If you’ve ever driven across Europe you’ve probably been through one of those long dark tunnels of flickering light, the ones that separate countries and run through mountain ranges. The dare in our family was to hold your breath and count. That’s what the last year has felt like to me. We’ve been holding our breath and counting – though not for fun this time. Now, thankfully, we can see the end of the tunnel. We know that soon we’ll be able to breathe again, stop the car, get out, go to a café.
But wait a minute. This looks like a different place. It’s as if we’ve crossed some invisible border. The months at home in which other people have passed, illuminated, across our computer screens appears to have changed things. And it has. We are no longer where we were when we entered that tunnel.
A year or so ago, I would never have guessed that in the summer of 2021, the Creative Writing Programme would have developed so much expertise in online learning, or that video conferencing would have changed the way we work and learn so radically, but it has.
In April, last year, we realised that to protect the health of everyone on the programme we would need to start teaching online. Initially there was some anxiety and reluctance from tutors and students. How could we adapt our unique approach to teaching and learning to this new medium? What effect would this have on the group experience on which we place so much emphasis?
We started talking and with the help and support of everyone on the programme began to identify the challenges. We knew we could still teach in real time and interact as a group online but we knew we had to adapt our teaching. What we found surprised us.
The virtual classroom offered opportunities for teaching that were often overlooked in the traditional classroom. We discovered that using online whiteboards enabled a greater group focus on close editing exercises, that we could use visual triggers for writing exercises and that used intelligently the technology could really increase the effectiveness of our teaching.
Of course, there are things that don’t work so well. We realised how reliant we all are on body language when we interact. Having conversations and getting to know people are more difficult online. This was a particular challenge for us as encouraging a positive and supportive group culture is crucial to successful learning.
Being aware of this problem has helped solve it. Our tutors are now pro-active in managing online discussions. This ensures that everyone is given an opportunity to contribute their thoughts – it’s very easy in normal conversation to let a few people do all the talking. We’ve also made good use of breakout rooms to allow people to work in small groups and to get to know each other.
We are now heading out of that long, dark tunnel. Based on our success last year in the transition to online learning we are offering blended versions of our programmes and courses in 2021. We believe that through mixing face to face teaching in the autumn and summer in our new teaching space in Brighton with online teaching during the murkiest months of the winter we are making the most of both worlds.
Finally, we are excited that our online programmes now have an international reach and we’re looking forward to welcoming new writers from the rich and varied cultures of the world onto our programmes.
So, this is where we are. It’s been a challenging year. We recognise change has had to happen, but we like this new place we find ourselves in.