Critical Analysis

Photoshop Gurus

Photoshop is a powerful computer program which allows users to create, edit and enhance graphics including photos, images, designs, and drawings.  The program is perhaps best known for its potential to drastically manipulate photos.  Photoshop is a tool with a steep learning curve though!

Photoshop Gurus is an international online connected learning environment (CLE) for people who are interested in Photoshop as a hobby or as part of their professional work.  The community forum allows members to connect with other learners by sharing their skills, producing resources, and co-creating knowledge about the functionality of Photoshop.  The supportive, interactive peer-to-peer mentorship evident within the community helps users navigate the software and address problems as they arise.  The Connected Learning Framework devised by Ito et al. (2013) helps explain the key components of this connected learning environment.  Their model identifies contexts, core properties, supports, and design principles for effective connected learning.

In this post, I will explain and justify the distinctive characteristics of Photoshop Gurus (PSG) by referring to Ito et al.’s connected learning framework.  The following mind map provides a basic summary.

Summary of Ito et al.’s Connected Learning Framework as it applies to Photoshop Gurus.

Connected Learning Principles


A key feature of any successful online learning environment is that users have a shared desire to learn about an area of personal interest supported by like-minded peers.  Ito et al. (2013) argue that learning which is personally interesting and relevant to learners leads to higher-order learning outcomes.  Furthermore, Mirra (2014) refers to the interest-powered nature of learning within CLEs as a “gateway” to additional learning (p. 11).  She argues that “once a fire pit is lit,” participants easily pursue further opportunities to support peers, find shared purpose, network and produce with others.  At the basic level, the Photoshop Gurus community is powered by a shared personal interest in learning about how to create and edit graphics.  Forum members can browse forum topics or use forum search tools to explore any topic of interest.  New interests can also be explored by posting questions to the forum seeking the advice of members on any topic.  Alternatively, users may ‘lurk’ as they gather expertise in various areas of Photoshop.  These vicarious experiences help improve participants’ self-efficacy (Dron & Anderson, 2014).  As members develop their skills, novice users of Photoshop regularly post to the forum with their first attempts at editing in order to receive support and feedback from more experienced users.

“Once a fire pit is lit,” participants easily pursue further opportunities to support peers, find shared purpose, network and produce with others.


Connected learning environments allow participants of all skill levels to contribute expertise, ideas, questions, share their work, give feedback to their peers, and socialise.  Photoshop Gurus is a discussion forum focused on peer-to-peer support of members as they explore their passion for Photoshop.  By leveraging the collective intelligence of members, learning, knowledge and understanding can be amplified through extension of an individual’s personal network (Siemens, 2005).  Furthermore, Nussbaum-Beach and Hall (2012) argue that “learning through relationships” encourages a willingness to experiment and explore ideas and concepts with the knowledge that support from like-minded peers is readily available.  The use of new media across CLEs provides the potential for participants to expand their level of engagement, accessibility, social supports, and diversity of connected learning experiences (Ito et al., 2013).  In Photoshop Gurus, everyday contributions, including sharing of graphic design creations, editing and the giving of feedback occurs in an inclusive social environment where collaboration between users of all abilities is easily shared to the forum.  Although participation is encouraged at all ability levels, less experienced users can participate at a more basic level by ‘liking’ posts to show support of other members.  There is also a forum titled ‘Off Topic – Games, Discussions’ where general discussion or socialising can occur helping to build and support social connection and engagement among users.

Learning oriented

Connected learning environments aim to build more purposeful connections between the spheres of learning by bringing together personal passions, a drive to achieve, and peer support to make greater depth and breadth of learning possible (Ito et al., 2013).  The availability of mentors is central to Photoshop Gurus as mentors provide a real-world connection and support less experienced users of Photoshop as they answer questions and contribute to discussions.  This co-construction of knowledge and collective investigation of topics provides positive outcomes for both the mentor and the novice user and encourages deeper learning beyond Photoshop and the PSG community. These skills include enhanced digital and information literacy, inter-personal and communication skills, creativity, adaptability, curiosity, civic engagement, conscientiousness, persistence and self-regulation (Ito et al., 2013; Mirra, 2017).  The skills gained from learning Photoshop editing techniques are also applicable to a wide variety of careers therefore there is scope to use and engage with the program beyond the forum.  The forum also contains two threads for paid and unpaid Photoshop requests which allows users with sufficient skills to connect their interests with civic engagement and may encourage personal challenge for less experienced users to seek a similar level of skill to be able to help users with such requests.

Connected Learning Core Properties


Access to digital production tools provides users with opportunities for producing and creating a wide variety of media, knowledge and cultural content in experimental and active ways (Ito et al., 2013).  Members of the Photoshop Gurus forum typically respond to requests for feedback on graphic design creations by producing content to share with others such as written explanations, creation of video tutorials (posted to YouTube and therefore easily accessed by users within and outside of the site), or screen shots demonstrating necessary steps to resolve or create the desired effect as per the member request.  Additional suggestions beyond the original request are often carefully proposed and permission to re-mix is sought by more experienced members.  The production process is valuable to users within the community but also echoes many of the twenty-first century skills of creativity, intellectual openness, collaboration, and communication relevant in the modern world (Lee, 2013).

Access to Photoshop is not cheap however and may pose a barrier to learning for some users.  Despite this risk to the community, a thread titled ‘Free/Cheap Alternatives to Photoshop’ provides extensive details about how members with limited funds can still pursue graphic design interests.  An additional risk for production is the challenge of getting started on a project for users who are very new to Photoshop.  A thread titled ‘Our best instructional video tutorials in one place’ curates basic tutorials created by a variety of PSG users so that beginners may see a pathway to mastery of Photoshop techniques.

Shared Purpose

Another core property of connected learning is that socially connected web-based communities provide opportunities for cross-generational and cross-cultural learning and connection to unfold and thrive around common goals and interests (Ito et al., 2013).  The collaborative dialogue within CLEs provides members with multiple perspectives, resources and varied levels of expertise and supports learning, leadership and ownership of authority within the group (Hodgson, de Laat, McConnell & Ryberg, 2014).  The shared goal of all members of Photoshop Gurus is to learn, create, collaborate, share and reflect on using and navigating Photoshop for graphic design.  The community is supportive and encourages participation of all members which is evidenced in the thoughtful, encouraging responses given to members at all stages in their learning.  Dron and Anderson (2014) outline that equipotency (where all members of a networked community have equal power and potential to participate), a culture of openness and inviting contributions are essential for learning using social media.  In order to encourage further mastery and to develop stronger partnerships among members, monthly challenges asking users to experiment with a specific technique and then upload their work are held.  Although one winner is announced, members regularly post positive feedback on the work created by other entrants.  The work submitted also provides a model of exemplary skills, helps expand the skill set of less experienced users, may encourage new interactions and partnerships with the group, and may also serve as a source of inspiration for future graphic design of fellow members.

Openly networked

With the growth of social media platforms, there are an increasingly wide range of ways to interact with other learners and available learning resources to support an individual’s learning.  CLEs are based on principles of openness, accessibility, transparency, and extensibility to keep barriers to entry and participation low (Ito et al., 2013).  As a forum-style learning space, Photoshop Gurus is well-placed to support networked learning.  Users can ‘follow’ and easily contact other members through the forum messaging system and topic ‘tags’ allow users to easily curate information on a specific topic of interest.  The forum is also supported by social media including Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to promote activities within the forum and support learning.

Identifying quality in both knowledge and contributions is an important step in developing mastery among members (Olsen, 2011).  PSG uses a number of tools to signal quality or mastery among users.  Quality participants who have demonstrated commitment to the group are given badges displayed below their name on each post (for example ‘admin’ or ‘guru’) and contributions to the site also result in points being added to user profiles.  Together, these tools provide an incentive for users to contribute to the community.

Connected Learning Design Principles

Everyone can participate

The Photoshop Gurus community provides many opportunities for all individuals to access, share, create and participate in the forums.  There is a low barrier for membership to the site and joining takes minimal time.  There are varied participation opportunities and ways to contribute to the site and diversity in the level and type of expertise supported is evident within every forum.  Sharing is easy and reciprocal and the use of forum-style social software is especially useful in facilitating the discovery and building of new relationships through profiles, recommendations, observation, and private messages and by following users with similar interests or activity patterns (Dron & Anderson, 2014).  Novice users, mentors and experts can all have a role on the site and those who are new to the community can easily lurk and leech ideas from others within the community.  Most importantly, there is a strong sense of the value of collective intelligence where “everyone knows something, nobody knows everything, and what any one person knows can be tapped by the groups as a whole” (Levy, 2000 in Jenkins, 2009, p. 72).

There is a strong sense of the value of collective intelligence where “everyone knows something, nobody knows everything, and what any one person knows can be tapped by the groups as a whole.”

 Learning happens by doing

Connected learning is experiential and learning unfolds as users participate and discover meaningful activities and projects (Ito et al., 2013).  An effective connected learning environment is characterized by a virtuous feedback loop between the individual pursuit of learning and excellence and the quality of the collective cultural and knowledge of the group (Ito et al., 2013).  The Photoshop community of learners have access to a wide variety of resources which are easy to find, diverse and easily shared across networks whereby individuals learn skills from the group that they could not have achieved on their own, also known as crowdsourcing (Siemens, 2005).

 Challenge is constant

The complexity of Photoshop as a program results in frequent challenge to many users as knowledge is created in experimental and active ways creating a ‘need to know’ and ‘need to share’ mentality among participants (Ito et al., 2013).  Autonomy of users within the learning community allows members to investigate areas of interest to them and encourages participation as fellow users harness the expertise and passions of their peers (Olsen, 2011).   There are varied opportunities to build social capital and develop twenty first century cognitive competencies such as problem solving and critical thinking in ongoing interaction between experts and mentors (Ito et al., 2013).

 Everything is interconnected

Everything is interconnected within CLEs and there are multiple learning contexts for participants to engage in connected learning.  The primary driver of participation for interest-driven activity is a sense of personal affinity, passion, and engagement (Ito et al., 2013).  For engagement to occur, communities of interest must provide learners with immediate feedback on progress, access to tools for planning and reflection and opportunities for mastery of language and practices (Ito et al., 2013).  There is also strong emphasis on the value of personal connection and interdependence for professional and personal growth in CLEs (Morrison, 2016; Siemens, 2005; Jenkins, Ito & Boyd, 2015).  The Photoshop Gurus community is a rich, dynamic community which uses forum-style software to effectively connect users in many ways and contexts.  In addition, Facebook and Twitter are also used to promote the community and engage learners across multiple platforms.



Ito et al.’s connected learning framework provides a valuable model to explain the core principles and properties evident in the Photoshop Gurus participatory community.  Diverse pathways to knowledge, learning and expertise exist throughout Photoshop Gurus because of the inclusive, interactive, peer-supported environment where all participants share a common purpose.  Although challenge is constant for learners, the interconnectedness of information, skills, people and knowledge means that experiences are highly engaging.  Users must be autonomous and self-directed in their learning however the participatory culture of the networked community means that access to knowledge, via crowd learning, is easily accessible and therefore Photoshop Gurus provides an exemplary model of the power of connected learning.


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