Mind the Gap

Brian Droitcour on art education and MOOCs

Still from promotional video for “Five Puzzles in Contemporary Art,” an online course through the Museum of Modern Art.

THE INTERNET IS THREATENING HIGHER EDUCATION. Clay Shirky, academic and media theorist, predicted on his blog that online courses will upset the economic model of universities the same way Napster disrupted the music industry. Why buy an album when all you want is a single? Why incur the debt required to get a two- or four-year degree when you can take only the courses you need when and wherever you want? Just as Napster offered a more effective way of distributing the song, Shirky says, massively open online courses distribute the lecture. But unlike Napster, the movement is coming from the top, with elite institutions like MIT and Stanford giving it credence. It’s also getting government support. In early June the California State Senate passed a bill to establish incentive programs for the development of online courses on MOOC platforms, with the goal of helping students complete degree requirements more quickly while reducing the public university system’s obligation to provide classrooms and faculty. Critics point to the risks inherent to handing over responsibility for public education to privately owned start-ups.

What does this have to do with art? Not much, yet. The big MOOCs are in fields that involve quantitative reasoning. When Stanford enrolled over 100,000 students in its first MOOCs in the fall of 2011, the subjects were database architecture and artificial intelligence. There is a small but growing number of MOOCs in the humanities, the largest of which is a course in Modern & Contemporary Poetry (“ModPo” for short). Developed by the University of Pennsylvania and administered by Coursera, an online education company, it enrolled 36,000 students this fall. The Museum of Modern Art has offered online courses since the fall of 2010, which are neither massive (enrollment is capped in the low double-digits) nor free (a five-week course costs $350). But that could change soon. Heather Cotter, an educator at MoMA, told me that Coursera had approached the museum about starting a MOOC. (The company recently announced a partnership with the California Institute of the Arts, and in October it will launch courses on creating site-specific dance and performance, programming for musicians and digital artists, and art history “for artists, animators, and gamers.”) Last fall I took an online course in contemporary art at MoMA, and enrolled simultaneously in ModPo, to see what it was like.

Detail of the Museum of Modern Art’s web page for online courses.

MoMA is the only museum that offers online courses. Education departments at the Whitney and the Metropolitan post extensive informational materials related to exhibitions on their sites, but without framework for discussion and feedback, it’s up to the visitor to decide which ones to engage with, and how. Deborah Howes, the director of digital learning at MoMA, wrote in an email that the museum decided to launch its online classes in response to the website’s high numbers of international visitors, as a service to this remote audience.

The course I signed up for was a new one, developed by Pablo Helguera, director of adult and academic programs in MoMA’s education department, and co-taught by Cotter. Titled “Five Puzzles in Contemporary Art,” it presented artworks around themes: Beauty, Value, Originality, Concept, and Process. Each Monday we received an email announcing the release of a video lecture with slides of works relating to the puzzle of the week, accompanied by an interview between Helguera and an authority on the issue (Cindy Sherman talked about Beauty; for Process, MoMA curator Christoph Cox discussed Fluxus). Like MoMA’s other online courses, “Puzzles” was shorter and tighter in scope than the courses offered on site, which tend to be broad chronological surveys. Its curriculum eschewed the familiar canons of Pop and Minimalism, and included a substantial selection of works—mostly performance, actions, and conceptual photography—by women and artists from Latin America, Eastern Europe, and Asia. “I hope I don’t get in trouble for talking about painting!” one student wrote in the forum. She didn’t.

Lectures were written in the therapeutic idiom of education departments: art “invites,” “implores,” “poses questions.” Students were implored to pose questions of their own on the discussion boards every Wednesday, and return on the weekend to review responses and continue the discussion. It was a good rhythm. I tried to keep up with it, but there were hitches—some of the videos were incompatible with my browser, and Hurricane Sandy kept an instructor offline for a week. I was back on track for the fourth week, when Helguera spontaneously ditched the usual discussion questions and asked students to make and post a work of conceptual art. “THIS WAS A CHALLENGE BECAUSE I AM NOT AN ARTIST...WELL, I'M JUST A FRUSTRATED PHOTOGRAPHER...” one wrote. Overall the responses were enthusiastic, the comments were supportive, and the discussions were livelier than ever.

Meanwhile, I dropped out of the poetry course. I was still registered and I still received emails (and boy, there were emails: “Only six hours until we post this week’s lecture!” “This week’s lecture is now online!!” “We posted this week’s lecture last night! Did you watch it yet??”) but I stopped visiting the site. The tone of the videos turned me off. Al Filreis, the Penn professor who heads ModPo, recorded seminars rather than lectures, to represent the engagement of small group discussions. (A Princeton professor who teaches Introduction to Sociology for Coursera does the same.) It may be more personal than a lecture’s disembodied voice, but that’s not necessarily a good thing. I didn’t like Filreis’s hectoring style, the way he asked leading questions and cut off students who didn’t produce the answers he wanted. He changed topics abruptly before the direction of the conversation could be resolved. Perhaps he was deliberately trying to keep discussions brief, to compress the seminar to a YouTube-friendly length. When I skimmed the discussion boards the first week, I got the impression that the videos were bewildering, not enlightening, the students, who wondered whether they’d ever be able to read poetry “correctly.”

In the MoMA course I met a woman who was also taking ModPo, so I emailed her to get her impressions. Unlike me, she loved it. While at first she found its vastness intimidating, she adapted to the “careful scaffolding” of the forums and peer-reviewed assignments. “As far as strengths and weaknesses in an online course,” she wrote, “I think they reside in the people involved, in encounters, in interactions, in relationships and in structure.” Had I joined one of the forum groups, or participated in a local meet-up with fellow ModPo students in New York, I might have enjoyed it more.

Still from promotional video for “Five Puzzles in Contemporary Art,” an online course through the Museum of Modern Art. Pablo Helguera, director of adult and academic programs in MoMA’s education department, with Eva Respini, associate curator in MoMA’s department of photography.

But an advantage “Five Puzzles in Contemporary Art” had over the MOOC—besides the small class size—was the background that students brought to the class. When I met with Cotter, she said the students at on-site classes tend to be professionals—lots of therapists and psychiatrists—without any prior art education, while the people who sign up for online classes are already somehow involved with art. They just wanted to talk to people about it, to find the community of art lovers that hasn’t coalesced in their own cities or towns. The self-guided version of a MoMA course is $100, less than a third of what the instructor-led course costs—because the value is in discussion.

What is education for? If we discard the utilitarian answer (learning skills to get a job to make money) and the purely idealist one (learning for learning’s sake), then education is a means for establishing communities. In part, of course, this means consolidating class relations—the four-year private university sets up networking opportunities that other kinds of education don’t. Online education, in the form of low-quality MOOCs that some institutions are embracing as a cost saver, can further exacerbate the class gap in higher education. As critic Aaron Bady noted in the New Inquiry, the position of elite universities in the vanguard of the MOOC movement reaffirms their prestige; boosters talk about the benefits of students in Santa Cruz getting a lecture from an MIT professor, but the lack of personal contact with that professor (or any professor) cultivates a relative sense of inferiority. Bady recognizes the distinction of MOOCs as a substitute for public education and those that are offered for free and not for credit as a social good. Online engagement with art outside coursework has already shown the advantages of Internet communities; young artists use image-sharing platforms like Tumblr and as extemporaneous art schools, with informal chat-room critiques among far-flung peers. Online education calls for a recalibration of the distinction between education and learning, and questioning how institutions function (or fail to function) as a springboard for social being. When courses from MoMA or Coursera succeed it’s because they incubate an atmosphere of exchange—they use the scaffolding of social media to integrate learning in the routines of everyday life.