Going global: MOOCs, massification and the role of creativity in the innovation economy

By Professor Caroline McMillen

Until 2016, the Bachelor of Natural History Illustration offered at the University of Newcastle (UON) was the epitome of a ‘boutique’ degree. The only program of its kind offered in Australia − and one of only a few offered internationally - it is unique in that it brings together specialised scientific content and an understanding of the environment with creative and design skills.

With around 30 students enrolled each year, the program’s graduates are highly sought after in the field of scientific and archaeological illustration. Students undertake field observation and laboratory work as well as learning traditional and digital illustration techniques. Studio time is a major feature of the program and until 2016 the degree had never been offered online.

Massification does not take individual talent out of the equation – rather, it acts as an enabler for that talent to benefit from exposure to world-class technical content, creative skills development and educational innovation.

The journey of transforming elements of a prestigious ‘bespoke’ program, offered wholly face-to-face at a single Australian location, to a multimedia course offered online to tens of thousands of students, took six months and a remarkable collaboration across the university. Led by UON academics Dr Andrew Howells and Dr Bernadette Drabsch, an interdisciplinary team of instructional designers, visual artists, and education technologists developed pioneering ways to teach online drawing and related skills in a scientific context, as well as orchestrating staging, film shooting, editing and post-production.

Finally, in October 2016 – in partnership with edX, the leading online learning destination founded by Harvard and MIT – we launched the world’s first Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) in natural history illustration: Drawing Nature, Science and Culture: Natural History Illustration. The course attracted substantial global interest, with more than 13,000 budding illustrators and online learners enrolled from 144 countries. In all, 2,400 students (more than 18 per cent) completed the course – a remarkable outcome when average completion rates for MOOCs sit between 5 and 10 per cent.

A key principle for the creation of the MOOC was placing learners and their skills at the heart of the program. Massification does not take individual talent out of the equation – rather, it acts as an enabler for that talent to benefit from exposure to world-class technical content, creative skills development and educational innovation. For UON, we see the future for creative arts as one that takes this talent and embeds it within a framework preparing students for jobs in the creative industries.  While there is sometimes an apparent tension between the ‘artisan’ nature of creative practice, and industry – which is perceived to be utilitarian or even actively antithetical to creativity - this tension can be productive and enabling when creative modes of thinking challenge orthodoxies and create new ways of working.

This is particularly important when we look toward a future in which creative arts graduates deploy their training and skills in new ways. In 2014, the creative industries – comprising design, film, television, advertising, game development, music and more - contributed more than $90 billion annually to the Australian economy, added more than $45 billion to GDP, and generated annual exports of $3.2 billion. Interestingly, out of a total creative workforce of 611,307 in Australia, around half are employed directly in the creative industries.

As the forces of globalisation, automation and technological change transform the landscape of work in Australia and beyond, this balance is likely to shift even further. It is striking when travelling in Asia how often one comes across remarkable examples of how creativity and the creative arts build a ‘magnet effect’ for cities and regions.

In 2014, the creative industries – comprising design, film, television, advertising, game development, music and more - contributed more than $90 billion annually to the Australian economy, added more than $45 billion to GDP, and generated annual exports of $3.2 billion. Interestingly, out of a total creative workforce of 611,307 in Australia, around half are employed directly in the creative industries.

Whether in Singapore, where a strong government focus on creative industries has led to it being named a ‘UNESCO Creative City of Design’ and the fifth best city worldwide for attracting creative talent, or in China, where the creative economy is undergoing rapid expansion as the country seeks to transition from ‘Made in China’ to a ‘Created in China’ paradigm, creative talent is now at the epicentre of how cities, regions and economies are being transformed.

While a future landscape dominated by automation and technological change may seem daunting, research shows that creative jobs will be more resistant to the pressures of automation, as they involve application of highly interpretive skills in complex environments. Universities have – as they always do – responded in good time to this imperative by embedding these skills at all levels and modes of university study. From individual online ‘stackable’ creative design modules for scientists, through to double degrees that mix creative content into professional programs such as engineering and law, creativity will increasingly drive the preparation of our graduates for their future success.


Professor Caroline McMillen joined the University of Newcastle as Vice-Chancellor and President in 2011, having previously served in academic leadership positions at Monash University, the University of Adelaide and the University of South Australia. She has held national and international roles in medical and health research, industry engagement, innovation strategy and policy development, and is internationally recognised for her work into the impact of the nutritional environment before birth on the risk of developing cardiovascular disease and obesity in adult life. She holds a Bachelor of Arts (Hons) and Doctor of Philosophy from Oxford University, and completed her medical training at the University of Cambridge.