Online learning: mutuality and desire


Copyright Svala Regnars, MA Photojournalism, LCC

Copyright Svala Regnars, MA Photojournalism and Documentary Photography, LCC

I was struck by the comment of Sarah Kante, a recent UAL graduate, who explained, “What really is missing in an online learning environment are the creative physical environments, the people we meet, and of course, the technicians we all rely on so much.” Coincidentally, the previous evening I had read an interview with CSM technical specialist Billy Dickinson who, when asked about his biggest creative inspiration, replied “The students. It’s inspiring to be constantly surrounded by new ideas and be challenged to support them in finding different ways to realise their visions.”  Whilst not wishing to provide a schmaltzy article about an apparent love-in between students and technicians, I do want to highlight how important these reciprocal creative and respectful relationships are, and how vital they are to a successful and socially constructed art and design Higher Education (HE) experience.

Yes, the calibre and commitment of CSM’s technical staff is impressive; they are as good as it gets. But what I want to take for a wander in this post is the concept of mutuality – the active role of the social situation in the spatial context. However, the focus will be the virtual learning environment, i.e. the digital space, so I’m going to shift attention from the emotional creative relationships in the 3D workshop space, and ponder whether the form of social solidarity that Sarah and Billy expressed can be fostered and sustained in an online art and design learning environment.

As described in an earlier post, online learning isn’t new, but it is flourishing and there are multiple models in-play. If we think about starting from scratch to create an art school education online, how do we ensure that we don’t end up with something like the current FutureLearn UK offer? I use this example, I could use any number of online learning platforms, because it is a UK HEI endeavour.

FutureLearn UK interface

FutureLearn UK

At the University of the Arts London (UAL) we have a number of individuals who have pioneered various online or blended learning activities. For instance, LCC’s Paul Lowe launched and leads a photojournalism masters course, LCF’s Tim Williams has extensive experience of teaching fashion across a range of digital platforms, I have led interdisciplinary extra-curricular blended learning projects, CSM’s Artscom unaccredited short courses are managed by Damian Borowicz with CSM tutors, and Camberwell’s Jonathan Kearney runs an online masters course in digital fine arts. So, a wealth of experience and understanding resides ‘in-house’, and offers the institution a rich resource when conceiving of an online learning and teaching habitat for artists and designers.


MA Fine Art Digital Wiki, Camberwell

MA Fine Art Digital Wiki, Camberwell

For any social system to establish and flourish there needs to be a foundational philosophy and a clearly articulated set of values – this would certainly need to be the case for any future art and design education space situated online. To avoid absorbing society’s seeming commitment to maintaining established hierarchies, ploughing on with instrumentalist thinking, and affording process and procedure a mantle above empowerment and potential, it would be wise to create a philosophical ground that thwarts the rationalist tendency. At this point I return to Sarah and Billy, and position mutuality as a core tenet of any future art school virtual environment.


‘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.


This is a lovely and heart-warming quote from Sarah – and regrettably this vital aspect of the art school experience sometimes gets forgotten, for a focus on measurement and quantification. It emphasises once more the participatory and communal aspect of art school, and this inclusive sense of acceptance and ownership should be understood as a significant factor when conceiving of any digital habitat for learning. How do you design an online environment for feelings of attachment, belonging, responsibility, trust, collaboration, and ownership? Importantly how do you do that without employing tactics from affective computing or machine learning – or, am I already limiting the scope of any potential digital platform, and indeed artificial intelligence and semantic computing deserve a seat in the studio?

All UK HEIs will have their own virtual learning environments, but I have yet to hear them described in terms other than operational. For instance, I don’t recall a tutor or a student recounting how those digital platforms had fostered affective relationships between a range of different people. That is a significant difference between the existing VLEs and the 3D workshop. Hence, whilst acknowledging fully the complex ‘wicked’ problem that is the relationships between people, digital places and learning, the experience of our current VLEs shows us that when designing for new learning spaces, we should employ new ways of thinking and decision-making that emphasises human and community agency.

Mixed technology

Mixed technologies supporting learning


In an earlier mulling over alternative online learning environments I had discussed ‘desire’ as a means of orientation, and in doing so asked, ‘Are there valuable insights to be gleaned from alternative virtual spaces that could influence the ways we provide for students online at Central Saint Martins?’ Through the lens of ‘sex and the virtual environment’ I explored some ways that the performance of art education might be played-out. I continue to see desire as a key theme when imagining what the experience of art education can be in the hybrid environment within which we all live, and learn. This post started to think about the different and fluid ways in which we might inhabit the university, and what our networked and morphing learning spaces might be.

So, although I’m not seeking to sum up my wander – as we are at the early stage of investigating the experience we want for online art and design learning and teaching –  when discussing the development of technologically mediated information and communications systems it seems essential that we frame a digital learning environment as being socially constructed, in order to avoid the stultifying, and all too familiar, rational technocratic solutions for the complex challenge of online art and design education. I will conclude this post by suggesting that we attend creatively and critically to what it means to study and to teach art and design online.

What does it mean to be a digitally literate student or tutor when inhabiting the virtual studio?


Interesting Links

LCC MA Photojournalism and Documentary Photography 2013

Camberwell MA Fine Art Digital wiki