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Modernism For the Masses

SAIC offers its first-ever MOOC.


illustration by Zach Cooper

illustration by Zach Cooper

A “massive open online course” sounds like something you might see on an MRI, but in fact a “MOOC” is a class, offered online, for free, to anyone and everyone, at any time, anywhere there’s a will and an internet connection. This spring, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) launched its first-ever MOOC, and that’s big news.

“Modernism: From the French Avant-Garde to American Pop and Beyond,” led by Faculty Dean and Art History Professor Lisa Wainwright, is a 12-session art history course surveying hundreds of years in Western art through the lens of modernism. This debut SAIC MOOC — with its real-life syllabus, more than 20 hours of video lectures, plus quizzes and assignments — puts SAIC on a list of top schools that now offer university-level educational opportunities to the masses.

Some might say SAIC is late to the party: MOOC mega-sites have been offering classes from Princeton and Harvard free to the public for years. What took us so long? And if I can take “Touring Modernism” for free, why am I paying for it this fall? (Because it’s different; keep reading.)


From Ho-Hum to Heck-Yeah

Lisa Wainwright said that Provost (and Soon-to-be-President) Elissa Tenny had a vision for online classes at SAIC when she got here six years ago.

“Elissa was keen on capitalizing on the advances in online learning technology,” Wainwright said. “She’s been passionate for a long time about figuring out versions that could work for an art and design school.”

That was no small task. There weren’t any MOOC-making companies who were good at making art curriculum until recently; and furthermore, not all SAIC staff and faculty were equally as fired-up as Tenny was about anonymous, online learning. Wainwright admitted that she was one of the dubious.

“I’m a product of the traditional classroom environment,” she said. “I prize private education — small classrooms, dynamic discussions, energetic teachers who blow your mind. You can see and feel that kind of energy; you can’t get that online.”

But after a while, an actual classroom experience began to tug at Wainwright’s brain. “I thought, ‘Well, I taught the big freshman survey for years. I loved teaching it. It was in an auditorium. About 150 students, two days in a row. That’s 300 people. That’s a lot.’” Wainwright began to see how a MOOC could allow her to more broadly distribute her accumulated knowledge.


Kadenze: For Such a Time as This

In 2013, a group of California Institute for the Arts (CalArts) students saw that lack of decent online courses for art and design — pursuits that arguably more than any other depend on quality of  design — and in partnership with CalArts created Kadenze, a digital platform specifically created to support an online arts-based curriculum. This is the platform SAIC teamed up with to produce “Touring Modernism.”

“What sets us apart the most is that we are all artists in addition to working at Kadenze,” said Amanda Eno, senior  production manager and lead producer. “Some of [our editors] make films on their own, some of them work in the audio and music industry.”

A click onto the Kadenze site provides users with lush animation, navigation clarity, and course description videos that play like movie trailers. This is the work of people who care a whole lot about flow, aesthetics, and usability.

SAIC had been waiting for the right MOOC platform; Kadenze was it. The production values they offered, their mission, and their relationships with universities like Stanford (“Online Jamming and Concert Technology”) and the Otis College of Art and Design (“Fashion Style Icons and Designing from Historical Elements”) made them a match. In June of 2015, Wainwright flew to Los Angeles to begin work on “Touring Modernism.”


Make Me a MOOC

The project has been an enormous undertaking. There are 12 video lessons called “Sessions,” and each is two hours long.

“That’s 24 hours of film,” Wainwright said, with a weariness in her voice. “We filmed all fall. I went out to LA a few times and we filmed here in the museum as well. Then comes editing. I see every new lesson a week before it goes live and make corrections, make sure the images are there and the color’s right.”

Grueling as it might have been, Wainwright is good at this. The energetic teachers she holds in high regard would be proud; apart from possessing an encyclopedic understanding of her topic, she’s wholly engaging and often laugh-out-loud funny. If she’s pulling it off, she told me, she probably owes it to being president of her high school drama club.

“The way Lisa tells the story of art history is like a television mini-series,” said Eno. “There’s action, adventure, intrigue, romance. She weaves together the movements and contemporary examples so you really get the bigger picture and contexts. And she’s really academically grounded and challenges students in the coursework to think more deeply. This isn’t your typical names-and-dates course.”

There are currently two sessions available for viewing and so far, student feedback has been positive. Ida Brandao, a student auditing the course from Portugal, is pretty happy with how the SAIC’s MOOC presents the images and information.

“I’m not participating in MOOCs to get traditional teaching methods,” she said. She added that other MOOCs she’s taken have had more discussion threads and spinoff student conversations. This may change as more people know about the course and enroll.


On Credit, and Why it’s Still Better to go to School Here

Which brings us to the “Why buy the course if you can get the MOOC for free?” question — one that any number of alarmed parents may have been asking since they got the email announcing the course last month.

The course is available for credit (three hours) if you are not currently enrolled in school at the SAIC and willing to pay $900. If you are a student here, you are welcome to audit the course for free like anyone else.

“This class is continuing education,” Wainwright says. “This is for students around the country who weren’t admitted to the SAIC or those in community colleges who are looking to transfer into art school later. It doesn’t replace freshman survey for art history, which is a very robust course that uses TAs, discussion, visiting artists, museum visits.” In other words, the online course is great — perhaps really great — but if you’ve been admitted to the school, you needn’t worry your education is being devalued by it.

“I still believe in the classroom education for those who attend these online classes,” Wainwright said. “But you can have much larger reach with online. It’s a socialist proposition.”


One Response to Modernism For the Masses

  1. Gary Manzo says:

    I took this course and found it to most engaging, especially due to Lisa Wainwright’s inventive, and often humorous ability to present historical information in a marvelously distilled, yet informative manner.
    My head is “filled” with images from this course that I think will be there always; Lisa with the Top Hat and shadows, for instance is a hoot, but important….

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