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Online and blended dance pedagogies: engaging students at London Contemporary Dance School through the global Covid-19 pandemic

13 November 2020
Author: Dr Lise Uytterhoeven

Our Director of Dance Studies, Dr Lise Uytterhoeven, held the keynote speech for the Beijing Dance Academy Forum October 2020, telling us how LCDS adapted to online and blended learning.

In March 2020 the UK entered into lockdown as a response to the Covid-19 pandemic. While The Place and London Contemporary Dance School had to close our building, the School itself was far from “closed”. The staff and teaching faculty immediately set to work to put in place an emergency online provision from March-July 2020.

The key elements of our online pedagogy were to have a mixture of synchronous classes and non-synchronous learning activities which were accessible to all students; an increased emphasis on creativity, independent learning and intrinsic motivation; and an ongoing dialogic process to work with students to enhance the quality of the provision.

The key driver for London Contemporary Dance School was to focus on continuity of the provision, to support all students towards meeting the learning outcomes and passing the required modules to pass, progress or graduate within the normal timeframe.

The learning outcomes were kept the same, and only small tweaks were made to the assessments to allow for online submissions where we would normally assess in the studio.

Synchronous learning consisted of scheduled Zoom dance classes, seminars and group or individual tutorials. Asynchronous learning activities consisted of tasks that were set for the students to complete in their own time, for example reading a text, watching a video, writing reflections, providing a creative response to a task. The outcomes of the tasks were then shared with the teacher and the other students using online platforms such as YouTube, Vimeo or Padlet.

Providing equitable access to online learning for all students was a key priority.

Therefore, a significant shift happened from what used to be a full and intensive timetable of classes in the building towards increased asynchronous online learning, keeping synchronous learning deliberately limited, as it was recognized that there could be access issues for students to tune into synchronous classes.

Because many of our international students had travelled home at the start of the pandemic, students were now based all across the world, from Australia, Hong Kong, China, Taiwan and Singapore, to a range of different countries in Europe, to Iceland, the East and West coasts of the United States and Mexico. Coordinated from London where the majority of the teachers were based, the timetable grouped synchronous classes together in the early morning, so that students in Asia and Australia could access them live, with the same or equivalent sessions repeated in the late afternoon when we could capture students in America. All synchronous activities were recorded, and the recordings uploaded onto our virtual learning environment for students to work with in their own time. 

At the beginning of lockdown, the academic tutors were in close contact with the students, predominantly to offer pastoral support and signpost students to the support services such as counselling. Students with learning differences, such as dyslexia, ADHD or autism were supported more intensively throughout this online learning period. Some students did not have access to a reliable laptop or tablet through which to access the online learning. The School sent laptops from the stock in our audio-visual room to these students’ homes. One student lived in a very rural area where there was very limited access to broadband internet; the School provided assistance there to boost the signal.

However, the greatest inequities existed within students’ access to a suitable space within which to dance. Some students lived in large houses, where furniture could be shifted to the sides to make additional space. Some students had access to gardens and large patios. One student even had access to a dance studio within her home because her mother is a dance teacher. In contrast, some students lived in very small student accommodation with little free floorspace, or shared accommodation where it was difficult to find a quiet space in which to concentrate.

Soon, the students began to notice these inequities, because they could see the conditions in which their peers danced through Zoom; they could literally see into each other’s houses. It was impossible for the School to address the inequities that existed within the students’ living situations, so we could do nothing more than acknowledge these and be mindful of them within the teaching and try to take the inequities out of the equation when it came to assessment.

The second element of our online pedagogy is an increased emphasis on creativity, independent learning and intrinsic motivation.

The focus of London Contemporary Dance School is very much to create independent artists who can explore their creativity and later go on to create their own work or to work with choreographers as co-creating artists. Online, subjects such as Improvisation, somatic practices, Gaga, composition and creative studies worked well. From restriction can come the greatest creativity. The students inevitably worked through the screendance medium, so that they could capture their creative work and share it with each other and with their teachers. Where in Design classes, students would normally have been introduced to lighting design in The Place’s theatre, this time they explored the subject by creating a lighting installation using domestic sources of light. One person even created a lighting installation in a dishwasher!

Independent learning was emphasized through the vast offer of online learning activities available. Academic tutors encouraged students to follow their individual interests and make their own decisions about what to invest time and effort into. The School relaxed the attendance requirements, instead safeguarding students’ mental health. It is not desirable to be glued to the screen all day long. Instead, the students were encouraged to take exercise outdoors and pursue their own interests. We continued to monitor students’ online participation and offered support where students were struggling to engage.

We placed a focus on motivation, tuning the students into how they could keep motivated in this new reality. We lead specific sessions on motivation with dance psychology experts. We endeavored to foster intrinsic motivation, where motivation is derived from a joy of doing the activity itself rather than external praise or rewards.

The third factor in our online pedagogy is that we entered into an open and ongoing dialogue with the students to enhance the quality of the provision.

Daily student rep meetings were held to help us to gauge what students needed clarity on, what questions they wanted answered, what was important to them. We also intensified our use of the Student Newsletter, and enriched it with video and other media content. Some students take in information more easily when someone talks them through it, compared to simply having to read a long text. So, again, our communication strategy aimed to include all students by using a range of different modes of communication.

The possibilities of online dissemination of students’ work soon became apparent. We were able to showcase a range of different student projects on our social media channels, much more so than when these were shared with their peers within the building, simply because these were now screendance-based. Our third-year students presented their independent research and self-driven work, titled Negotiated Project, online via The Place’s website, further promoted on our social channels. As our CEO Clare Connor commented: “The views of their work far surpassed what has ever been achieved through the one-day exhibition. We will never go back now.”

The graduation works which were fully created and disseminated online between June and August 2020 demonstrate the possibilities for innovation, from creating an online interactive game, to screendance, to an online installation users can engage with in their own time. The approach of the School has been not to mourn the old normality and work from a deficit model, but to fully embrace the situation and explore creatively what can come out of the restrictions, while still acknowledging the strong emotions felt within our learning community. 

So finally, to conclude, putting in place the emergency provision last summer term has been very challenging, but at the same time rewarding in that we, together with the students, discovered new ways of working that open up how we think about dance and how we think about learning and teaching. We want to retain the good things that have emerged from this online provision.

For 2020-21, the School shifted the undergraduate modules around so that we started with the contextual modules first this autumn, those that lend themselves more easily to online learning. In the dance studios, we work in a way that complies with social distancing, keeping 2 metres apart and wearing a face covering. Approximately 2/3 of the students take part in these classes in the building. For the first 5 weeks of this autumn term, students have been working in very small groups of around 5-8 students and at low intensities, because during the 6 months lockdown period, their dance fitness had deteriorated. Also, around 1/3 of students are not currently based in London and are engaging online only. Over the next 5-6 weeks, we will increase both the intensity and frequency of classes, while continuing to offer online learning.

We are facilitating online pathways through the course for a small group for the rest of the academic year, as these students are unable or unlikely to be able to move to London in the next few months. These online pathways are something that we are looking to retain for the future.

Furthermore, with our new validating partner, we are strengthening our focus on creativity and independent learning even further, fully focusing on the preparation for a portfolio career as an independent dance artist and making sure the students develop the agility, resilience, enterprising skills, communication and storytelling abilities needed to engage a wide range of people in their art.

 

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