Traditional forms of creative education and professional development are under fire as affordable fleet-of-foot online alternatives take hold.

We’re in the midst of an online education revolution, with Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) threatening to supplant traditional models of teaching across both software training, design skills and professional development in business. Online courses are nothing new, but the pace of change is startling. MOOCs are rapidly transforming from relatively niche concerns to a more mainstream method of educating the masses, causing both training bodies and universities the world over to reconsider how they teach, and enabling upstart newcomers to make waves in this space.

MOOCs vary wildly in what they offer and how they offer it. In the spaces for which they are especially suited — Clearleft founder Andy Budd suggests “where knowledge can be measured in a fairly objective way” — there are free interactive coding efforts like Codeacademy and paid video-oriented MOOC Treehouse, for learning to build websites and apps. Elsewhere, the likes of Skillshare take a wider approach; for example, Skillshare offers project-based classes in all manner of design and creative pursuits, such as hand lettering, visual storytelling, and programming generative art.

Something MOOCs have in common is a desire to disrupt the status quo; they want to embrace the benefits of the web over traditional teaching institutions and make education more readily available to the masses during a time when university fees are ballooning.

“The creative industry changes so fast that traditional colleges can’t keep up,” thinks Treehouse founder Ryan Carson. “At Treehouse, we constantly update our curriculum so students are always learning cutting-edge technology that will properly prepare them for a job.”

MOOCs for everyone

Codeacademy is a free MOOC that enables you to rapidly learn coding.

Beyond rapid content iteration, a major benefit of MOOCs is in being able to cater for huge numbers, unlike traditional teaching. As Budd explains, “MOOCs don’t restrict you by the number of people you can fit into a classroom, or their ability to be in a specific geographic location at certain times”. For those learning, this results in a syllabus potentially reaching thousands rather than dozens; on the teaching side, Mozilla senior tech writer Chris Mills says MOOCs can “draw on a large pool of experts from the community, rather than relying on the knowledge of a small number of teachers and their links with an industry”.

In fields where disciplines vary and demands rapidly evolve, drawing on such expertise is essential; and according to industry figures, contributing to MOOCs can be advantageous. Andy advises that the financial rewards aren’t usually a draw — “Pay per stream can be low, although that might add up if you’ve thousands following your course.” — but giving something back can be: “There’s the opportunity to help the widest number of people possible, in the hope they’ll then go out and make their discipline a better place.”

Mozilla developer evangelist Christian Heilmann also believes contributing to MOOCs can lead to improvements in your own output: “I’ve created and still create a lot of course materials. It makes me reevaluate my own work — you start teaching but you end up learning.”

Learn at anytime

Skillshare is all about learning real-world skills from a range of teachers, on your own schedule.

Another strength of MOOCs is how they fit around lifestyles — something traditional teaching can struggle with. “Treehouse videos are five-to-ten minutes long, and so you can always squeeze some learning into a busy schedule,” reasons Ryan, who says his organisation aims to make those taking its courses “job-ready within as little as six months”.

Christan adds that the asynchronous nature of MOOCs means students can learn in their own time, when they’re most creative, and only deal with teachers when they get stuck.

Furthermore, in some cases, such as web development courses, you can see results immediately, rather than there being a gap between the educational material and final product: “This means you can often fix issues on the spot, rather than someone having to read through emails explaining what a problem might be. The immediacy is rewarding, and gives students that ‘I did this’ moment.”

And if it turns out you don’t like the course, there’s far less investment in terms of time and money if you choose to quit.

However, as Andy already noted, the MOOC process doesn’t necessarily work across the board: “It becomes more difficult to use remote methods to teach and measure more subjective courses that involve a good degree of creative licence. It’s not impossible — after all, lecturers will still follow a fairly set routine — but in such courses, contact with your lecturer and other students becomes that much more important, and it’s very difficult to simulate the intimacy of personal tutorial on a large scale.”

Creative MA 2.0

Some MOOCs, like Treehouse, focus on a core direction (in this case, app and web development), but also offer complementary courses to make for a well-rounded education.

It’s these issues that lead those immersed in traditional education to believe there’s hope yet for such institutions. David Watson is programme leader, MA Web Design & Content Planning, at the University of Greenwich. He is enthusiastic about MOOCs and open education, and recognises the uncertain future universities now face. However, he also argues “design education and creative subjects benefit from face-to-face tuition, and that isn’t easily transferable to the MOOC model”.

Still, David thinks radical change is on the way regardless, due to higher education being caught in a “perfect storm” of upheaval to funding, student expectations and technology, and he posits education might be unrecognisable in a decade: “Perhaps in the future, there will be some kind of freemium model, using MOOCs to increase an establishment’s profile, and then offering premium face-to-face courses at a cost.”

He admits this option isn’t one many within higher education currently discuss, instead believing the traditional model will prevail: “But it seems to me it’s going to take something innovative for universities to prosper or even survive the massive changes taking place. And although a freemium model won’t always work, it could in design education. Open education can provide content and generic guidance, but as students realise they need bespoke advice and encouragement, they may be willing to pay for it, if educators can demonstrate a good employability record for their students.”

Will MOOCs kill university courses?

Quite how much damage MOOCs will inflict on traditional establishments remains to be seen. Mills believes educators are “already responding to the needs of students in the design industry, by reaching out to the community for help updating curricula and getting in industry experts as guest lecturers”, and reckons they should concentrate on working alongside initiatives like MOOCs for the best chance of success.

Christian also sees a more democratic education future, “once class barriers and location differences fall”, and sees benefits in traditional establishments bringing their expertise to a more open model: “It’s easy to set up a course but hard to write a good one that yields measurable results. Traditional teaching has also been good at explaining the ‘how’ rather than the ‘why’ — the danger is online courses often create a lot of ‘make’ that lacks ‘craft’.”

Ryan, though, reckons MOOCs are the start of a fundamental shift that will obsolete most traditional education in the design industry, and especially those subjects with a technology bent: “My personal belief is the future will see most people use online schools to learn a trade at 17–18 and then go on to apprenticeships. Only the super-wealthy will send their children to bricks-and-mortar higher education. They’ll still offer the advantage of life skills while living away from your parents for the first time, but that won’t warrant the large amount of money and four-year time commitment that a university degree costs”.