As we enter a near global shelter at home response to the COVID-19 pandemic, performance practitioners and educators are rapidly shifting to virtual online resources for their training. Institutions are shuttering but our practice and educational work continues. Unlike the plagues of previous centuries, our contemporary technology allows us to converse, move and share knowledge despite the suspension of face-to-face encounter. However, virtual and online learning has been critiqued extensively as a platform for embodied transmission.
The following post by Jonathan Pitches aims to dispel some of the critiques of online learning as being insufficient for embodied practice and learning. We hope it’s a useful provocation for our readers to explore more digital learning and to comeback to the blog with their own posts to add to the conversation.
Embodied learning – a guide to moving online
A few days ago thousands congregated in the UK to show their appreciation of the health workers on the front line of the coronavirus pandemic, a mass gathering of isolates facilitated by social media, recorded on our phones and re-distributed online. The #clapforourcarers national event echoed those held all over the world, bringing together communities in unprepared isolation to make a simple gesture of respect and humility to the doctors, nurses, and care-workers working in the health system.
In the last few weeks there have been seismic movements in the relationship between online and off-line activity: myriad examples, like the #clapforourcarers initiative, of creative people taking their skills online to encourage others to explore new activities in their homes. Pub quizzes, fitness sessions, cookery classes: all are upscaling to national dimensions to keep countries sane, not to mention an entire education system (from nursery to PhD) which has converted to online teaching and learning overnight.
In this definitive digital moment, what are the things to look out for as beacons of good practice for online embodied learning? What can be achieved? I write from the perspective of a Lead Educator and designer of a FutureLearn course, Exploring Physical Theatre, a Massive Open Online Course which five years ago was groundbreaking, heretical even – at least for Russian theatre training purists. In just a few days, online specialist training has become the new normal but carefully crafted and insightful embodied practices delivered digitally remain rare. Here are some of my reflections derived from teaching nearly 30,000 students techniques of Russian actor training. I have arranged them as an acrostic.
Experience is key
Even in the asynchronous world of an online course, key events structured into the learning can be galvanising for students – the promise, for instance, of moving from theoretical ideas to practical investigation at the beginning of a new week.
Massive cohorts can work
Some online courses have been critiqued for being mechanistic and non-interactive, but if care is taken large groups of students can have a bespoke experience – moderators can support lead educators to reply to comments and students support one another in self-organising clusters.
Bodies change online
Teaching a very precise, physical form, using video tutorials, enables an educator to gauge how deeply the students are embodying the principles of the training. Students who upload examples of their training can be given precise feedback, in ways which are very similar to studio training.
Organisation of resources is vital
Online courses, just as with face-to-face modules, construct a journey of learning. It is this level of organisation and curation which distinguishes them from more piecemeal online offerings.
Digital artefacts can be key to the learning experience
Gauging Learning can be challenging when your students are all over the world or silent in comment threads. Asking for the uploading of a digital artefact, capturing their learning, appeals to different learning styles and creates a gallery for others to comment on.
Young and old will engage
Theatre studios tend to be populated by young fit people. An online space brings a much wider demographic of learners together and some of the typical hierarchies experienced by trainees can be dismantled.
Jonathan Pitches is Professor of Theatre and Performance at the University of Leeds, UK and a FutureLearn lead educator. He has trained with Russian masters in Vsevolod Meyerhold’s system of ‘biomechanics’ and has been teaching students these principles since 1995.