Online as the default method of learning…

…and teaching Creative Writing

Barbara Henderson, Creative Writing Programme leader, and myself Unit Leader for Poetry Level 1, gave a paper to the Shared Futures Conference for English Literature, Linguistics and Creative Writing held in Newcastle earlier this month. We shared our platform with Carlie Morgan, a third year student, a video input from tutors, Nina Milton and Douglas Dougan, and written inputs from three students, Annie Maclean, Sheena Su Wan Ling and Nicola Peacock.

“I don’t want to do peer assessment. What do I say if what they have written is shit?”

The words of a 20 year old student studying psychology at a traditional university.

“And if it was Creative Writing? “ I ask.

“That’s different. It’s meant to be read.”

So are the Arts different? Only to some extent. An essay explaining the psychology of how we see colour is different from a short story about a colour-blind character, but both need the teacher’s expertise even if the information load and the structure can be more easily separated out in a psychology essay than they can in a short story or a poem.

One to one sessions and peer workshops can both work for Creative Writing. One to one implies online, peer workshops imply students meeting face to face in class. Here at the OCA our choice is limited to one to one online responses between tutor and student..This default position fits very neatly with the theories of Gert Biesta on the bringing back of professionalism into teaching. He argues that the learnification, as he coins the word, of education has led to treating students as customers and giving them what they want. This suits current government trends in education policy, but it is not giving students the best education.

So at the OCA where everything is online we don’t need to bemoan the loss of the workshop. Let’s start with teaching and the expertise of the tutor , rather than the comments of peers; and if this is what we start with, then a one to one relationship between tutor and student is best, and you can’t have that in a room of 15 or 20 students, but you can have it online.

A manifesto created first by teachers in the department of Education at Edinburgh in 2011 and re-issued with some changes in 2016 suggests some useful arguments in favour of online learning and teaching. Not all the declarations are useful but we can pick out the ones that are.

Manifesto for teaching online 2016 * Online can be the privileged mode. Distance is a positive principle, not a deficit. * Place is differently, not less, important online. * Text has been troubled: many modes matter in representing academic knowledge. * We should attend to the materialities of digital education. The social isn’t the whole story. * Openness is neither neutral nor natural: it creates and depends on closures. * Can we stop talking about digital natives? * Digital education reshapes its subjects. The possibility of the ‘online version’ is overstated. * There are many ways to get it right online. ‘Best practice’ neglects context. * Distance is temporal, affective, political: not simply spatial. * Aesthetics matter: interface design shapes learning. * Massiveness is more than learning at scale: it also brings complexity and diversity. * Online teaching need not be complicit with the instrumentalisation of education. * A digital assignment can live on. It can be iterative, public, risky, and multi-voiced. * Remixing digital content redefines authorship. * Contact works in multiple ways. Facetime is over-valued. * Online teaching should not be downgraded into ‘facilitation’. * Assessment is an act of interpretation, not just measurement. A routine of plagiarism detection structures-in distrust. * Algorithms and analytics re-code education: pay attention! * * Online courses are prone to cultures of surveillance Visibility is a pedagogical and ethical issue. * Automation need not impoverish education: we welcome our new robot colleagues. * Don’t succumb to campus envy: we are the campus. *Written by teachers and researchers in Digital Education. University of Edinburgh – www.de.ed.aManifesto for teaching online 2016.

I used to be a face to face workshop fanatic for years but as a tutor for the OCA for the last seven years I’ve done a lot of re-thinking. I liked workshops because they appeared to be student-centred, and played into the hands of the education gurus who talked about learning rather than teaching. I’m now beginning to think differently and partly as a result of coming across the work of Gert Biesta. As far as I know, he is not particularly interested in Creative Writing, but his ideas stem from seeing the teacher or tutor as the expert who knows more, has more experience and understanding than their students.

While researching this issue, I came across the rants, as he himself calls them, of Professor Dan Barden of Butler University in Indianopolis in the USA, against workshops and in favour of students relying on the expertise of their teachers. In one of his online rants (his word), he claims: “my primary objection to creative writing workshops is that they don’t work. Not, mind you, because they can’t work—it’s that they don’t work. There’s something rotten at the core of most of them, which makes them extremely unlikely to work.”

And he goes on to say:”the workshop instructor should be a dictator. Humble and self-effacing, sure, but also absolutely convinced of her expertise. This is so often not the case. The instructor is, rather, an arbiter of disputes, a conveyor, anything but an expert.” He is not particularly arguing for online teaching, but accessing the expertise of the tutor will obviously be easier to do that way. His viewpoint fits very neatly with Gert Biesta.

Some research done recently at Talbot College in Adelaide, Australia was based on comparing the student results, and student satisfaction of two groups taking the same Creative Writing course, one with face to face workshops, and one through online teaching. The results for the two groups were not significantly different, although the face to face workshop students achieved marginally better results. But of course there could be other reasons, like for example the online students being older and maybe no longer optimum learners, or to put it in online terms, not so adept at being taught.

This isn’t quite a defence of a default position and in fact the researchers go on to list a series of course design needs to make online learning effective which include:

“The need to consider student demographics (since experience with computer and Internet related technology is often a precursor of learning success) λ Using a range of media, such as email, online forums, printed, video and audio resources λ Establishing some dimension of face-to-face or one-on-one contact between students and teachers.”

Certainly at the OCA we are aware of all of these and looking at the demographic would include the need to offer special choices for prisoners and for people visually or hearing impaired. In fact, some of our recent discussions have been on how to offer realistic choices for the latter groups without infringing equal opportunities.

To do some joined-up thinking about Barden and Biesta, who both proritise the tutor over the peer group, here are more of Biesta’s arguments. He claims that the language of education “always needs to engage with questions of content, purpose and relationships.” And he goes on to make the central role of judgement by the teacher all-important.

Nina Milton made the point that online teaching gives the tutor time to read and think deeply about the student’s assignment, none of which is possible in a workshop. This was backed up by Carlie Morgan who said the one to one help she received from her tutors made her progress towards publication possible. Sheena Su Wan Ling, living in Singapore, argued that distance learning was the only route available to her. A similar line was taken by Annie Maclean who said that as an older person living on the south coast, again distance learning was her only option. Nicola Peacock explained how as a published author who had not been able to take a degree earlier, the online route has give her the opportunity to fine-hone many of her existing skills; though she pointed out that sometimes distance learning does not allow you to get to know your tutor well and of course you can’t rely on tone of voice and body language.

So inspite of a few snags, I hope most Creative Writing students feel the individual attention they get from their tutors, dictators or not, is worthwhile and that the workshop side of learning can be organised by group hangouts/meetings either within the OCA or in other communities.

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4 comments for “Online as the default method of learning…

  1. 10 August 2017 at 9:31 am

    I’d like to add that alongside all the convincing evidence, Carlie’s story was the most moving part of the presentation.

  2. Linda
    10 August 2017 at 11:32 am

    I certainly agree with Liz’s last point. It never feels like anything but one on one attention when I get my assignments back with comments, and it always feels as though they have been carefully considered, which online learning allows for.

    I think it beats turning up at a seminar where one’s fellow students/tutor may or may not have prepared for the discussion or may be in varying stages of hangover – or not there at all – which is what I remember from my student days.

    As for workshops, I see them as the very occasional cherry on the cake – not the substantial bread and butter of learning, to mix a metaphor – for the social aspect more than anything else. I do enjoy meeting fellow students sometimes because I live abroad in an isolated place – but it isn’t essential to my day to day learning. I would chose online learning even if I had any choice.

  3. 11 August 2017 at 10:06 am

    What good research and thinking, Liz and Barbara. I enjoyed reading this and assimilating what it means for us all. Like Linda, I do think that ‘in-person’ workshops are valuable, but perhaps not for actually teaching…or learning…writing. It’s as much to do with communication and peer sharing, ‘getting to know other writers’, and hoping for to bring home some snippets of writing that might turn into something with a little work.

  4. Jane Edmonds
    13 August 2017 at 9:54 am

    I was in a creative writing group run by 2 published authors, both of whom had teaching of children experience. The group was all very mature people. Although everyone was either complimentary or silent (!) there was no critical feedback, but the occasional mild suggestion was received with deep anxiety. It was the critical feedback, in the sense of what works, what needs more attention that I have got from the creative writing course, which has enabled me to develop. At my stage of life – 78, I feel a little daunted by hangouts, but can manage basics of digital communication.

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