Online teaching is a steep learning curve

Online teaching

We’ve had to get creative when it comes to online teaching. Delivering our classes and our HNC and GCSE courses online has been a steep learning curve, as our participation and accredited courses teams explain.

Gabrielle Meadows, our Participation Programme Manager, says for the tutors, the switch was about adapting their processes and learning to use new technology to deliver lessons and interact with their participants.

The challenge, particularly with performing arts, is to maintain these relationships and build confidence remotely. So much of what goes on in a theatre or a music or dance class is about communication in the moment and that can be a real challenge when online teaching. Our tutors have adapted brilliantly, but there have been challenges. Maintaining participant engagement is also harder as the weeks and months online continue.

For the participation team that work happens fast and is reactive and intense at times. Each time we have moved to online teaching we have got better at this, but it is always something of a rush to get things sorted in time.

A lot of work goes into the administration of refunds/price reductions – particularly from our Venue Supervisor Scott Atkins who is behind much of this – things we feel it is important to offer people as we make these moves; giving people a sense that they have a choice and can opt in and out as it works for them. We hope to build long-term trust and commitment this way. The clear communication of each new message is vital too and with several hundred participants and more than 100 classes this can be time-consuming.

In January, once we knew we would be continuing online teaching, we had about a week until the start of term. We made the call to push this back a week to buy some much-needed time to make changes and adapt our programme of classes. The key here was to try our best to keep things fresh and consider what was working and not working about life on Zoom.

We merged classes and age ranges to enable healthier group numbers. We paused some and moved to a bespoke one-to-one offer in theatre and music, giving people the chance to re-engage in a different way. We created some new classes, combining art forms in the pre-school and early school years to give an exciting new performing arts package, creating a family dance offer called Let’s Dance Together.

We also extended the idea of one-to-ones out to the wider public and across all art forms, sensing some people may want to take this more personal approach. It’s about moving swiftly and being reactive. Things have been changing at such a fast pace since last spring. We have had to make confident decisions and work quickly to put them into action. 

Some classes have maintained good numbers throughout all the upheaval of moving to online teaching. Parent feedback has been positive, people have said how much they value the consistency of having our classes. Some classes haven’t worked as well online. With our older theatre class, who were preparing for a performance, the difficulty of trying to work on a staged script on Zoom with issues around connection etc. meant we had to pause the class. We have offered them to work one-to-one with the tutor and some have taken this up. In other cases where a performance-based class was really struggling we have had to pause it and refund. Numbers overall are much lower than they would be in studio.

It has been a steep learning curve, but we have managed to continue to deliver our programme online, offering everything you could do in the studios. The aim was to be consistent, to offer connection and a creative outlet in such challenging times. We have learnt that we can also adapt and evolve in this new landscape, that things like Zoom fatigue and lockdown apathy are real and not to be dismissed. But we can make changes to try to help people remain engaged and give them things to feel positive about.

Being accessible and understanding the wider context is important. Shorter classes on the whole worked better in this third lockdown. We reduced the time to 45 minutes for children and an hour for adults. .

Zoom is hard work. We know most people and most staff would rather be doing this in the studios. [Then there are issues like] wi-fi connections, playing music in classes, getting on top of the tech, space and the angles of cameras so you can demonstrate and join in with the class as a tutor, tutors with children and families at home…

I teach Storytime and My First Drama and there are some major challenges to working with very young children on Zoom. Mainly keeping focus. One thing I noticed was if a child was very shy in the studio, being in their own home can relax them and make them come out of their shell a bit. I have loved being a constant for them during lockdown. Parents often tell me their child has been talking about “seeing” me, remembering this is their day for storytime etc. I think if we can provide that regular engagement at a time when other social things are closed it is so worthwhile.

We tried to broach a lot of these issues in our planning and comms before the term started. Finding out what issues the tutors might have with online teaching and offering them use of the building in special cases. We also supplied laptops to anyone unable to teach on their own. In terms of content, tutors have had to adapt lesson plans and schemes of work to being online, to the limitations of group activities etc. We have a great team of tutors. We knew this already, but the challenges of the last year have shown that our teaching team are our greatest asset.

We have prioritised price reduction across the board this term and tried to combat Zoom fatigue by reducing class length and increasing group numbers to make things more dynamic by combining classes. We always offer a trial before people commit. We always offer credit or refunds at each move online. We offer key worker discounts, sibling and over 60s discounts and will be bringing out new offers ahead of the summer term.

Understanding this way of learning is not for everyone and believing that if we are open and transparent about refunds etc now we will see people return when they are able or when we are all back in the studios.

Performing arts are best when face-to-face, when you can use your space and your body and voice to communicate in real time and catch all the subtleties of being in the room together. But there is also scope for developing skills and technique via online teaching. It can be another tool to learn to use. It is a way to reach people when they can’t get together and we have also enjoyed being Zoomed into living rooms to continue the connection in a different way.

One-to-one masterclasses are something we feel can work very well online. We would look to develop this perhaps beyond the pandemic – offering people the chance to explore a specific style or art form, prepare for an audition perhaps or work in a way that suits them.

We’ve just launched our first pre-recorded classes. These give people the chance to engage at their own pace and in their own time. We are offering them in Pre-School Performing Arts and Fitness. We may look to offer more classes in this way.

We see The Garage as a community and understand more than ever the importance of nurturing this. We have plans to develop our online community beyond the pandemic and as we look ahead with real hope of being back in person, we will be planning new ways of engaging and inspiring our participants.

Beth Norman, Learning Manager, said moving the Sunday dance and drama GCSE sessions to online teaching was fairly straight forward. It just needed a bit more thought to how the practical and theory worked out.

For the acting, dance and musical theatre HNC Foundation Programmes, the team have worked really hard to re-design a whole new timetable to enable the qualification to be delivered online. This has included new creative obstacles.

Space and internet etc are always going to be a challenge and you must also appreciate that everyone is having a different experience of lockdown. We’ve learnt that it’s not just a simple “we’ll deliver what we were delivering in the studios in an online setting”. That approach doesn’t work. You need to embrace Zoom and work with the constraints. When there’s positivity and excitement about trying to make it work, these things are easier to overcome.

Diccon Hogger, Accredited Courses Manager and HNC Lead Lecturer, said the changes were driven by students’ different lockdown needs.

We’ve taken a creative approach to solving practical constraints. For example, we’ve broken expansive choreography down into mini technique sessions. We gave them a task to work on and told them to come back in 45 minutes to show us what they’ve been up to.

The great news is we’re maintaining the quality we’re known for. We’ve just heard we’ve two students off to London’s Fourth Monkey Actor Training Company and a former cohort is doing an MA at the prestigious Royal Central School of Speech and Drama.

Beth said the biggest challenge is changing people’s mindset.

Both staff and students were really disappointed and despondent at the thought of returning to online teaching. Rethinking and refreshing how it could work really upped everyone’s energy and positivity. We’ve really thought outside the box. There’s been lots of new creative ideas.

We’ve also encouraged the students to look closely at the space around them and how this can inspire their creative thinking – for example what did they see on their daily walk. We’ve also asked them to think about how to perform to an online audience so that’s something practical that can be used in the future.

The timetable also includes time for the students to just have a cup of tea and morning check-in together to replicate the social side of doing a qualification at The Garage and to ensure the group is supporting each other and talking through challenges.

Some of the students felt they were being dealt an unfair hand not being able to attend in person. Staff fed back that after we decided to re-design the timetable for online delivery and we were able to explore this creatively. This breathed fresh life into their delivery. Realistically, students are getting even more one-to-one time and there is time to focus on their individual creative journeys which make up for the lack of face-to-face delivery.

Interested in taking a class? Find out more here. Priority booking for next term opens 8 March. Public booking opens 15 March. Find out more about classes at our sister site The Workshop in King’s Lynn here.

The deadline for applying for an accredited course is July. Find out more about the courses, scholarships and how to apply here. Watch below to hear from our former HNC cohorts.

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