Saturday, September 8, 2012

Introducing Animation Apprentice

I've been fascinated for some time now by the tremendous power of online instruction to improve the way that we learn. Especially impressive is the work of education entrepreneur Salman Khan, who has set up a free online academy, and whose work you can see here at YouTube.

Khan's philosophy - in brief - is that traditional classrooms have it all backwards. Students go in to a school room and listen to a lecture, then go home and do their home work, by which time they have forgotten half of what they learned, if they understood it in the first place. Much better, he argues, to watch the lecture at home, online, and then do the homework in the classroom. That way the teacher spends their time doing what is really important - helping students individually to solve problems.

A year or so ago I took a course in visual effects at Escape Studios in London, which offers a mix of classroom teaching and online pre-recorded content. Right away, I found that the online content was much more helpful. Missed what the instructor just said? just re-wind. Have to go and collect the dry cleaning? Just press pause. Late for class? Doesn't matter. With online tutorials, you learn at your own pace, at your own convenience. It was a revelation, not unlike the moment in 1996 when I first bought a book at

The problem I find with teaching animation is that, in a classroom, it is almost impossible to keep the whole class with you. Someone is always late, others will fall behind, and as a teacher you end up spending precious minutes repeating yourself and trying to help each student who missed the main bit of the lecture or didn't understand. But what if the students had already watched the lecture before class? That way you could sit down with each one and go over their work, help them individually to get the best results.
A new way to learn animation
So, this year, I have built a new animation school online,, teaching character animation and creature animation, and incorporating all the lessons I have learned in the classroom over the years. Animation Apprentice relies almost entirely on pre-recorded content, broken down into theory lectures (general theory), technical lectures (how to use the software) and tutorials (how to complete the weekly exercise).

It was a lot of work to build the site, but the beauty of it is that I never have to give the same lecture twice - a huge saving in time and effort. Instead, I get to spend my time going over the student's tests individually, and delivering back to each student a bespoke critique showing step by step how to improve the shot. We don't do Skype calls - there is no need. Much better to watch the process by which the shot gets improved. And the irony is, I get to spend way more time with each student than I would in a classroom. Plus it's more fun too, because I don't have to spend my time on the boring stuff - repeating myself giving the same lecture I gave last week, or last month.

So far, I love the results. A small group of students have been testing the course for me and their work is better even than I had hoped for. I think that online learning isn't a substitute for a classroom, it's better than a classroom. And I believe that this is the future of education. Just as revolutionized the book trade (and shopping in general), so online learning will change the way we learn, for the better.