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Is Arts Education Ripe for Disruption?

In my companion post (ahem) a few weeks ago, I mused  about the potential for higher education to be vulnerable to the kinds of disruptive innovations occurring in other industries, like newspapers, music, and movies.  This time, I’ll explore a bit more how I see disruptive innovation affecting Arts education, which some see as particularly vulnerable to disruption. Although it’s sometimes easy to miss, Arts education is much more than attending lectures, writing essays and acquiring transferable and marketable skills.  Indeed, as this recent survey indicates, Arts educators would be remiss not to respond to the demands of their ‘clients’ for a greater and more meaningful experience animated by passion, curiosity, and depth.

It’s this complexity that makes Arts education less, rather than more, vulnerable to ‘MOOC-ification’.  The study of Humanities and Social Sciences requires an immersive and sometimes life-changing configuration of influences.  The expression of complex ideas in simple language, the organization and prioritization of research, and the exploration of the human experience from a range of viewpoints requires a commitment much larger than a given delivery system.  Arts education is larger than the acquisition of skills, indeed, referring to the complex processes of critical and creative thought as ‘skill acquisition’ devalues it, and is in many ways beside the point.

None of this is to deny that the institutional mechanisms of Arts education haven’t done some damage to the cultivation of critical and creative thinking.  Large lecture-style classes, cookie-cutter tests and formulaic essay-writing are convenient for educators concerned with conveying mass credentials, and have played their part in the past in reducing costs.  To the extent that Arts education conforms to the industrial practices of other subjects, it remains vulnerable.  However, new means of conveyance cannot yet accomplish the kinds of personal, individualized experience that Arts education aspires to (see the Culture lab as an example of this changing philosophy).

 To the extent that Arts education conforms to the industrial practices of other subjects, it remains vulnerable.

Protest Signs
Political Science emerged from turbulent times.

In addition, it matters that learners experience different Arts subjects in a manner that allows comparisons of their content. Most Arts undergrads take a few different subjects each term, offering the opportunity for cross-fertilization and meta-learning that can’t be accomplished by taking each subject in isolation, or ‘mixing’ and ‘matching’.  For example, my subject of Political Science emerged from a time when the arrival of mass warfare, revolutionary movements, totalitarian governments, and economic dislocations prompted an interest in cultivating citizens capable of making critical judgements based on historical knowledge.  This contextual knowledge of the origins of one’s society was believed to be a social good as well as an individual good.

Can Arts education evolve to meet the challenge of new technologies and disruptive innovations?  There is alot of synergy between the distributed model of online learning, and the more concentrated model of the classroom.  These two learning settings can be complementary.  With individual practice, testing and writing done in a distributed or individual setting, blended learning means making more time for group discussion, interactive question and answer sessions, and customized coaching in a personal or group setting.  Technologies can aid this process by enabling more time for intensive learning experiences when they are most effective, leaving educators the ability to collaborate and customize courses of study to suit their learners.  This can shorten the time necessary to learn.  However, making the most of disruptive innovation for the Arts means rejecting the temptation to reduce and narrow the purposes of Arts education to a specific and transferable set of measurable criteria.  Self-development and intellectual growth do take time, and for many, these experiences should not be rushed. Blended learning, coupled with open educational resources, can also improve accessibility and bring experiences to new learners who may not otherwise have the opportunity, by reducing the price without compromising the value of the experience.