Tertiary educators Prof. Joseph Gonzales and Dr. Hennie Yip outline the challenges and possible solutions of teaching dance online in a time of global crisis.
Hong Kong has been experiencing great turbulence since June 2019. First, when protests that began as peaceful rallies erupted into violent clashes with the authorities and subsequently caused massive disruptions; The Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts (HKAPA) is located 200 meters from the Legislative Council in the heart of Hong Kong island and was thus greatly affected. Then in February 2020, the Covid-19 virus infected the entire world.
One immediate response from tertiary institutions was for the deferment of studies. However, this would have impacted graduating students, preventing some from assuming professional contracts, which are scarce even in the best of times. Dance is a practice-based learning program, and the body, like any engine that lies idle, will go to waste. Students needed to be supported both academically and emotionally during this time. In response to these dilemmas, HKAPA immediately moved teaching to synchronous and asynchronous environments such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams. To do this effectively and to ensure quality of learning for students, teachers had to make informed decisions for online delivery.
The nature of dance courses in tertiary institutions can be divided into movement-based courses and academic courses. Movement-based courses incorporate technique classes, solo and ensemble practice, rehearsals as well as movement research and choreographic exploration. Academic courses provide contextual knowledge to conduct research, make presentations, and write proposals, and are often delivered via conventional lectures with components of practice.
When much of dance practice is about time, space and energy, how would teachers adapt to the delivery of classes in confined spaces and across cyberspace? What content could possibly be delivered and how? This pandemic has also made it glaringly obvious that despite global connectivity, there are many who struggle with internet accessibility. Thus, what are the issues of parity and equity that arise and how are these dealt with?
Teaching and Learning Online
Friesen (2009) states that “blended learning designates the range of possibilities presented by combining Internet and digital media with established classroom forms that require the physical co‐presence of teacher and students.” The teaching and learning support team at HKAPA designed a blended learning professional development course to explore this mode with the teachers through experiential learning. It consisted of a series of connected face-to-face sessions, supplemented with online activities, independent studies and supported with personal mentoring spanning eight weeks. The focus of this active blend was to design relevant and connected activities which encourage teachers to apply experience, then reflect and evaluate them into their own teaching practice. In addition, the range of activities made use of CANVAS, the institution’s learning management system (LMS) to help teachers understand how different functions and tools could be designed for various purposes.
For the practice-based courses, this essay draws from the experience of some HKAPA School of Dance faculty—Malgorzata Dzierzon, current artist-in-residence at this time of writing; Irene Lo, part-time lecturer and postgraduate student; and Jake Ngo, lecturer in Dance Science. Dzierzon was tasked to create a new work and deliver ballet technique classes. Ngo concentrated on body conditioning and strengthening while Lo on Yoga as well as ballet. These lecturers dealt with some preliminary technical issues of sound and clarity but with prompt IT support, were able to adjust the placement of microphones and cameras to capture and record classes with greater efficiency. Both Ngo and Lo adapted their course content onto the online platform with relative ease as neither of their techniques required much use of space—core competencies through floor barre and centre practice with basic, non-locomotor exercises including stretching and strengthening. Dzierzon began by sharing her initial choreographic ideas and research. She instructed students to develop their personal responses to the tasks. This was complemented by prerecorded videos, background reading and viewing material, her individual movement research, presentations on her work with New Movement Collective, listening to podcasts and visiting links on CANVAS. This was extensive and required commitment from students. She also tasked them to work with home-made props and engaged them in discussions.
Course designs were based on the VAK model of learning where “in order to better process new information or learn a new skill, one must hear it, see it or try it” (Arshavskiy, 2013). Most students respond to a combination of these three approaches depending on the nature of the course. Generally, teachers want to do the same amount of work over the internet as they do in live teaching. However, academic lessons should be rewritten and divided into bite-sized nuggets of information. This follows the principle of the memory capacity of human beings at “seven, plus or minus two” items (Miller, 1956). Weekly quizzes are also a good practice since Arshavskiy (2013) states that “quizzes give learners a chance to apply their knowledge and recall information from the lesson.”
Zoom is user-friendly. Aside from the standard delivery of lectures, the Share Screen function allows material to be viewed by all. Participants can also be made co-hosts to enable them to share their work. Questions and comments can be typed into the Chat function. Furthermore, participants can be organized into Breakout Rooms, a feature available to licensed Zoom account holders. The size of these rooms is flexible, and participants are assigned to each room randomly or manually. The teacher/host has freedom to “visit” any of the rooms at any time. Meanwhile, practice-based teachers encouraged students to upload their practice videos onto LMS for feedback. A feature found on CANVAS is Discussions—students post questions or relevant information from lectures, and respond directly as well as comment on the ideas of their classmates. This enabled them to gauge the thoughts of their peers and broaden their horizons.
Among the most fundamental challenges of online teaching is internet connectivity. Even in progressive first-world cities, there are areas where network coverage is poor. Although Veveona Mosibin, a student at University Malaysia Sabah, gained attention for camping overnight on a tree to complete her assignments, students cannot be expected to do that or even sit at a café for hours to attend classes! Keeping cameras and microphones activated for hours each day becomes a financial strain aside from causing online fatigue. In mitigating these circumstances, HKAPA was among a few universities that offered deserving students a subsidy for internet data plans. Teachers were also fluid with deadlines while ensuring as far as possible that standards were maintained, and course learning outcomes were fulfilled. Additionally, course content information was stored in LMS to be retrieved at the convenience of students.
Viewing movement sequences and listening to instructions through a small mobile phone screen, or at best a laptop, does not lend itself easily to the observation of details. Walking to and from the camera countless times during a session does not equate with good teaching and learning principles and is exhausting. At HKAPA, advanced technology such as the Panopto system of recording movement from multiple cameras angles in one studio enabled teachers to film and edit videos with greater precision. Wide television screens were set up for the teacher to have a clearer picture of their students. Developing choreography was especially challenging for Dzierzon, who was working with dancers that she had never met before. Patiently setting tasks that required focused attention by both teacher and student, she was able to gradually develop an understanding of who they were and what they were capable of.
Equity, parity and privacy matters must be a part of the equation. Teachers need to ensure a level playing field and that those from privileged backgrounds are not advantaged because of greater access to technology. Institutions and teachers also cannot expect that all students would be willing to have cameras intrude into their homes and private spaces. Although Zoom does provide for virtual backgrounds, the images do get distorted if you move back and forth. To circumvent this, teachers could allow students to switch off the cameras, although this creates another problem of black, empty squares and reduced response or engagement. Students need to be assured that there are going to be no judgements, and learning spaces are safe spaces. They could indicate at the start of the class that there may be interruptions. Re-enforcement and validation of students are fundamental components of teaching psychology after all.
2020 has made it clear that tertiary dance programs need to start embedding online modules into their curriculum from the outset and not as an afterthought. Every new faculty member should be trained in online teaching and learning during their orientation on course design. Aside from becoming adept with additional modes of communication, technical skills and online etiquette, students must take ownership of their learning. Students should be encouraged to become responsible and autonomous learners, which are vital lifelong skills especially for careers that are at best, precarious. They need to be guided towards developing a personal practice and a daily rigor that can sustain them in all times.
Creation-driven programs at tertiary levels should incorporate new ways of choreography as part of their curriculum. New innovative works that display a high standard of ingenuity such as Swan Lake by Corey Baker of the UK were produced out of this crisis. Thus, institutions should capitalize on their affiliations, networks and partners to initiate collaborations on a consistent basis, which inevitably opens doors for students, graduates and faculty. Online presentations of dance have also developed new audiences—they are here to stay, and thus digital literacy is essential to the 21st-century graduate.
Dance is a deeply personal and visceral teaching and learning experience. E-learning does not and cannot replace face-to-face processes, but it can enhance the experience. This requires a paradigm shift in preparing for the future. It does open the mind to how and where the arts, dance, teaching and learning can take place.
Joseph Gonzales is a professor at The Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts. More
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Dr. Hennie Yip was the deputy head of the Innovation Hub at The Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts. More
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Featured photo: Malgorzata Dzierzon, May 2020, The Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts, Hong Kong. © Malgorzata Dzierzon
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