On Teaching Fashion: A Conversation on Social Interaction Part II

This week’s post is a continuation of a conversation about social interaction in the learning environment.   Dirk vom Lehn, a sociologist and lecturer at Kings College in London, Will Gibson, a lecturer at the Institute of Education at the University of London, and I discuss our thoughts about online learning this week.


  • What are your feelings about online learning?  Do you think it can be effective in and of itself?  Or should it just be an ancillary resource to a course?

Vom Lehn:
I am teaching a course on Marketing and New Technology as part of a MSc program on International Marketing at King’s College London.  The course is ‘solely’ taught in the classroom. But as with most courses these days course material is uploaded to an online site hosted at the university.  The service we use here is a version of Moodle.  It allows us to create folders where course material is stored to be downloaded by students. Students also can ask questions there which is supposed to reduce the email mount made up of repetitive question-answer sequences that otherwise would develop in my inbox. Moreover, the site has a blog facility.

The uptake of the site is almost zero. Students downloaded the syllabus and some of the other material I have posted there but other than that they do not return to the site.

I guess the following has often been reported and discussed but the practice still has not changed. Sites hosted at university level are one more site for students to manage and go to, in addition to their social media and social networking activities elsewhere. Added to this the systems often are difficult to log into and and clunky to use, students do not use them. Resources wasted.  

For a few years now, I have been using Facebook to support information delivery as part of the course.  I setup a closed Facebook Group, send out the address to the students at the beginning of the course and ask them to join the group. I post links to video-clips from the lectures and other related material there. Normally, by week 2 some of the students start posting links related to the course. They find newspaper articles, video-clips and images that they put up and that are viewed by the other students. These items often serve as points for short discussions or at least a short series of comments. In a sense, the items I and the items the students post become the objects their interaction focuses around.

I also encourage students to use blog sites like tumblr and microblogging sites like Twitter to write and publish. My students are marketing students who often in their jobs will required to produce and publish short pieces of writing on behalf of their employer. So I see this as an activity that at least encourages them to make a first move into that direction.

Gibson: Lots of my teaching is in the online master’s programme that I coordinate, the Master’s in Educational and Social Research (MRes) in Educational and Social Research, run in collaboration between the Institute of Education and the University of London International Programmes.    I am absolutely convinced that it can be effective.  For me, questions of the type ‘which is better, online or face to face?’ miss the point that they are just different and offer different possibilities.  

The key issue is really about finding ways to achieve your goals in whatever format you are teaching in, and that means designing the learning activities in appropriate ways. On our programme, we try to make use of the possibilities offered by online contexts. You can ‘stretch’ activities over time in a way that you can’t face to face, and create tasks like collaborating on writing documents or researching and critiquing a particular thematic area. Those kinds of things are much harder in the time constraints of a face-to-face  class. We also use videoconferencing which enables us to do the kinds of activities you might in a conventional classroom, like group discussion and lecture presentations.

Clearly, online learning gives people access to higher education that would not otherwise have it. Our students come from and live all over the world and are able to participate in a highly interactive course without giving up their work and family lives to come and live in London, and without the incredible expense that would entail, too.

Face-to-face, online, and ‘blended’ learning are just different modes of delivery and the decisions about which to adopt, and what kinds of technologies to integrate are matters of design.  Adding technology to a course for the sake of it (like adding a discussion board online to run alongside a conventional lecture/seminar course) will not work. You need to be clear why you are doing that, what you want to achieve, what the students will get out of it, how that relates to the other things they are doing in the course. Sometimes, there is really no reason to use technology of this kind. If you can achieve the course aims without it and there are no problems with a conventional delivery, then why change things? But often there are issues that can be resolved through technology. This might be something simple like the delivery of lecture handouts and slides that can be placed on a virtual learning environment, or perhaps something more complex like using wikis or blogs to produce project work.

In the abstract, new technology gives us as educators the opportunity to step outside of the constraints of time and place that we have until very recently operated in (i.e. that classes are held in particular places and at specific times). They also help us to think about what kinds of resources we can use in learning and teaching, how people interact with them, how we assess learning, what the roles are of learners and teachers, what the boundaries are between different learning communities or even between learning and professional communities.  In practice, finding the time and intellectual space to really think through and design learning properly is very difficult and can only usually happen when an institution provides it (i.e. funds it).

But can online learning be effective? Absolutely! And there are an increasing number of good examples of that in the world, including, I think, our own Master’s course.

Murgia: For a long time, I was not completely convinced of the efficacy of online learning.  This has to do with my discipline.  Fashion and art are creative disciplines, and much of the learning has to be demonstrated and practiced in a studio.  A lot of my initial hesitations about an online learning environment had to do what a perceived lack of social interaction between myself and the students, as well as the students with one another.  

However, I am an avid learner, and started to realize that most of the ways I gather new information are online.  Blogging was also another avenue that expanded my awareness that learning and transmitting information online can be very rich, rewarding, and otherwise unobtainable way of having an audience of peers and those in your field.  Obviously, onsite classes for specific skills – like sewing or painting – are highly desired.  Yet for disciplines like fashion marketing, fashion forecasting, or even fashion history, I can see the online learning environment being highly desirable, perhaps even superior to onsite classes.

I teach at Berkeley College in New York, and am currently training to teach courses online via Blackboard.  Berkeley utilizes Blackboard to a very high degree.  I’ve taught at other universities that do not use technology platforms at all, or to very low degrees.  This training has absolutely convinced me that online learning can be preferable to onsite learning.  This is because it shifts the student to take a much more active role.  It is impossible for students to the same type of behaviours as they would in onsite classes.  For example, they cannot just sit silently in the back of the classroom, or perhaps dominate discussions.  Instead, everyone has a set period of time to contribute to discussion boards or video conferencing.  Each student is given a deadline to complete tasks, so there are no pesky interruptions for those that may arrive late or have to leave early.  Anything that shifts the students to be an active participant is a process I favor in facilitating the learning process.  This really is how people learn – they have to be engaged and participating to assimilate knowledge.

I am particularly fascinated with how Dirk integrates existing social media platforms.  I think this is a fantastic idea, because it eliminates a lof of the issues with the learning platforms.  I think students are much more likely to share information for a class via Twitter or Facebook, because these platforms are part of their everyday life.  They can simply click and share interesting videos and articles.  A lot of this has to do with the ways in which social media sites are structured.  They operate using an open graph system, something which I hope that learning platforms like Blackboard and Moodle will start to integrate into their systems.  I think students can be encouraged to be engaged on Blackboard or Moodle, but there is a huge time lag to sharing on these sites in comparison to Facebook or Twitter.

For my product development class, I have my students create social media channels for their major project.  The students have to design, market, and price a private label collection.  A major component of a fashion line is analyzing the market and competition, as well as promoting the line.  After creating a name and concept for this line, I make them create Pinterest boards for inspiration, a facebook fanpage, a twitter page, and so forth.  I ask them to follow lines they perceive as their competition, department stores that would be potential buyers of their collection, and to post relevant content regarding the development of their project.  This gives them the practice of developing a social media platform for business and market analysis.  They are able to see the ways in which other business engage customers and can model this behavior.  This is a course I teach onsite, and think it touches upon the ideas that Will mentions in blending learning modes.

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