Like many people, I was initially a skeptic of learning art techniques through online classes. My first introduction to online learning came as a graduate student at the University of Colorado, Boulder. I remember thinking then that online art classes would not be able to be taught successfully. Was I ever wrong!
Since my initial skepticism back in 2008, I have completely changed my mind about online learning in the arts and gone on to be an early adopter of online teaching through relationships with companies like Creativelive and Creativebug as well as successfully producing and launching my own online classes and workshops. The benefits of online learning are pretty amazing for students and instructors. One of the most important benefits of teaching online is my ability to offer students who take my in-person workshops the opportunity to continue working with me and even review my techniques in video format after the in-person workshop is over. Students who cannot afford to attend these in-person workshops can typically afford the online version, giving me the opportunity to reach a wider audience. My experience so far is that the online workshops are not in competition with my in-person workshops, actually they bolster the attendance of my in-person workshops. I also feel that I am reaching a much larger and more international audience that would like to learn from me, and for whom doing so online is the only realistic option.
My first experience teaching online was through Creativebug—a company in San Francisco that is a subscription-based platform for online craft classes. Individuals can subscribe by the month and access all of their classes. Creativebug typically pays teachers a one-time honorarium for each class taught. There are affiliate incentives, so if you do a good job marketing your own classes and you have a strong following on social media that can drive traffic to the Creativebug webpage for the class, there are great financial payouts to be had above and beyond the basic honorarium. Creativebug works with you to develop your course content to match their production needs and timelines, they will fly you to their studios to film on-site with two to three cameramen filming you as well as an artist coach to help you through your class material. They also use a set-stylist to help with the look of your class. The result is a well-produced online class that fits into the Creativebug brand. I have developed a total of six classes with this company. Creativebug doesn’t focus on ceramics, in fact they seem to be moving away from adding additional ceramics classes to their offerings. Diana Fayt is the only other artist with ceramic courses available on their site. Despite the limited clay classes, I like that you can work at your own pace, the subscription is very affordable ($4.95/month), which gives you access to all the classes they offer.
My second online teaching experience was with Creativelive. Creativelive, also based in San Francisco, hosts live broadcasts of classes on their site that are accessible for free. The basic concept is that if you watch a class live on their website, you can watch for free. However, the classes are typically 8–24 hours of filming over the course of 1–3 days, typically broken down into 8-hour segments. So if you don’t have the time to sit for 8 hours straight and watch a course, you can purchase the course and watch it anytime you like. As an instructor, you get paid a percentage (royalty) of each purchased class. So if your class does well, so do you. As an instructor you are flown to the filming studio to be taped live during your class on the Creativelive set. You have an artist coach who helps you develop the course and its segments for the Creativelive filming format before the class airs. There is a set designer, producer, and artist coach on set during the live filming, as well as multiple camera people. It is very much like filming in a traditional television studio. Creativelive is a fabulous platform to teach an online class and very much like teaching in academia, however, they are not equipped for teaching ceramics. My course was on taking a pattern idea from the sketch and design phases through to the final surface. The technique is adaptable to ceramics as well as textiles or 2-D art disciplines. Much like Creativebug, there isn’t a large enough perceived market for teaching online ceramics courses, but processes with a wider application work well.
In January of 2015, Ben Carter (ceramic artist and host of the podcast Tales of a Red Clay Rambler) and I co-hosted a 6-week, online seminar we called Think Big! We launched this seminar on our own, with no aid from a company like Creativebug or Creativelive. Carter and I set up the series through an online teaching platform called Ruzuku, which costs about $450 per year. We used Skype to make video interview calls, which we recorded using an application called Call Recorder. All video content was edited using iMovie and limited editing skills. Anyone with basic web skills and understanding of a Mac computer could manage a series like this.
This seminar was designed to cover topics around the business of being a ceramic artist. Each week there is an interview with an artist or guest as well as a follow-up discussion about the interview with Ben and me. In addition we included a brand-worksheet and other downloadable content designed to help the seminar participants develop a more consistent online presence, a brand identity, and basic business plan.
Ben and I invested our time and money in developing and marketing the course on our own and took on the financial risk that it would at least break-even. We marketed the course through our own social media outlets and newsletter lists. We also set up affiliate marketing through an online company called E-junkie, and invited five other members of the ceramics community to help get the word out about the class, and they earned a percentage of every sign-up that they brought to the course. Think Big! did so well that we are planning to run it again this fall.
The content for this seminar was developed so you can work at your own pace. The best content in Think Big! was generated by participants in the discussion groups. It was incredible to watch as people shared their experiences and developed an online community during this series. Many of the 250 people who participated generated a lot of great ideas for moving forward and have grown their businesses.
Starting in September, I am running a 5-week online course that I have produced on my own called Splendid Ceramic Surfaces. I decided to launch this ceramic surface workshop online as a complement to my book New Ceramic Surface Design, published in 2015 by Quarry Books. For the tutorial videos, I hired a videographer to come to my studio for two days to film the weekly lessons, which was expensive but worthwhile as the footage and sound are both higher quality than if I had done it myself. I hired an editor to cut the footage and create a trailer and some basic graphics for the class. This was by far the largest investment in the making of the online workshop, but worth it as over time the enrollments will repay the investment.
The weekly video lessons will demonstrate five different surface design techniques similar to the techniques in my book, giving additional ways to use the information from the book. There is also a lot of discussion about finding inspiration and your voice, where to find source imagery, and what forms work best with decoration. Additionally, there are weekly video interviews with ceramic artists who use the demonstrated techniques in their work. These interviews, recorded via Skype, cover the artists’ use of the techniques, but also discussions about their careers, finding inspiration, and much more. Rather than running the course for 5-weeks and having the online workshop access end after that, I have decided to make the course completely work-at-your-own-pace and leave it up as an ongoing workshop that people can access indefinitely once they have purchased it. This way, students can re-visit videos as needed and take their time with the workshop content and the community discussions will also stay active.
the author Molly Hatch is an artist and designer based in Florence, Massachusetts. Visit http://mollyhatch.com for more information.