Choreographing excellent education: concurrent dance teaching and learning
Throughout the pandemic, one of the most common pedagogical questions has been: ‘How can I help my students feel connected?’ This is a challenging issue in any discipline, but especially in one where students would normally meet up in a specialist physical space – a laboratory, field site, or studio, for example – and physically interact in a collaborative way in which the embodied interactions are a fundamental part of the learning experience.
This was the challenge facing Dr Kerry Chappell, Associate Professor in Education in the Graduate School of Education, in the delivery of her Master’s module: Arts Education Theory, Practice and Potential.
For her session on how to teach choreography, Dr Chappell would normally meet her students in a large dance studio that accommodates the entire class and facilitates both pair and full-group choreography exercises. This year that wasn’t possible, as a result of social distancing restrictions and several students studying remotely from China.
Choreography is an embodied and collaborative creative experience, but Dr Chappell also recognised that the interactive components of her session were important for a range of additional reasons, such as creating group cohesion, encouraging peer learning, and supporting the development of transferable skills like communication and negotiation. As a result, she was keen to engineer a concurrent teaching session that allowed the synchronous, collaborative participation of students in different locations.
To this end, she split her class into two cohorts, each comprising around six students based in Devon and a pair or trio joining virtually from China. The (masked) on-campus students were just able to fit themselves in the dance studio while strictly adhering to social distancing rules, and the China-based students could safely dial in via Chappell’s laptop, which was positioned in the studio like a small, electronic member of the group.
Students participated both in studio and online
Each session—run once per cohort—started with a group warm-up exercise where students contributed new movement elements to a short collaborative dance sequence. By positioning the computer centrally in the room, Dr Chappell ensured that the remote students could see their peers and take part in constructing the sequence – though the relatively small screen size periodically required her to run closer to see the movements being contributed by the Chinese students. Once she saw these up close, she was able to replicate them for the Exeter group so the activity could proceed.
This was followed by pair-work, in which students collaborated on smaller scale duets and trios before coming back together to share their creations and for a wider group discussion. Exeter students paired off within the studio, while the distance students worked together virtually for this component of the exercise. The socially distanced learning circle from the warm-up activity was re-formed for the reflective conversation at the end, allowing the students to exchange ideas much like they would have in a regular face-to-face meeting.
When this sort of session is normally delivered to students learning remotely, there is no concurrent activity facilitating exchange amongst students. Instead, video recordings are posted online and students are invited to engage with them, creating and critiquing asynchronously. While Dr Chappell could easily have used this technique to support learning during the pandemic, she opted to pursue the trickier concurrent setup because her students had specifically requested more opportunities to interact live with peers.
Though it could have been awkward for students to engage in artistic collaboration with relative strangers, Dr Chappell used a blended learning approach to help her cohort meet up online and exchange knowledge prior to coming together in the studio. She provided a wiki space in which the learners could share research and feedback on the theme of the choreographed piece: a Maori myth. Not only did this give them familiarity with each other and the inspiration for their artistic exercise, but it also enabled them to have a rich discussion about decolonisation and the importance of indigenous experience, thinking, and beliefs.
These explorations can be sensitive, particularly in a virtual setting where it is harder to pick up on nuances conveyed through, for example, tone of voice and body language. Whilst Dr Chappell felt she was taking a risk working in this way, her preparations – and the fact that her students were willing to experiment too – meant that they were able to trust each other. This, in turn, allowed students to comfortably share not only their choreography, but also their personal reflections about the dances and their positioning within a larger social dialogue.
Similar methods were successfully deployed by fellow Creative Arts staff Erin Walcon, Emese Hall, and Ursula Crickmay for other sessions in this module and across the wider programme. This highlights how technological gambles and added logistical challenges can sometimes pay high pedagogical dividends. While each educator will have to decide whether concurrent delivery works for their topic or discipline, the case of this module is a strong argument for trialling creative approaches that allow curriculum design to keep step with students’ evolving learning needs.
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