Weighing the benefits and pitfalls of learning through the web.
Distance learning is not a new trend, but the growing impact of laptops, tablets and phones in our daily lives has paved the way for online jewellery tutoring that enables students to learn in their own time and at their own pace. Will it have an impact on traditional jewellery education? Kathryn Bishop finds out more.
There is a new phenomenon taking place in jewellery education, as teachers and students meet in virtual classrooms, removing the rooms of workbenches to instead share their techniques and tricks of the trade from behind their computer screens.
Since the beginning of 2014, two new online jewellery schools have launched in the UK, joining the handful that already existed in providing video tutorials on everything from how to use metal clay, to developing sketching and design skills and casting jewellery at home.
While distance learning is nothing new – the Open University, renowned for its distance education courses opened in the UK in 1971 – the addition of computers and the growth of videos as a medium for teaching is carving a new path in jewellery education as it moves online and opens doors for more tutors of varying specalisms, promoting the learning of new techniques and skills.
Prospective students seeking online jewellery tutoring can pay one-off fees upwards of £15 for a single course or purchase year-long memberships to some digital schools for £199, providing them with access to video tutorials that cover a vast array of skill levels and depths, from simple repairs to how to use photography light boxes and even stone setting.
Beyond the video tutorials themselves, the fees typically allow students to be part of forums and webinars with their tutors, while some sites offer one-on-one web-based tutoring.
While traditional jewellery education through universities and design schools welcome students for three year degrees, higher national diplomas (HNDs) or short courses, this type of education can be expensive and time consuming. Further, in an era where convenience reigns supreme, the online educational realm has vast appeal for those trying to balance studying with the demands of existing jobs and family life, while also being more affordable.
There has been notable growth in the number of online jewellery education sites operating in the UK, with the likes of Atthebench.com pioneering the method, having launched in 2010. More recently, sites such as Mastered.co and Jewelryfromhome.com have opened their virtual doors to students of all skill levels, from hobbyists to jewellers looking to build on their knowledge or launch their own business.
THE ONLINE EDUCATORS
One of the most important factors in education is the quality of the teaching itself. With traditional schools and educational facilities, official bodies such as Ofsted carry out inspections, while examinations and students’ scores reveal a great deal about the quality of teaching.
When it comes to online education however, how can a student be sure that the education they are receiving is not only adequate, but also professional and presented from and with experience? This is where online education proves difficult to monitor and it is therefore up to the provider of the education to prove their credentials and win testimonials.
Andrew Berry of Atthebench.com is a South Wales retailer who has run a bricks-and-mortar store for several years, employing two in-house goldsmiths.
He launched video tutorials through At The Bench to offer real time, step-by-step education that could be viewed repeatedly, paused and commented on to help students hone their skills. For Berry, it was being able to provide education for time-poor individuals that sought to learn new skills that drove him to launch the site. Today, At The Bench boasts more than 4,100 members from all corners of the globe. “Time-served and knowledgeable, enthusiastic tutors are a must: not ones that merely regurgitate what they have been taught themselves, often recently and sometimes badly,” Berry says.
“To ensure that you can give the consumer value for money you have to keep adding new content – weekly not monthly. This all takes time and costs money but it is very necessary,” he says. “You can’t rely on just making online films either; our members ask for interaction so at least once a month we broadcast live webcasts showing techniques and viewers have the opportunity to ask questions and get replies in a real time situation.”
More recently was the launch of Mastered.co, an online jewellery and crafts education site that aims to provide links between students and the industry. Working with Holts Academy to run a selection of jewellery courses, Mastered’s founder, the entrepreneur Adil Abrar, created the site to offer creative education that can be taken anytime, anywhere and on any device – whether computer, iPhone or tablet. The site is being overseen by journalist and author Perri Lewis, who operates as Mastered’s creative director, curating classes that are led by skilled industry experts who hope to provide students with access to roles, placements or contacts within the industry. Mastered’s classes cover a variety of skills from decorative embroidery to how to create a business plan.
Says Lee Lucas, principle and director of Holts Academy: “Jewellery education is a very wide area and there are many providers popping up all over selling all sorts of courses, from fun hobby courses to professional level and masterclasses.
I think that there is a duty on the provider to be honest about what the course offers to the student and particularly what the outcomes of the course can be.”
Lucas notes that jewellery education can be expensive, but a confident and professional provider is worth investing in. “[They] can provide you with an excellent understanding and training in a particular subject. For hobbyists we still advise that learning from the best will give you the most fulfilling experience and will give you the skills through which you can express yourself more fully, and for those who aim to make a career in jewellery it is essential that they learn professional techniques on an industry recognised and accredited course.”
Jewelryfromhome.com is another recent addition to the stable of online jewellery educators operating in the UK. The site is the brainchild of London Jewellery School founder Jessica Rose, and was created in reaction to the growing role of the internet in our day-to-day lives. It also allows Rose and her team of tutors – which include jewellery designers such as Hayley Kruger and Julia Rai – to reach a much wider audience than the bricks-and-mortar London Jewellery School, which is based in Hatton Garden. The site also uses the American spelling ‘jewelry’ to better tailor it to global online searches for jewellery education.
Says Rose: “Jewellery education should allow people to learn what they want to know in a way that is suitable for them, which is a broad remit as some students are looking for in-depth traditional training while others are looking to learn the necessary skills swiftly to set up a business and start generating an income. Others are more interested in personal development and let’s not forget some [study for] fun too.”
Peter Taylor, director of the Goldsmiths’ Centre in London, believes online jewellery tutoring can play a valuable part in a student’s education, but he emphases that the quality of the education is of utmost importance.
“Ultimately the question in my mind is who quality assures what is being provided online and how does the learner ensure that they are being given the best and or most effective training?” he asks. “I think that’s where organisations like the Goldsmiths’ Centre and Goldsmiths’ Company have a role to play because of our reputation in the absence of any existing regulation or industry standard.”
WHO’S STUDYING ONLINE?
The differing types of site offering jewellery courses mean that the scope of students taking part in online jewellery education is just as varied. Some are hobbyists with little or no experience opting to use online education to boost their skills or work in their own time, while others are seeking to build on skills already established.
For Berry, there are no age or gender boundaries with online tuition.
“Only the other day we had a lovely email from an 80-year-old gentleman who had made his first piece of jewellery after watching one of our videos and said he wished he had started making jewellery so much earlier,” Berry explains. “At The Bench is for everyone: single parents who can’t spend their evenings out of their house but can watch and learn from home instead; jobbing jewellers enhancing their skills; hobbyists wanting to progress from beading, wire work or metal clay to learning silversmithing, the list is endless really.”
Having launched in January 2014, Mastered is in the process of building its client base, but creative director Perri Lewis notes that the site is attracting a younger female audience aged 20 to 40 years of age, with a love for jewellery design and possibly a small outlet for making on the side. “At the moment [our typical student] doesn’t work with jewellery in her full-time job. It’s likely that she’s in a creatively-unfulfilling job and makes and sells handmade jewellery in evenings and weekends,” Lewis says. “She’s probably got a shop on Etsy and she’s probably shown at local fairs, but she wants to do more.”
According to Lewis, students are choosing Mastered to grow their jewellery business with the aim of being in the financial position where they can make it their career. “Although [most would] love to do a three-year jewellery degree our students are not in any position to do that. Some can’t even commit to doing evening classes every week because family or job commitments so often get in the way.”
Rose concurs, noting the rising number of women taking part in Jewelry From Home’s courses versus men, but says this is possibly due to how the site is marketed, with the use of pink decorative elements. “We definitely get more females but our tag line that ‘everyone can make jewellery’ sums up our aim to be accessible to all,” Rose says. “Jewelry From Home has only been live a few weeks but we would expect a range of different students that want to try out jewellery making for fun, as a hobby or to start a career.”
ONLINE VERSUS CLASSROOM
The glaring difference between online and classroom-based education is the exposure to the sounds, sights and smells that come with traditional education but are palpably absent when being taught by digital means. Are those watching the videos truly getting a feel of what it is like to make jewellery? And without the teacher in the same room to provide feedback there and then, how do they know that what they are doing is exactly right?
On the other hand, it could be argued that being able to view, pause and ask for feedback from a video tutorial is much more valuable that being one student in a room full of others vying for the tutor’s attention within a limited time frame.
At Birmingham School of Jewellery students are taught in real workshops, however the school has also created a number of online video resources for students to use outside of classes.
“Considerable time has been invested in creating a series of films to address the larger numbers of students universities are required to recruit,” says Gaynor Andrews, the school’s deputy head. “Students can use these films to support their learning and refer back to at their own pace to suit their particular style of learning. Reference is often made [in class] to YouTube clips, which can provide greater breadth of knowledge around a specific subject being taught.”
Personally, Andrews believes that online jewellery tutoring is no substitute for traditional classroom-based education, especially with regards to the growing need for skills among industry employers and those wishing to launch their own jewellery business after studies are completed. “[Video] is a cheaper option and far reaching, which means it can be used successfully as an additional resource,” she states. “[But] nothing replaces the hands-on experience and tutoring from experienced practitioners. There are aspects that can be enhanced through online tutoring but practical skills often require tutors to identify how individuals are physically handling tools and equipment.”
Having founded Jewelry From Home, Jessica Rose concurs that while online education is about providing a service and moving with the times and demands of students, it will never be a true substitute to classroom-based teaching, however she does point out its positives.
“It will mean many more options are open to more students,” she explains. “[So] why can’t we have both? If we, as the industry, are able to offer a mixture of online and offline learning, then every opportunity is given to students to learn, develop and share their skills.”
Holts Academy is working with Mastered to create online courses that bridge the gap between traditional education and the flexibility provided by online tutoring. Holts Academy director and principle Lee Lucas believes its provision of online courses are the next best thing to traditional education. “Online jewellery tutoring is a wonderful opportunity for students to be able to learn certain techniques at home and opens up the fascinating world of jewellery making to a wider audience,” he says. “With online classes like the ones Mastered are creating, the learner’s experience can be the next best thing to coming in to a class to learn face-to-face.”
In addition to the quality of the teaching, there is the question as to whether online jewellery tutoring can truly be a launch pad for a career in industry.
Is the education enough to set a student on a path to success? Can a digital course in business provide all the right answers?
Sites such as Mastered hope to be a conduit and catalyst for budding designers launch their own career or brand.
“I firmly believe that online jewellery tutoring can help support a career – and that’s exactly what Mastered exists to do,” Lewis explains. “We’re providing professional development courses that enable people to enhance specific skills, for example in casting or marketing, or larger course that gives them everything they need to succeed, from design through to making and business skills.”
Lewis hopes that Mastered students will be able to make a living from their jewellery skills, rather than simply study courses that do not lead on to something bigger. “Everything that we do from the way that we teach, the exercises that we set and the coaching that we give is designed to support students’ moving into the professional world,” she emphasises.
Berry believes that online jewellery tutoring, much like how-to books and monthly craft magazines, helps to support a wider desire to build a career in jewellery but might not be the ultimate answer. “In my experience, students have taken a hands-on course and are then furthering their knowledge with online training,” he explains. “Online training may never be entirely able to launch someone into a new career, but, when combined with other methods of teaching, it can act as the catalyst that a person needs to give them the confidence to give it a go.”
There is certainly a place for online jewellery tutoring in the UK and it is clear that – at least in the current environment – this style of tutoring is the ideal tool for topping up established jewellery knowledge and skills, or to give a very basic introduction into the likes of wirework and hand sketching, rather than operating as a comprehensive method of education.
Students will always value face-to-face learning with a trained jeweller, and bricks and mortar jewellery school should take comfort in the knowledge that the teaching they provide cannot be replaced. However, they can certainly use online jewellery tutoring to their advantage, as Birmingham School of Jewellery and Holts Academy have done. But, as Jessica Rose suggests, the future will only bring improvements to the teaching so far available: “As technology advances I am sure more options will open up and I think the best is yet to come.”
This feature was taken from the March issue of Professional Jeweller magazine. To read the issue in full online, click here.