An experience of distance learning


I am one ninth of the cohort who has just completed our MA in fine art with the OCA. Much has been made of the fact that this is a new kind of MA – a model of distance learning which has not fully been applied to fine art before, and if we are proof that such a process is possible, then all to the good for online education.

If much of the readership for this piece is already involved in studying with the OCA, then I don’t need to convince you of the great advantages of studying online, nor do I need to remind you of the limitations and challenges it also brings. If you sign up at all, then you are already a proactive person who is probably determined to find your artistic and creative voice in the midst of family, life and work. From what I understand, the MA works differently to the rest of the OCA courses in that we join as a group and all work through the assignments at the same time, so we share group crits and some collaborative projects along the way. The point of that was that we really all grew to matter to each other as a group of artists, and our understanding and development of practice was helped by sharing what we each went through within the group.

Without the support, challenge and collaboration of the group, and the critical exposure of our ideas within the group, I doubt if any of us could have got nearly so much from the MA as we did. Collaboration needn’t stray into individual art practice, but sharing ideas, intentions and questions is what makes us artists with something to communicate to the viewer. I urge anyone involved in the OCA to join in as much as they can, to create working bonds and to go outside the boundaries of the course by joining in to local and virtual groups where possible. Artwork is a conversation amongst artists and with the viewer.

As the first cohort, we signed up to four years, and subsequent groups now complete in three, thanks to tweaks in technology and course structure. However, I’d say it took us a good two years to get on the same page online, to develop levels of understandings and shorthand between us, and basically to get over all the sensitivities and miscommunication that can occur through the internet – we all know the sort of thing – people’s manner does not always translate well online. We were made very aware of that when we had visiting lecturers give a talk: they were unnerved by the silences as we switched off our microphones – we had become used to such active listening, taking turns to speak, and trusting that our words are being considered.

Completion of something is always a new beginning. TheNine are all making new beginnings – there will be exhibitions, residencies, research, teaching positions, further study and everything else possible for professional artists. And now that’s it’s all over, it seems to me that crucially the MA was not an experience of distance but a process of connection.


  1. anomiepete 6 January 2015 at 10:41 am

    Nice post that led to me click on your Facebook page and spend a little time wandering through the images. Well done to all of you.

  2. Josephine Edge 6 January 2015 at 10:56 am

    Congratulations to you all! I love the idea of collaborative, thinking, discussion etc. How I wish this applied to the degree course, especially HE4 and 5. Linking with our peers is vitally important for distance students but it is difficult to achieve. From what you said it was something that OCA set up – why can’t they do this for the degree courses?

    1. Eleanor MacFarlane 6 January 2015 at 11:23 am

      I just think it’s the nature of an MA course, and being in such a small group. Online learning is that balance of flexibility and rigidity. Linking to peers inside and outside the OCA is what matters!

    2. Peter Haveland 6 January 2015 at 1:04 pm

      There are a number of opportunities for undergraduates students of the OCA to link up both online and in person. Participation in the various student forums in the OCA student website is the start of this leading possibly to participation in one or more of the regional groupings that students have set up, Student led Facebook and or Flickr groups and so on and joining a study visit is something that those who have done so report as extremely valuable on so many levels.
      The OCA itself has perhaps two major difficulties in setting up any sort of groupings at an official level. The first and in my view the greatest obstacle in this, is the rolling enrolment (if you see what I mean) policy that it has always had and I suspect will always have. This is extremely valuable to the individual student, they don’t have to wait for the beginning of the academic year with all the concomitant problems that can bring but it does mean that there are no official cohorts of students tackling the same assignments at the same time as ther would be with both the OCA MA and the OU model. The second is the international nature of the student body. Even within the UK some student in the more remote or at least less populated parts find themselves more or less restricted to online contact and this is even more so with those outside the UK, even to the extent that online communications can be difficult for some in countries with a less than open attitude to the internet. Then there are those who for a variety of reasons are not as free as they might wish to participate outside the home.
      My own view is that those who participate in the forums benefit greatly and many of these find groupings that allow then to collaborate in a variety of ways, set up groups, organise unofficial visits and so on and so on and that student led initiatives are usually more successful and long lived than those coming from the centre which have to be so generalised.
      Those who want greater communication between students in whatever way can do worse than posting on the student site to find other student at the same point as they are willing to come together in discussion groups (Google Hangouts is one way of achieving this over great distances) or meet up for visits or simply a chat to lessen the feelings of isolation that distance learning can sometimes bring.
      However you go about it I wish you good fortune and do post your experiences on the student site.

      1. Nigel 6 January 2015 at 6:12 pm

        A list of all these virtual fora is available on the student website.

        1. Josephine Edge 6 January 2015 at 6:37 pm

          As a creative writing student the forums only seem to have a limited use. There is no structure to set up peer groups, and requests for this posted within forums have fallen on stony ground.

  3. Rob™ 6 January 2015 at 8:50 pm

    Echoing all the things said previously, and I’m speaking having experienced both sides of the BA/MA experience (photography degree and part of the 2014 cohort for the MA).

    Of the various fora, I found the Flickr group most useful during the BA, and I still chip in on there from time to time. I tried setting up a group for our MA cohort, but that is a dead horse I occasionally try to flog, but I’ve left it. The fact is that there’s different things that work for different people and you have to find that way of interacting with others doing a similar thing, otherwise you’re working in a silo, which is not how things develop.

    Josephine, is it worth trying to set up Google hangouts between you and fellow CW students? They’re easy to do once you have the OCA mail addresses of the people you want to talk to. Rather than it being a formal structure set up by the OCA team (who will have limited resource and need to do something that approaches what all the different course teams want), think of them being like a “common room”, albeit one that you need to co-ordinate instead of just drop into…

    1. Josephine Edge 6 January 2015 at 9:58 pm

      I set up a Yahoo group a couple of years ago which brought a few people together. Then a FB group was set up so I let the Yahoo go as it had exhausted itself. I am still in touch with one person from there. The FB group works well for general stuff for CW students. What I am looking for is a peer group to discuss, exchange ideas, critique each other’s writing if needed. I have already done all that has been suggested. CW is a little different from the other art disciplines. There is a big element of trust that takes time to set up. I am looking for people studying Poetry level 2. Jo.

      1. Anne 10 January 2015 at 11:18 pm

        While I was studying at OCA I found it was helpful to do a bit of networking outside of the organization when I couldn’t find anyone local and interested in my subject area. I think that it was time well spent. If you can get into Birmingham the Central library has bi-monthly meetups for poets. Not sure if that is helpful for you though.

  4. ocaartbyajm 7 January 2015 at 11:53 am

    Wonderful & inspiring to read, thank you Eleanor. Best wishes on your continuing journey and future connections.


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.