Massive open online courses (MOOCs) are the future of education. I feel as certain of this as I am certain that one day cars will fly and that ironing will become obsolete. There’s a Ted Talk with the co-founder of Coursera Daphne Koller and an episode of Charlie Rose with the CEO of EdEx Anant Agarwal that addresses this new way of teaching and learning. To summarize Agarwal on Charlie Rose, the thing that is fundamentally different about MOOCs versus the way traditional college works is that with traditional college all of the gatekeeping is at the front end. You have to apply. You have to be accepted. You have to have tuition. Sometimes you need to have prerequisites or test into the courses you want. With MOOCs it is different, at least for now. The gatekeeping occurs at the backend. Anyone can register for a course, but not everyone will finish. And for those who do, there is often the option of a certificate. With some courses there is even the option of credit…for a fee. This allows all kinds of learners to participate in a course. For example, some might only be interested in part of the course’s curriculum. That student can participate in just that portion of the lectures, readings, and discussion, and ignore the rest. Of course, they will not receive a certificate, but then again, So what? Others might successfully complete all of the assignments for the entire sequence and receive a certificate. Both students got what they wanted from the course, but they dictated their level of involvement, not the instructor or the institution.
But how does this relate to contemporary art? Glad you asked. In the US, our contemporary art world is deeply shaped by academia. It’s hard to imagine a curator with anything less than a Masters Degree. The same with visual artists. I would love to see some statistics on this, but I would guess that many of today’s working artists are also employed as teachers. Academia and contemporary art are so bound together, that changing one, will clearly change the other. I chose to be optimistic about this. While it is true that the majority of MOOCs are in the sciences, there are some art related courses out there and I expect this will grow over time.
This summer I took my first MOOC, from Coursera. The course was entitled Art and Inquiry: Museum Teaching Strategies for Your Classroom, offered by The Museum of Modern Art, taught by Lisa Mazzola. The course focused on using the inquiry method with object-based learning, specifically within a museum environment. This course was an amazing experience for me. First of all, I got to take a course from MoMA. I never thought I would have this opportunity, but the beauty of an online course is that location isn’t an issue. This had the consequence of the course being very international. 60 percent of Coursera’s students are from outside the United States. In this course, we were required to participate in the discussion forums. Our final project was to write a lesson plan within our discipline using the inquiry method and a work of contemporary. Clearly, it was instructive to troll The Art Institute of Chicago for just the right artwork and write my own lesson plan, but what might have been more instructive was peer grading my classmates’ assignments. There were 32,000 students in the course. I graded a student from Spain and two from Columbia. It was interesting to see the curriculum requirements of other countries.
I am currently taking a class called Exploring Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas. It’s very challenging, maybe too challenging for me. But I’m having a good time and I’m learning more than I ever could on my own. The course is taught through The Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, by professor Jonathan Biss. This course demonstrates the beauty of gatekeeping at the end of the educational experience instead of at the beginning. If the course proves too difficult, I can always select the “no assignments” option, continue with the video lectures and the class discussion, but at the end I will not receive my certificate. Like I said earlier, So what? People should be able to attempt things that are difficult or out of their realm of experience without penalty. These MOOCs are showing the possibilities of our educational future. The courses are fun. I’m learning a lot, and I get to “meet” people from all over the world, artists, musicians, even other people who teach English at an art school. MOOCs have the potential to make the study of any of the arts, more global and, most importantly, accessible to anyone with a smartphone. Maybe that’s good, maybe not, but it’s the future.