From Silver Screen to Touch Screen: Drama in Distance Education


Distance education has received a lot of bad press – of the articles I’ve read in recent weeks leading up to our pandemic school year, I can count the number of positive takes on exactly zero fingers. News coverage is a pulse in the wrist of the world’s panicked parents.

Here’s a cup of juice and a graham cracker, a quiet corner, a warm blanket, and hopefully a sense of considering the possible.

This Isn’t the First First Time for Cameras and Screens

I liken the laptop camera’s impact on learning to the movie camera’s impact on theater. For centuries, from the streets of Rome to the passion plays to Shakespeare’s Globe Theater, the masses enjoyed performance art as members of an audience watching live actors. And for as long, from the campfire to the one room schoolhouse to the pillared halls of academia, students have grown neurons as audience members with teachers on stage.

Enter, the camera. (Stage left)

At first, the camera was seated where an audience would be. Stage lighting, stage voices (musicals worked best), stage makeup, and stage costumes addressed the eye…while the camera angle was static. The camera presented a few great innovations that were obvious, exciting, and new for an audience that mostly had to do with distance: the ability to show sweeping vistas, put more people into a shot than could fit on a stage, and cozy the audience closer to the actors and into intimate settings. Still, the early movie viewer felt like they were sitting in an audience, and the effect was magnified by the fact that, to see a movie, you actually WERE sitting in an audience, and probably even facing a literal stage while the movie played above it.

So far, distance learning is analogous to placing a camera in the audience and also a camera on the stage. The actors and the audience have a totally different dynamic to work out. Although we have Google Classroom and online curriculum, we haven’t developed public education in the new medium of online learning in a way that harnesses its full potential.

Where the moving pictures found their power wasn’t in landscapes and closeups, but in angles, real whispers, and a language of lenses that, when combined with comic-book styled framing and visual effects, creates incredible viewing experiences that are rich and satisfying. They are not the same as live stage performance, and not even necessarily better than stage performance, but great in their way. We need both! This summer, the musical-as-movie production of Hamilton combined stage and cinema to marvelous effect. By digging in to digital education delivered remotely, we have a new platform with endless possibilities.

So imagine – if movies can create a new art form using skills that really leverage the medium of the one-way camera, so too perhaps distance education can create a new learning form leveraging the two-way camera and other technologies.

Instructional Design Already Exists

Pre-Covid-19, Instructional Design, a whole discipline wherein designers leverage learning theory and technology to deliver rich, substantive learning experiences, was quickly evolving and thriving. Instructional design has mostly been deployed for corporate training programs to deliver job skills education to employees. Tech workers often used programs to keep their skills fresh as software frequently evolves new iterations. Even in the field of education, while attempts to deliver digital learning often fall into the category of “edutainment,” some success stories, such as the impact of Sesame Street, suggest that digitally delivered education can work when done right.

If you want to see my favorite example of the potential, check out Team Treehouse, a site that delivers digital skills development in tech skills such as programming, web design, and popular software. It greatly surpasses in-person classroom learning for these skills, in my opinion.

Skills Over Content

So far, the most successful digital education I have seen centers around skills, as opposed to content. Digital platforms can create really robust interfaces to teach and develop skills like spelling, arithmetic, non-native language learning, and grammar. This is good news! At this time of our pandemic school year, what I care about as an educator and a parent is my students maintaining and developing the core skills of reading, writing, and math. If they do that, they can master any content.

The Pain is Short Term

The big barrier right now is not that online learning sucks, but that teachers are Instructional Designers for the live audience, not for the digital medium. That won’t change overnight, so yes, this year won’t be the one where we really leverage the medium to incredible effect. But it will be a year that does boost progress in this area.

We don’t need to be an audience that boos the cast of Hamilton because we’re not sitting in the theater! Cheer your teachers, dig in to the skills-building software that is made available, and be open to noticing the gifts of the now that present themselves. Digital learning isn’t classroom learning, but just as the movies aren’t theater, it can be just as awesome in its own way!

What actually is possible now? You can move together during classes (dance! hug! twirl)! You can eat and go to the bathroom when you need to. You can sleep longer. You can do math lying down with pillows. You can ask questions you may be too shy to raise in class. You can work at your own pace and don’t have to worry about dropping your math book in the rain. Let’s find these Easter Eggs of potential and leverage them.

It will actually be fun to see what happens next! The Orson Wells, Steven Spielberg, Christopher Nolan and JJ Abrams of instructional design are out there and probably working late. I have no doubt that whole crews of them are reading common core curriculum for all grades, playing with adapting it, and probably exploring how to deliver it through TV. A new era of learning is coming, and we may even like it! So when logging in to that 4th video conference of the day to see yet another screen full of talking head tiles, just imagine for a second how virtual reality classroom field trips on the Magic School Bus will be for your great grandkids. Take notes what it was like to be there when it all started.

The kids are gonna be okay <3


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