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How Can MOOC Providers Create an Interactive Learning Experience in the Arts?

This is an in-depth analysis of arts MOOCs: their current state, how their needs differ to MOOCs of other subjects, and what their future might look like.

The full report was originally published on the Arts Management and Technology Laboratory by Vicky Peng. Vicky Peng is a current student at Carnegie Mellon University, majoring in Entertainment Industry Management.

Arts education in MOOCs, compared to the rapid growth of MOOCs at large, has developed relatively slowly. Unlike education in other subjects, arts courses require more interactive forms of teaching and varied forms of assessment. This research explores the current situation of arts education in online courses, and the future path for MOOC providers interested in creating an interactive learning experience.

Arts Education in MOOCs Today

While MOOCs are developing quickly, arts education courses are often left out. According to the data release by Class Central in 2014 (see below), the majority of courses offered by MOOC providers fall under the subjects of Computer Science, Engineering, Mathematics,
 or Business. Art and Design is the subject that has the least courses, with only 4.5% of the total courses listed.


A popularity disparity between arts courses and courses in other subjects is further evidence that arts education is falling behind in the field. In the list
 of Most Popular Coursera Courses of 2015 from Business Insider, six are programming and data courses, three are business courses, and none are arts courses.

Unique Needs of Arts Education

Due to the creative and subjective nature of art, MOOC providers cannot use the same education format for their arts courses as in other subjects. To create an interactive learning experience in these courses, MOOC providers must pay attention to the unique needs of the subject.

Active Learning

In arts education, active learning plays a very important role. Arts courses involve creative production processes such as designing, painting and music improvisation. According to the Higher-Order Thinking Skills (HOT), creative thinking skills require more cognitive processes that go beyond concept learning. Thus, video lectures and reading materials are not enough in arts courses; students need to be provided with an interactive learning environment.

One limitation for MOOC education is that it is asynchronous, meaning that students and instructors are rarely in the same place at the same time, preventing direct communication. However, internet-based platforms offer new opportunities that a traditional classroom does not. For example, screen-sharing technology can help students to get an insider’s look at an instructor’s creative process. Such platforms also create online forums where students from all over the world can exchange ideas.

Personalized Feedback

In arts courses, personalized feedback is vital; students can only improve their work by learning from the comments. Art is subjective and there may be thousands of ways to interpret a single painting or play a piece of music. There is no “right” answer for art assignments, and it is unrealistic to expect general feedback to apply to all students. Thus, the measurement of creative work relies heavily on independent judgment and personalized feedback.

Comprehensive Assessment

In regards to assessment techniques, arts courses need different ways to measure learning outcomes. A quiz may be a good form of assessment to measure if students understand key concepts, but what are the effective tools to measure the emotional value in a painting? Some aspects of artwork can only be measured by actual human beings. Many MOOCs solve this problem through the use of peer-to-peer evaluations, but arts instructors themselves must convey feedback to help students’ progress in arts courses. There need to be various forms of assessments. Arts Impact, a program offering professional training for teachers, suggests the following learning assessment strategies:

  • using criteria-based checklists;
  • using criteria-based rubrics;
  • utilizing self-reflection;
  • engaging in peer assessment;
  • responding to the work of others;
  • building a portfolio; and
  • accruing evidence of learning: art works, performances, presentations, photographs, and videos.

These assessment strategies are not only useful in traditional classrooms, but also on MOOC platforms. On these platforms, instructors can easily post and update checklists and rubrics for the assignment so that students can have clear guidance.

Next Steps for MOOC Arts Education

MOOCs provide a platform where students around the world can benefit from open courses, but there is still room for improvement in MOOC-based arts education. Some art MOOC providers like Kadenze have already realized the limitations in the traditional MOOC teaching models, and have made efforts to optimize their platforms. Yet, there are also unanswered questions and emerging trends facing MOOC providers as they look towards the future.

Use of Educational Technologies

The development of educational technology offers MOOC providers an opportunity to make the classroom more efficient and engaging. Major MOOC platforms like Coursera and edX allow students to share opinions and ideas through an online forum. But there are more opportunities. Kadenze utilizes an auto-code program to detect plagiarism in media files. Julliard Open Studios (though not a traditional MOOC) partners with the mobile application developer Touchpress to include innovative interactive features in their units, such as synchronized scores in piano class. In the future, more educational technologies are expected to address the unique needs of arts education, and MOOCs must incorporate these technologies to further improve their service.

Relationship with Higher Education

MOOCs are constantly surrounded by a discussion about whether or not digital classrooms replace colleges. Some believe that MOOCs will become a near-ubiquitous complement to traditional higher education. There is no doubt that MOOCs and traditional institutions of higher education are cooperating more than ever before. More MOOC platforms are offering for-credit courses at a relatively low price that may transfer to some universities. According to statistics from the U.S. Department of Education, among the “Schools With the Highest Net Tuition Prices” seven out of the top ten are art schools. MOOCs enable art students to receive education at affordable prices while offering institutions a chance to have an early look at their prospective students.

Free or Fee?

One of the major characters of a MOOC is that there is no fee for students to access course materials. This is a good thing: there is increased access to premier institutions for students who otherwise might not be able to study there. However, free online education does come with some problems. According to a publication of the Information Resource Management Association, “People will not value a free education; people value what they pay for.” According to that organization’s data, in June 2015 the average completion rate for MOOCs was only fifteen percent. Research shows that the completion rate jumped from ten percent to seventy percent when students paid $50 for a paid program. A small fee may act as a motivator for students to increase self-discipline and avoid procrastination. In addition, free courses bring in a large volume of students, which makes it difficult for teachers to communicate with every pupil. A small charge for premium services offers students an option to receive personalized instructions and feedback from instructors, enhancing their learning experience.


Though these trends must be addressed, there are signs of hope for the future of art courses on MOOC platforms. Increased access is promising, and technologies are evolving to serve the needs of students. Though pricing schemes might make courses less accessible, they also allow for a deeper connection between teachers and students. The question remains, though: how can providers balance the inclusiveness and effectiveness of MOOCs? It is not just a question facing digital arts education, but one which is facing MOOCs in general.

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