Celebrating years of inspiring online art/design education

Connecting with Classmates in Traditional and Online Classes

by Clara LaFrance | June 16, 2011

Human beings are social creatures. In this sixth post in our series comparing traditional and online art and design schools, I will talk about how students connect to one another, and how that connection is beneficial to the classroom and the individual creative process. Your fellow art and design students are the key to your success, but how you work with them varies depending on the type of program you’re in.

Art and design programs are intrinsically social. Banish the thought of a stereotypical lone artist! Art cannot happen in a vacuum. As artists and designers, we are inspired by the world around us, by current events, by history, and by each other.

Online discussions are vibrant conversations between degree students, centered on the topics covered in the lecture. Discussion between designers is an important part of the creative process to produce beautiful work such as this illustration by Vesela Popova (top).

Interacting at a Traditional Design School

If you are enrolled in a traditional “on-ground” program, one of the first places to interact is a campus computer lab. While you may own a laptop with all the software you need, don’t underestimate the power of working with other students. When your fellow students are working toward the same assignment in one place, the opportunity quickly arises to discuss the assignment, inspirations, and ideas as well as to clarify the assignment itself.

I worked as a computer monitor for several years during my undergraduate years. The most productive times were, perhaps counter-intuitively, the times my classmates were there as well. A quiet lull would be broken by a fellow student asking, “What do you think of this?” while pushing the rolling desk chair away from the computer screen. “I like the color choices, and I love the dancing silhouettes; that’s a beautiful shape. But what’s going on in the lower left? I can’t figure that part out.”

With this close proximity, feedback can be casual and immediate. It is easy to have a kind of critique dry-run and make your edits before the critique itself in front of your classmates and instructor!

Interacting in an Online School

In an online art and design program, you can’t expect the immediate feedback of your fellow classmates in physical work areas, but you will be able to build camaraderie and interaction in the form of online discussions. In Sessions degree courses, each lecture has an associated discussion topic that gives you the opportunity to “meet” other students and share thoughts on that week’s coursework.

As you get to know your classmates and their backgrounds, you’ll likely find that the perspectives they can bring to your work are just as valuable as in-person feedback. You might meet a student from a different culture with a fresh take on color and composition. Or perhaps you’ll network with a student from across the country who shares your style and could be a freelance partner down the line in your career.

I asked Sessions College President Gordon Drummond for his view on the value of online discussions. “Class discussions are an essential part of the learning experience in our degree programs at Sessions College. Our faculty work hard to create discussion topics that get students thinking, talking, and doing–and learning from each other, as well as from the instructor. Some discussions are built to encourage the development of design techniques, while others stimulate research skills or help students develop their proficiency in critiquing artwork. The discussions fulfill a larger goal, of course, of giving students confidence in discussing their own work, getting experience working with others, and learning how to deal with different critical perspectives.”

Starting the Conversation

At the beginning of the program, the students are less comfortable with one another, and conversations may feel harder to start, particularly if you are shy. Don’t despair! The shared experience of the classroom, online or off, will be enough to start a conversation. Before you know it, the studio, discussion board, or email box will be peppered with impromptu critique sessions and valuable conversation.

If you are working on a project at home and feel as if you hit a creative wall, it is a sure sign you seek some feedback. This may a fine time to email the file to a few classmates or the instructor for feedback. Being an online student means having immediate access to your class, as well as the benefit of a thoughtful, written reply!

Regardless of your program type, try any of these tactics to get a conversation started.

  • Ask for help! People enjoy feeling helpful, and you can facilitate the process by providing a need for help. Ask for suggestions or advice on your composition, for example.
  • Offer insight. If you see a piece posted that really speaks to you, say something! Who doesn’t like to hear that their art is inspirational?
  • Ask a question about someone else’s work. Talking about our own work solidifies the concept in our own mind, which will in turn strengthen the piece. Hearing about someone else’s perspective or technique can be enlightening, interesting, or inspiring.

Have you benefitted from student interaction in your classes? What else could you do to strike up a conversation in a new class? Use the comments below to add to the list!

Clara LaFrance is a freelance graphic designer when she is not pursuing her dreams as a circus teacher and performer. Clara has an M.F.A. in graphic design from Boston University.