Exploring online learning for art and design


As we are well aware, digital technologies have impacted massively upon the ways in which students learn, and how they engage with one another and with the University. The learning landscape is morphing, and technologies are playing an instrumental part, e.g. the rapid expansion of online learning provision through MOOCs, the phenomenal use of YouTube as an informal learning platform, Google’s new Helpout offering, and an array of other online initiatives – all available across multiple personal devices.

In this turbulent world where much formal and informal learning is undertaken online, Sarah Kante takes a swift look at MOOCs, e-learning, and ponders: what is a good online learning experience, and how can it be applied to art and design courses?

Learning is defined as “knowledge acquired by systematic study in any field of scholarly application”, and “the act or process of acquiring knowledge or skills”.

The higher education market is changing rapidly and there is much evidence to support the rumors of large-scale closures of existing institutions, and a wholesale re-thinking of the organisational, pedagogical and technological delivery of HE.

In 1998 Robin Mason wrote these prescient words, and went on to state, ‘…fundamental to future provision – choice/flexibility and new skills…’ It would seem that in 2014, “the act or process of acquiring knowledge or skills” is increasingly an online business. We all seem to resort to Googling for solutions, information and instructions (“how to” was roughly searched twice more than ‘what is’ on Google between 2004 and 2014).


And nowadays, “systematic study in a scholarly field” is also increasingly done online. This is the era of the MOOC (Massive Open Online Courses), with Coursera, edX, and Khan Academy being the primary players born from the US – FutureLearn is the UK universities’ new MOOC platform. Not only are they extremely successful; they are becoming almost commonplace, with most major universities now offering courses online. In the United States, e-learning has become a significant form of post-secondary education. Enrolments for completely online learning courses increased by an average of 12–14 percent annually between 2004 and 2009.

Peer-to-Peer University is a non-profit online open learning community. It allows users to organize and participate in courses and study groups on a specific topic. Started in 2009 and funded by the Hewlett Foundation and the Shuttleworth Foundation, it charges no tuition and courses are not accredited. Peer-to-Peer University is very similar to MOOCs, with the difference being peers share their knowledge rather than an accredited teacher from a renowned university providing the content. Anyone can create a course: this is the University of the Wikipedia generation.

Completely online courses, such as MOOCs, whilst highly popular, have relatively few students transition to completion. Students tend not to finish the courses, for various reasons, which are discussed later on this article – but is completion necessarily a measure of success?

Mathieu Plourde, 13 April 2013, http://www.flickr.com/photos/mathplourde/8620174342/sizes/l/in/photostream/

Mathieu Plourde, 13 April 2013, www.flickr.com/photos/mathplourde/8620174342/sizes/l/in/photostream/

Surely, what is important is that these resources are available, even if the students enrolling rarely get to the point of gaining qualifications; free online courses are a step towards widening the accessibility of higher education. In a time when the financial costs of undertaking higher education are escalating, it is important that people can freely access learning materials. That begs the question ‘what is the cost of participating in a MOOC – is the data you share the price you pay?’

edX describes its offering as thus: “From Science to Art to Technology, edX offers simply the best classes from the best professors and universities. From our think tank to your screen— we help you learn through cool tools, videos and game-like labs, like our 3D virtual molecule builder. Take edX courses at your pace, at home or in a cafe. Earn your Certificate of Achievement, or just audit the course. Our virtual ‘classroom’ is open 24/7 and everyone is accepted. Use the latest in peer-to-peer social learning tools and connect with smart and passionate people, just like you, from around the world.”

Online courses give an array of different learning possibilities. But studies have shown that most online students lose motivation: completion rates are typically lower than 10%, with a steep participation drop starting in the first week. Most registered students intend to explore the topic rather than complete the course.

An online survey published a “top ten” list of reasons for dropping out. These were that the course required too much time, or the level was too difficult or too basic. Reasons related to poor course design included “lecture fatigue” from courses that were solely lecture videos, lack of a proper introduction to course technology and format, clunky technology and trolling on discussion boards.

Human interaction, and how important it is to engage students in their studies is one of the main challenges of online learning. When it comes to art and design, it seems to get more problematic, as interactions and surroundings are so important to our practices.


What is e-learning, and what is on offer?

At this point it may be useful to mention e-learning, so as to try and avoid ‘terminology confusion’ around digital technologies to support learning. E-learning is the use of electronic media and information and communication technologies in education. E-learning can be a muddled terrain, with all forms of technology used in learning and teaching covered, as well as new types of jobs, and different terminology for the same things: multimedia learning, technology-enhanced learning, computer-based instruction, computer-based training, computer-assisted instruction, internet-based training, web-based training, online education, virtual education, virtual learning environments (or learning platforms), educational developers, learning technologists, learning technologies developers…

Today we live in a networked society and operate within hybrid learning environments, therefore most students will be familiar with using digital technologies, or creating digital habitats, to undertake their studies. As well as using freely available digital tools and services, students will be familiar with specific e-Learning tools supplied by the University, such as Moodle, Workflow, the blogging platform based on WordPress – all of which are part of the institutional virtual learning environment (VLE). These online learning and teaching tools are used in parallel to traditional teaching. The Centre for Learning and Teaching in Art and Design (CLTAD) promotes best practice in the use of technology to enhance the student experience. 5


Online learning at Central Saint Martins

Online learning is a descendant of distance learning. At the forefront of distance learning was and is the Open University. It accepted its first 25,000 students in 1971, adopting a radical open admissions policy. Developing new technologies to improve distance learning services and revolutionising the scope of correspondence programs on offer, it created a respectable learning alternative to the traditional form of education.

Online learning within a university context relates to courses that are delivered wholly, or partially online. The latter being described as a blended-learning model, i.e. the blending of learning happening in the shared physical space with learning happening in the digital environment. At CSM we have the online delivery of short courses through Artscom, but to date we have no accredited online undergraduate or postgraduate courses. Our short courses follow the model of a small number of students interacting with a tutor, as well as the course content. They are a far distance from the MOOC model as the short courses retain the intimacy of the College context.

However, we do offer all of our students technical skills development through online resources such as our bespoke platform OTTeR, and Lynda.com. Learning or revising basic ‘technical’ skills online makes sense, with everything from Photoshop to Final Cut requiring little more to be available than a computer, the software, and a lot of time and exercises. Some technical skills are suited to online learning, but what about all that really makes art and design education? Namely, research, creativity, peer crits and tutorials, situated awareness and practice, and context.



Art and Design online learning: ideal experience

So, having touched upon MOOCs and e-learning, here is a big question to try and mull over, ‘What is art and design education and what defines it?’ As a recent graduate of the University of the Arts London, my first answer would be the people, the late nights, the experience of finding yourself in a place you finally fit in, with people who get your ‘weird’ references, whilst doing something you love. There is a freedom to coming to art school: letting loose your creativity, being able to fully explore your potential, and of course, the endless parties, dress-up sessions and all nighters before deadlines.

Through the Coursera platform you can learn from CalArts about the history of art for animators, artists and gamers, and the MoMA has created a course exploring interactive strategies for engaging with art in the museum context, or you might prefer to study design thinking for business innovation with the University of Virginia. But can art and design – especially a learning experience like that of CSM where 3D workshops and peers make up so much of the positive learning experience – be translated meaningfully into an online environment?

Whilst online learning usually includes a degree of sociability: forums, blogs, online communities, as well as virtually unlimited and uninterrupted access to tutorials and teachers, it cannot really give you the same experience than that of an art and design institution like UAL. Can it? What really is missing in the online learning environment are the creative environments, the people we meet, and of course, the technicians we all rely on so much. This should be considered when designing an online course, and when electing to be a student on a virtually available course. The two things are different, yes they have similarities, but an online experience is not the same as that of a physical setting, and shouldn’t try to be. It has to be its own special learning environment, and learn to grow a different culture, and in time, history.

To help me explore what might make a great online art and design learning experience, I asked a couple of CSM students to share their thoughts: 7



“I’d expect videos, tutorials, demonstrations, step by step tutorials and descriptions. The physicality of art and design is too important though. Most of the research can be done (and I do most of mine) online, but when it comes to the making it has to be physical.”

Making is rarely done in class, but it is done in studios and workshops with the help and influence of peers and technicians.


“A good learning experience is made by a good group of people and a good tutor. I’ve never used online learning, but I always wondered about it. My house is never quiet, so I don’t think it would work for me.”

Of course, learning online means that wherever you decide to switch on your computer is automatically transformed into a form of classroom, studio, workshop or lecture theatre. But as this student highlighted, the physical space for your online learning experience has to be appropriate.

“The problem with online learning is the lack of interactions. I guess it’s good for projects, exercises and research. If there is a proper programme, with exercises and someone answering your questions, this would be a good online learning experience. You need to feel that you’re learning and applying it to something tangible. Tangibility and being able to see the progress are what learning is about for me.”

It is worth noting that whilst some areas of study seem to transfer fairly easily to the online landscape, others do not. The subjects and the projects we tackle as art and design practitioners are not always adaptable online. Some areas of our practices are, nonetheless, already or easily done in a digital learning environment.

Staff members who teach online give us different insights into the online learning experience. Away from subject specific requirements, these points deal with the experience of online learning:

“The level of interactivity and discussion online can be more vibrant than that happening in class. Online students can post links and comment as the lecture is in flow.” This points to a good level of students ownership, participation and collaboration.

The sense of ownership online also comes from the possibility to access course resources at anytime, anywhere. Mobile devices are increasingly being used, and the tutors see the model as having enormous potential. The access to course material is at the core of online learning, and a new pedagogic model has developed through having all lectures recorded. Students can view them, discuss them in a live webinar, and it leaves time for the tutor to prepare new work to deliver in a live lecture. There is an archive of lectures accessible for students at all times. 8


Online delivery of art and design courses is evolving. One of the main challenges for teaching art and design online is that most of our current practices as students seem to feed off our surroundings – and there are no real surroundings online. So how do you learn creative practices online?

One could argue that, as we do not live at CSM, and teaching of art and design subjects is not 24/7, already we learn remotely and are nomadic in our relationships with different learning environments. With online learning, the technical side of things, the lectures, and the tasks are given virtually, but the rest is up to the student: to get away from his or her computer screen and experience whatever it is that will trigger a eureka moment – maybe to find workshops and materials nearby, and develop creative relationships in the physical locale that are not necessarily with your virtual student cohort.

Creativity and learning cannot be undertaken in isolation; the peers and technicians, the workshops, academics and community of practice are what make a good art and design physical learning environment. This is what CSM excels at.

For art and design online courses to become as popular and successful as their physical counterparts, the students have to understand they will not get the same experience as that of going to art school; they will not necessarily have ready access to other like-minded people, or the wealth of knowledge and experience of technicians to rely on. This will be a different experience, one that can be extremely successful if they are ready to embrace it, be creative, enthusiastic and committed.

Commitment is another major issue with online courses as they stand today. Whilst no university student enrolls in a course to “check out” what the subject is about, our approaches to online learning need to evolve beyond the informal: there are tools and resources to learn about a subject informally, it is not the role of accredited courses to give us a quick fix for our coding problems at 3am.

The availability of online courses is important: to widen the access to HE, for universities to evolve with the times, and for students to have a flexible learning experience. To be and keep on being successful, the art school virtual learning environment cannot be, and shouldn’t try to be a replica of the physical setting. Indeed, the digital habitat may necessitate different and new relationships with subject areas, hopefully in ways that can enrich the perspectives and possibly practices of the students in the physical setting. For this to happen there would need to be a concerted effort on the part of the whole College community to integrate the learning environments. Not impossible at all, but a challenge nonetheless.

As we have seen, there are an array of different models being tried, each with its pros and cons. Students should go into online learning with an open mind and spirit, as should educators and universities designing courses and their whole digital learning environment.


In writing this article I am aware that I have touched on many things, and been inconclusive – but that is the beauty of the blog, it affords an opening up, and doesn’t expect a rock solid answer. However, what has been written is a marker. Online delivery of content isn’t new, but ‘delivery of content’ isn’t art education. What this post is wrestling with is how to think about enabling a creative learning online environment that provides some of the best parts of an art school education, develops its own empowering and enriching culture that encourages freedom to experiment, as well as understands and has the confidence to leave other facets of an art school education to flourish elsewhere.











Globalising Education: Trends and Applications (1998) Robin Mason, Routledge