Forced to innovate rapidly when the world went into lockdown, the education sector experimented with online course delivery in a multitude of ways. Many institutions learned lessons the hard way as they struggled to balance student expectations with the realities of remote study, but others were already designing new, compelling ways of learning online.
Many students choose to study vocational courses online – such as creative writing, interior design and marketing – to equip them with the practical skills to hit the ground running in an industry, or to gain the advanced knowledge that will help them innovate within their sector. But it’s much less common to consider remote learning for practice-based courses that involve physical processes and outputs, such as art, film or photography.
“Many people feel that online learning is impersonal and passive,” says Amy Sampson, head of digital learning at Falmouth University. “But we design our courses to provide an engaging creative experience that supports students to grow.”
Falmouth was innovating in the remote-learning space long before the pandemic, so Sampson and her team were ahead of the curve. When delivered in the optimal way, online learning is far from a restriction: in fact, it can unlock new possibilities for people who would ordinarily struggle to pursue further study because of existing work or caring commitments, or where relocation isn’t an option.
JOIN A COLLABORATIVE COMMUNITY
To ensure remote-learning students feel connected and inspired, the onus is on the university to help build and maintain a supportive online community on each course. “That doesn’t just happen [by itself],” Sampson points out. “Activities must be carefully designed to encourage collaboration and connection.”
While online learning has been known for more ‘digital-friendly’ courses in the humanities, the traditional model overlooked the importance of space for the sharing of ideas, and collaboration for subjects in the creative field.
In this era of remote and hybrid working, professional creative communities are increasingly thriving online – and remote learning can help prepare students for that. “Doing a master’s degree can be quite introspective at times, but there was such a strong community on my course, with lots of forums for debate and discussion,” reveals Sarah Masters, a graduate from Falmouth’s MA Indie Game Development (Online) course. “I’ve learnt so much from passionate people from different countries, with different specialisms.”
MAKE GLOBAL CONNECTIONS
A diverse network of peers can be vital for support and encouragement. Having chosen Falmouth’s online MA in Fine Art to develop her painting and sculpting practice alongside a full-time marketing job, Leeds-based artist Anna Turner was struck by the international network she could tap into. “It adds a dimension that you wouldn’t get in a bricks-and-mortar institution,” she says. “You get an insight into practices from all over the world.”
For instance, Turner’s fellow MA Fine Art student Bjørg-Elise Tuppen lives in Harstad, in a remote Arctic region of Norway. Originally trained as a photographer and graphic designer, Tuppen was keen to develop her painting, drawing and sculpture skills. “It’s wonderful to be able to live up here and still have the opportunity to enrol in these studies,” she says.
“Working alone could get lonesome if you’re extroverted and enjoy working in groups,” adds Tuppen. “But the fact you don’t have to do this can be a benefit for others. Personally, I appreciate the freedom. But at the same time, the student community is there when I need it. Even though I’m studying solo, I feel part of a greater collective.”
PURSUE A NEW PROFESSION
Enrolling on an online course can be the first step in a wholesale career change: a big step for anyone. Even if you know you need to upskill, leaving your current job isn’t always an option – with bills, childcare and the cost of living on people’s minds. With modern online courses, many modules are on-demand, so you can learn in evenings, weekends, or whatever time you have available – making retraining or upskilling far more attainable.
Now an associate consultant, Tom Holmes balanced working full-time in advertising with an online MA in Marketing and Digital Communications to achieve a move into management consultancy. “The course deepened my knowledge of marketing theory, the industry, and improved my ability to communicate my ideas,” he explains. “It was pivotal in my move into a customer-facing consultancy role.”
Remote study can also provide the space and guidance you need to refine your current practice. Turner’s MA helped her diversify from painting and sculpture to film and installation, whereas for Tuppen, it formalised her move into the art business. “I wanted to broaden my horizons, and learn more about the fine art world,” she explains. “Remote learning enabled me to do so.”
FIND YOUR IDEAL STUDIO SET-UP
Although it’s hard to replicate a shared physical studio space when studying a creative course online, remote learning can contribute different, complementary concepts that enhance your own set-up. “You can use the idea of a physical studio to inform how this might be incorporated digitally,” explains Sampson at Falmouth.
Depending on your personality and individual process, having a quiet space to create at home can be advantageous. “For a while I was part of a creative hive, but I find it very difficult to focus and produce with people around me,” shares Tuppen. “A home studio makes it easier to jump in and out of the process of creating. I find that more effective.”
After renting studio spaces for several years, Turner opted to convert an outbuilding at home – a well-timed decision, as the space was ready just in time for lockdown. “I had no idea quite how much time I’d be spending at home,” she smiles. “It’s been invaluable.”
But for many students, a ‘home studio’ doesn’t need to be more than a clear desk space, or a repurposed spare room in which to create. It all depends on what a student has available, and their own interpretation of creative practice.
“If you come open and willing to explore your practice, it’s a great way to study around your other commitments,” concludes Turner. “I’ve put in some long days and late nights, but my work is definitely better for it.”