With non-essential workers now confined to their homes, how are schools adapting to the coronavirus pandemic? Staff and students from institutions across the UK tell John Byrne how they are coping with web-based teaching
When Manchester-based drama student Liv Harford started training at the Arden School of Theatre, she felt confident that the future was bright. “The building is gorgeous, the classes ticked all the boxes I was looking for and there is a real sense of family.”
The closure of her school in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic came as a shock. “I know it is in everyone’s best interests, but it was honestly heart-shattering to think my training experience had come to an end so quickly. There was so much more to do and look forward to. Massive kudos to the staff for powering through, keeping us in the loop and making the best of a bad situation.”
For Robert Owen, Arden’s head of school, as with many other course leaders, addressing the situation was the start of an ongoing journey of discovery: “Initially, we focused on getting most of our practical assessed work for this term finished; some of it streamed live on Facebook from behind closed doors. We have since moved all teaching online and are experimenting with a variety of formats to find the best solutions for our students.”
Harford can vouch for the creativity of some of those solutions: “It’s a pretty surreal feeling when you’re in your living room, on Zoom to your teacher who is in their garden doing a body-conditioning class.”
Performance Preparation Academy in Guildford is another drama school that suddenly found itself having to balance safety with continuity. “We closed the college at least two weeks before the school closure order,” says principal Louise Pieri. “We wanted our students from all over the EU and the UK to be able to go home if they needed to. We didn’t want them to get stuck on lockdown in Guildford.
“We then tasked ourselves with working out how to finish the term online by looking at assessment points with the university [PPA is validated by De Montfort University] and setting up a way to care pastorally for all our students. PPA Online has been a huge success. Students can complete their spring assessments and move into the summer term without their education being interrupted. Mentally, it has been a huge relief for students to have daily contact with their tutors and their friends and peers. We ended the first week of online training with a quiz night involving more than 220 staff and students.”
‘Students can complete their assessments online and move into the summer term without their education being interrupted’ – Louise Pieri, PPA principal
Both Arden and PPA note that moving online has been made easier by virtual learning environments – web-based methods of distributing training materials to students – being already established as part of normal school life, but also that finding the right platforms to replicate all aspects of drama training is an ongoing learning curve.
Gavin Baker, head of performing arts at the University of West London, agrees there is no ‘one size fits all’ solution. “Our tutors hold more theoretical sessions via Blackboard Collaborate. However, the practical sessions are taking place via Zoom and WeVu. Some classes and demonstrations are recorded and placed on YouTube or Vimeo for students to watch back. They are encouraged to try out the exercises and then join a Blackboard group to discuss their experiences.”
Victoria Stretton, head of musical theatre at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, says it is important to be aware of possible limitations to remote teaching for individual students. “All students have been encouraged to communicate with us using whatever means they have available, but with an international cohort of students, we have to be realistic about the technology students have available to them and the strength of their internet connection.”
This caution aside, Trinity Laban has found the online model can enable students to engage with an even wider range of industry input than usual. “In addition to staff uploading classes on to our virtual learning environment, there have also been a wealth of professionals from the industry that have been uploading excellent content and live sessions. We are using our social media pages to push this content out to students and graduates. We are also making sure our community sees the wealth of live theatre that is currently being shown free of charge,” Stretton says.
“A vocational degree is experiential by definition,” says Arts Educational Schools London principal Chris Hocking. “Much of what we do is based on emotional response and it’s very difficult to tap into that remotely, particularly in a group session. Differences in connectivity exacerbate the problems of not being in a room together, but one advantage of the current situation is that it has challenged our ingenuity and forced us to scrutinise our practice.”
As with all the educators interviewed, Hocking stresses the importance of pastoral support at this time. “Our health and wellbeing officer continues to hold one-to-one sessions with students and our in-house counsellor has also made herself available for Skype sessions throughout the Easter holidays, which will be of enormous benefit for students who particularly miss the structured learning that they are used to.”
Antonia Collins is well used to the challenges and strengths of online delivery, having taught stage management training via the Bamboo Manager Project for some time. Her advice to schools for whom this is a new experience: “If you create an online course you are doing exactly that: thinking about the course in an online format from the beginning. Students know that is what they have signed up to.
“The current situation is like a Band-Aid to the pandemic. Students are not going to receive the same type of education they thought they were. So be kind to yourself and your students. It’s much more important for them to feel supported and to keep the teaching simple. Set achievable projects – and make use of the many stage managers currently sat at home to Zoom into your classes.
She adds: “As for students, accept that it is going to be different and that staff are working incredibly hard to give you the best experience they can, but don’t know all the answers either. Try not to worry too much about your future in the industry: everyone will always know that this was an exceptional time.”