Are MOOCs the Future of Film Education?

A commentary by Kevin Carey that appeared online September 3rd, 2012 in The Chronicle of Higher Education discusses how massive open online courses, or MOOCs, are beginning to disrupt centuries-old systems of education.

It's already started with elementary education: Khan Academy offers over 3,000 free video lessons online covering K-12 math and science topics such as biology, chemistry, and physics.

And, with the support of marquee names like Harvard, MIT and Stanford, advocates claim that MOOCs are about to reshape higher education as well. An MIT-produced course called Circuits & Electronics has drawn 120,000 registrants. Clearly MOOCs are having an impact. Are they more than a passing fad?

Which makes me (a film educator) wonder: How will MOOCs change film education?

Are classes that offer tens of thousands of learners worldwide access to course content even suited to the art of filmmaking?

The new online tools that allow educators to connect with unlimited numbers of students have already begun to have an effect in math and sciences. But isn't film production (like music) something that is better suited to a conservatory model - where a mentor and a few students work closely together? Yes, a science or math lecture, that can be viewed at each student's own pace, is OK online. But how can online classes teach film PRODUCTION? The answer (to me) seems obvious.

It isn't the online connection to the teacher that holds the most promise for teaching filmmaking. It is the way that the internet connects the student filmmakers. The connectivity between students is what really excites me about MOOC's for film production.

The internet offers educators more than huge audiences for recorded lectures - and more than chat rooms for student interaction. The ability to collaborate on creative projects - like a film or a film script - with remote colleagues, is inherent in the distributed network. And the educational possibilities of film students sharing ideas and labor on films made within a MOOC setting are just too powerful to ignore.

How would a MOOC for film production work?

Let's start with two existing networks, Facebook and YouTube. Facebook and YouTube already facilitate social exchange. Which means that prospective film production MOOC students are probably already sharing text and films online using these platforms.

How hard would it be to build a film production MOOC on Facebook and / or YouTube?

Imagine adding an instructor's voice to the activities that students are already performing online.

The tools of social media are already uniquely suited to collaboration. I think a MOOC, where students share ideas and the labor of making films, under a skilled teacher's supervision, could be built on an existing social platform. Then, students working in teams could teach each other.

Because YouTube already exists, the platforms and interactions that might support a film production MOOC are easy to envision.

And, as every film educator knows, team and experiential learning is where the real filmmaking education has always happened.

Just because it's possible, should film educators rush to create MOOCs? Will we lose something precious if we transition to online education for young filmmakers?

In my view, the new online tools for education have come along just in time to save a system of film education that has begun to look dated and tired. Just as the systems that filmmakers used in the 20th Century for funding and distributing their projects are breaking down - so too, the Old World methods of film education (that survive at most major institutions) are also increasingly out of date. I believe it is past time for the old model of film education (that too often relies on lectures about outmoded modes of production and crumbling structures for writing and distributing films) to be reconsidered.

Many (most?) film educators today are locked in to the 20th century paradigm. Even though 21st century users are receiving their motion pictures in ways that are rapidly evolving, many (most?) Old World educators were trained in (and insist on teaching in) the old ways - often relying on canned lectures that describe a world of filmmaking that is being overtaken by new online practices.

As a film educator who has struggled to keep up with the latest innovations, I can attest that it's tough to sort the fads from the significant trends. And staying current for it's own sake doesn't make much sense. We can't blindly lose the best of 20th century aesthetics and production practices. But filmmaking is changing in fundamental ways, and many of my film education colleagues are lagging behind, failing to appreciate the new modes of consumption and the tools that foster dialogue and the connections between fields, ideas, and concepts.

In my view, it's a mistake to spend too much time (as many of my colleagues do) lamenting all that is being lost, or (as I probably have done) focusing on the trendy next big thing...

The trick for film production educators in the 21st century is to teach the values from the Old World that will remain relevant, while leaving the door open for new ideas and connections to happen organically.

Film educators have yet to become leaders in the New World of digitally connected higher education. But it seems inevitable to me. As the educational paradigm shifts toward a MOOC model, where students can seek out diverse opinions and learn what they want, I wonder which educators will be the first to explore the opportunities for a new kind of film education that encourages collaboration and team learning?

But, some administrator is thinking, if film production educators take Randy Finch's advice and begin creating MOOCs for emerging filmmakers, how will these courses be funded and graded?

In his commentary about MOOCs, Kevin Carey asks that same question. After asserting that the future is so "clearly one of universal access to free, high-quality, impeccably branded online courses that their presence can be simply assumed" Kevin Carey touches on the vexing concerns of "financing, quality assurance, and—most important — credit."

"At the moment, colleges have a monopoly on the sale of college credits, the only units of learning that can be assembled into credentials with wide acceptance in the labor market..." But Kevin Carey predicts that "the MOOC explosion will accelerate the breakup of the college credit monopoly."

OK. But how will universities support themselves in the New World after the system of college credit is disrupted?

"[T]he dominant higher-education pricing model, in which different students pay a single price for a huge package of services they may or may not need, will come under increasing stress. Colleges of all kinds will need to re-examine exactly what value they provide to students, what it costs, and what price the market will bear." And "[s]ome organizations will develop businesses devoted exclusively to credible, secure assessments of what MOOC students have learned."

In short, no one knows for sure how colleges will survive in the era of MOOCs, but there are some early experiments that suggest how a new form of online film production education might evolve. Perhaps, access to online classes will be free, but branded live events will become sources of revenue. For example, London's Raindance Postgraduate Film Programme offers a hybrid online and in-person (part-time or full-time) program for students who prefer working online to develop the tools they'll need to write, direct and produce films. The organized in-person interactions are intensive workshops (often over a weekend and costing around $500 US) that are typically held in London. But the program also has many online components. And a degree is earned by combining online and in-person credits.

The YouTube video at the top of this post was written and narrated by Dave Cormier and the video is by Neal Gillis.

UPDATE: January 1, 2013 To accompany a Nov. 18th, 2012 article - suggesting that the promise of MOOCs will not convert into reality and that disillusionment will soon set in, Lee Schmidt used an illustration similar to this one:

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