Art and design: online learning landscape

csm artscom image

Digital Present has approached online learning in a number of ways in the past. In this article CSM MA Applied Imagination student, Paulina Jawor, takes a look at online distance learning, and discusses her own experience as well as how others are pursuing an online education.

Historically, distance education is predicated upon relationships with technological systems: postal service, radio and television broadcasting, launch of the Open University in the 60s, cable and satellite television in the 80s, multi-media formats (e.g. audio tapes, VHS, CD-Roms, DVDs), telecommunications and computer technology, and the internet. Specifically, this article is interested in exploring different educational software platforms, and some of the user experiences they are affording.

The OpenCourseWare (OCW) movement took off in 2002 when the Massachusetts Institute of Technology founded MIT OCW by publishing 50 courses online: “We see it as opening a new door to the powerful, democratizing, and transforming power of education”. Today it is a web-based publication of 2,150 courses and is open and available to the world. In a remarkably prescient report MIT’s President Charles Vest wrote in 2001:

We will inhabit continually evolving electronic learning communities, in which amazing new technologies will help us learn. Cognitive science, virtual environments, and new modes of interacting will all come into play in powerful ways. We will extend educational opportunities to people throughout the world in a more cost-effective manner. On-the-job, just-in-time learning will become the norm in many industries. And there will be new players in both the for-profit and non-profit educational domains.

Today, the practice of electronic learning has spread all over the world and in many different guises, examples include:

  • CORE (Chinese Open Resources for Education)
  • The Virtual University, Pakistan
  • Flexilearn, India
  • Delf University of Technology, Netherlands
  • Politehnica University of Bucharest, Romania
  • Middle East Technical University, Turkey
  • University of Tubingen, Germany
  • France Universite Numerique, France
  • Universidade Estadual de Campinas, Brazil
  • University of California, Berkley, USA
  • Udacity
  • Khan Academy
  • Students Circle Network
  • Alison, and many more.

Central Saint Martins provides several successful online short courses for students, to help them gain practical experience of many art and design practices, such as fashion design, art direction, typography and photography – in an ‘online studio environment’.

Nicoletta, David and Jacov, CSM online short course students. Image UAL  2014

Nicoletta, David and Jacov, CSM online short course students. Image UAL 2014

Before delving further into the current world of online learning provided by educational institutions, it’s worth noting that YouTube and Google’s Helpout software are educating millions of people over the net – becoming ingrained into our digital learning lifestyles. These are examples of new powerful informal learning platforms, offering advice and instruction on just about anything. A key to YouTube’s success is the user’s swift access to short video-clips providing immediate answers on demand and if necessary, on the move. Furthermore, the development of apps to learn ‘on the go’ has also enabled people to learn at a distance and on the move. CSM art and design students often use YouTube to upload their own work, as well as to access information that supplements their course work. In fact, as a student I used YouTube clips as part of my independent learning, and with almost no formal instruction I’ve become a competent graphic designer.

MOOCs and Making
The way CSM currently approaches its short online courses is through an intimate experience where around 12 students gather with a tutor once a week – the opposite experience to the Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs).

Mathieu Plourde poster.

Mathieu Plourde poster.

To introduce MOOCs you don’t have to go far back, edX and Coursera were both founded in 2012. edX is non-profit, open-source software, founded by Harvard and MIT; available to other academic institutions and learning platforms providing university-level courses. Presently, edX has over 300 courses and 3 million participants. The courses consist of short videos, online textbooks, discussion forums and upon successful completion participants are rewarded with an unaccredited certificate. As of July 2014, there were 35 charter members, and 15 members, including 13 countries participating and willing to share their knowledge.

In terms of arts and design education, you can find a variety of courses, ranging from computer arts and game design to the art of poetry, and many more. The courses that are of particular interest to many and enjoy vast popularity are games and app design courses. It’s most likely due to increasing demand for the above products, as well as increasing popularity, demand and success of indie games, such as Minecraft.

The MOOC design courses are popular with my peers at CSM, as they offer new perspectives and insights within a similar field. Personally, I have taken the ‘Computerised Arts’ course in order to better prepare myself for my final project – which requires me to film, advertise and edit a script that I have written. The course has given me an insight into movie editing software and provided me with extra tips for design using Programming and Adobe CS.

As a part-time student, I place emphasis on self-development/ learning and MOOCs, in particular, provide great help when I’m stuck on a project. For instance, in the first term of my course I received lower marks for the design of artefacts, so I have taken up another MOOC entitled ‘Design of the Artefacts’. This has taught me how to plan and develop the design for a small side project I am working on.

Moving on, presently the MOOC Coursera offers 839 courses and has 10 million participants. Findings show that 80% of their students already hold a university degree and half of them hold a postgraduate qualification, thus formal accreditation or examination is not a main factor in undertaking short term online courses. In 2012 the Open University drove the development of FutureLearn, the first UK-led MOOC for institutions wishing to have a MOOC presence; 26 British universities have teamed up with FutureLearn and are providing free education.

Giulia Forsythe 2012.

Giulia Forsythe 2012

MOOCs and Meet-Ups
What’s making these massive virtual learning environments more appealing is the opportunity for social aspects to student interaction via online platforms, called ‘Meet-up’, that enables students to create themed physical meetings in the place of their choice and invite likeminded individuals. This helps to foster a campus aspect of discussion and debate of course materials.

I have taken part in a ‘designers’ meet-up, held in the studio of one of my fellow MOOC students, in East London. What struck me the most, was that everyone met through online design courses rather than university or established forums. The participants were all university graduates at various stages of their careers, but still using MOOCs to continue their education. During the evening, we discussed our projects, exchanged tips and hints and discussed our work, as well as the university experience. I believe this is one of the main benefits to MOOCs – where additional interaction for those willing to participate can reap many rewards. Networking with likeminded individuals has helped me to develop my MA project and given me new ideas and concepts with which to experiment. Whilst many don’t take the opportunity or even complete the course, as with life in general, you get out what you put in. This seems to be particularly true of online learning, and I am already looking forward to the next meet-up.

We couldn’t finish the subject without describing users experiences of MOOCs. I will share some more of my experiences and follow on with those of my peers…

As part of the ‘Design of the Artefacts’ course, we were given directions and were made aware that free scanning apps exist, enabling us to publish our design work online, and again making the course more accessible. We were also instructed how to use Weebley, a free online portfolio provider where we could document our entire design journey, and showcase our final outcome.

My project has proven to be challenging as I have set my mind on designing a website for my portfolio as my final project. However, following the weekly tasks and assessment has enabled me to learn the skills to develop a website that is undoubtedly better than I would produce otherwise. Additionally, I found very useful the drawing classes that we undertook to plan our artefact. I followed the video instructions each week, scanned the drawing and uploaded it to my portfolio. I found that by simply following the instructions made me more aware and focused on what I wanted to achieve. Members of the course would comment on my work, and I fedback on theirs – the more feedback you give to others the more people give to you. There seems to be a core group of people who put the effort in, and are really benefiting from the online atmosphere of learning and sharing ideas.

Another MA Applied Imagination student, also an active participant in Coursera courses, told us that the reason behind her taking up a design short course was simply her love of the subject:

It does not help much with my MA at the moment, but somewhere down the line, it may come in useful. As any creative person knows, the more influences you have the better. Also, when working in advertising a diverse background definitely helps. So I take online courses like a hobby, doing a bit of this and that”, recently completing a classic movies and forensic science, “purely out of curiosity” she added.

She has also noticed an emerging trend amongst our fellow MA students.

They are pursuing various courses (not necessarily online) outside their MA, they all are in full-time employment and few of them have freelance jobs on the side. None of those courses helps them in their careers specifically but possibly for a more holistic approach to learning. Such as my doctor friend taking an ancient history course”.

The above highlights the use of MOOCs by students, providing breadth to their education outside the confines of the curriculum. Appearing dare I say it, more like the American or Australian system of taking differing minor courses to complete a degree. It would be interesting to see how people taking on these MOOCs fare in their professions compared to those who don’t. I think the people who are always looking for something else and broadening their knowledge will always be more successful. Even the act of wilfully undertaking additional commitments is a testament to a person’s motivation. My CSM friend, interviewed above, whom is enjoying success both in her MA and in her work, is a testament to the idea.

The Open University

copyright: Open University

copyright: Open University

The reasons behind investing in the distance education Open University (OU) degree on the other hand appear to be totally opposite, as one OU graduates told me:

“I was a student there purely as I wanted a degree and had to work full-time. In the end I have decided that I would much rather study full-time and have a full-time student experience and all the ups and downs that comes with it”.

The Open University is a distance learning and research facility funded by Royal Charter in the UK, in 1969. It is well known for its open entry policy and provides a considerable number of art and design undergraduate courses.

The current student, 22, told me that she has chosen OU simply due the fact, that she’s also a mother who’s lacking time and has to work full time. Thus practicality was behind her choice.

The reasons for studying at OU for Chris, 28 were different. He mentioned that the no entry requirements policy played a major factor in choosing the OU as his preferred academic institution, as his A-level results t prevented him from applying to good traditional universities.

Having been a student at the OU has an enormous advantage when being recruited, as it is so well-established in UK that there’s no doubt or lack of recognition when I say where I have studied.


Open College of the Arts
The Open College of the Arts (OCA) is an independent arts college and charity funded in 1987 by Michael Young, Lord Young of Darlington. Young’s vision was to offer to the general public the chance to take quality arts courses by distance learning and to express their creative talents under the guidance of professional artists, without prior qualifications or any other restrictions. The university still firmly lives by those values and educates over 2,000 students each year.

A bonus for students studying with the OCA is that their fees are about a third of those charged by traditional universities. The OCA lets you chose from a variety of arts and design subjetcs, and all their degrees are accredited by one of the UK’s specialist universities – University for the Creative Arts.

It has over 100 UK based tutors, whom except for being an experienced teachers are also practicing artists, photographers, designers, writers, and composers. Students at the final year of their studies, are encouraged to look through the online tutor profiles and select the one whose expertise and work closely matches the student’s preferences. The personal, practical and individualistic nature of art and design can perhaps be a problem when designing an open art course, however it seems like the Open College of the Arts are addressing that issue.

LCF Fashion Marketing Online Course

London College of Fashion, Fashion Marketing – online course


A lesson to learn from this brief canter through online and distance courses is that students want more flexibility of provision, and access to new subjects or courses that can supplement their existing study – especially with increased tuition fees. MOOCs help students broaden their knowledge base, and can help prospective students feel confident of their degree choice. Whilst distance learning providers, such as OU, are convenient, practical and highly accessible for just about anyone who can afford the fees.

Already we can see that online education is part of the student learning experience, whether provided by the course being studied, or elsewhere. The emerging trends of participation to supplement formal institutional provision as well as for lifelong learning, and the important social dimensions afforded by these ‘hybrid learning spaces’, clearly should be recognised by universities. Online provision and varied models of distance learning are part of the art and design educational present, and future. As such, it’s vital for institutions who wish to remain relevant and to thrive, to invest financially, and undertake sustained community engaged research and development into online distance education.

This phenomenon holds powerful prospects for the future of art and design higher education.



MIT’s President Charles M. Vest’s report

Open College of the Arts




CSM – online short courses

Mathieu Plourde

Giulia Forsythe

Open University