high-end arts education

When do you need to be talking to someone in person?  One of the rules of thumb in business is that phone and email are fine after the relationship has been established, or when you’re members of the same team.  But if you’re doing something harder like negotiating a contract or cultivating a sales lead, then it’s time to pull out the heavy weapons, and actually be in the same place with someone else.

This emerging rule of parsimony has a couple of parallels elsewhere.  It reminds me of the way we’re coming to view fossil fuels, for example.  We haven’t yet found the wind farm or battery that can instantly unleash the energy you get with gasoline.  So for example, I don’t think we’ll ever see solar panels accelerate a plane fast enough to lift it off the ground.  But as we’re seeing, those alternate forms of energy can do a lot of good if we use them whenever possible, and save the big-footprint fuels for times when nothing else works.

Our use of the electromagnetic spectrum is another example of changing parsimony.  For most of the 20th century TV went over the air on the model of radio, even though no one moved around while watching it.  Running wires into our living rooms would have worked, but who wants to lay cable when spectrum is abundant?  But as the century went along new demands for mobility changed the equation:  we added more channels to CB radios, then we got pagers, and car phones . . . now any new companies and devices wanting a slice of the air have to pitch the FCC hard to get one, and the legacy broadcasters are seeing more value in their spectrum rights than in their libraries of old shows.

Eye contact and a handshake:  who knew they’d one day be as precious as radio waves and jet fuel?

Since coming to the CSU my day job has been higher ed for the masses.  It’s satisfying work, but today I was happy to take a break and visit the California Institute for the Arts, founded by Walt Disney himself to produce animators north of Los Angeles.  It was a chance to return to my higher ed roots in the film school at Chapman University, and see what that world looks like now.

Walt believed in the value of mixing sources and media to create something new.  So CalArts offers education in music, dance, and theater as well as animation and traditional filmmaking.  Degrees are distinct but cross-pollinating:  Fantasia in curriculum.  Even the building layouts foster exchange and interaction:  to go from music theory class to piano practice, you cut through sculpting.

The institute’s role in society was also something of a mash-up, of education, art, and commerce.  That one proved harder to sustain:  over its history the CalArts identity crystallized around higher education.  Now it faces the same challenges the rest of us do.

Chief among them:  the higher ed delivery, cost and funding models are seriously misaligned with revenue from student fees, public support (which in the case of a private non-profit like CalArts comes from tax breaks and federal financial aid, not state subsidies), the endowment, and other sources.

And so – also like the rest of us – CalArts is asking what it needs to do differently.

What I saw today is the kind of fearless soul-searching that I wish more of us were capable of.  For this board, nothing is out of the question:  they’re looking for the optimum mix of international and domestic enrollments, of need-based and talent-based aid, of workshops and mentorships.

And they are — with uncharacteristic timidity — testing the waters of on-line education.

They’re in a hard place, one of shifting rules of parsimony.  I know first-hand that arts education doesn’t lend itself to on-line delivery.  Art is communicative and social, mentors need to give students instant and continuous feedback about how an idea reads, through multiple attempts at expression and refinement.

Yet the cost of all that in-person contact is higher than it used to be.  If we insist on face-to-face instruction, on creating opportunities for fruitful cross-pollination, then we impinge on other things we care about, like mobility, access, and the balance sheet, in new and scary ways.

I don’t know the answer, but it’s hard to think of a more urgent question.

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6 thoughts on “high-end arts education

  1. Amazing! Thanks for checking in, Eric, and for sharing this link. And I see what you mean — this is clearly new and rickety, but also proves that solar powered flight is possible after all. I guess if I stick to my analogy, then it means I have to be more open-minded about on-line education . . .

  2. Hmmm…I don’t think I can’t quite let this one pass.  I think if done well arts education can be deepened by online communication. Feedback during multiple attempts of expression is precisely what it does best. Even in the LMS at my institution students can share multimedia work and instructors can easily use the rubric tool to give feedback, with or without grades. It is fast (just a few clicks) and there is room for commentary in each cell. Heck, it does everything but spit out a radar graph. And that feedback automatically shows up in all kinds of places. It can be attached to blogs, discussions, wikis, and assignments. It also automatically shows up on the grade book. Students simply click on the View Rubric button next to their grade to see everything the instructor highlighted. In addition, instructors have the ability to record their audio comments (no more typing!) next to student work.  And all that is without even venturing outside the LMS.

    But when you bring in cloud-based solutions it gets even more fun. I’ve seen Google Hangouts On Air used for reading scripts; VoiceThread to draw and comment on moving film clips; Soundcloud to share music performances (it allows users to pinpoint and record feedback at any point during the performance); Brainshark would be perfect for voiceover story boards (you could poll for feedback directly); you could probably even use the new TED-Ed tools for feedback – turn it on its head. This is just the tip of the iceberg. All these tools can be embedded within an LMS or wherever the online teaching is taking place. It’s like critique on overdrive, 24/7 sharing between classmates and instructors.

    Of course you can’t reach over and physically show someone how to center something on the potter’s wheel but there is so much you can do. Things you could never do in person. Online education has gotten a bad rap because there are so many appalling courses out there, probably 98% of them. So bravo to Cal Arts for going slow. Let’s hope they find a way to make their online component a deepening experience for their students.

    As usual – my two cents.

    1. Thank you for both cents, Jayme — this is really helpful. What you say makes intuitive sense, even though most of it is news to me. It does seem that we have at least an emerging capacity for “Critique on overdrive.” I also like your point that my skepticism (and the tentativeness at CalArts) may be motivated more by the appalling examples out there now, than by any longer term limitations of the medium itself.

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