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Online Students Converge at Summer Expo

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School of Fashion Drawing Coordinator Jim Yang instructs Frank Martinez during a Summer Expo workshop. Photo by Bob Toy.

Since 2002, the Academy of Art University has provided its vast art degree programs to students across the world through its comprehensive online education courses. According to Melinda Mettler, director of Online Student Relations, about 70 percent of Academy students enrolled for the Spring 2017 semester were in the online program. 

“People keep talking about how online education is the school of the future, when actually, the future is already here,” she said.

Many Academy students opt for the online program based upon convenience: Whether their reason is because they have a full-time job and a family, they live outside of San Francisco or it’s a mixture of both, the university’s online courses give students flexibility and control over their schedule and degree pathway. 

There is, however, a trade-off. What online students gain in flexibility, they are without in the traditional classroom experience. Having real-time, hands-on interaction with their instructors and peers can be beneficial in any craft, and there are more opportunities to learn from others when in a physical setting. 

That’s why ever since 2011, Mettler and the Academy’s online education department organizes its Summer Expo, a one-day event where online students can visit the university and interact with faculty and classmates in-person. This year, the Expo was held on June 10 with around 45 students in attendance, with some coming from as far as Phoenix, Ariz. and Las Vegas. 

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Alumni Panel guest speakers Temarius Walker and Christine Carlson with Director of Online Student Relations Melinda Mettler. Photo by Bob Toy.

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School of Jewelry & Metal Arts instructor Patty Nelson and M.A. JEM student Korinne Lewis. Lewis drove from southern California to attend Summer Expo. Photo by Bob Toy.

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Meet Your Mentor Panel: (L–R) Michael Lee, Jeanette Hail, Director of Online Student Relations Melinda Mettler, Carmen Zagazeta and Frank Martinez. Photo by Bob Toy.

The main focus for the event is to help foster a sense of community for online students, in addition to answering any questions regarding career path, portfolio building and just life in general as a professional artist. Hot topics of discussion during the mentor and alumni panel included time management, networking and overcoming self-doubts. 

“It’s really hard being an online student. You’re out there in cyberspace and you’re [essentially] all by yourself,” Mettler explained. 

“As online students, all we know is sitting in front of a computer and doing module work,” said Frank Martinez, an online graduate of the School of Animation and Visual Effects and featured speaker on the mentor panel. “When you’re able to talk with someone that’s on the same trajectory, you’re motivated to do better, be more inspired, be more self-driven because you know there’s someone out there like you that’s looking for motivation.” 

By bringing the online students to Spring Show, Mettler said that helps them understand the Academy’s standards and expectations. She said the experience is “usually humbling and slightly scary for them,” but the alumni panel helps “reassure them that yes, they can do this.” 

Korinne Lewis, an online M.A. jewelry and metals arts student, actually had work displayed in this semester’s Spring Show. She said she drove her work to San Francisco from Newbury Park in southern California. 

“I didn’t trust something fragile to be mailed,” she laughed. “Plus, I didn’t have to take too much time of my life to get it up here.” 

Lewis said as an online student she does miss the connection she would normally have in a physical classroom but as she’s been taking the online courses, she’s been able to build her jewelry-making workshop at the same time. 

“I feel like I have that flexibility within my life to do things when I feel like I need to,” she said. “I can work all night and there [are] no hours where I’m limited to get to my workshop. So far, the two instructors I’ve had have been very helpful, they always have great critiques and it’s just been an amazing experience.”

One of the featured workshops included figure drawing, where students could receive instruction as they would in an on-site physical classroom environment. Drawing and painting instructor Tomutsu Takishima from the School of Fine Art led the workshop and worked with students providing real-time critiques and feedback they aren’t accustomed to with the online classes. Although he is full-time, on-site faculty, Takishima records several demos for the online fine art program.

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Online students and instructors at the 2017 Summer Expo. Photo by Bob Toy.

“It’s quite different for online students—they’re only looking at their own drawings all the time and online, we only see the results. You finish it, then show it to your instructor,” he explained. “Here, they see the process. They can see how the student next to them is doing the same drawing differently from how they’re doing it. They can see the process more clearly.”

As the online student population continues to grow, Mettler said the Academy’s focus is how to better serve its cyber-community. The Summer Expo proved to be a step in the right direction not only with its alumni panel and workshops (including one that taught students how to photograph their artwork for submission, led by School of Photography instructor Erik Butler), but by simply creating a space for the online students to meet and interact. 

“As an online student, when I was first introduced to Spring Show, I didn’t know anything about it,” Lewis said. “So, for me, this is where I want to be, this is my career, this is what I want to do. I feel like, as much interaction as I can have with the school and the actual people that are here, the better. Anything that they have, I’ll be here.”