Massive Open Design Education

Can MOOCs be a future model for design education?


In almost Zelig-like fashion, Stefano Mirti’s charismatic bald head with its distinguished black eyebrows appears atop of the “exquisite corpses” of some of the most iconic figures from design history, from Mies van der Rohe to Marcel Duchamp, from Charles Eames to Coco Chanel, talking to us in a thick Italian accent about a possible future for design education: a new type of online design course.

Mirti, part of the Interaction Design Lab in Milan, is an architect by training and a passionate design educator. With his colleagues Giovanni Pasca Raymondi and Lucia Giuliano from the Abadir Fine Arts Academy in Catania, Sicily, he is about to launch a free and open online course for design in autumn 2013 on the new Berlin-based education platform iversity. The YouTube video is promotion for the introductory course called Design 101 and everybody is invited to participate in the one hundred and one practical design tasks that Mirti has prepared for a potentially unlimited number of students. The video ends with the claim:

“The community is the message.”

Traditionally the size of the lecture hall has limited the number of students that could enrol in a university course at a time to a few hundred. Overcrowded classes are common in higher education, whilst courses in art and design have typically provided the luxury of only one or two dozen students per teacher. The reasons for that can be found in the requirements of artistic work. The students need a studio space or at least a desk of their own and also access to specialised workshops and tools. Craft demands physical presence and interaction with the material, and artistic work needs individual feedback. The Bauhaus, still a role model for many art schools today, chose to programmatically orientate itself backwards to how art and craft was taught in medieval times in order to create the new educational “structure for the future” – a system of masters and apprentices, united in craftsmanship in the workshop.

It is an intimate and intense experience; and a concept that doesn’t scale well in the digital realm.

For more theoretical subjects, however, there has been a long history of educating the masses remotely through mass media such as radio and night time television in the twentieth century and correspondence courses were already in existence in the nineteenth century. Distance learning institutions like The Open University have been around since the 1970s, and indeed anyone can enrol there for a design degree, without any formal entry requirements such as a portfolio or a previous degree. But still, the BA in Design and Innovations at the Open University comes at a price of £15.372, which is in the same magnitude as the £9000 per year home students now have to pay for a conventional undergraduate design degree, for example at Goldsmiths College. Overseas MA Design students at the Royal College of Art now have to pay £26.900 per year, which is very similar to what the School of Visual Arts in New York charges: $19.300 per semester or about £25.440 per year for an MA Design course.

A look abroad shows that it doesn’t have to be like this. The high tuition fees and their steep rise is a specialty of the English speaking part of the world. In many European countries students don’t pay anything at all for their education. In Germany, regions like Bavaria briefly introduced fees of €500 per term, only to then revoke them entirely in favour of more equality, following a referendum.

Of course, the high tuition fees in the UK and the US are not limited to art and design education. But especially here, they are by no means mitigated by a comparative rise in salaries or career opportunities, which is why the artist Noah Bradley in a recent post on Medium exclaimed:

“Don’t go to art school!”

“The traditional approach is failing us,” Bradley wrote, and he accused the US art schools for cruelly deceiving their students into believing the high fees would be a smart investment into their future. As an alternative approach, Bradley pieced together a collection of online courses and other resources that together would form the “Ultimate Art Education” for only $10.000. There are already countless design tutorials online, many in the form of rather technical screencasts in which an expert explains the use of a particular design software. Indeed it can be much more efficient to learn skills such as vector illustration or film editing than going to art school. Often these tutorials are created by peers and offered for free on YouTube. Companies such as provide similar courses, but often of higher quality, for a monthly subscription fee of $25 to $38. Another provider,, offers more artistic classes in character design and digital illustration with individual video feedback by the educator for $1000 per class. But this labour intensive form of personal evaluation of student work is still quite expensive and does not scale at all to the dimensions of the new type of online courses about to start soon.

The Advent of the MOOC

The huge gap between high tuition fees, stagnating job opportunities and ever cheaper online resources has lead to a turmoil in higher education. In a recent paper by the UK based Institute for Public Policy Research, a group of education experts is warning that An Avalanche is Coming and the vocal technology pundit Clay Shirky ensures us that academia is about to experience a disruption as severe as the one the music industry went through at the advent of MP3. The acronym that is all the rage in academia at the moment is MOOC, which stands for Massive Open Online Course, and this is exactly what Stefano Mirti is about to offer with his course Design 101. Massive means geared towards hundreds of thousands of students at the same time. Open, in this context, means not only accessible for everybody with an internet connection, but also free of charge. And the Online is part of the reason why the free courses have become possible in the first place. The same economic logic applies as on the other battlefields of the digital revolution: As soon as a product is digitised, the marginal costs of producing and distributing more copies becomes almost negligible. This does not necessarily work for education in general, but it certainly works for lectures, which are about to get “unbundled”.

Still, there are substantial production costs required initially and so the questions remains if there can really be such a thing as a “free course”. In the case of Stefano Mirti’s digital class, half of the production cost, €25.000, was covered by seed funding by the platform provider iversity. (In order to get content, the startup company had staged a contest and gave that money to ten course proposals that emerged as winners.) Another €25.000 was put forward by the Abadir Fine Arts Academy, who saw it as a form of marketing investment for the school. For Mirti and his colleagues, the project is an experiment:

“We have several doubts and questions about MOOCs, but the best way to sort them is to make one”

says Mirti, who has gained experience with other forms of online education before, “for the time being, all of our energy goes toward the mechanism itself; design-wise we are still on the working prototype stage. The pricing of this kind of service will be addressed later on. First, we need to understand how it works (if it works).”

Meet the Pioneers

An influential pioneer for the trend towards the MOOCs is the former hedge fund analyst and MIT graduate Salman Khan. Originally, he developed some video tutorials in maths and computer science to help his younger cousins, but after he uploaded those sessions to YouTube, he was overwhelmed by the sheer amount of other people who tuned in. In 2006, he founded the non-profit organisation Khan Academy that now has over 85 million students. According to Khan, his academy is teaching six million students every day and has been used by other teachers in over 30.000 classrooms. Kahn has broken down a variety of science related subjects into consecutive videos of only a few minutes length that are frequently interrupted by quizzes that test the students’ understanding.

His vision is not only to make education accessible remotely to students who have previously been excluded geographically or financially, but he also wants to complement traditional education by flipping the classroom.

That means: allowing students to watch lectures in their own time at home, while doing their “homework” assignments at school, where they can always ask a tutor for help and feedback.

The concept of the MOOC gained momentum in 2011, when professors at Stanford University who were inspired by Khan offered three open online courses in computer science that each attracted over 100.000 subscribers. Even though only a fraction of those who enrolled actually finished the classes, this fraction was still two hundred times the number that usually attends a popular class at Stanford. The professors where so impressed by the demand that two different start-ups for MOOCs emerged from this. Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig founded Udacity and their colleagues Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng founded Coursera, both companies are for profit but do not have an installed revenue model as yet. A third big player in this new market is the nonprofit organisation edX, founded by MIT and Harvard; which is now an umbrella for about two dozen other elite universities who also want to jump on the MOOC wagon.

There is no such thing as a free lunch

Even though this phenomenon is starting to emerge internationally, it is a particularly hot topic in the US, where the gap couldn’t be larger between soaring tuition fees and entirely free online courses from the most respected institutions. Both extremes seem to be difficult to sustain in the long run. Without adequate job opportunities after graduation, the high tuition fees can easily mutate into a student loan bubble not unlike the sub-prime loans housing bubble seen in recent years. And with regard to courses being free-of-charge, a business model beyond marketing has to be found as a return on investment for the production of the MOOCs.

To that end, the MOOC startups plan to charge students for certified degrees, take money from recruiters for giving them access to the most talented students and generate income from the licensing of content to other educational institutions. These three revenue streams are also what iversity is aiming for with its free courses, as Marcus Riecke, the CEO of the Berlin based startup and host to Mirti’s Design 101, confirmed for this article. Riecke is confident that the landslide in higher education is imminent and that his company is well prepared. He points out that across all academic institutions, the same standard introductory courses are given again and again – always the same content, just with varying quality.

How much more efficient would it be to replace all the mediocre lectures with licensed high quality video tutorials, Riecke muses.

If Riecke’s vision becomes real, and he has good arguments on his side, the impact on academia as we know it would be devastating, a whole layer of educators would be made redundant. And as soon as the elite institutions introduce certified degrees for their free courses, the majority of less prestigious institutions will be under severe pressure to justify and sustain their costs and expenses. Will this just make education more affordable or does it entail an erosion of quality?

How to scale up qualitative evaluation?

So far there are more questions than answers when it comes to MOOCs. One of the more problematic ones is how to evaluate the work of students in the arts and humanities. It is no coincidence that the American MOOC pioneers all have a background in computer science, a field where a Boolean value can be assigned to the input students make – either true or false. In programming and similar subjects, automated feedback and grades to hundreds of thousands of students makes sense. A window pops up after a lesson, the students type in some code and the computer is able to instantly evaluate it very accurately. Try that with an original design drawing or an essay about contemporary art.

However, the autumn of 2013 will see the launch of several brand new art and design MOOCs: MoMA has teamed up with Coursera to offer: Art and Inquiry: Teaching Techniques for Your Classroom. On edX, the MIT Professor Mark Jarozombek will offer A Global History of Architecture: Part 1. And on Udacity Donald Norman will teach The Design of Everyday Things.

The only solution to the problem of scale in field where feedback can’t be done by the computer is peer to peer evaluation, or crowdsourcing. For Design 101, Stefano Mirti is going to install a system that mixes formal evaluation like tests and ratings with informal types of feedback such as discussion boards – all entertained by the community. Social media will play an important role for Mirti’s students in order to test their ideas in front of a wider public and get feedback through Twitter and Facebook. (Indeed something that probably works better with design tasks than with maths homework.) Mirti himself is planning to point to particularly good student works in his own twitter stream which, as he explains, “can be considered a special distinction from my side.” So, in this particular course, there will still be occasional personal acknowledgement from the professor.

“There will also be a three days festival at the end of the course: any student who wants to participate can come to Berlin (at their expenses), bringing what they designed along the way. It will be a mix between an informal exhibition and a three-day long party,” says Mirti.

He is looking forward to this as an opportunity to personally meet a condensed and refined group of the most motivated students from the large crowd. Therefore he does not fear at all, that the sheer massiveness of the online courses necessarily also results in an impersonal design education. He sees it instead more as a primer for non-designers that might lead the most interested students towards a more traditional system. The free course acting as a gateway to higher education.

Now, just a few weeks before the first design MOOCs go online, a gap in the expectations becomes visible. With emphasis, Mirti points out that

“MOOCs are just a medium, like books or blackboards. We shouldn’t confuse the teacher with the blackboard he uses. The blackboard itself does not teach, it is just a tool.”

However, according to the business plans of Mark Riecke’s iversity and also those of Coursera and Udacity, the idea is exactly that: the replacement of the teacher with the medium.

Who can argue with bringing down the outrageously expensive costs of higher education? Making knowledge more accessible, bringing top level education to the poor for free, flipping the classroom to intensify the interaction with the tutors, using the free courses as appetisers for more conventional education. In the short term, many students and also employers all over the world will benefit from the changes ahead. The new form of distance learning promises to be particularly powerful when it comes to training and testing specific skills in a very focussed and efficient manner; the type of skills often badly needed for employability in a quickly changing labour market, where there is certainly a mismatch between the length and costs of higher education and the substantial number of jobs that simply does not require that level of training. This is particularily true for design education.

But MOOCs are a mixed blessing. They are bound to efficiently strip education down to its bare essentials and leave no room for the formation of values beyond practical skills. If they are as successful as Riecke and his colleagues expect them to be, they will destroy many jobs in higher education by replacing educators with canned lectures and free labour provided by the students.

In the long run, such discount approach to higher education, not only in design of course, is very problematic. It exacerbates the gap between an elitist education for the wealthy few for whom the institution is the message, and a cheap mass processing for everybody else. It is the logical consequence of replacing the ideals of a liberal education with the neo-liberal economisation of everything.

This article was written by as part of the project PILOTS: Navigating Next Models of Design Education, curated by El Ultimo Grito  and David Falkner, director of the Stanley Picker Gallery at Kingston University. It is based partly on a longer interview with Stefano Mirti (@stefi_idlab)