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Reflections on Introducing 'E Support' into the Traditional Theatre Studies Classroom

Christa Williford, School of Theatre Studies, University of Warwick

This spring, I co-taught my first full-length undergraduate module in Theatre Studies along with Professor Richard Beacham.  The module, titled ‘Performance Spaces’, was effectively new, since we used for the first time as a primary ‘text’ the EU-funded Theatron online resource, which contains 3D and interactive computer models of historic theatre spaces. Much of Theatron was produced here at Warwick.  It seemed natural that subject matter so revitalized by digital technologies should be supported by e-learning technologies as well, and so we put together a fairly extensive module website using SiteBuilder, into which we placed large amounts of supplementary material.

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The module website proved even more popular with students than we anticipated.  Most students reported that they felt more in touch with lecturers and more confident about what to expect than in their classes without e-support 1.  Based upon her experience in our module, one student expressed a hope that more course leaders would operate websites.

Our attempts to encourage proactive learning through some parts of the site, however, were not as successful.  For students and lecturers alike, the conditioning of traditional classroom practices proved a powerful force.  In general, we as lecturers like to maintain control over the content to which students are exposed, and students prefer to depend on lecturers for critical evaluation of any content before venturing their own opinions.  And while navigating complex 3D interactive models--a challenge for lecturers--proved no difficulty whatsoever for the students, some aspects of the e-learning environment, not being like a computer game, were less familiar.

On our website, we gave students publishing permissions so that they could develop their own online resources to supplement their required in-class presentations, but many of them, more comfortable with providing traditional paper handouts to their classmates, found this feature confusing.  The in-site student forum was only infrequently used.  Perhaps our weekly face-to-face contact made these features superfluous:  we will take some time to evaluate whether or not to include them in future versions of the module.

Despite not seeing wide use of all our site’s features, this first attempt at devising ‘e support’ for the theatre classroom was an extremely valuable experience for me, since it has clarified some of the differences between online and traditional teaching and learning.  I continue to reflect upon these differences now, as a student enrolled in the Warwick E-Learning Award Programme at the Centre for Academic Practice.

For the purposes of the following, let me divide traditional teaching and learning processes into three broad categories, which here I’ll call (1) outlining content, (2) delivering content, and (3) receiving/reconfiguring content.  (I realize these terms, particularly the use of the word “receiving,” are suspect, particularly when the most desirable outcomes are often not memorization of content but the development of an ability to critically evaluate it.  But for now I’ll leave them as they are.)

New technologies in our field have provoked obvious, significant and, I feel, positive changes to (2), content delivery.  We can now make more information available to our students within email, on websites, through references to outside internet resources, and through input from experts at a distance.  In Theatre Studies, the types of content we can make available through these means (including audio, video, 3D visualizations, and other multimedia) are all serious advantages for helping to make historical and contemporary theatre art come ‘alive’ for our students.  As these technologies become better integrated, cheaper, and easier to use, they will challenge us to clarify and improve our research-led teaching at Warwick for many years to come.

Whereas delivery methods may be changing, however, many of the skills we seek to teach in Theatre Studies remain the same.  Since evaluating the success or failure of theatrical endeavours is and always has been a subjective process (and since even the boundaries of what is and isn’t theatrical art are debatable), theatre departments have long emphasized research and critical thinking skills throughout their curricula.  Of course, one may teach and learn such skills with or without e-learning, and so the process of organizing modules in order to develop these skills (1), ‘outlining content,’ could remain similar for theatre courses which employ e-learning technologies and for those which do not.

The form in which we choose to express the content we deliver, however, cannot help but influence the content itself.  In truth, opening the door to an ever-widening breadth of online information about our field—information it would be irresponsible for us to ignore—demands that we concentrate on core skill development even more explicitly than before as our students struggle along with us to synthesize large amounts and different types of information.  Time management, organization, team-building, and presentation skills:  these have always been at the forefront in our discipline.  In today’s online environments, they can assume even more importance, and the standards for success in at least some of these areas will continue to shift with changing technologies.  For these reasons, I believe that changes in technology will eventually change the way we experience teaching and learning, whether we like it or not, and so it seems better to be truly proactive about using e-learning where it makes sense to do so.  Of course, doing away with face-to-face contact in the context of a resident course in Theatre Studies would be ridiculous.  At the same time, making the transition from lecturer-organized content to ‘e-supported’, student-organized content—as many e-learning initiatives, including those at CAP, have advocated—does seem desirable in some cases.  For Theatre Studies, in which the emphasis has long been on project-based or experience-based learning, this is really not too painful a transition to make.

The influence of e-learning on (3) content ‘reception/reconfiguration’, is more difficult to discuss.  I am not convinced a new, ‘e’ pedagogy would supplant learning theories developed through many years of careful research and experimentation.  One may or may not employ e-learning to introduce broad concepts, give examples, test and subsequently reinforce student understanding, or, alternatively, introduce many specific examples and then have students theorize about the relationships among them, giving reinforcement where necessary.  Or, indeed, one may set students a task, the nature of which they themselves devise, and simply guide them to tools and resources that can help them successfully complete that task, with or without IT mediation.  Each of these teaching methods is employed in Theatre Studies.  I have seen first-hand how e-learning support can help students feel more in touch with their lecturers and more secure about what is expected of them, but I must admit I haven’t yet seen evidence that e-learning genuinely helps students learn quicker or, indeed, better.  Learning has and always will take time, discipline, and practice.  The same is true of learning to teach.  E-learning has simply not been around long enough for pedagogical or administrative structures to enable best practices to take shape.

Even if we still have more work to do to make e-learning the best it could be, I do believe e-learning technologies, sensibly employed, already add significant value to the set of transferable skills a university degree affords.  No one can deny that changing technologies are influencing changes in government, business, and industry as well as in education, and so preparing our students to adapt to different IT-supported environments will surely help prepare them for life after university.

Although it would be impossible to divorce an ‘e’ pedagogy for theatre from its antecedents, I do believe that the introduction of contemporary information technologies into teaching and learning in our field does challenge us to re-examine, clarify, and perhaps re-affirm our commitment to key skills development within our curricula as we introduce, little by little, carefully-chosen technologies where it makes sense to do so.  Where we choose to employ e-learning support, we may need to be willing to blur the boundaries of responsibility within traditional teaching and learning—outlining, delivering, and reconfiguring content—in ways that include both lecturer and student involvement on every level.  Taking small but steady steps in this direction, we will create for ourselves the luxury of a ‘more reflective, negotiated approach’ to e-learning design which is (like the best kind of classroom) flexible and customisable rather than restricting, laborious, and, perhaps, frightening to those charged with implementing it.  I would submit that if we are successful in creating this kind of teaching and learning experience in Theatre Studies, then our students should be inspired to spend even more—not less—time in libraries and, of course, in theatres.

1 On one review questionnaire, a student did report feeling that not having home internet access like some of the other students put him/her at a disadvantage.  While this student may have been in the minority, this comment made clear to me the continuing need for those engaged in ‘e support’ to be sure students are aware of provisions made by IT Services and to monitor their experiences of using them.  Especially at this key juncture in Warwick’s history—the introduction of the maximum fee levels for incoming students—we should take care that a “digital divide” not impede students’ success, or else our efforts to successfully integrate e-learning into the Warwick education could fail to benefit all of those for whom we are doing the work in the first place.

Dr Christa Williford
School of Theatre Studies
University of Warwick

 CAP E-Learning

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