A new teaching model for art schools?

Distance learning master’s courses announced by Falmouth pose the question of whether creative skills can be taught online

April 13, 2016
Crowd of press photographers aiming cameras
Source: Alamy
Close focus: a UAL photography lecturer says that working with students online is a different, but ‘very powerful experience’ in which ‘you really, really listen’

Last month, Falmouth University announced it was joining forces with Cambridge Education Group (CEG) to launch four new flexible and part-time two-year master’s programmes. From this autumn, three intakes a year of about 20 to 25 students will be able to study advertising and marketing, app development, events management and photography.

Most notably, the courses will be delivered almost entirely online, although with the option of short symposia or conventions either at Falmouth or in regional centres across the globe. While the university retains responsibility for content and quality assurance, the actual teaching will be done by specialist tutors.

Senior deputy vice-chancellor Geoff Smith said the core market for the courses was “in-work ambitious creatives who wouldn’t come to a UK campus but appreciate the value of a British degree”.

Although he admits the rationale is partly pragmatic, to get students to sign up to Falmouth degrees who would not be willing or able to study at Falmouth, he also stresses the benefits of diversity, giving participants a chance to “apply some of the learning from their global cohort into their own local practice”. They can also avoid all headaches with visas.

For Geoff Webster, managing director of CEG Digital, such courses represent one of the key ways that the worldwide appetite for degrees will be sated: “Global demand for post-secondary education is expected to rise from 165 million in 2013 to 263 million by 2025. If this demand was to be met by traditional delivery, it would require four universities to open every week for 10 years.”

Yet digital only (or almost exclusively digital) courses seem a surprising model for the creative sector. While it would seem perfectly possible to learn a fact-based subject such as accountancy online, wouldn’t photography degrees usually incorporate a good deal of hands-on mentoring? Isn’t it most effective to teach events management or advertising by putting a team of students together in a room and getting them to design a real event or a dummy campaign? Isn’t such group work much harder to carry out with fellow students in different continents and time zones?

Harbinger or anomaly?

To attempt to answer the question of whether the Falmouth move represents the direction of travel for some arts education, Times Higher Education contacted other leading art colleges to see if they had any similar plans.

For Paul Thompson, rector of London’s Royal College of Art, any such courses “would seem counter-cultural…we are all about a very concentrated, very small community of artists and designers breaking bread together, working in studios that adjoin each other until the wee hours of the morning”.

He maintained that “what students really value is what they learn from their peers. Our famous alumni such as David Hockney and Ridley Scott regale you with stories of what they learned from fellow students. It would be very strange to replace that with online provision.”

Other art colleges take a similar line. Although Ravensbourne “will continually look to explore opportunities as they arise”, director of external relations Ashar Ehsan said, it “currently has no plans to provide any of its academic provision through a distance-learning mode”.

However, the University of the Arts London (UAL) takes a different view.

“What we tend to see is a split between undergraduate and postgraduate provision,” observed David White, head of technology enhanced learning, “with online coming into play at master’s level and beyond.

“Face-to-face is still the most common form of provision, but postgraduates appreciate the flexibility of online and, significantly, will have already developed the fundamental technical skills of their creative discipline during their undergraduate years…So they are more interested in discussing the nature or character of their work, rather than necessarily needing hands-on technical support. Online platforms serve this form of pedagogy well.”

Examples at UAL include a “low-residency” MA in arts and cultural enterprise and an MA in fine art available online since 2004. Even closer to what Falmouth is doing is the master’s in photojournalism and documentary photography that UAL delivers through the London College of Communication. This is offered as a one-year course to around 35 on-site students, but since 2008 it has also been available as a two-year distance course for 15 to 20 students a year.

There are clear advantages for both students and university. People anywhere in the world, even if they are working in a remote area on a long-term project, can sign up.

“Lots of photographers deal with their subjects and clients digitally,” argues Paul Lowe, senior lecturer in photography, “so we have applied that idea to the course. We have a professional-level platform for sharing work.” After “working out the sweet spots in terms of time zones” at the beginning of the year, the college organises live web seminars and tutorials, and ensures that all formal sessions and lectures are recorded.

The result, admitted Dr Lowe, is a “subtly different experience” from a traditional site-based course, although he personally “feel[s] closer to online students, even if I only meet them at graduation and find it hard to match faces with voices”.

“You get a strange energy through web conferencing,” he added. “Without the normal cues of expression and body language, you really, really listen and it becomes a very powerful experience.” In terms of results, those studying at a distance do very slightly better than those in London.

It remains to be seen whether Falmouth and other providers can successfully adopt a similar model, combining the obvious advantages of an international cohort with the personal attention and possibilities for collaborative work that are so important in the creative sector.

But Professor Smith at Falmouth is acutely aware of the challenges and stresses that the institution’s tutors will be “very attentive to the individual’s creative development, even if not over the shoulder.

“We are putting some muscle into the idea of being nurturing and developing the creative voice in a way that’s akin to the support an on-campus student would have here.”

matthew.reisz@tesglobal.com

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Print headline: A new model for art schools?

Reader's comments (1)

Interesting that Masters courses will apparently no longer be delivered by the academics, who will be charged with producing content. Surely online students have a right to interact with academic specialists in the subjects they are studying in the same way that campus based students do? Without all the other features that go with campus based study - from studio space to corridor chats and campus facilities that make up the student experience, this student-academic relationship is critical. Its hard to envisage that these courses will be budget priced, and as someone experienced in developing and delivering online learning both at university level and within the private sector, I know how keen students are for value for money, academic and teaching expertise, interaction, contact and credibility. Institutions which devalue the roles of academics in delivering education will in a short time devalue the courses, institutional brand and commercial viability.

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