Today, I want to visit with you about a subject that could be somewhat controversial. This article is not intended to create controversy but is simply informational.

One of the most popular educational trends these days is online education. It is a 21st century version of the old correspondence method where a packet of materials would arrive in the mail. Upon completing the materials, you would then mail in your work to an instructor for which you would receive a grade. Young students now probably can’t believe that anyone would use snail mail for this purpose, but at one time it was a method that worked well for certain types of college classes.

With today’s technology, online education is quite sophisticated, and it is now reaching down to pre-college students. And you probably know that there are universities that are solely devoted to online education. While I believe there is a place for this type of education, it has some limits, particularly in the arts.

At the heart of arts education is a structure that demands face to face time with an instructor in a performance type of setting. In other words, students go to practice to physically participate in the activity, whether it be an orchestra rehearsal, dance class or private acting lesson. Through much repetition and daily rehearsal, students prepare for performances. In fact, this form of learning is called performance-based education, and it produces phenomenal results in the arts just as it does in athletics and other performance types of fields.

In these performance-based fields, students go through rigorous training both in the class room and in one-on-one settings with professionals. This form of study came from the Italian approach called the master-apprentice style, and while it is a very old form of training, it is still the best method of teaching certain skills. The master teacher works tirelessly with the apprentice to impart his wisdom and skill to the young student in order to continue a tradition of excellence in the next generation. This works brilliantly in the arts. A mentoring relationship develops that cannot be gained online. This sort of intangible component opens the door for coaching and correction of the student in a very trusting environment.

I have personally experienced a tremendous amount of this type of training. When I was in college, I studied piano with a world-renowned pianist by the name of Susan Starr. She was a child prodigy who studied with the late great Rudolph Serkin. She was an amazing teacher who shared her wealth of knowledge that she gained under the tutelage of Serkin — and I then shared what I learned with my students. It was one-on-one hands-on training that was second to none.

So, as we think about the place for online education in the arts, let me suggest that online studies can certainly serve in a supporting role in several ways but should not serve as the primary form of study. Since online study can be interactive, there is a place for interactive communication with great artists and professionals in the various arts fields. This is a very good tool and can even be used with young children as a means to hear great performances and at the same time talk with the artist.

Also, it is vitally important to watch video of the masters as well as yourself. The old version of watching football film is now part of online instruction in the form of digital media. Studying physical movements in yourself and others in order to perfect certain skills is a powerful tool in performance. Whether it be technical skills at the piano, dance moves or acting skills, much can be gained from studying video. Online study is also good in the sense that there is such an immediate access to information and to some type of communication with others in your field. Studying the history of a field, for example, is very easy to do online.

I know there are other benefits to online education. I wanted to hit the high points of it for those participating in the arts. What I want to stress is that it should be secondary to participation in the classroom and one-on-one studies with a professional. There is absolutely no substitute for private studies in the arts. Students who study with a master-teacher weekly will be by far the top students in the arts.

As I have mentioned before, the arts provide students with great communication skills, team building skills that surpass most other fields and impressive self-discipline from intense face-to face training. These skills are hard to match in online education. And, at the end of the day, these are the skills that produce leaders and what most employers are looking for.

Dr. Rosilee Russell is the founder/executive director of Community School of the Arts. Contact her at, call 434-2880 or visit