We are the audience; we are the performers

Part 1: PUNCHDRUNK

On a dank autumnal evening in 2013 I found myself in an old Royal Mail sorting office next to Paddington Station in London. Along with a friend, I had come to see Punchdrunk Theatre’s latest production “The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable” – an immersive theatre production that transported Büchner’s ‘Woyzeck’ into a fictional 1960s film studio. Punchdrunk are pioneers of what’s commonly known as ‘immersive theatre’; site-specific productions characterised by multiple narratives, non-sequential action and audience participation. Split into groups of ten, we were given masks to wear throughout (our ‘fourth wall’) and bundled into a lift before being let loose into a sprawling and disorientating four-storey maze of surreal sets, haunting soundtracks, bizarre dialogues and voyeuristic glimpses into snatched moments and fictional lives. This was immersive theatre at its best, and despite thinking that I’d struggle to engage for more than an hour (I was suffering from inbox anguish at the time), three hours later there we were; reunited through the haze after an intense and rewarding experience in which we had all been part of the action due to the blurring of boundaries between performers and audience.

My friend and I had been separated almost instantly upon arriving in the space, and were eager to discuss our experiences, to share stand-out moments, to compare notes, to analyse and deconstruct what we had taken place. However, after a few exchanges along the lines of: a) “Did you see (insert scene)?” and b) *blank look* “No?!”, we soon realised that we weren’t able to share our stand-our moments. Despite attending the same ‘performance’ we had managed to be part of completely different scenes, with only two overlaps (shared experiences) in the whole three hours. That’s the thing about immersive theatre at this scale: everybody’s experience is unique.

I’ve been thinking a lot about immersive theatre this week, as there are many parallels between a production like “The Drowned Man” and Connected Courses:

“Several reviews have complimented the scale of the production and the ambitious use of multiple narratives, whilst also commenting that the scale can at times make the experience feel fragmented and difficult to follow.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Drowned_Man_(2013_play)

Ring any bells?

Part 2: CONNECTED COURSES

Fast forward to the second week of Unit One of Connected Courses: Why We Need a Why. It’s been a fantastic experience so far, beginning with Mike Wesch in conversation with Cathy Davidson and Randy Bass (video here) contemplating the purpose of higher education and the importance of the WHY. This Storify to captures the opening event as it played out on Twitter, highlighting the main themes as they resonated with the #ccourses participants who were tweeting during the session.

Immediately after Mike’s opener, we launched the #whyiteach video project (still a few days left to contribute to this – hint hint), and it has been a joy to see the thoughtful, inspiring and imaginative contributions rolling in (both text and visual media) from #ccourses participants – and beyond!

Mimi Ito then hosted two ‘blogside chats’, Friday with Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, the authors of Academically Adrift and Aspiring Adults Adrift (video here), then Monday with Vera Michalchik and William Penual, to discuss assessment in connected courses  (video here).

In case you’ve missed all of this, @paulsignorelli has written a couple of posts that offer excellent summaries of the unit so far: Connected Courses MOOC and #oclmooc: The “Why” of Connections, Collaboration, and Learning and Connected Courses MOOC (#ccourses) and #oclmooc: Connections (and Learning) Everywhere 

At this point I’ll quote Paul (both from the above posts):

Various learners often walk away from learning opportunities with tremendously different results and rewards”

Participation in the latest #ccourses session, earlier today, inspired interweavings so wonderfully complex (and tremendously rewarding) that it could be days or weeks or months before those interweavings are completely apparent.”

You see where I’m going with this, don’t you?

Part 3: CONNECTED COURSES AS IMMERSIVE THEATRE

I’m acutely aware that I’ll have no doubt missed other excellent summaries. One of the challenges of participating in such a vibrant community is that it can be a struggle to keep up with all the activity. It’s been brilliant reading and commenting on posts, meeting new people and pushing one another’s thinking – but alongside the ‘day job’ it can be difficult to keep up with everything when a community is so active.

We are all the audience; we are all performers.

I know that while highlighting selected posts I’ll be missing so many other, equally wonderful #ccourses contributions. I am certainly indebted to several people who have written posts which I’ll be using as teaching resources (thank you – you know who you are as I’ve commented and tweeted), such as this one from ‪@l4lp reflecting on learner perspective: http://outloudlearning.wordpress.com/2014/09/16/five-whys/. I loved @Googleguacamole’s post “Round Students, Square Colleges” (an analogy which will resonate for many of us). The #whyiteach contributions are pretty damn amazing. I loved @Marj_K’s “Every new semester… I re-work the boundaries between the known and the unknown” ‪http://wp.me/p50q4Y-D – and I can’t forget this one from @EatcherVeggies http://teachingbeyondtropes.blogspot.co.uk/2014/09/the-meat-of-it-whyiteach.html – this made a real impact. There are so many demonstrating real passion and richness of thought (which reminds me, I need to update the #whyiteach GDoc…)

I’ve connected with many wonderful educators already through #ccourses and it’s been amazing how quickly we have bonded through a combination of blog-based discussion and tweeting, which has led into back-channel communication of the Skype/Google Hangout variety. I’ve really enjoyed getting to know @Bali_Maha in that ‘kindred spirit’ kind of way where you meet somebody online and feel connected through sharing such a similar (learning) world-view. At this point I want to mention other people but then am wary of excluding others through reifying a specific group, if that makes sense!

I’ve always been fascinated by individual perceptions and experiences of learning webs, knowing that ‘my (imagined) community’ is different from ‘your (imagined) community’. I imagine #ccourses as one of those bubble screensavers, we’re all popping in and out of view, constantly growing and shrinking and moving and overlapping and intersecting – and sometimes missing one another entirely…

“Despite attending the same ‘show’ we had managed to be part of completely different scenes, with only one overlap (shared experience). That’s the thing about immersive theatre at this scale: everybody’s experience is unique.” (Me, at the start of this post)

This could equally apply to Connected Courses. In the past, I have been reluctant to join MOOCs when I’ve missed the beginning, feeling like it will be impossible to ‘catch up’. This whole #ccourses experience is leading me to view things differently. The community/network is welcoming and encouraging, and I’d strongly urge those who may be interested but possibly overwhelmed by the amount of activity to-date just to dive in! Say hi, follow the blog feed, share your thoughts – dip in and out as you can. I’ll be bringing my postgrad students (Research Methods) along for the ride when we hit Unit Four as I think this will be relevant for their course. To quote a #ccourses participant:

“It’s never to late to dive into a cMOOC.” 

And finally, here’s the advice from Punchdrunk:

Your curiosity is key. The more you explore, the richer your experience will be. Delve in, be bold, and immerse yourself.

Now, where’s that blog feed….

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A new academic year: global, connected, creative – and not (quite) a MOOC

So, teaching starts next week – and yes, I’m excited. Been working on a new MSc module that will essentially be more of a class research project looking based around Spreadable Media (challenging the notion of ‘virality’ following Henry Jenkins et. al.). I think it could be a great way to be both hands-on creative and scholarly in approach, and for learners to develop a really deep understanding of networks, audience, culture – and of course, the social web.

However, semester 2 is going to be full-on in terms of teaching. I’ll have around 100 students on the Social Tech module, and there are so many things I want to do, amazing connections and projects to pursue – old and new – and it’s really exciting but also rather overwhelming. Having to wave goodbye to the possibility of being able to regularly engage with, and comment on, student blogs is quite a wrench (although in all honesty, following 70+ last semester really stretched me to the max…).

SO, I want to carry on developing our current model-which-has-no-name. I’m not sure what it is – it’s not a MOOC, but it’s certainly pretty open, multi-disciplinary, multi-level and networked, and builds on existing communities of practice and the mentoring that has emerged over the past 6 years (staff and ex-students -> current students). Most importantly, it’s creative, occasionally anarchic and relatively ad hoc (it would be wrong to not give a shout out to #ds106 at this point – #DS106!) – which is probably the best way to describe the way things work with our Social Tech modules…

For the past couple of years I’ve been working with @thomcochrane @mediendidaktik @marett @MaxMobile and a whole host of other people around the globe in a community of practice where we’ve had our students working together on creative social tech projects that cross disciplines, levels, time and space. I wrote about one of them here. However, to work on several international collaborations (which are essentially modules in themselves) at one time with 100 learners – hmm. Quite the challenge, unless I change the way I do things…

One of the difficulties when working on these types of projects is not so much navigating the timezones (although very early-morning/late-night hangouts when working on a few of these projects at a time does lead to a sensation of permanent jetlag…), but the staggered semester dates. However, we’ve decided to re-frame this, and so we’re now looking at the ‘tag-team model’ of education: the projects never end, as there is always a cohort to carry on, and lead into the next group, and when they overlap that’s great – that’s where the genuine collaboration happens.

I was recently most heartened to read about Anne Balsamo’s new DOCC: (Distributed Online Collaborative Course) – a project that ‘uses technology to enable interdisciplinary and international conversation while privileging situated diversity and networked agency.’ I’m a huge fan of Anne’s work (reviewed her book ‘Designing Culture’ last year, and have been recommending it to anybody with ANY kind of interest in interdisciplinarity ever since). This is the kind of model that I’m moving towards – globally connected, but with each cohort grounded with their respective institution (accreditation, QA, etc. etc.)

Alongside this, one of the (many) magical moments of 2012 was when some students who weren’t involved in ELVSS (the international mobile film collaborations) approached me at the end of July (yes, the SUMMER HOLIDAYS) with a brilliant idea for a film which required them to be paired up with ELVSS students in New Zealand – they set up a Google Doc, threw ideas around, and filming will start soon. Bear in mind, this is purely interest/passion-driven, nothing to do with an assessed module, but a genuine desire to create with people across the globe. This is the way I want things to go.

Traditionally, we deliver modules/courses, neatly chunked into 12 weeks, with units of assessment, leading to grades etc. and that’s the way things are (generally) done. I’m not saying scrap all of that, but I do think that modules are best served as springboards to other things. Increasingly, students are connecting across levels and cohorts through Twitter and now we have ex-students getting together with current students, undergrads coming to postgrad classes (and vice versa) as they’ve connected online and have a genuine interest in getting involved in other groups/further curricula outside of their taught modules (must give another shout-out to @ugfl and @watersidestudio at this point!). Obviously hashtags play a huge role in developing connections in this learning ecosystem, but it’s this move towards interest-driven projects, facilitated by network connections that really excites me.

So, the final – possibly serendipitous – piece of jigsaw (time will tell) was tonight’s Google Hangout with @courosa, @cogdog and others to talk about the #etmooc that Alec wants to set-up/explore. This was an initial meeting where we threw ideas around, and I must say it was great meeting Lenandlar Singh, who is a MOOC aficionado (as a student) and getting his perspective, alongside Valeria Lopes and @seani – always great to meet new people ☺.

Whether or not this goes anywhere (i’m sure Alec will make it work – he’s the ultimate networked teacher – i’m just not sure i’ll be able to be involved long-term due to all these other projects), it was a great convo, and I went away feeling excited by the possibilities of developing MOOC-like initiatives that aren’t really MOOCs – which is when we started talking about ‘un-moocs’. Alec went straight off and registered several ‘unmooc’ domains, and it all feels rather exciting…

Increasingly, educators are connecting; networks grow and overlap; we’re connecting diverse groups of students across the globe through both ad-hoc informal projects, and more formal approaches where they are assessed/accredited by their own institutions while working together on a common brief. It’s exciting and potentially rather messy.

I’d really love to know what you think – is it practical? How to cope with multiple projects where (for example) G+ hangouts at all hours of day and night are integral to the experience? Should we set up an informal ‘swap shop’ where our students can take courses from elsewhere, but are assessed from their home institution? For instance, I can easily imagine some kind of ‘virtual exchange’ with #ds106. But the burning question for me is: what the hell is this, and does it even need to have a name?