Thumbs up for drama with a comic outcome

November 7, 2003

Technology is making remote teaching easier, as one theatre project demonstrates. Mark Childs explains

A word of advice. If you are moving PCs from an information technology suite to a theatre studio and they are bolted to the desk, do not attempt to saw through the desks with a hacksaw. After two hours' solid work you will have made only the slightest of scratches and people will laugh at you.

That was one of many hints gleaned from a two-year distance-learning project with the acronym Annie. It involved the theatre studies departments at Warwick and Kent universities and brought performing arts students together with theatre experts.

Overall, 20 videoconferencing activities - lectures, tutorials, workshops - took place, with students from eight universities transmitting across the UK, Europe and North America. The first were Warwick and Kent undergraduates and postgraduates on Warwick's MA in cultural studies. By the second year, the project extended to performing arts undergraduates and postgraduates at De Montfort and Exeter universities and Queen's College Belfast.

Our first activity involved students presenting essays for review and response to a lecturer (who was in Frankfurt for a week) via an integrated services digital network (ISDN). This uses six high-bandwidth telephone lines to make the video link so quality is high. One disadvantage is that ISDN links usually go into boardrooms or conference suites and unfamiliar surroundings are not always conducive to learning. Another disadvantage is that the lines can be unreliable. The second time we used ISDN, five of the six lines failed so we could hear only the lecturer. Adding up the cost of hiring the rooms, the technical support and equipment, and the call charges, it was one of the world's most expensive telephone calls.

Our next attempt used simpler technology. A lecturer demonstrated stage design software from his Plymouth office to Kent students using NetMeeting over the internet. This software enables designers to plan what a set would look like and how the actors would move around, and is usually used for one-to-one videoconferencing. By plugging in a data projector and speakers to the computer at the Kent end, we enabled a whole class to see the lecturer and the software he was demonstrating. This technology became Annie's most frequent platform. It was cheaper, used technology most departments already had and went in any room with an internet connection (participants have logged on in IT suites, studios, offices and even bedrooms).

But for practical workshops we needed more sophisticated videoconferencing equipment. For example, in one exercise students in one location mirrored the movements of students in another but the low bandwidth connection meant the frame rate slowed when the group at one end was in mid-leap, making the movement impossible to mimic. Luckily, broadband became more readily available during the life of the project. While more expensive, it meant that the workshops didn't leave everyone hanging around waiting for the technology to work.

While every participant was badgered to say what worked and what didn't, technology was only a fraction of what they learnt. We put together advice to overcome the obstacles they saw. While some applied to any use of technology, such as running a dress rehearsal before the actual session to make sure the equipment works and that the participants know how to use it, others were specific to videoconferencing. These included: raising a thumb to say "yes" rather than nodding (if the frame rate drops during the nodding, you can't see any movement); pausing, asking and waiting for feedback; and structuring the feedback from students. Videoconferencing was only one of many platforms we used to provide remote access. We also used chatrooms, seminars, online fora, web-based resources, web-based presentations and audioconferencing. We tried audioconferencing with students in Canada. All participants logged on to a chat room on Yahoo and simultaneously viewed a website displaying PowerPoint slides, video clips and images. A text chat window ran in parallel. Time difference was a problem, since we are eight hours ahead of Pacific Standard Time.

Stand-up comedy was our most enjoyable activity. The teacher was in Kent and the students in Exeter. The students got their instructions from the course website and practised routines during the day. They then rehearsed with the lecturer via videoconferencing in the evening. After eight days they had one face-to-face session with the lecturer. Then it was down to the pub for the beer - and the laughs from their live performances.

Mark Childs is an education developer at the Centre for Academic Practice, University of Warwick Annie details:

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