The Future of Arts Education: A First-in-Kind Digital Learning Platform

Streamed Session Leadership

Watch This Session

Brief Abstract

The past two years have seen unprecedented growth in demand for online learning and a commensurate increase in the proliferation of digital learning platforms. With learner motivations and interests becoming increasingly nuanced and diversified, this marks the moment for the creation of a new, immersive, accessible digital arts education platform.


Extended Abstract


Extended Abstract (<1500 words):

Why Now?

The market shift from in-person learning to online and blended learning has led education providers worldwide to reflect deeply on this question, ‘how do we continue to captivate diverse learners post-pandemic and beyond?’  As the education sector wrestles with this challenge, our organization [an arts and cultural institution with an educational mission and a $20M+ annual budget] set out to find what today’s learners value in a digital learning experience. For nearly a century, we’ve offered educational experiences almost exclusively in person, on-premises, in our galleries and classrooms. In early 2020, we hastily moved our adult classes online and in just a few short weeks, we began to see enrollment grow, and it quickly tripled, to 5600 students across 48 states and 8 countries with significant new revenue. Our K-12 programs also pivoted to an online format, allowing us to serve over 16,000 students during the first year of the pandemic. 


During those early months (March-August 2020), we benefited from what was at the time a captive audience.  We had the foresight to concurrently build the technology infrastructure to position us to scale and occupy a market niche that would help catapult us to the forefront of digital arts education. And as global EdTech expenditures continued to accelerate, the unique space we found ourselves inhabiting (we were becoming a ‘go-to source’ for arts online education) emboldened us to innovate quickly, specifically to: 


  • significantly expand our education offerings to attract more diverse audiences around the globe 

  • design new delivery models that encourage interactivity  

  • create new streams of earned revenue.  


To continue growing  these innovations, we applied for and received a grant to do a one-year intensive R+D project that would result in a first-in-kind digital arts education platform. Once the project was underway, we began to attract attention from technology companies looking to partner with a world-class arts and cultural institution with an historic educational mission that was diving head-first into Ed Tech.


In imagining this new platform, the discussion turned to the level of immersiveness, what the technology will support, ‘real learner interest’ in features, functions, and tools.  While the ultimate future product likely would resemble a high fidelity ‘digital twin’ of the museum, as a first step we are working to  create an immersive and engaging web platform to provide students (both adult and K-12 learners) with a level of agency similar to that of the teachers. . Our "table-stakes" or features that will be available immediately (before any use of VR) include synchronous/asynchronous capabilities, ability for users to control their experience by zooming in and out on an image or object,, and saved classes stored in a virtual library that is transcribed and instantaneously searchable.  As early as Fall 2022, students will be able to manipulate the images under discussion, zooming in on areas of particular interest, thereby experiencing a greater “feeling of presence.” 


For us, this proof-of-concept would solve for two perennial and longstanding challenges: accessibility and increasingly diverse learning expectations,  and the immutability of objects in the permanent collection. The journey thus far has led to closer internal collaboration and synergies, in particular cross-functional strategic and operational alignment across Business Analytics, Research, Education, and Interpretation, IT, and Research and Evaluation. 


Plan for Interactivity

As we set out to answer this question: How can we design a first-in-kind online learning platform that captivates diverse users from around the globe while also pioneering a new model of financial resilience in the arts? we surfaced qualitative and quantitative measures of emerging shifts and developments in ed tech, stakeholder interviews (academic administrative and faculty leadership, curriculum designers and instructors on digital platforms, and financial and strategic leadership at online arts education organizations, K-12 and continuing education programs) and conducted a field scan based on learning platforms serving both K-12 and adult learners. 


These diverse sources include both primary and secondary data collection that helped us to understand how other organizations are tackling similar opportunities and challenges. We found that our plan for interactivity has three key drivers: a) customer needs, b) revenue opportunity, and c) access as business essential.  Breaking down a)-c) into component parts, to best meet customer needs, capture and sustain revenue, and prioritize access, we phased the project in this way:


Phase I: Education Audit and Visioning 

We engaged a strategic R+D partner to enable robust local data collection in two forms: observational (in-course) and administrative (student-, course-, and program-level). Our first set of findings showed our strengths around four themes: a) caliber of content, b) expertise of faculty, c) flexibility of format, and c) highly engaging learning environment.  From there, we framed our growth opportunities not as counterweights to our current-state strengths but rather as natural outgrowths of these strengths. They were: the criticality of balancing rigor with accessibility, the imperative to inspire knowledge exchange (in particular, peer-to-peer), the importance of support for visitation through a hybrid model, and the challenge of providing collaborators with tech support. These learnings, coupled with four field trends discussed below, led us directly into the next phases of our project.


Phase II: Landscape Analysis

Our competitive and comparative market analysis of more than twenty online learning platforms, peer benchmarking of arts learning offerings, and 30 external interviews with educators and online business leaders reveals four key trends that will inform  the design and development of our first-in-kind arts education digital learning platform:


Trend 1: Digitization of learning. With this came shrinking attention spans, the conflation of influence and credibility, democratized content, and contested value of formal education.


Trend 2: Diversification of learning outcomes. Learners approach the learning experience with more diverse expectations and motivations, including unlocking personal creativity, redefining career pathways, the value of P2P learning, and increasing interest in STEAM content. 


Trend 3: Adoption of emerging technologies. With this adoption comes immersive tech, personalized learning experiences and the imperative to differentiate the learning experience, and the tech fluency divide. 


Trend 4: Access as business essential. Globalization of learning, new models of affordability, and persisting community gaps translates to tiered discount rates and the broadening of discount types.


Phase III: Prospective User Research

This is where it gets exciting. Integrating our Phase I-II learnings, we are conducting adult and K-12 teacher and student prospective user interviews. Timed to coincide with our UX design partnership (wherein we first collected demographic and psychographic insights (archetypes, use cases, personas) , we will offer a prototype for the later rounds of interviewees to test. 


Our goal for our 2023Q1 Minimum Viable Product (MVP) is to achieve interactivity optimized for synchronous/asynchronous; highly manipulatable screen elements for a closer look at course objects and assets; a robust and indexed virtual library. As we continue roadmapping several versions, each more immersive than the last, we will test features with prospective users.


Phase IV: Strategic Positioning and Learning Outcomes at Scale

In response to our original research question and anchored by our UX/design purpose statement, we will begin to build and validate wireframe designs to position us for new and existing markets. We expect proof-of-concept capabilities to include: social and multiplayer interactions between on-site and remote learners; the ability of remote users to ‘walk up to art for closer look’; best in market 3D scanning; high quality imaging of individual artworks at high fidelity; panoramic photos for room placement; technology hosting available on web browser (with optional add-in for VR and mobile).


As we continue to witness massive market growth in digital learning, increases in expenditures in educational technology and public interest in online learning has led to opportunities beyond what anyone could imagine two short years ago… hence our quest to test and release a first-in-kind digital education experience for today’s learner, who will walk away with an increased understanding of critical thinking through close looking at art; stronger communication skills and in particular a sense of growing art confidence; deepening interest in cultures and in histories outside of one’s own; and higher levels of engagement with arts communities.