Distance learning is nothing new, but distance learning applied to puppetry is something of a different matter. That's what's going on with The Center for Puppetry Arts, as its Distance Learning Division is helping bring instruction on the art of puppetry to places it may never have been before. The Center's distance learning systems are powered by cloud-based technology, and show us how real time communications can bring just about any instruction just about anywhere.
The Center's Distance Learning Division is a small operation by any standard—one office, two rooms—but since its start in 1998 has reached over 350,000 students, an average of around 19,445 students annually. All that's needed, according to program director Patty Petrey Dees, is for the school interested in receiving the puppetry education to have a high-speed Internet connection, a computer with a webcam, and a microphone to make the connection happen. Further connection to whiteboards or projectors can take place from there to make the presentation bigger, and interactivity can kick off right away.
With new improvements in video conferencing, like the use of Skype, FaceTime and Google Hangouts, it allows more schools to take advantage of the program's offerings while at the same time allowing the teachers to more readily navigate the systems, making it more comfortable while making it more accessible.
Awards follow the Center routinely; it's won awards every year since 2008 from the Center for Interactive Learning and Collaboration, and netted awards from both Microsoft and the Jim Henson Company.
Some might consider puppetry an art too frivolous to bother with. For schools who have recently had art budgets cut, however, a program like this could be a godsend. Available for comparatively little cash and able to be put on with minimal technology infrastructure—the Center does most of the heavy lifting of props and character design and such—it could be a great way to teach some valuable skills. One key point the Center teaches through its programs is improvisation, or improv, skill; while those in the Center's shows are contractually obligated to stick to the script, those in the Distance Learning Center must adapt to meet the needs and feeling of the classrooms involved. This in turn can be part of the lineup of taught skills, and the more practice one has with improvising, the more readily it's used in the real world.