What's Trending In Education, From Rick Thomas

Live Design has been running a series of columns titled "What’s Trending," mostly focusing on hardware and software, from lighting consoles to cutting-edge content creation. We decided to shift the focus to another side of our universe: education. What is going on in the theatrical design programs these days, and what advice do the professors have to offer those about to step over the threshold into the vast unknown of “the industry?” There were no guidelines provided; we simply asked a few academics to muse on the question: What’s trending in education?

Rick Thomas is a professor of music composition and sound design for theatre, as well as coordinator of design and production at the Patti & Rusty Rueff School of Visual and Performing Arts at Purdue University in Indiana. He shares his take on performing arts education with Live Design as part of our What’s Trending in Education series. Listen up!

From Rick Thomas:

It is impossible to discuss the rapidly evolving world of “What’s Trending” in performing arts education, without considering the implications of the underlying trends in academia in general. Let’s consider four, and their implications in the performing arts.

A major theme now advocated by academic institutions across the country is accountability. We are discovering new and better ways to identify learning outcomes and to ensure that students are actually acquiring the knowledge, skills, and imagination to compete in an expanding global marketplace of performing arts. While many faculty look upon these like the spring-cleaning list now staring me in the face—necessary, but not something I’m dying to dive into—those that have invested the time are discovering the value of articulating a strong partnership in student learning success.

Speaking of value, it’s no secret that the costs of a college education have spiraled out of control. The Performing Arts are not known for their traditionally high-starting salaries. Increasingly, parents and applicants are looking at the bottom line of accumulating college debt and wondering if it’s worth it. Academic institutions are being sorted into two camps: affordable and out-of-control. I once met a construction worker attempting to pay off a $100,000 debt with a history degree from a so-called prestigious private college. In 1976, my tuition in my senior year of college was less than $500. How much debt can a student graduating with a performing arts degree carry into the market-place?

I have often wondered why it is that every professor teaching a course in beginning audio engineering must reinvent the wheel and attempt to explain on a chalkboard (ok, whiteboard, ok interactive whiteboard), the basics of how sound propagates. Wouldn’t we all be a lot better off if some of the best and brightest minds in education pooled their resources and created exceptionally produced educational materials available online? That promise takes a giant step forward with the rise of online education. Purdue University’s president Mitch Daniels took a giant step forward in the past year towards a more efficient and better learning medium by acquiring Kaplan University, and developing it into Purdue University Global, an accredited online college.

A controversial move, to be sure (as any seismic shift in paradigms is bound to be), but online education can more efficiently and effectively provide certain types of education than the traditional talking-head classroom. And any fears that the traditional campus experience is going away are premature indeed. Traditional theatre has been emphasizing the “flipped classroom” in its hands-on, practical-experience-oriented productions for decades. Only now do we see the rest of academia catching up!

Finally, we are currently witnessing a shift away from the monolithic one-size-fits-all model of education and towards the more stealthy, targeted frame of interdisciplinary programs. With the marketplace for alums rapidly evolving and diversifying, the challenge of creating one degree that meets the natural inclinations and talents of an ever more diversified student population demands that academia evolve. We are now seeing a trend in education towards smaller-sized majors that allow students in diverse disciplines such as engineering, technology and the arts to explore dual degree options more finely tuned to a rapidly changing performing arts market.

These are the major trends in my mind. I could, of course, speak about the rise of networking in entertainment systems, and how it is reshaping technology in theatre. I could certainly lament the difficulty academia faces in keeping up with the extraordinary costs of such rapidly evolving technology. I could reiterate that some things never change: the needs of our alums to acquire the Readin’, Writin’, and ‘Rithmetic of an education in performing arts design programs: Engineering and technology fundamentals, production experiences including internships and industry partnerships, and an aesthetic foundation that makes the engineering and productions necessary in the first place. I could certainly talk about the challenges live entertainment faces from social media, a microcosm of the larger world. But they’ve asked me to limit my remarks to 500 words, and I’m finding I’ve already overstayed my welcome!