We must embrace the digital: Massive Open Online Courses as performer training tools.

I’d like with my first ever blog entry to offer a challenge to the field of performer training. Let’s face it the current state of secondary drama education is in crisis. Much quoted figures include a drop of 23% in GCSE numbers in Drama from 2003-13, an 8% drop in Drama teachers in schools since 2010 and a 23% drop where an arts subject has been withdrawn. All of us will have anecdotal evidence from our colleagues of falling numbers at A Level and of systematic closures of (very successful) courses. How are we to arrest what many have called an ideological attack on the creative arts through changes to education? How are we to respond to the assessment of the Chair of the Warwick commission’s report on cultural value, that: “not enough is being done to stimulate or realise the creative potential of individuals, or to maximise their cultural and economic value to society. Improvement requires a greater degree of investment, participation, education and digital access’ (2015: 9)?

In this context, my assessment is stark:

Performer training will not survive in any guise of inclusiveness unless it diversifies its infrastructure and fully embraces the rise of digital culture.

Let’s consider this statement by considering the development of Massive Open Online Course, and specifically, one I have recently run on Meyerhold’s Biomechanics.

Massive Open Online Courses or MOOCs – short, free-to-access, learning modules, delivered entirely online – are particularly interesting in terms of their organisation of ‘studio’ time. MOOCS are first and foremost ‘an EVENT’ and yet they also endure in perpetuity, contributing to students’ lifelong learning.   This interesting mixture of momentary eventness and longitudinal impact is one of a number of temporal idiosyncrasies associated with Massive Open Online learning or what I have called elsewhere digital training [1]. These include

  1. Time as it is constructed within the MOOC platform (e.g. FutureLearn).
  2. Time as it is designed by the educator (including the improvement of user engagement using learner analytics).
  3. Time as it experienced by the teacher during the MOOC.
  4. Time as it experienced by the participants during the MOOC, within and beyond the MOOC itself.
  5. Differing time zones of the participants.
  6. Differing ages, backgrounds and trainings of the participants.
  7. Time as it is experienced after the MOOC finishes.
  8. Time as historical content in the MOOC itself.

For now, let’s focus on points 3-6.

The eventness of MOOCS is created by the time-limited delivery of the courses – normally anywhere between 2 and 8 weeks, with specific content associated with each week. In some platforms this content is no longer available after the the course has concluded; in others, including the FutureLearn platform I used, the materials are available indefinitely – to review, download, rehash and reuse without restriction. The time-limited delivery of the course, allows for students to have a level of parallel experience, building to the same goals at the end of each week and opening up conversations about the same learning materials in the comment threads alongside materials:


Each course is broken down into weeks and each week is broken down into steps that are completed by students before moving to the next step:


The large majority of students follow this timetable as the opportunity to share ideas and comments in parallel with others is hugely valued. The end of a week, then, becomes a kind of shared event and given the shift from theoretical and historical materials in week one to practical examination of the études via video tutorial, in week two, there was a particular sense of moment in the Physical Theatre MOOC I ran.

Similar expectancy characterized many of the comments at the end of the second week before, in the first part of week 3, students were asked to share their own self-generated documents of embodying the biomechanical étude, the Slap, in a Facebook event, either in prose, stills or video. Two examples of stills illustrate the diversity of responses:

These documents, along with the videos students uploaded, showed students engaging right across the world – Australia, South and North America, Europe, and Asia – and provided stimuli for others who were practicing the etudes but who were not prepared or interested to share their experiences.

For students the feeling of time was linear and incremental as they ‘bonded’ as a cohort and progressed through together, step by step. For the educator and moderating team, responding on the comment threads, the feeling was expressly non-linear – jumping backwards and forwards across the different activities (and weeks) to ensure that the educators’ voices were present in the threads consistently, something again which was highly valued in the summative feedback. With students in different time zones moving onto the platform at different times of the day, there was no predicting when students would peak in their activity, although there were hot spots at the end of each GMT day, reflecting the number of UK-based students (43%).

Looking deeper, though, this sharp distinction between the students’ and educators’ time-experience was not always backed up by student behaviour in the comment threads. In fact, as one might flick through activity on the newsfeed in Facebook, they often moved forward and back through the course, not so much to resist the linearity of its design but to process fellow learners’ comments over time – and to check if their own statements had had any replies.

In addition to this toing and froing a significant number of participants commented on the simultaneity of their time outside of the MOOC – time spent in their real lives or on other MOOCs. Students reported catching up on the practice, after pressures at work or home, or committing to too many other free and easy to access courses. This clashing of different lives is further intensified by the mode of access to MOOCs, predominantly through the mobile technology of smart phones and tablets, used for other things such as work and socialising – strong evidence of so-called ‘convergence’ (Van Dijk 2012: 54-6) [2].

In sum the temporal idiosyncrasies of digital training include the following characteristics:

  • Learners moving through training incrementally and respecting the temporal markers set by the educator through the design of the course;
  • Users valuing the opportunity to return to and review exercises at different times – and beyond what they themselves have set as practical time;
  • Despite the absence of a shared practice in a shared space, a powerful sense of collective work;
  • A potentially frightening ceding of control for the trainer – no hands-on instruction, no collective control of the micro-rhythms of learning;
  • But, as the trainers’ comments are archived and visible for all the tutees in perpetuity, a levelling out some of the unforeseen hierarchies that can exist in the studio allowing for longitudinal reflection.

One of the participants on the MOOC captured a number of salient issues in this summary.

In terms of using an online environment for physical actor training, it was a very positive experience, in some ways more positive than learning such skills in a studio environment. At home on my own, I really felt I was in a safe space to try the physical activities as many times as I wanted, without feeling stupid in front of others. This gave me time to really get comfortable with the exercises in a way which I wouldn’t have done in a group. I also felt in the comments we heard voices that would sometimes stay quiet in a rehearsal room, where in my experience the most confident and the most physically able would be the most vocal during such exercises. Here we had people saying “I really struggled with that”, “I was struggling but then I did this which helped me to get it”, etc. As a fellow learner these voices were really valuable.

To return to my original statement:

Performer training will not survive in any guise of inclusiveness unless it diversifies its infrastructure and fully embraces the rise of digital culture.

How can I justify such a claim? Well, I’m influenced by two critics: Van Dijk and Tapscott, both of whom try to capture future developments in developed countries drawing on research into digital culture. For Van Dijk the future suggests ‘a complete integration of online and offline types of communication’, with ‘practices of sharing cultural forms most prominent in young people (2012: 222, emphases in original). For Tapscott, the ‘Net Generation’ (born 1977-97) and ‘Generation next’ (born 1998-present) are ‘forcing a change in the model of pedagogy, from a teacher-focused approach based on instruction to a student-focused model based on collaboration’ (2009: 11). This paradigm shift in pedagogy is well known in UK Higher Education. But in the context of an expressly didactic studio training (such as biomechanics) the argument is more emergent. Indeed loss of control from the trainer and the levelling out of hierarchies in the studio in many ways undermines the efficacy of such training, compromising ‘depth’.[3] Yet, even in the most vertical of traditions – for instance Keralan Kathakali or Korean Pansori, master-teachers are identifying the quickening of students’ expectations and a slow merging of the hitherto clean borders of the digital and the fleshly, Van Dijk’s ‘integration’ of on and off-line communication. How has the discipline of performer training responded to these developments thus far? And what should we be considering in the future? I have hooked this argument to declining A level and GCSE places in my introduction but the debate is of course much bigger than that, no less than a debate about the integrity and boundaries of performer training in the next part of the C21st. Massive Open Online courses are a small part of this debate but they do bring into focus several of the purported societal trends we are witnessing now and will experience in concentration in the next five years: the integration of social media behaviours into education, the desire to produce and share (new) cultural forms, internationalization and globalization, the challenge to direct pedagogical hierarchies, the convergence of media, the blurring of everyday and professional life, the desire to study in smaller chunks and to blend online with face-face. Tapscott says this of our current and future students:

They want to customise things, make them their own. They’re natural collaborators, who enjoy a conversation, not a lecture. They’ll scrutinise you and your organisation. They insist on integrity. They want to have fun, even at work and at school. Speed is normal. Innovation is part of life. (2009: 6-7)[4]

If ‘speed is normal’, do we need to catch up or slow down?

[1] By digital training, I do not mean the development of skills and abilities in the use of digital technologies themselves (although that may be a byproduct). I am not referring to the vast corpus of training aids designed to develop photo-editing, social media, movie making, green screen, motion capture or blogging skills. I mean the appropriation of digital technologies by a tutor/leader/expert/ambassador/role-model to document and/or transmit some level of embodied experience and knowledge.

[2] “The ephochal trend of convergence is the most important trend of the new media in the last 30 to 40 years. It stands for the gradual integration of three types of communication, tele-, data-and mass communication, symbolized by the telephone, the computer, and radio or television respectively” (Van Dijk 2012: 54).

[3] In his essay ‘Keywords for Performer Training’ Simon Murray has recently problematized this term in ways which might be fruitful for this discussion (TDPT: 2015): ‘For depth can we read thickness, consistency, density, girth, width, compactness, opacity, viscosity, consistency, consolidation, intimacy…?’

[4] An interesting short critique of Tapscott and his vested interests can be found at: http://www.units.miamioh.edu/psybersite/cyberspace/n-gen/criticism.shtml