​can you get the same experience from an education online as you can from art school?

As art education slowly but surely shifts into the virtual stratosphere, Central Saint Martins graduate Greg French asks what is lost and what is gained.

by i-D Staff and Greg French
04 June 2015, 12:33am

There are countless articles out there questioning the role that technology is currently playing within education. Virtual teachers, internet based classrooms, online grading - these are things no longer referred to in the future tense. Yet, there's little discussion around the role that those digital realms are to play within arts education. But why? Are art schools falling behind because they're hanging onto a romanticised view of how their students should be taught? Or are they protecting a tried and tested method that has birthed some of the greatest creative minds we have to offer?

The first real hurdle that has to be tackled is the nature of the physical space, which acts as testing lab within the creative process. Can the web present us with a space to throw cans of paint at a studio wall or room to roll out reams of fabric and experiment with toiles? Well, when you think about it, the answer is probably yes. But that's down to pure simulation - which leaves out a crucial part of creative education - the process of human interaction and essential failures.

Ask any art or fashion student and it's likely at some point they've had that "fail again, fail better" conversation with any of their tutors. Those spontaneous moments of genius however, rely heavily on the discussions that surround them after. In moments of confusion during my own experience of art school - I would turn to those around me for advice. Yet, if that same notion of experimentation can be achieved in any space, and then shown for discussion online, have we eradicated the need for an educative studio space?

Perhaps we have to look more closely at the principles of education themselves - to that age-old pairing of master and apprentice to better see the role that technology has to play. Education, or so it has been presented, relies so heavily on the impartment of knowledge from the wise to the inexperienced. That's the premise behind mastered.com - a new site that promises, "online fashion courses taught by world-class industry professionals."

It's first course, The Val Garland School of Make Up, is a three month long scheme which provides regular video content from the legendary doyenne - alongside support from the likes of i-D, Nick Knight and NARS. It boasts the "closest thing to being her assistant, without actually being her assistant." That's a pretty exciting prospect for those who don't have the financial access to four years worth of fees, or the time or access to Central London.

Here, the notion of live streaming and digital interaction is so crucial, in order to replicate the discursive quality of the art school, exploding that outwards to anyone across the globe. Lou Stoppard, Editor of SHOWstudio, the pioneering fashion site directed by Nick Knight, shares that belief, "the internet breaks down huge geographic barriers - it let's people who don't live in one of the four traditional fashion cities have access to discussion and debate about clothing and fashion."

Perhaps it's that notion of "access" that is cause for concern to so many art schools. It's no secret that recently, with the rise of tuition fees, the role of the institution has come under fire, frequently described as an 'elitist' system, which is failing to recruit the underdog, and choosing instead to cater to those who can foot the bill. That's a really devastating thought, and a fact that needs to be embedded at the heart of any debate around the evolution of our art schools.

What therefore can art school offer us that the online can't? Having studied at St Martin's School of Art from 1977-1980, Professor Iain R. Webb is now an associate lecturer at Central Saint Martins, visiting Professor of Fashion at The Royal College of Art and revered fashion writer. "The art school experience is just that - an experience," replied Iain, when I asked him that question. "It is not simply about learning. The art school process should offer opportunity for challenge, self-discovery, experimentation, discourse, soul searching, mistake making and, most crucially, humanity. It is often messy."

Perhaps therefore, the question is better posed; not what will technology do to education, rather what can education do for technology? Without that humanistic element to the digital, then really what's the point of it all? There's a scene in Alex Garland's sci-fi thriller Ex Machina that asks that question of so-called auto-painter Jackson Pollock. "The challenge is not to act automatically," explains Nathan, the film's central character. "It's to find an action that is not automatic. From painting, to breathing, to talking, to fucking, to falling in love..."

That's something that seemed to happen incredibly harmoniously as part of Central Saint Martins' Fine Art Degree show. Students teamed up with Shia LaBeouf, Luke Turner and Nastja Säde Rönkkö to stream the private view of their degree show in its entirety. Each of the 36 works were segmented with green screened introductions from LaBeouf, who had previously liaised with the students to work out exactly what he was to say. "The reason we first started live streaming our shows was that we all had family and friends around the country and around the world who would be unable to come to see our work," explains Andrew Smith, a student and lead organizer of the project. "Technology becomes a device for making the world smaller and giving us access to resources that we otherwise would never come across."

In the past, our generation has been referred to as the "bridge generation". That is a group that sits between the established, and that which is to come. As the first generation of art students to grow up solely online, it's no surprise that it's taking some time to work out how best technology can fit into our educative system. But while the best creative education often begins when you hit the pub or club at the end of the day and somehow fall into three hour long debates with the brilliant minds you've met at art school, there's no doubt that the ready availability of an education online has mass appeal for an audience who, for whatever reason, can't attend art school.


Text Greg French
Photography Joi Ito

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