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Online Learning: Fashion Education’s Next Frontier

To accompany the launch of BoF’s first paid courses, we examine how online learning has broken down financial and geographical barriers to knowledge and the implications for fashion.
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By
  • Helena Pike

LONDON, United Kingdom — Over the past 10 years, the rise of digital and social media has lifted the veil on the once exclusive and impenetrable fashion industry, driving more interest in studying fashion among young people from all over the world.

Over the last decade, online learning has reshaped the global education sector by improving access to knowledge and institutions, and enabling students to overcome geographical or financial limitations to access the best lecturers, curricula and institutions in the world. Initially, online learning was held back by concerns over quality and legitimacy, but as use of technology and access to the Internet has improved, and awareness of the convenience and standard of courses has grown — spurred on by the entrance of prestigious institutions like Harvard, MIT, Yale, Berkeley, Oxford and Cambridge University — the market has evolved rapidly.

In 2014, 60 percent of US post-secondary institutions had an online offering, and the number of students enrolled in one or more online courses was at an all-time high of 34 percent, according to a BCG report. By 2023, the global e-learning market is predicted to exceed $240 billion, up from $165 billion in 2015, according to a report by research firm Global Marketing Insights.

Online education has the potential to be equally game-changing for the fashion education sector. Previously, to get a good education, students had to be free to attend classes on a physical campus — meaning they had to live nearby and be able to afford not only institutions’ fees, but also not working a paid job for the duration of their studies.

By contrast, online education is much more versatile. Courses can be completed anywhere with good access to the Internet, and are often structured so students can work through learning materials at their own pace — fitting education around their own schedule, rather than having to attend lectures at set times. “The flexibility is very important… It allows people to participate who never would be able to go to a brick and mortar institution,” says Fiona Hollands, adjunct associate professor of education at Teachers College, Columbia University’s graduate school of education.

It allows people to participate who never would be able to go to a brick and mortar institution.

This is particularly pertinent for fashion, where the best education and most prestigious institutions have traditionally been concentrated around the industry’s design capitals — London, Paris, Milan, New York and Tokyo. Online learning allows fashion students from far-flung geographies to tap the expertise of these institutions.

Breaking down financial and geographical barriers to education can also improve the student experience — especially in a sector like fashion education, which has long flourished from bringing together different perspectives and design visions. Technology has enabled “real-time artistic collaboration around designs with people in far corners of the world,” says Allison Bailey, a senior partner at BCG. “You can actually create much richer experiential learning, connecting people to real experts on things and pulling them into a collaborative space in a way you couldn’t before.”

Online courses can even produce better academic outcomes, by offering students a more personalised learning experience, tailored to their strengths and weaknesses. On the Internet, students aren’t tied to learning at the same pace as the rest of their class. Instead, they’re free to focus for longer on areas of uncertainty, while moving more quickly over aspects they already understand. “[Online education] serves up content to students to meet them where they are,” says Bailey. “They’re able to move faster and more effectively [through the course], because of the customisation.”

Understandably, there are some limitations to learning online. If courses have very large enrollments, it can be difficult for teachers to develop a rapport with their students. “You can’t really interact with them on a one-to-one basis,” says Hollands. For programmes where hundreds or thousands of students are enrolled at a time, “It’s hard to really feel that you can help individual students with their individual needs.”

And because online learning is a more independent educational experience, it’s crucial that courses provide effective avenues of assistance and structures of support for their students. “You better have a bunch of scaffolding support in your online system to make sure that students remained engaged, that they’re not left off to the side by themselves to do things on a fully autonomous basis,” says Bailey.

You can create much richer experiential learning, connecting people to real experts and pulling them into a collaborative space.

Teaching fashion education online also comes with its own specific set of challenges — most notably, the challenge of teaching creative design through digital media, rather than face-to-face in a studio. “In my opinion, to have the experience of understanding what silk versus toile versus wool versus knit feels like and behaves like is best as an in-person experience,” says Andrew Cornell Robinson, assistant professor of design and fashion marketing programme director at Parsons, which offers an online version of the course.

Indeed, so far, the majority of online fashion courses on the market focus on non-practical subjects that require more straight-forward teaching methods, such as merchandising and buying, marketing or business learning. "It's much easier to do a lecture and for the teacher to talk through a Powerpoint," agrees Barbara Bell, business manager of London College of Fashion, which offers a number of online short courses, from buying and merchandising, to fashion journalism and design.

Learning through the Internet can also create some barriers to peer-to-peer interaction, often seen as a crucial aspect of fashion education. In the fashion industry, who you know is often just as important as what you know, and attending a school with a group of like-minded individuals all with similar aspirations is a student’s first step to building an industry network that can benefit them later on in their career.

However, with every year that technology becomes more advanced, the experience of learning online is improving. The rise of applications such as Dropbox and Skype and tools that allow students to chat and share computer screens, have made it much easier to develop a sense of community online, while live-streaming demonstrations and creating video content to illustrate design techniques are making the teaching of the practical elements of fashion more successful.

“The software capabilities will only allow more and more sharing of artistic materials online,” says Hollands. “It won’t be that long before there are people who are pushing to teach design skills and even encouraging people to make or create things in their own spaces and share them online.”

Going forward, the success of online courses will rely largely on the value placed on them by the industry at large, explains Hollands. “If an employer is willing to hire someone on the basis of them having taken an [online course], if they say that’s something that adds value to your application, then I think it will encourage more people to take them.” Most likely, this will be depend on the reputation of the institution offering the course — and whether the programme is accredited by a respected fashion organisation, known for its leading position in the industry.

As interest in fashion education continues and technology breaks down the barriers to teaching through the Internet, online learning looks set to play an important part in fashion education. “It’s a true disruptor. We’re only at the beginning stage of crafting models that deliver on the potential [of e-learning],” says BCG’s Bailey. “There’s nothing more fundamental to where education is going to go than the role of digital and online.”

BoF’s online courses, “The Art and Science of Buying and Merchandising” and “Fashion History for Today,” are designed to equip participants with the skills needed to succeed as the industry becomes increasingly competitive and fast-paced. Sign up here.

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