Section Logo
Facebook   Twitter   LinkedIn   Email  

Page1of 2
< 1 2 >
Design Education Gets Smarter Online
Learn it on Wednesdsay, use it on Thursday

by Sam McMillan

The business model of higher education is broken. Elite private schools see approximately 30,000 applications and admit less than 10 percent. The situation is repeated at state universities. Last year at California Polytechnic State University, about 45,000 students applied for 3,860 slots. To accommodate this onslaught of demand, you would expect to see colleges expanding their campuses at a breakneck pace. You would be wrong.

That kind of inertia makes this a perfect time for online educators. The bandwidth required to deliver a video lecture in HD is plentiful. The cost of traditional education is skyrocketing at the very moment many are questioning the value of a college degree. Employers are demanding a skilled, highly trained workforce, yet are unwilling to pay for training.

For designers, illustrators, animators, photographers and coders who want to learn new skills and keep their old ones sharp, there seems to be only one good answer: go online. There, the emphasis is on project-based learning that builds practical skills in the context of clearly defined tasks. Call the paradigm: “Learn it on Wednesday, use it on Thursday.”

Fifteen years ago, practically every web designer in the business had a copy of Designing Web Graphics by Lynda Weinman next to their monitor. To meet the demand for training in the new medium, Weinman and her husband Bruce Heavin launched a digital academy for classroom instruction in Ojai, California. Students arrived from all over the world. To reach a wider audience, the duo videotaped classes and offered videocassettes for sale. In 2001, they put them online at

A decade later, is one of the largest players in the field of online education with 92,000 videos contained in more than 1,700 courses, 2 million subscribers, 400 employees and $100 million in revenue in 2012. Recently made news for an investment deal that attracted $103 million from venture capitalist firm Accel Partners and investor Spectrum Equity, in what has been called the largest financing round on record in the United States for an online education company.

At, courses are designed for the time-constrained. Learning is bite-sized. Instead of dragging out over the course of a semester, a Photoshop course taught by Deke McClellan lasts a precise 6 hours and 39 minutes, subdivided into dozens of lessons, some as short as 2 minutes and 29 seconds. Want more? There’s more. Search for Photoshop courses on and you’ll discover 317 beginner classes, 388 intermediate classes and 17 advanced classes that feature skills for the software in versions two through six.

That kind of specificity, combined with an all-you-can-eat subscription fee of $25 a month, is one of the keys to’s enduring success. As co-founder Heavin says, “the subscription fee hasn’t changed since day one. And it’s a fraction of the price of a college textbook.” Many of the students at are in fact coming straight from traditional schools. “Every single Ivy League school in America,” Heavin boasts, makes courses available to their students.

For mid-career workers, Heavin thinks “a lot of people use us as a library shelf reference. They go online to find a specific answer. They see it, learn it in fifteen minutes and do it. People working in a corporate environment can get in, get out and be productive.”

One of the criticisms leveled against massive, open online courses offered by Coursera, edX and Udacity is the quality of interaction. Typically there is none. CreativeLIVE aims to change that with in-studio video courses, filmed before a live audience of student participants. They ask questions as the class unfolds, and students viewing online can tweet questions. A good instructor can stop on a dime, and use a question from a single student to open up the discussion to a larger frame of reference, to the benefit of all. McMillan
Sam McMillan is a San Francisco Bay Area-based writer, teacher and producer of interactive multimedia projects for a number of Bay Area production houses, and can be reached at