What’s the best way to learn new creative skills: online or on courses?

The leader of Bucks New University's animation and visual effects course details why the best way to learn is combining both online and face-to-face teaching.

“Flipping the classroom” is a concept pioneered by American educator and entrepreneur Salman Khan, founder of the Khan Academy, a free online school that teaches millions of children and adults all around the world.  Khan’s big idea is that the traditional classroom model is broken. Why sit through a long classroom lecture and then go home and do the homework? Far better, he suggests, to watch lectures at home online, and then use precious classroom time for workshops and personal feedback.

The big advantage is this: each student gets to learn at his or her own pace. No one gets bored or, worse, falls behind and can't keep up. The beauty of an online lecture is if you don’t get it the first time, you just watch it again. In fact, you keep watching it until you do get it. That way (in theory at least) everyone gets an A, because everyone figures it out in the end.

In 2012 I launched Animation Apprentice - an online animation course for professionals looking to develop their skills as well as animators trying to break into the industry. One of the key features of this online course is bespoke feedback videos. Each week the student gets a personalised feedback video showing them click by click exactly how to improve their work. It's like taking your car to a mechanic and then getting the car back fixed - but with a video showing you how they did it so that the next time you can do it yourself. 

Learning needs support

Often when it comes to teaching and learning we focus too much on the content that is being shared for 'consumption' by the learner when really the most important aspect of learning is personal feedback and bespoke support that helps students develop their practice and skills.

In September 2012, I was given the opportunity to design and lead a completely new animation course at Buckinghamshire New University in High Wycombe. Inspired by Khan's revolutionary ideas, I was keen to focus on how we could maximise the role of personal feedback and bespoke support to give students an enhanced learning experience. Would it be possible to combine the power of online learning with a traditional classroom approach to create a perfect hybrid or 'blended learning'?

At first my colleagues weren’t entirely enthusiastic about the online content. ‘What if the students don’t watch the lectures?’. ‘Won’t students get bored watching sterile lectures online?’. And, the subtext – “Aren’t you putting lecturers out of a job?’. But the animation team all got it, because the blended learning system solves a huge problem. The trouble with animation and visual effects is there is so much to learn in such a short time. Three years is barely enough, even if the students work hard, and there just aren’t enough hours in the classroom in term time to get everyone to the necessary standard. But, put the lectures online, and the students can soak up knowledge outside of the classroom.

My students now have access to hundreds of online videos, teaching you everything from how to make a ball bounce to full character and creature performances. The idea is that you watch the lecture before coming in to class, and the classroom time itself becomes a workshop, rather than an information download. Better for everyone, and more fun. It’s early days, but so far the feedback has been excellent. One freshman recently told me how he had compared notes with a friend of his studying a similar course at a different university. He was proud of how much more ground he had covered than his friend – the result of being pushed to study online in his own time.

Learn what you like online

For professionals looking to develop their own skills, online learning also gives you the opportunity to study the bits that you want, to focus on the parts that you are most interested in. The beauty of online learning is its flexibility and that fact that it can be organised around a day job or other commitments.

I often get asked which works better - online study or a blended learning approach. My answer is that both can and do work well, it all depends what you want to get out of your time studying. For animators just starting out in the industry having the opportunity to get expert advice in practical, face-to-face workshop sessions whilst also having access to supporting resources that provide background context on the practical skills is invaluable.

But for animators already working in industry who may not have time to access a full- or even part-time programme, online study can offer a fantastic alternative. With continuing developments in the field of education technology, there is no doubt that for practical fields of study like animation, blended learning offers a lot of potential to enhance the learning experience and open up opportunities for more people to access higher education.

Alex Williams is course leader for Buckinghamshire New University's BA(Hons) Animation and Visual Effects degree.

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