography is more suited to online instruction than other disciplines because it's so accessible. He has even heard several respected, professional photographers admit that they were self-taught. Though you can't learn how to fly a plane or perform heart surgery online, he says, you can learn photography.
DeLaney also believes that online photography education is superior to the traditional, cathedral method of education in at least one aspect. Namely, when one lecturer teaches a classroom, the students are heavily influenced by the lecturer's own style or artistic preferences. This is less of a concern for online instruction, where instructors don't have such close interaction with students, allowing them to freely form their own styles.
But many worry that the professional world doesn't respect those who use online courses. Although online programs struggle to gain respectability in different academic fields, Drager says that photographers are judged more on the quality of their portfolios than any certificate or degrees they've received.
Ultimately, the decision may depend on what type of learner you are. You may decide you have the drive and creativity to teach yourself photography through books or free online tutorials. Or you may know you need personal interaction of the physical classroom setting. For those in between, online courses seem to be a viable option.