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Teaching art at a distance

By Michael Stewart / December 2006

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Teaching practical art courses by distance learning has always been a challenge for both teacher and student. Text-based subject disciplines present fewer problems than art courses in the online realm because art courses require that students create and submit visual materials for appraisal and comment.

At the Studio Art School in the UK, we provide nationally accredited art and design courses for those who choose to learn online. Our Web-based delivery system enables students to receive teaching materials and upload images of their work at each stage of development without the delays, transport costs, and security problems associated with traditional distance-learning courses. We use new technology to facilitate the acquisition of traditional skills.

Access for Everyone
When my colleagues and I first suggested delivering practical art and design courses online, we did not anticipate the tidal wave of criticism and howling gasps of incredulity that would greet our proposal. We became acutely aware that when one sticks one's head above the safety of the parapet of traditional art education, it's like asking to be shot full in the face.

The salvos came from two distinct fronts: the "technically, it can't be done" crowd, and the "aesthetically, it shouldn't be done" crowd. Each side seemed determined to believe I was claiming e-learning to be superior to classroom learning; I never have and never will. Not across the board. But I can give you examples of circumstances where e-learning is more effective than classroom-based teaching—for example, when classroom-based learning is not available to a particular student.

Innovation tends to be the result of need. In our case, it was more a case of dire circumstances and considerable desperation that lead to the formation of the UK's first online art school.

In our jobs as managers in a large further education college, we researched various methodologies for teaching and considered alternatives to the classroom-based, lecturer-led experience. Faced with escalating delivery costs, increasingly diverse government- and college-driven targets, and the need to maximize the effectiveness of staff-student contact time, educators are under pressure to develop leaner approaches to professional practice. Though our research was partly driven by a financial imperative, we were also charged with examining means of delivering effective learning to those finding it difficult to access traditional, studio-based art courses.

Exploring the Possibilities
Distance learning was the obvious first stop. Though well-established and respected, distance learning has been mostly associated with academic or theoretical subjects. Upon close examination, we felt that the mechanics of the process did not easily lend itself to practical arts-based courses. One set of problems related to the transportation of work—such as limitations on size and potential damage to fragile objects—in addition to the obvious expense and delay involved. However, during the course of our research we found examples of Web-based course delivery that we thought might work well with art and design.

Foremost in our minds was guaranteeing the quality of the learning experience. From the outset, our goal was to look at effective delivery mechanisms for the teaching of traditional skills to those studying the visual arts. For us, this remains the key to online learning: It is only the method of delivery that is perceived as innovative, not the teaching materials or, ultimately, the competences acquired by the student. While the method of delivery employs new technologies, they are only used as a means of facilitating the communication between tutor and student.

The Web-based teaching environment was exactly what we were looking for: an efficient means of delivering a quality learning experience in practical art subjects to students previously excluded. In addition, online teaching would be cost effective for institutions, convenient for students, and efficient for lecturers.

Providing Flexibility
Having recognised that our research had led us to a potentially groundbreaking venture, we proposed employing Web-based delivery in college and this led to the second of our problems: non-compatibility.

We discovered that working in a timetable-driven environment didn't afford us the degree of flexibility we wanted to offer our students. Like it or not, we live in an age where consumers want what they want, when they want it; that's why we have the 24-hour supermarket and the all-night garage. What we were proposing was equivalent to providing a similar degree of flexibility for our "customers" (the students), but this posed an enormous problem within a traditional college environment. Staff operating within a system reliant on timetables and availability of accommodation cannot support such a model.

Faced with the prospect of abandoning what we felt was an innovative system of delivery, we decided we might only realize our ideas if we resigned our posts and devoted ourselves to full-time development work. So the Studio Art School took on the challenge of creating a customized, virtual learning environment for those studying the visual arts.

Although we had a notion of how the package should look and operate, we had little idea of the functionality involved in the creation of the Web site. Combining innovative technologies with our extensive experience preparing students for progression to degree-level study, our team took the project through a research and development period which extended to 18 months. We feel the result is an efficient and effective educational experience that is set to revolutionize the teaching of practical art and design.

Defining the Product
With the Studio Art School, everything is online. Unlike traditional distance-learning courses, there is no need to rely on postal, telephone, or email communication. Each student is given access to their personal online studio where they can download learning materials and communicate with their tutors at any time, by simply logging on.

Students use a digital camera to photograph and upload their work at every stage of development through to completion, enabling tutors to guide their progress and give practical advice. Students can log on at home, during breaks at work, or while they are travelling. Students don't need a broadband connection or specialized software. And there are no time restrictions; students can communicate with their tutor whenever they want to.

During our first year, the Studio Art School has gained national approval of our programs. Studio Art School is the only institution in the UK approved to offer the Level 3 Diploma in Foundation Studies (Art and Design) by distance learning. The Studio Art School's enables domestic and international students who were previously unable to access courses of this type. We currently have students from 29 countries enrolled on our programs.

Recognizing Limitations and Applications
There are some obvious disadvantages to working online—notably, the lack of face-to-face contact between tutors and students, and further, the loss of the interaction between students that forms a vital part of any classroom-based experience. But we've found that any potential disadvantages are far outweighed by the advantages. In our online studio, we can give as much time as is necessary to each student and can bring them along at a pace which is suited to them as individuals. As tutors, we can confer and seek each other's advice about student's work and progress at any time. We have always been keen to stress that we do not consider our provision superior to the classroom experience. What we offer is flexibility. However, the advantages include the fact that our students don't have to compete against their peers for tutor attention, or endure the distractions that can sometimes be part of the group experience.

The Studio Art School method of communication enables student and tutors to converse by means of a personal message board located within the student's personal studio area. Advice, guidance, and comments on everything from works-in-progress to UCAS application procedures are discussed and recorded in an area called "My Tutorial." These conversations are stored for future reference, providing both student and tutor with a complete history of their interaction.

Similarly, students are encouraged to upload images of their work at every stage of its development to produce a comprehensive record of the creative process. With traditional forms of learning in the visual arts, once completed, the piece of work only exists in its final manifestation. Within the online studio, the piece exists as an ongoing process, recorded at every stage of development. Both tutor and student can refer to specific points in the creation of the work, using the stored images as examples. Should a student take a particularly unproductive tangent, we can easily bring them back to where things started to go wrong by referring to the appropriate image and redirecting them accordingly.

Old Criticisms and New Methods
Critics who have argued that the authenticity of the work produced by students will always be in question with this method of teaching are beginning to accept the validity of our online system. We regard the authenticity issue as a common criticism of any form of distance learning, but we believe this type of deception is least likely to happen with our system: We receive and store literally dozens of images for each piece of student work and can request sketchbook notes and other supportive materials at all stages of the process. Our method provides little opportunity for cheating.

One of the unexpected problems experienced by the team was in the development of teaching materials suited to the new delivery. We had assumed that once we had ironed out the kinks in the mechanics behind our online studio, the teaching materials would simply be adapted from those we'd used previously in the classroom. We discovered that this was not the case. Delivering practical activities online required a radical rethinking of lesson content. We found that the most effective way of presenting the process was to undertake the activity and photograph the students' progress. The narrative was then written retrospectively. The result is that each lesson is presented as a series of step-by-step demonstrations. These do not require specialized software, and our provision is predicated on our students having access to nothing more powerful than a 56K modem.

Similarly, our team is aware that many students may not have access to dedicated studio facilities. Consequently, all our demonstrations are conducted and photographed on a standard kitchen table. As many of our students do not have a dedicated work space or a great deal of specialized equipment, we aim to cater to those who need a flexible approach to their learning, who have limited access to their working area, and an equally limited budget for materials.

Spreading Our Net
Due to the extensive feedback we receive, we know that for many of our students regard Web-based learning as ideal. Often, these students have been frustrated by the lack of viable alternatives to attendance-based courses and feel isolated and excluded by their circumstances.

The Studio Art School's target student groups include those in rural communities, those with irregular patterns of employment, single and working parents, and adult returnees to education and careers. We are also targeting international students seeking entry to degree-level study in the UK, and we work with Net languages, a language school based in Barcelona, offering English language and IELTS preparation courses online.

Now in our third year of operation, we feel that we have established online delivery as a viable method of teaching practical art and design, but we are far from complacent. Currently, we are piloting a series of online seminars with the British Council in Moscow, designed to provide opportunities for Russian students interested in studying art and design in the UK, with the means to communicate directly with experienced practitioners who can offer guidance, help, and advice.

A Radical Approach
We have experienced that certain sections of the educational community are reluctant to even consider using ICT as a means of teaching art and design. Their argument hovers between issues of authenticity and aesthetics. Frankly, we believe that neither criticism is valid. Our method of receiving student work digitally as it develops and progresses makes the submission of non-authentic work so difficult and time-consuming as to be impractical. The quality of digital images of student work we receive is usually excellent, and we are free to view sections of student work in minute detail without damaging or detracting from the whole. Further, digital portfolios can be easily and quickly submitted to our partner institutions should one of our students be considering application to an advanced course.

We know that what we have done with the Studio Art School utilizes only a small portion of the Web's enormous potential. If we are to truly explore new methodologies and strategies for learning, we must embrace this technology and apply it accordingly. This will not involve tinkering with existing systems and models in education or forcing our square technological pegs into traditional round holes. What's needed is a more radical approach, and the will to create mutually supportive systems for the benefit of teachers and learners alike.


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