There are three difficulties facing online art education: the clarity of demonstrations, timeliness of interactions, and feasibility of organising group classes. For nearly 30 years, Tang Yingshan, director of Faculty of Art Education at the Open University of China (OUC), has been developing distance art education and seeking solutions to these three problems. He says that the development of the internet and online education have brought these solutions within reach.

In 2013, the OUC’s School of Art was founded, and in 2014 became the Faculty of Art Education, the seventh OUC faculty, focused mainly on non-degree art education. As head of the Faculty of Art Education, and a renowned MOOC instructor, Tang Yingshan has been working in the field for nearly 30 years. In addition to his professional accomplishments, he has a deep love of the cause of online education, and this inspires everyone around him.

Skills courses attract many non-professionals.

Reporter: What do you think are the obstacles to teaching art online?

Tang Yingshan: Since 1990, when I started working at the OUC, this problem has always been my deepest concern.

First of all, it’s very hard to make the demonstrations adequate. Art courses teach skills, and the high level of visual information required is difficult to achieve online. Fortunately, through enhanced technology, this problem has been effectively solved.

Timely interaction is also important, and still not quite at the level of face-to-face teaching. It is easy to comment on work, but quickly illustrating what one means through a demonstration is difficult.

Finally, group classes are difficult to achieve. In art classes, students learn from each other; learning in groups is especially important for art students. A good teacher cannot replace the value of having a large number of good students learning together. Current technology cannot yet solve this problem.

Reporter: SketchUp Interior Design, a course offered by the Faculty of Art Education, is the only OUC course to have been named a National Quality Online Open Course. What do you think is the reason?

Tang Yingshan: First, let me explain why only this OUC course was selected. Because of intellectual-property concerns, OUC courses are only open to OUC students, not the outside world. Since openness is required for this selection, many excellent OUC courses are ruled out.

SketchUp Interior Design was launched on the CNMOOC platform, and is open to everyone. This course is a model for high-quality OUC courses that are to be introduced into regular colleges and universities. The course has been mainly run by Mr. Xu Hang of the Faculty of Art Education, while I have provided some guidance.

This course teaches core interior-design skills. In adapting it as a MOOC, we emphasised basic software training and included many case studies. It meets the needs of beginners, and therefore has attracted a large number of non-interior-design students and some amateurs. Four educational institutions, including three universities, are using the course for SPOC teaching.

In the five semesters of operation of the course, the team, composed of teachers from the Faculty of Art Education, has provided timely and effective learner-support services, ensuring active interaction among teachers and students and enhancing learner enthusiasm. At the same time, a good learning community has been created to help learners interact.

Reporter: You mentioned that the course has attracted a large number of non-interior-design students and amateurs. Can you name some groups and describe their needs?

Tang Yingshan: The students come from 34 provinces and autonomous regions of the country. About 70% of them are on campus, and about 30% online. On-campus students focus mainly on obtaining credits, good grades, and an overall grasp of the curriculum, while online students are mainly interested in gaining skills, sometimes in order to enhance their job qualifications.

Generally speaking, both on-campus and online learners are becoming more skills-focused, and wish to enhance their job-search competitiveness.

Launching a training programme that meets both market and public-welfare needs

Reporter: In terms of non-degree art education, what programmes have you and your team opened to the public?

Tang Yingshan: We have mainly explored opening programmes to meet public-welfare and market needs through integrated online and offline courses, offline face-to-face teaching, and online learning.

When it comes to integrated online and offline courses, "Appreciation and Creation of Traditional Chinese Landscape Painting and Moodle Platform Construction" is a project sponsored by China National Arts Fund and supported by modern distance-education technology, with the purpose of popularising China’s traditional arts and culture. It has 1,288 online students worldwide, using a learning terminal mainly based on the mobile terminal. Eight teaching centres have been set up, 27 virtual classes have been organised, and a support team of 68 teachers has been formed. Offline in-person instruction has been assigned to three regions: Hangzhou, Cixi and Harbin. As far as I know, this is the largest and most successful experiment in online art education so far.

Offline face-to-face teaching covers market-driven continuing-education programmes such as traditional landscape painting and calligraphy. We have invited calligraphy and painting masters to lecture, and have had an excellent response. In terms of public welfare, we have built calligraphy-education centres in Xixinfang Village, Longquan Town; Mentougou District, Beijing; and Liuhedian Village, in Hebei Province. Villagers there can practice calligraphy at home with paint brushes, pencils, ink, paper, inkstones, copybooks and felts given to each family by the OUC, along with a work of calligraphy as a model of traditional creation. We have gone to the villages every two months for lectures, and to help the learners with problems, but for the most part communication and discussion have been conducted via WeChat (an instant-messaging app).

Online learning has consisted mainly of eight art courses set up in cooperation with Shanghai Jiao Tong University. It has provided the platform while everything else, including curriculum design and production, is ours.

Reporter: In the course "Traditional Chinese Landscape Painting Appreciation and Creation", how is the online teaching integrated with the offline?

Tang Yingshan: Most of the online students are divided by region, and eight teaching centres have been set up nationwide. Fifty students are grouped into one class with one tutor and one head teacher. A total of 27 virtual classes have been set up to study for nine weeks. Student management is conducted through the PC terminal, learning takes place through the app on the mobile terminal, and communication is done via WeChat.

From 8:00 to 10:00 every night, students and teachers gather in the WeChat group to talk about their learning experiences. The data show that 86% of learners use the mobile app, that the online-learning rate is 67.5% and the homework-completion rate 52%, very exciting results that compare well with the 2% - 5% completion rate in general MOOC courses.

We have also organised a live broadcast every two weeks to answer student questions, and every three weeks have face-to-face tutoring at the teaching centres. In addition, the top 10% of online learners will be selected to attend a 7-day offline course in Harbin and Zhejiang after the completion of all online courses.

Aspiring to pioneer online art education in China

Reporter: What do you think are the keys to constructing online courses? What stage has this construction reached at the OUC?

Tang Yingshan: This is a good question. First it is necessary to find out what the students need; for example, whether they are looking to improve their skills at work or are learning out of interest. Different needs call for different contents; the key is making the contents appropriate.

Second, the best medium for online art courses is video. Once the content has been determined, presentation is also essential: shooting angles, duration, gestures, tonal adjustments, and so on, are all involved.

Third, when the curriculum has been finalised, it is very important to match the teaching design to it.

At present, there are 212 courses, for a total of 2,249 class hours, in the OUC’s online art programme. They cover nine categories: art, living art, music, calligraphy, opera, art appreciation, dance, design, and art education.

Reporter: What qualities do you think continuing-education teachers should have?

Tang Yingshan: First, they must have a solid basic grasp of their fields. When we recruit teachers, we first consider academic background. Second, communication skills are very important, and finally they must be passionate about online art education.

We may not be able to compete with many well-known universities in terms of expertise and popularity, but no other universities have our systematic advantages. We have 44 branches nationwide, and this makes us the envy of many normal universities. But it is essential for us to form teachers into an effective team as part of this system.

Online education has received a huge boost from the development of the internet. To a certain extent, we have taken pioneering steps in online art education and laid the foundation for solving many of its problems. This is worth a lifetime of hard work.

By Sheng Xueyun, E-Learning