Experiences from Oulu University of Applied Sciences on how to implement high-quality learning experiences in a virtual learning environment, teaching dance, media and arts.
Understanding the challenges teachers and students face in their everyday work helps EdTech companies to create products that respond to the user’s needs. During the pandemic, we have learned substantially more about what kind of solutions work best in remote learning. In the field of performing arts, various parts of the studies are nearly impossible to implement online, which has had its consequences when it comes to creating meaningful learning experiences for the students during the pandemic. To find out how the pandemic has affected their work and studies, we interviewed a number of teachers and students from the Oulu University of Applied Sciences (OUAS) School of Media and Performing Arts. In this article we share some of their thoughts and experiences about online learning in the fields of media, dance and music.
The pandemic hit Northern Finland in mid-March of 2020. During 2020, all OUAS courses were implemented fully online. OUAS was able to adapt to the rapid change relatively fast due to the fact that many of the teachers had their learning materials and tutorials on the schools learning management system Moodle even before the pandemic. The OUAS virtual learning environments utilize tools such as MS Teams, Moodle, Howspace, Zoom and Exam. These tools were used also before the pandemic, but during the past year the use has obviously grown significantly. Using software and digital tools that were relatively familiar to the students, instead of introducing new software with complex features, also helped in adapting to the change. After some inevitable technical challenges, the online courses started reasonably well. However, distance learning has required effort from both the teachers and the students. Many say that their workload has increased. For example, the planning of virtual courses requires more time from the teacher than contact teaching, because there is not yet a routine for working remotely. Many teachers prefer a dialogue-based teaching style, and they find spontaneous discussions with the group less likely online. For some students it was hard to accept the idea of no contact lessons at all during the spring, but after a while they got used to it. Some said it even felt a little bit exciting in the beginning, like all new things, but the feeling soon faded.
After following some hard restrictions, the area was able to fight the epidemic with restrictions lessening during the summer. After the summer, by following safety restrictions carefully, the university was able to deliver some courses on the campus. In August 2020, at the beginning of the academic year 2020-21, OUAS introduced a so called ‘hybrid teaching model’. This means that while most of the courses are still taught online, some courses are held face-to-face at the campus. Naturally, the student groups are kept small. The nature of some courses taught in the School of Media and Performing Arts requires more face-to-face interaction. Courses that include learning technical matters and learning how to use different equipment, such as audiovisual equipment, are especially challenging to teach virtually.
For Media department students and teachers, the biggest challenges in online learning related to technology use. Activities that include groupwork are considered more efficient and engaging when working face to face. Some of the students we interviewed say that concentrating during virtual lectures and exercises is more difficult, since the mind gets distracted more easily. Technological challenges include the lack of proper hardware. The software used during graphic design courses and in audiovisual productions requires a lot of capacity from the hardware. The students’ home computers and networks may lack the power needed to run software properly for example.
According to the teachers, some courses are noticeably more difficult to teach online than others. For example, on courses that are practical and include a lot of hands-on activities (e.g. a drawing course) the most effective learning usually takes place by looking at the other student’s work in real-time. By mirroring what the other students do, the student can get ideas about techniques and solutions they could apply to their own work, which in turn promotes their learning.
Receiving feedback is usually faster when you are physically in the same space. It is possible to show your own work to peer students in real-time and get immediate feedback, unlike in a virtual asynchronous learning spaces in which one might have to wait for feedback for a long time. To tackle this challenge, the teachers had to implement whole new methods and ways of teaching. By creating simple platforms where the students share their work with their peers (e.g. on cloud services) receiving and giving feedback was made possible online.
Dance is an art form that tends to adapt new technology easily. In dance studies using audiovisual learning materials, such as video, is quite common. Dancers are also well connected with digital music artists, contemporary music artists and video makers. When it comes to utilizing technology in teaching and learning, dance students are quite used to watching themselves on video, as well as giving and receiving feedback about their own and other’s performance. Video has its limitations though. A video is usually 2D, which means that for example the rotations and how the body rotates is hard to observe. By adding more cameras though, a 3D image can be created. There are not many existing electronic teaching materials for teaching new dance techniques. In addition to the synchronous virtual dance classes some OUAS dance teachers have started making open access tutorial videos. They are distributed via the school's Learning Management System Moodle and YouTube. A specific challenge with virtual dance classes is the limited space people have at their homes. To be able to practice properly, the dancers need spaces that are big enough to move around in.
Another challenge relates to the artistic aspects in dance studies. In dance studies, breathing, gestures and other expressive movements are practiced every day. In different techniques, steps, spins and jumps are implemented in multiple ways. The body is practiced as a whole. It is said that the “intelligence of the body” is located ‘outside of the brain’ and it is distributed throughout the body. This kind of experiential learning, that requires the use of all five senses, is very challenging in a virtual learning environment. The physical experience of a dance performance is subtleties - like a gaze, a sigh or a small gesture. These “mini-messages” are a huge part of “the embodied experience”, which for now are almost impossible to capture to the same extent with existing technology. The learning experience in a virtual dance class is still far from that experienced in a physical dance class.
According to the dance teachers, some easy-to-use and user-friendly hardware and software are much needed. Since a one-solution technology for virtual dance classes does not exist yet, the teachers have had to create their own combinations, using many devices at the same time, which can be quite complicated to use. It takes a lot of effort to make sure that the sound functions, the video works, the color-, sound- and white balance are decent and the internet connection is stable during the entire lesson. The teachers we interviewed wish the system could be so automatic, that when entering a classroom, the teacher could with just one touch of a button start the cameras and the streaming would begin.
In dance studies contact teaching is difficult to replace in any way. For example, giving feedback on body movement usually requires physical contact. Also following the music might be difficult because of noticeable latency. Poor network connection might also cause frustrating problems such as the camera picture freezing which makes it impossible to follow the teacher’s instructions
The distance learning solutions in dance can support teaching, but for now they are not a substitute to the close physical contact that is characteristic to dance. It is very important that the students get to practice in the same space, because dance is all about learning by doing. Taking each day as it comes and enjoying the possibility to have at least some physical dance classes in small groups has helped in coping with the challenging time during the pandemic.
During the pandemic, the music department teachers and students started using many applications and technological solutions they hadn’t used before. Knowledge of and experiences with distance learning in music has also been shared with other universities where music is taught. When the pandemic started, course content was quickly transferred to the school’s LMS Moodle, so that all course materials are now also available online. Most of the instrument lessons are currently held via Zoom. In the hybrid model, e.g. during a Lied (songs arranged for a single singer and piano) seminar, the teacher and the performing student are in the same space, while the audience (i.e., other students) are online. Usually many of the courses end with a concert, but this time the concert was recorded and uploaded to YouTube, where everyone can watch and listen to it. This way, the students can also see their own performances later.
In music studies, the sound and picture quality are particular challenges. Teachers feel that there is not necessarily a need for any complicated applications or features, just as long as the quality of sound and picture are high enough. According to the teachers, even small differences in the tone of music are surprisingly good even now, but the differences in intensity of volume are more difficult to detect. Some instruments, such as the organ, have such a loud volume, that the microphones and speakers have problems reproducing them.
The COVID-19 pandemic has led to significant challenges to education around the world. However, when trying to think of some positive consequences, there are a few. Without the pandemic, teachers and students would have never gained experience with distance learning tools and methods to this extent. Now that the tools and methods have become familiar to the users, they can more easily be used in the future too. Some tools such as software may also be used in face-to-face teaching, when it best serves the learners’ needs. The teachers have also been happy with the peer support they have received from their colleagues around the word.
Although there are some positive sides, overall interviewed teachers felt that learning in virtual environments has its limitations and some considerable issues to overcome. An online course requires a different pedagogical approach and digital solutions compared to traditional classroom teaching. Also, some of the face to face interaction essential to learning is really difficult to replace by virtual interaction. In virtual environments, it’s also harder to feel the energy of the class, which might affect the teacher’s decisions about what kind of activity would best help the students to learn at a certain moment. Furthermore, the social-emotional side of learning and studying mustn’t be forgotten. Being isolated in their own homes has been difficult for many students. Losing nearly all social interaction with people in physical spaces can be depressing. It might also affect the students’ regular daily rhythm and routines, which usually promote their well-being.
Distance learning works best when applied in project-based learning. When the roles are clear and everyone knows what is expected from them and there is good communication within the group, learning can be very efficient. In some cases, technology might actually make it easier for students to share some of their assignments online with each other. During synchronous online sessions the students can share their own artwork on their own screen, which enables everyone to see simultaneously what the other students are doing, which is not possible when working in a traditional classroom. Also, when immediate feedback is not needed, students can share their work on different platforms and receive feedback in an alternative way. Short online lectures and webinars are also considered an effective way of learning because the students can attend from where ever they want or watch the recording later. This gives flexibility to their busy timetables. With the help of new technology, the students additionally are not so tied to being on the campus.
The teachers were concerned that some students may be left behind in their studies. They also wondered how they can ensure the achievement of the learning goals of each course. Adapting courses to distance learning and developing digital skills requires resources. Technology and poor connections should not create barriers in learning. The teachers’ and students’ digital skills need to be further developed and updated to further improve the quality of multimodal teaching and to ensure the possibilities for creating high quality learning materials and other content. In particular, new ways need to be found to activate and motivate students. Increasing team teaching could be an opportunity to balance the workload. This could also prevent the teachers’ workload from getting too heavy.
Based on the interview responses, high-quality learning experiences in a virtual learning environment require the following:
Most of the students interviewed feel that the hybrid teaching model in which parts of the studies take place on campus and a part completed remotely is a relatively positive thing. There is still room for improvement, however, when it comes to delivering high quality online learning experiences that lead to learning outcomes which are valued by the students and their future employers. Majority of teachers would like to continue teaching some of their courses online even after the pandemic, however not all courses. As one of the teachers said: “After a spring of teaching fully online, it was so wonderful to finally get to meet the students in August! Although we were scared of hugging each other [because of coronavirus], we certainly would have wanted to!”