Getting creative online

This is written mainly in response to this blog post by a colleague Emily Dowdeswell, so maybe have a read of that first

I also had a conversation with colleagues at Durham about the teaching of dance online. That the dance elements were alternated with the in-person elements. This resonated with me as one of the first workshops I supported as a learning designer was a dance workshop held by an academic in Canada, with performing arts students in Warwick.

The creative arts must be some of the most difficult to translate to an online environment, and yet so much of art is done in solitude. Yet it’s tactile and can be collaborative. Knowing people who are doing arts degrees in the time of lockdown has brought that to mind a lot recently too.

So what are the issues these things raise?

Online sessions can become dull and repetitive. Something more creative and expressive is needed for everyone. Being more tactile and allowing movement can make a difference. I would resist the notion that there are “kinaesthetic learners” specifically, but I have noticed that some people are particularly locked into their physical bodies than others. Working with virtual worlds, I’ve seen the people who are most upset by relating virtually are those with a specialism for example in sports and sculpture. “I don’t want to be sitting in front of a screen I want to be out on my bike” “I can’t make something with my hands, I don’t get it”, were some quotes (I’m paraphrasing ) that came out in my doctoral research. Which is why they struggled particularly with my sessions in Second Life because full engagement in a virtual space requires the ability to be disconnected from the physical body and fully embodied in the extended body on the screen. A recent post from Dave White states how this body can be something as minor as an image, as long as there is a spatial component to where it is located on the screen. I’ve seen learner interactions transformed online by the simple act of sharing a space with their selves represented by just a cursor. As long as they can gesture within that space and affect the space, and have those changes perceived by others, they have an online body and then communicate more effectively. But roughly only 25% become fully immersed in this way, 50% it’s a mixture of feeling located in their extended body and in their physical body, and 25% never experience that online embodiment. There may be some neurological evidence to back this up.

But despite this, there are no specific kinaesthetic learners, we are all kinaesthetic learners at some points, in the same way that we move in and out of learning most effectively between visually, textually, aurally constantly (ie why learning styles are complete arse). Sometimes holding something, drawing it, so-called visceral writing (ie writing with a pen) can help us learn from a different perspective. Unlock something creative.

Also, movement helps everyone. In IET’s 2020 Innovating Pedagogy report there’s a chapter on Spaced Learning. People learn better if they break up their studies with some exercise every 20 mins. If I’ve got deeply engrossed in something (it happens sometimes) when I start moving again afterwards, everything has seized up. That’s not healthy. We need to stop trapping people in front of a laptop for hours at a time.

So the idea of mixing the offline and the online, breaking up the zoom, or whatever, session is vital.

However, the zoom session itself is too. I like the idea of zoom as a campfire. The metaphor is that we have these rooms and bodies and practice outside of the space, but the virtual space is where we really connect. That seems to run against the statement “Zoom is just a place where we happen to meet.” Where we meet is everything. But I guess what the statement means is that there is nothing special about zoom. In fact, there are some severely limiting aspects to it. The lack of spatiality that Dave White mentioned, whereas perhaps something that gives us a sense of spatiality would be better. Zoom has a spaciality setting, where it puts each face on a seat in a forest setting. It looks awful. Each person is still just a disembodied head, only this time much smaller on the screen. The virtual backgrounds help add a bit of fun to the process and they help, but I think there’s more to be done there.

What Emily mentions in the blog post are a whole set of excellent techniques to make the connection work better, whiteboards, chat, gestural elements like handraising. We need more though. In a Rumpus meeting last week we talked about how sound is underused. The sound of applause instead of just a clap emoji would help. A little signature tune to announce when someone logs on would be great. We need to experiment with more ways to be present. Maybe take some hints for that from how we are present when we are together in-person, but there may be some completely new ways to be thought of. Or dump zoom altogether and find something more expressive.

What is particularly difficult though is making the transition between offline and online. If we’re moving people out of the online space to do something movement-based or tactile and creative, then this sense of sharedness – vital for communication – will be constantly undermined. We need ways to transition between the two. The campfire metaphor is excellent here. Campfires are liminal spaces in many ways, there is the shared heat, the passing of objects to add to the fire, we don’t necessarily have formal rituals of entering and leaving, as we do with ritual and performance spaces, but maybe those could help. I was once asked why we wave at the end of a videoconference session, whereas we don’t at the end of a meeting, as if that was weird. But it’s not, virtual spaces are liminal. In order for them to work we have to cross over from the physical into the virtual. And we have to cross back out at the end. That epistemic shift is more effective if facilitated through an act – even one as minimal as waving. We need to identify more things like that to make this transition in and out more rapid, if it is to be taking place many times in the same session. So reconnecting with our physical bodies that Emily suggests but also effective disconnecting from those and reconnecting with our virtual bodies. We probably also need additional ways to bring in the physical artefacts we’ve made if those are also intended to be part of the shared experience. Maybe tech is a way to do this, visualisers for drawings, camera peripherals to capture movement. Haptics, body motion tracking? But a lot of it will need developing practice too. And passing of artefacts?? Absolutely key to the shared campfire experience, but how to replicate that online? In a zoom meeting where is the toasted crumpet?

So – in summary – which is tricky because this is an unstructured brain dump in many ways. I don’t think we’ve got many answers in the short term, but at least we have a different name for the problem.