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Going the Distance: Online Learning

Karen Raugust looks at how convenience and flexibility make distance learning a viable option for animation education and training.

Michael P. Lambert of the Distance Education and Training Council credits the Internet with the popularity of distance learning.

Distance learning has become an increasingly attractive alternative for animation training and education. The rise of broadband and price reductions for animation software have driven growth, as has increased demand from animators looking for convenience and flexibility.

Michael P. Lambert, executive director of the Distance Education and Training Council, estimates that five million students currently participate in distance-education programs (in all subjects), with 2.5 million to three million of those in higher education. The number of students is growing at a rate of about 15% per year.

While distance learning has been an educational option for nearly a century, Lambert attributes todays fast growth to the Internet. It has created a renaissance in distance learning, he explains, citing ease of use, low cost, speed and convenience the last being the reason most students opt for distance learning as factors behind this trend. It has transformed the industry.

Animation and Art Offerings

Organizations ranging from public universities to software training centers to online-only educational institutions offer distance learning programs. Some are well established, but many are just launching or in a test phase.

Acme Animation Online, which is expected to debut by the end of October 2004 after a two-year pilot period, is a free distributed-learning community that connects learners and experts. Animators can post their work and get feedback from both peers and professionals, after which they can make revisions and re-post for additional critiques. They also can learn by viewing feedback for other work posted on the site and watching live webcasts.

Students move from the introductory to intermediate level based on time spent (including feedback given), but qualify for the top level based only on the quality of their work, as measured by critiques from professionals. Educators can integrate Acme Online into their courses Wyoming educators are thinking of using it statewide at the high school level or individual students can upload samples on their own.

Acme Online grew out of Acme OnAir, a video-teleconferencing service that beams professional animators into classrooms at the high school level and up and has been in operation for eight years. (Acme OnAir evolved out of Acme founder and director Dave Masters work as a renowned high-school animation teacher in a low-income area of Los Angeles.) Sessions are held at various animation studios, including Pixar and DreamWorks. Each incorporates a short presentation followed by up to an hour and a half of brutally honest feedback on students work.

Originally skeptical of online distance learning, Anthony Rossano of Mesmer Animation Labs, is now a believer.

As a nonprofit organization, one of Acmes missions is to attract students who are low-income, female and people of color. All of its programs are intended to build interest in and understanding of animation, as well as develop future professional animators. Our art form is one of the least understood art forms out there, said Master. In addition to adding more diversity to the industry when some of its graduates move into studio positions, the site also is meant to increase the audience for animation. Participants, even if they dont choose animation as a career, remain passionate about the medium. Theyll buy the popcorn later, Master said.

Another new site, scheduled for a fall launch, is, founded by animators Carlos Baena, Bobby Boom Beck and Shawn Kelly. It is a one-year intensive online course that incorporates professional animators as personal mentors, online video classes, critiques and assignments. The online video classes are 45-minute documentary-style productions featuring numerous interviews with professionals, live-action footage showing physical movement, stock animation footage and demonstrations. Students have their own home-page-like area of the site, which allows professionals and other students to visit and offer feedback. We wanted to create something that would allow students the time to properly learn the complexities of animation, Kelly says.

Like Acme Online, AM:Online students are encouraged to provide feedback and be part of a community. There are four skills levels, each with 12 courses, as well as guest speakers and live video Q&A sessions with animators from around the world. Because each student is assigned a studio animator as a mentor, the number of students enrolled at a time will be limited, with new students phased in as others graduate.

Kevin Scolaro with Maya Training Center Online education finds distance learning powerful and convenient.

One unique aspect of AM:Online is the Ecritique program, which is used by the mentors to review and comment on student work. We can frame-by-frame student assignments, draw new poses on top of them, record with video and sound, pause and rewind the recorded critique, queue up the assignments, says Kelly. And best of all its constantly being recorded remotely so there is no need for saving the file, converting it, compressing it and then uploading it.

Online-only art schools, which often offer some animation courses, include New York-based, the Online School of Design, which launched in late 1998. It has delivered over 20,000, in aggregate, of its 60 courses in over 100 countries, and oversees a variety of certificate programs including multimedia/web design. It is introducing a Flash animation course this fall that will teach the basics of character animation along with software instruction. Other motion-graphics courses are in the works, including one in AfterEffects.

Of course, distance-learning programs were available long before the computer. The Art Instruction School, for example, was formed in 1914. It offers a certificate program in basic art education, with a few thousand students taking courses at any given time. While AIS does not specialize in animation, it incorporates various art styles, including cartooning, into its lessons and has cartooning instructors on staff. It holds an annual Charles Schulz Cartoon Art Scholarship Competition, named for the Peanuts creator, who was an AIS student and instructor. The contest, which attracts 500 entries per year, awards one full and two half scholarships. Steve Unverzagt, AISs director of marketing, notes that some graduates have gone on to animation schools including Sheridan College. [Students] use our course as a springboard for skills and confidence-building.

Training Centers and Universities

Anthony Rossano, president of Mesmer Animation Labs, a Seattle-based training center one of several animation training facilities offering online courses was skeptical about online distance learning when it first took off more than five years ago. I thought it was the dumbest thing Id ever heard, says Rossano, citing the expense and lack of access to 3D software, not to mention the personal instruction needed to teach animation, as barriers. It all seemed really irrefutable to me.

However, because demand existed, Mesmer developed a metered online course that Rossano viewed as midway between a book (the ultimate distance learning) and an in-person class. I was flabbergasted at how popular it was, Rossano remembers. Mesmer later added video featuring demonstrations and narration, first through DVDs and then downloadable video.

Personalized attention and feedback from working professionals out of the students area are distinct advantages to online learning says Gordon Drummond of

Meanwhile, DETCs Lambert estimates that 80% of the 4,000 higher learning schools in the U.S. offer some iteration of distance learning, with over half allowing students to get their full degree online. Duquesne University is one example. It has had distance-learning options for seven years, with three students to date completing the entire interactive-media masters program online.

The University of Phoenix has been one of the most aggressive marketers of its distance-learning courses, which encompass all subjects and majors. It has a program called FlexNet that allows students to combine on-campus and online courses, as well as a full Internet program where all coursework and instructor interaction occur online. All told, there were 109,784 students enrolled in online courses at the university as of May 2004.

Mt. Sierra, a private college targeting students who work and need flexible educational options, is offering full-time enrolled students three options: in-class courses, online courses or a combination of the two. Theyre aggressively putting all their digital media courses online, says Jan Nagel, a consultant who teaches several online courses and serves on the digital media/animation advisory boards for four colleges, including Mt. Sierra.

Online animation can be used as a tool for courses of all types. Linden Lab has adapted its online 3D digital world, Second Life, as a venue for learning subjects as diverse as urban planning, design and media studies; in addition, students can use Second Life s 3D modeling, scripting and other tools to learn 3D game design.

Linden released Campus: Second Life, targeted specifically to the college market, in September. Institutions such as Vassar, Trinity University, the University of Buffalo, San Francisco State University and the University of Texas have used Second Life in selected courses; collegiate users get complimentary access during the course and can maintain their characters and creations afterward at a discounted price.

Dennis Woytek of Duquesne warns that network and technical problems could frustrate an online student.

Advantages and Challenges

Online education is very powerful and very convenient, says Kevin Scolaro, director of operations at the Maya Training Center in Tampa, Florida. Ten percent of the institutions students take courses online at, which has offered online classes in Maya and Adobe for about a year and a half. They can train at their house, at their business or on a yacht in the middle of the ocean.

In addition to convenience and flexibility, distance learning offers an advantage over live courses in that it can give students the opportunity to learn from and have their work critiqued by experts to whom they would never have access otherwise. You can submit a piece of work and get personalized attention and feedback from instructors more qualified than those in your own community, says Gordon Drummond, director of curriculum at Most of the online programs attract interest from outside the major animation centers, including from rural and international students.

Nagel believes the potential for online interactivity is an educational plus. In one of her courses, students post assignments in a threaded discussion, and are encouraged to comment on each others work. The work is fully exposed and it creates an interactivity thats so valuable, she says.

There are challenges associated with distance learning, especially in the animation field. Both students and institutions must overcome technological issues. Educators need to continually keep up with changes in technology, and students are required to possess the right hardware and software to take the course. One big problem right now with online training is that most students do not have the system requirements required to take the course online, and are then caught in the upgrade snag and end up paying for upgrades to their own systems, explains Scolaro.

Network problems can make it difficult for students to log on, access materials or complete assignments in a timely manner. It takes a special student to be able to do [courses online]. Its not for the masses, says Dennis Woytek, assistant professor at Duquesne, who took a distance class himself to see what his online students experience was like, and found it frustrating. The technology gets in the way.

Dave Master of Acme Online feels online learning adds to the diversity of the industry and increases the audience for animation.

Undergoing an Evolution

Since distance learning is relatively new within the animation industry, there are many opinions as to how it can best be used. Some believe animation basics are difficult to teach in a distance environment. Richard Lapidus, a Discreet certified instructor who teaches professionals and students at Moraine Valley Community College, notes that students often ask to see concepts demonstrated in different ways. While an in-person instructor can immediately provide three or four alternatives, its hard to build that into the [online] system.

I hope they dont do the whole [educational process] distance, I really do, Lapidus continues, noting that a recurring theme at the recent SIGGRAPH conference was that companies want to hire people that know how to collaborate. Thats something thats difficult to integrate online.

Unverzagt notes that AIS has been struggling internally with the role of the Internet for the last 10 years, but so far has opted to continue running its courses entirely through mail correspondence. While some AIS students will go into fields such as graphic arts or animation, where they need a grounding in technology, the Internet is not the best tool to teach the fundamentals of art, Unverzagt says. Theres nothing wrong with teaching graphic arts online. Thats the environment the product is delivered through. But, he continues, the Internet is not appropriate for fine arts, where instructors need to evaluate original art rather than a scan, and where installing and learning software and hardware takes away from the creativity. All of a sudden youre not talking about art any more.

Learning animation is a step-by-step process that involves acting, anatomy and other subjects that can be difficult to convey on a computer screen. The hardest courses to teach [online] are the animation courses, says Woytek. Distance learners can be at a disadvantage in courses where student-to-student and student-to-teacher interaction during the animation process are important, such as for problem-solving. Of course, as noted earlier, there often is personal interaction built in to distance courses; Woyteks students chat or videoconference with him at least once a week and can share desktops. That lets me know theyre O.K., he explains.

Rossano echoes the opinion of several others when he says the Internet is better used for passing on specific bits of information than for conveying broad strokes. Its difficult to teach the concepts of 3D animation, for example, but simpler to teach 3D animators a specific topic such as how to increase the speed and quality of rendering.

Mesmers commitment to online learning has grown from an online course. Over time, the school has added a video with demonstrations and narration, available first as a DVD and now as a downloadable video.

Nagel concurs that courses related to hardware and software are very applicable to the online environment. You not only bring the aesthetic to the screen, but also the button-pushing.

Several animation and art schools, including Acme Online, AnimationMentor and, are teaching animation basics online, however. They have integrated mechanisms to ensure plenty of feedback and student-teacher or student-professional interaction. The Internet is ideal for teaching, it just hasnt been pushed to its full potential yet, says Kelly. That said, weve been careful not to suggest that AM:Online is a complete replacement for a traditional art-school education. Weve created something that can stand on its own as an animation education, but we still encourage our students to seek out figure drawing courses and sketch at the zoo.

Scolaro reports that students often inquire about the availability of basic animation training. While he agrees that teaching specific applications or topics seems to work better online and most of Maya Trainings students already know animation and seek Maya or 3D instruction specifically he says the center is looking to respond to demand by integrating more basic training into its programs.

Live Versus Self-Paced

Online courses can either be offered on a synchronous or asynchronous basis. Synchronous courses are held at a scheduled time, with all students and the instructor participating at once, while students take asynchronous options at their convenience, although there is often a time limit for completion. Duquesne displays its lectures live, as well as on a delayed basis for students who need flexibility or are having network problems.

Maya Trainings courses are live as well, often one-on-one but with the possibility of up to four students taking a course simultaneously. During the four-day, 32-hour course, the instructor delivers the same training as in live classes, via webcam, and students can hear and converse with the instructor in real time. There are no self-paced multimedia or interactive elements; the course is more like a videoconference, with a lecture/demo followed by a hands-on project. The instructor can watch students progress on the monitor, flipping back and forth among individual students.

Sessions.edus course usually last three months, resulting in a finished piece for students portfolios or reels., on the other hand, is fully asynchronous, with courses being project-based and instructor-led. Students study a lecture at their convenience and apply the lesson to a practical exercise, which they then send to the instructor for feedback, receiving a response within one to two business days. At the end of the course, which typically takes three months, students have created a piece suitable for their portfolio or reel. The Flash course results in a 30-second animation production synchronized to a soundtrack.

While online and distance learning are still emerging and evolving within the animation industry and will probably never become a dominant method of education in this field theres no question they are here to stay as technology improves, more programs come online, and current and future animators look to further their training in a flexible and convenient manner.

Karen Raugust is a Minneapolis-based freelance business writer specializing in animation, publishing, licensing and art. She is the author of The Licensing Business Handbook (EPM Communications).