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A little while ago, I was showing a prospective student around the bricks-and-mortar university where I also work. After a short tour, I drew back the curtains of the photography suite to reveal; two brightly coloured legs peeping out from a large day-glo Papier-mâché head of a monster. As we looked down we saw the beast seemed to be giving birth to a celluloid doll complete with (what I remember as) an umbilical cord of sausages.

At the time, the prospective student’s eyes bulged in disbelief but when he looked around studio, he found not a single eyelid being bat. “Welcome to art school” I remember declaring, as we moved on.

This incident triggers many of my own memories of being a bewildered art student: of having my eyes opened to this other strange but exciting world and where the colours really came on for me.

On my first day as a student, I got lost in corridors which smelt of burnt wood and had a rather stark induction into the difference between still life and life drawing where the bowls of fruit I had imagined drawing, were replaced by something rather more..meat and two veg.

During my studies I became used to seeing various and less official states of undress, obscure items re-fashioned into everyday collegewear and learnt a lot about the unwritten rules we live by and the fun you can have breaking them. I also made some of my best friends and although not as outgoing as others, I enjoyed being surrounded by people embracing individuality and a freedom of expression who helped me become comfortable with doing my own thing.

I’m older now and not sure I would be so excited by the day-to-day japes I witnessed if I were returning to education at my age. However, there is much to be said about the social experience of your education, of sharing and belonging and being part of nurturing an environment where we are all comfortable to express freely, experiment, try out new versions of ourselves, to discuss our work and develop ourselves – whether this is via wearing giant monster suits, through creating more subtle work… or just simply sharing an opinion.

So how do we do this at the OCA? Where, and how do we improve? How can we celebrate, support and connect with our community more? And how do we get to enjoy the exciting, playful and interesting work that many of you are doing? Is this a worthwhile pursuit, or do you feel the social element of sharing and interacting with other students could be a distraction from getting your head down and on with your work?

From my own perspective like all things, it’s a balance and sometimes I need the time to be left to it and to just get on, whilst at others I could do with sharing the journey and gaining an insight from those who have discovered, are discovering and will discover similar things to me. Being able to discuss ideas with people at all stages of their learning helps me to understand what I have learnt, what I am learning and what I could learn and shows me the role I can play in supporting others. Your tutor, whilst invaluable, is only one part of your potential supportive learning team and the richer and more diverse you make this, the more return you will see.

At the OCA, our main way of connecting with each other is online which can feel more distant to meeting up face-to-face. But, if you’re a modern-day-human embracing social media, then how much of your social life is conducted and organised online now anyway? Whilst there’s plenty of debate to be had about whether this way of communicating is more beneficial, there’s no denying its popularity. With forums, discussion groups, hangouts and the coursemate finder all embedded into the student site (without even detailing our presence on other platforms!) the opportunities for connecting online at the OCA are vast.

It has been found that Social networking amongst online distance learners can :

– Enhance learning and academic achievement
– Help you to find your way around course materials through peer sharing and support
– Engage community through collective knowledge sharing and social interaction
– heighten your self-esteem (and in turn boost your learning performance)
– improve your reflective practice

Other research has also reported that online engagement can overcome “some of the perceived isolation of distance learning” with an added benefit of working with students from a range of countries and cultures being that it can broaden experience…perhaps even offer you future travelling opportunities too?

However, with so many students at the OCA studying at different stages of their life, in a variety of subjects and for many reasons, your social agenda and needs will not all be the same. For those who do want to network, some will prefer to engage offsite on more familiar platforms you’re already regularly checking in on and others will want to keep things aligned to your studies within the main student site. The good news is that OCA is set up to do both and using one, the other or combined resources can all be complimentary to your studies. With on average, just short of 1,500 students logging in to their student accounts everyday, there’s no shortage of other people to connect to either.

There are study visits and local student-led gatherings throughout the year and google hangouts for those who are too far away or unable to take advantage of meeting up face-to-face. These are real and genuine opportunities to forge friendships and bonds with other students and reading back through some of the comments left on the weareoca blog by students who have attended these study visits, it’s clear these are meaningful and memorable experiences too.

The OCA is developing the facilities it offers students for networking. With the recent introduction of course-group google discussion emails and an official OCA instagram to highlight the work of our students as well as the hashtags #ocafriends and #weareoca to help students find each other and share their work more easily on instagram and twitter, the team is actively looking to improve.

However, there are big changes which aren’t technological which we can all make to improve the community. Encouraging an ethos amongst everyone at the OCA to welcome, pro-actively seek out and engage more with each other and be interested in other students’ work will make all the difference and where the OCA team can help here is offer information to signpost and support facilities so you know where to find these and how to make the most of using them.

So to move things forward and as part of some research I’ve been doing for my own teaching practice, I’ve put together some information aimed at helping OCA students to explore our varied community further. It’s in the form of a step-by-step guide containing suggestions and links to areas within the site you might not fully understand the potential of or discovered yet and which should set you up to become more involved. There are also questions to answer along the way which will give us some feedback.

There are 28 simple steps to work through. I would love you to take time to complete the guide, let me know your thoughts and if you haven’t already, start to build up your own learning and friendship groups to work towards making your online studies not just about a qualification but also a memorable and fond experience that will set you for a long and fruitful life within the broader creative community.

Here are six tips taken from the guide, read it in full for further details and more:

1. Show your face! – it’s one simple thing, but having a distinctive profile picture will make you more approachable and memorable around the site. Also: update your bio to detail: how far along on your course you are, interests others might have in common and expressly welcome people to get in touch and find you on other parts of the internet.

2. Follow our channels – Follow us on the platforms you already use online so our news can come to you, comment and become familiar with others who engage too. (There’s a green zone on the front page containing links to all our channels)

3. Subscribe to a forum – it’s very easy to forget about the forums if you don’t actively subscribe for responses and it takes a single click to turn on and off. Make sure you’re following at least some threads in your subject area’s forum and click to directly subscribe to the critique forum for giving and receiving feedback.

4. Share your work! – link to your work in your profile, follow and encourage others who do the same through comments. Tweet and instagram work or blog using the #ocafriends and #weareoca hashtag, and share it for critique in our forums.

5. Make Friends – Strong communities and relationships are forged through people showing interest in other people: Introduce yourself in the forum, on the #ocafriends hashtag on twitter, and through the coursemates finder and make the effort to welcome others, Join a student-led group on a different media platform.

6. Meet-Up ­– If you can’t attend a study visit, then organise your own or sign up to a student meet in the geographical group forum – There’s a big long list of degree shows happening throughout June that might provide a local opportunity for you here.

Access and work through the full guide here to see how engaged you already are and where you can get more involved.

For an animated guide to the rules of netiquette click here.

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