Saturday, 6 June 2020

Teaching In The Zoom Where It Happens

So a while back I wrote this blog about how, like so many other Principals, I suddenly found myself in charge of an online college. 

We're now about to enter the final week of our first online term so it seems like a pertinent time to reflect on the next part of the journey, especially as it looks somewhat inevitable that our next term will also be forced to be online (at least for one of our year groups anyway).

I think that what's surprised all of us the most is quite how much you can actually successfully teach online. We've seen students making huge strides in both their dance & singing techniques. Of course, everybody misses those great traveling exercises that only a dance studio can accommodate, but what we hadn't bargained for was a more independent learning style. I don't think that many people are consciously following the front line in a dance class, but it's a bit like harmony singing isn't it, you can work on that old satellite delay system, being a nanosecond behind the people that are finding the exercises easy and metaphorically being dragged through the class by them. Just like in a group choral rehearsal you might not be quite on top of your game, but sit surrounded by people singing the same part as you and somehow you can cling on by your fingertips - kidding yourself that you know your harmony line a lot more than you really do. 

Remote learning means that you are totally reliant on your own learning style and indeed your own learning resources. Sadly though it also means that you're denied the group cheer at that long-awaited breakthrough that you've been working towards. Similarly, you're denied the knowing look at your mate when somebody does that thing that you both celebrate (or indeed both get annoyed at). No teacher is naive enough to think that students don't moan about them in private, so when your tutor does that thing that they always do that annoys you more than it really should, remote learning also denies you a moment of solidarity with your fellow tolerators of that thing.

We were all concerned that we wouldn't be able to work on singing without being so hands-on so to speak. Masterclasses almost always rely on the workshop leader being able to get 'stuck in' and either clearly demonstrate what they mean or manhandle you (with your permission) to gently prod and poke the bits that they want you to work on or be aware of.  Online singing lessons also miss the collaboration of a pianist working with the singer. Suddenly you're forced to use backing tracks as latency is the common enemy.

Strange to think that latency has become an everyday word since the pandemic took off. It used to be the bain of every musician's life. Those of us of a certain age and with limited technical knowledge have been reminded of a time in history where we were setting up our midi systems dreading how we were going to solve the latency problem with notation software. Sibelius and I have had many strong arguments about this very topic.  Then suddenly the software and the IT caught up with each other and the 'latency issue' disappeared. . . until COVID that was, and the advent of the zoom room. I felt like I was time-warped back to the early '90s as I despaired at the realisation that there was no way to successfully accompany somebody online.  Then suddenly like everything else you learn to find the positives in the situation and you learn to teach in a different way.

I think that all teachers should be applauded as they've grappled the limitations of remote training, whilst grappling at the same time their own emotions about the world stopping. Teachers would check in regularly to see if the students were OK whilst simultaneously trying to manage their own anxieties and concerns. Good staff/student boundaries should mean that a faculty's personal difficulties don't creep into the zoom as part of the job is helping your students to feel contained. Of course in reality during these strange times, everybody needs containing, but students will of course be consumed with their own feelings. The downside of the boundary issue is indeed the fact that students seldom think outside of their own experience (nor should they, as that's what college is about for them). Teaching prep time increased substantially I believe. Partly because we could no longer do it the way that we'd been doing it for years, but also because options like screen sharing gave us more opportunities to do things differently.

Around the world, we've seen performances move into the digital era. There's the bog-standard streaming of a theatrical event, but there's also been space to develop a live performance element online. Looking around on social media it's been fascinating to read what every college has been attempting to do. Of course, none of us will ever know how successful any of us have been with our innovations because none of us would be tweeting that we tried XYZ and it was a disaster, whereas in reality to find out what will work online we will all have to have numerous disasters.

I was due to have a new musical premiered in September, obviously, that's been scrapped now, but I'm about to embark on co-writing an online musical. My regular collaborator Nick Stimson and I are both really excited to explore this area, but also very realistic about the success of such a project as a first attempt. The MTA 1st years will be the guinea pigs as of course at this stage of their training it's the process that's actually vitally important for personal growth, not the finished production. So we have a tacet get out of jail free card if the end result doesn't deliver as much as our excitement around the project would lead us to believe. Meanwhile, I live in hope that once all of this goes back to theatre as we know it, we will keep a vibrant digital theatre scene going too, so it feels pertinent to get our next set of graduates prepped in this area.

However all is not great in the zoom, and we would be wrong to kid ourselves.  All good drama colleges would pride themselves on keeping a safe space, a space where students can express themselves freely without fear. Drama college is a unique little place where somehow you end up divulging so much more than you really meant to, however you generally make those self-disclosures in a studio. A space governed by rules solely designed to keep you safe.

Zoom is impossible to monitor and impossible to be a safe space. Firstly there's the obvious thing you just don't know who's listening. If you're at home with partners, friends, families, or whoever, they could easily be listening to your classes. Of course, there's the nice by-product of this that parents suddenly see for themselves how hard drama training is. I mean if I didn't live in 'this world' and my child was having to train at home I'd be in every class interested to find out more about what it is that they do. Therefore you're obliged to keep reminding students that it's their responsibility to keep themselves safe, don't say anything that they wouldn't want out in the ether as public information. That's not to say that people are eavesdropping, but there's just an inevitability of working from home and for lots of people just a practical limitation. How many homes have that spare room ready to be enlisted as a temporary remote drama college? 

The thing that we hadn't bargained for though was the lack of nonverbal communication that could be transmitted through the zoom box. Of course, you're only really seeing the head and shoulders of all the participants. For those of you of a certain age just think Celebrity Squares. This also means though that you can't see what anybody's arms/hands are doing, whilst you see the eyelines darting discretely to something/somebody else within the square. You can see a wry smile that you know is incongruent with the current discussion (even taking latency into account). In other words, zoom rooms unwittingly facilitate multiple conversations. Some of which will be in the zoom, but in this age of WhatsApp and Facebook groups and indeed simple messaging, some of them will be private conversations taking place simultaneously with the class but out of view of the teacher.

This of course means that no zoom can be safe - unless you ask your students to take all classes with their hands above their heads (and believe me I did think about it several times). Of course, when you're a student you have absolute knowledge (I mean what do staff really know anyway?), you feel somewhat smart at working out that you can have a private conversation in a public zoom, you're confident in your multi-tasking ability, so have no fear of that moment of when your name is called you, you've managed to keep up enough to answer appropriately, however you bypass the bit of the equation that equals trust eroded. It's OK when you're in the middle of the conversation, but what if besides your conversation there are other private conversations taking place? The friends that are so active in your private conversation could actually be conducting another couple of private conversations that you're not part of, after all, most of us if we're lucky have a friend for all occasions. Do you know what I mean?

I have my friends that I can call on if I need to talk through an everyday problem, I have other friends that I can call on if it's a deeply personal problem, they there are the people that I chat aimlessly to just because they make me laugh and cheer me up. My world is richer for having all these 'resources' at my disposal to support me, so why wouldn't I bring them all into online college with me? What harm could it possibly do? Of course, the harm is potentially huge. The pandemic took away our industry overnight, it took away our way of life overnight, the world is already feeling very unsafe. The people that usually guide us through these 'new bits' of life are the grown-ups, our parents, and teachers, but for the first time ever we were all attempting to navigate something for the first time. So an unsafe world with no safety net. . . great! Young people forging their way through into adulthood suddenly found themselves back in their childhood bedrooms. It's not great though is it? When you're already feeling vulnerable you now also know that other conversations are taking place so blatantly behind your back (even when you're a part of it) leaving you completely and utterly exposed.

Like most colleges, I should imagine we have grappled with this issue most of the term. What I realised for the first time is that it's actually the students that create a safe space, not the teacher. For sure the teacher can set out the rules of the room, and it's their job to uphold them, however, it only works successfully when every student buys into it 100%. As soon as somebody breaks rank the tutor is helpless. None of us (I don't think) would allow students to keep their mobiles out and on during a regular class. Imagine the chaos. Students snap chatting away as you attempted to keep a disciplined safe space - however zoom rooms take the ability to monitor a room completely away from the teacher and rely on the students to take full responsibility for their actions. We've all been students. If we're being honest with ourselves we know that that is an impossible ask.

I heard a colleague making a plea the other day for all students at online colleges to remember the word respect as staff are still putting in the hours to teach them, they hadn't had the luxury of checking out during the pandemic. So this particular beef was around the level of attendance at classes and the sudden lack of notification about that absence. It's like the global lockdown had eradicated all the common decency rules of collaboration that we used to take for granted. We couldn't really challenge the sudden rudeness as we're conscious that everybody is struggling, so you have to give a bit of leeway, but how much? Where do you draw the line between understanding the difficulties but also understanding that no college could operate successfully without ground rules?

So does online college work? I think that the honest answer is that for lots of disciplines it actually could, but it would take a lot more personal responsibility from everybody for that to happen, and in truth, I don't think that that would be possible. 

You can keep up a skillset though, and indeed progress, but college is about so much more than a skillset. It's about hanging out and talking nonsense with your friends. It's about that opportunistic meeting with a tutor which prompts you to ask 'that question' that you've been puzzling about for a while. It's about a spontaneous dialogue, not a formal lecture. It's about giving your mate a hug when they did something brilliant or seeing a friend having a hard time and being able to take them for a coffee and a quiet chat. Those corridor conversations are the lifeblood of a successful environment.

I suspect that technology will soon catch up with the need to be more fluid. Most of us hadn't clocked before March that we couldn't create music together online, but now that we've noted the problem, I'm confident that somebody is currently working on the latency issue in order to resolve it. 

I question whether in time pandemic or not, more things will move online (or at this rate, stay online), but until things return to normal, we just have a responsibility to keep growing within the medium, and try to make it work as best as possible to ensure safe professional and personal growth for our students and indeed for ourselves - after all these ongoing issues make the staff every bit as vulnerable as the students. 

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