Learning from lockdown: What entertainment at a distance taught me about teaching at a distance
I’ve often felt that what I do as a trainer was similar to a stand-up comedy routine. Not so much that I try to make people laugh (although I do) but that I use the same tricks of the trade as a stand-up comedian – a core idea running through, the seemingly irrelevant anecdote that ends up making a key point, the call back at the end that reassures me and the audience they’ve been paying attention. I know I’ve had a good session if I’ve hit my marks – not in the literal meaning of standing in the right spot, but getting the rhythm and timings right, covering all the material, sensing the key messages have chimed with participants.
Watching some of my favourite entertainers cope with social distancing has been illuminating. It has shed light on the dirty secrets of how far entertaining or teaching at a distance can replace getting together in germ filled rooms.
The five dirty secrets of education and entertainment
I knew, but had not articulated, these dirty secrets to myself. I have struggled for around 20 years to make online learning and knowledge sharing work, believing it to be the future, but at the same time I kept having misgivings.
One of my favourite stand-up comedians, Stewart Lee, toured a show a couple of years ago called Content Provider – the brutal digital term for entertainers and teachers. As Lee pointed out in that show, the main way entertainers make money these days is by going on tour delivering the content in person, not from digital or hard copy sales. TV can be a steady earner of course, but Lee was never mainstream enough to attract consistently big bucks. He even supplements the revenue from tickets by buying up second-hand copies of his CDs and DVDs from charity shops and eBay and selling them in person at a profit in the auditorium after the show.
But, as he acknowledged in his most recent show, touring is exhausting, particularly as you get older. My fellow trainer in Germany in a recent Zoom call said she felt more relaxed than she had in some time, despite the lockdown, because she no longer had to travel so much for work. It’s not just the physical but also the mental exhaustion – you wonder if the same old shtick is going to cut it anymore.
So our training team is now discussing what the best way is to deliver our content, without so much travel, resilient to any social distancing, but still make money and stay fresh. Which is why we need to confront the dirty secrets head on.
My recent career has been in providing training to adult learners, but I come from a globally extensive, long line of teachers of all age groups. From talking with them about their experiences, I’m pretty sure that most of these dirty secrets apply to children’s education too.
The good news is that there are plenty of technologies when teaching or entertaining online that we are being forced to adopt which are worth continuing with even after we can all be in the same room again. The future is going to be a blend of online and offline presence.
The biggest dirty secret is that it actually costs quite a lot in terms of effort, time and therefore money to create good learning and entertainment that works at a distance. And yet the expectation is that it should be cheaper.
Why distance costs so much is due to the other dirty secrets:
1. We feed off an audience
This is why teachers are struggling to respond to the current crisis. They know that just slapping up slides online with your notes, or teaching a normal lesson via a webcam and providing a recording of it will not create effective learning experiences. But they don’t have the time to do much else.
The issue is not just participant engagement, but that bouncing off an audience is where teachers and entertainers get their energy from. You can spot when an audience is not engaged when you are in a room with them, and adjust accordingly.
When TV entertainers like John Oliver or Stephen Colbert initially tried to do their shows without live audiences, the result was very flat. You could see the desperation in their eyes. It was easier for team chat shows that transmitted live like Channel 4’s The Last Leg. They had already made use of Twitter in real time pre-COVID-19 to get audience suggestions and jokes from beyond the studio, so they made even more use of this to spark off their own interactions in the studio.
Even non-live shows are finding ways to use online tools to engage with their audiences – Graham Norton’s Red Chair stories are now delivered by audience members from their own homes, via their webcams. Many comedy chat shows have found that doing short interviews via webconferencing with celebrities, in their pyjamas, with pets, kids and other props, showing human frailties, can recreate at least some of the warmth and humour they crave.
For teachers and trainers the most obvious online tool to create engagement is polling. Polls can make sure people are paying attention, but also create a connection between participants and give the host a flavour of the needs and views of the audience. Webcams, Q&A and chat functions all help put the life back in to webinars – and yes, why not bring in props and pets too.
If you are creating learning that people consume in their own time, it still needs to be interactive – I’ve incorporated polls, quizzes and self-assessments into our online learning modules.
2. But they’re not that into you
If you haven’t got a live audience you can interact with, you need to keep it short, and break it up. Graham Norton’s TV chat show used to be 45 minutes long pre-Covid, but is now a tightly edited 30 minutes of a monologue, a brief interview, some music, funny clips and the Red Chair.
I view the online equivalent of our 3-hour classroom-based training course as being a 1.5 hour webinar – and I put a break in half way just as I would for a classroom based session. Similarly, our 6 hour, one day course can be delivered as two 1.5 hour webinars on separate occasions. The online modules can be taken in the meantime, allowing the second webinar to be more of a review and discussion.
It’s generally considered that 45 minutes is the maximum you can expect an adult to pay attention. I’d assume it’s even less for children and for those of us who are used to consuming social media in short videos and 280 character chunks.
But schools do seem very wedded to the idea that a lesson should take 35 to 45 minutes and that it’s an important life skill that children stay still and quiet for this time. I really resented being called into school to be told off for the fact that my son refused to sit nicely on the story mat for half an hour aged 5 or that he’d yell out the answer to a question without waiting until the teacher called on him. My suggestions that it was unreasonable to expect children of that age to stay still without some kind of interactivity, and that they would be better off asking open ended rather than factual questions did not go down well. But then I regularly got thrown out of my Japanese school aged 7 for talking in class. Japanese schools are even more one-way information teaching machines than British schools. Ironically, my son’s school reports now complain that he’s too quiet.
So 10-20 minutes for an online “class” is surely more realistic than expecting children to sit through a teacher talking on a webcam on Microsoft Teams for 40 minutes. This seems to be what my husband and his fellow teachers are now doing – everyone logs in, the teacher asks how they are and has a chat, explains the assignment and then lets everyone log out again and do the assignment in their own time. Getting them to hand the assignment in seems to be a whole other problem, however.
Realising that my audience is not that into me either, I recently re-edited all our online e-learning content so no video/screencast that I have narrated is more than 10 minutes where possible. The most popular YouTube video I have narrated is “Japanese Business Mysteries explained in 5 minutes”, so I will be doing more of those in the future.
3. They are paying for the certificate, not for the love of knowledge
But that brings me to the third dirty secret. Not only are they not that into you, they’re not that into your content either. They’re either learning because it’s compulsory or to impress their employers. If they’re school children or students, the main motivator is passing the exam.
This is where the analogy with entertainment ends, I suppose – we consume entertainment for insights, emotions and to know we are not alone. There is no certificate for this but therefore there is a limit to how much a person will pay to be entertained, and they are always looking for ways to get their kicks for free. Which is why I sympathised when Stewart Lee confiscated a mobile phone from an audience member trying to film his routine at the last gig of his I went to.
Teachers at my son’s school have been dutifully setting further reading, challenging maths problems and suggesting resources to prepare for university for the year group affected by the cancellation of the UK national A level exams. Only work before March 18th will count towards the final grade, to ensure that children who are not able to access online learning are not penalised.
Despite the teachers’ efforts, I believe most engagement from that year group is through an app that one of them developed which automates logging in to Microsoft Teams – and occasionally they edit the message so it looks personal.
The only pure online training courses that sell are the ones that relate to compliance and are compulsory, or certify that you have acquired IT skills. This is the kind of knowledge acquisition that can be proved through online multiple-choice tests or online exercises. These courses generate a certificate for the learner and lots of lovely data on the company’s Learning Management System, to show what percentage of staff have taken the courses, passed the tests or said their work efficiency has improved, and then they can generate some kind of Return on Investment on training budgets to keep the CFO happy.
Individual learners are willing to pay for a certificate they can add to their CVs but otherwise expect content to be free. Massively Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, have a very high dropout rate. Coursera, an online learning platform mainly for university courses, has a business model based on exactly this understanding of the learner mentality. The University of Tokyo course on Japanese art and literature I took was free but they send you guilt provoking emails if you don’t complete each module within a certain time. If you want a certificate of passing and completion which you can load onto your LinkedIn profile, you have to pay. And so, although I took the course for the love of acquiring knowledge – reader, I paid.
4. It’s the stupid technology, stupid
Coursera have done a great job of making the user interface as easy as possible. This is where some of the benefits of being online come in. So long as firewalls and bandwidth do not intervene, it should mean greater accessibility to knowledge for people all around the world. Coursera videos are no more than 10 minutes long, each with a short quiz at the end to make sure you were paying attention. As well as the slides and a video of the professor giving the lecture, there is a transcript with a cursor indicating where the professor has got to in the lecture underneath the video. So if you haven’t quite understood, or your attention wandered, you can check back, rewind and pass the test.
Non-native speakers of English have been far more enthusiastic about e-learning and webinars than native speakers, in my experience. They like the multiple ways to absorb the information – slides, transcripts, aurally and offline. Native English speakers can help during live webinars by summarising key points in the chat function. The host also has far more control over shutting up domineering fluent speakers and making sure the shyer people are brought into the conversation – including through private chat if they’d rather not speak out publicly.
But – not everyone has the technology, bandwidth or budget to participate equally. Teachers at my husband’s well-funded private school have apparently broken down in tears from spending hours marking work online, only to see it disappear into the ether.
Maybe it’s their fault for not backing up, maybe the school has terrible connectivity, who knows. But it brings it home that things must be a hundred times worse for schools and homes where good technology and connectivity is just not affordable or people don’t have the technological knowhow to find solutions.
I realise this article may attract a lot of snark from specialists who have been studying interactive learning design for years, and know way more than I do about how to design learning paths and interfaces. In my defence, I did actually manage a team of people with that knowledge and AI programming skills, way back in the day. Our aim was to get away from directed learning and move towards self-directed learning. That is still my goal.
I attended various learning technology conferences too – where all too often a seminar entitled “making xml work in a corporate learning environment” or some such would end in a spectacular technology fail and blue screens all round. So yes, properly designed learning experiences are available online, but we are still a long way from the user or the technology being smart enough.
5. Fear of eating ourselves
This is the deepest darkest dirty secret. We worry that if we do too good a job with online content and the technology does improve enough, we will no longer be needed. Teachers and entertainers want to be needed, even loved – and this is what we get paid for. This is known in business as self-cannibalization – making a cheaper version of your product or service, which then kills your lifeline.
But we should not despair, there are reasons why eating yourself doesn’t work.
The social experience
If audiences can get the same experience from a CD, DVD or book, why do they continue to go to gigs, concerts, shows? Partly it’s the social experience – the thrill of being in a crowd of people who are going through the same emotions. The closest I have seen during lockdown to recreating the social experience of a concert is TimsTwitterListeningParty – where Tim Burgess of the 1990s group The Charlatans sets an album for everyone to listen to and tweet about in real time – but the real joy is that the original artist also tweets about the making of the record or photos of the band, in synchronicity to each track being listened to.
It’s also for the social experience that people still want to attend classes, despite moaning about being away from their real work. Even if children say they hate school, they want to be with their friends – and it’s usually because of a bad experience of being with others, such as bullying, that makes them hate school the most, rather than the teaching. And of course the teacher can do a lot to set the tone and clamp down on bullying.
Preferring to be in a room with others in order to learn is also an acknowledgement that if you’re not trapped in a class, you are very likely going to get distracted.
Also, in the corporate world, I have found that even when I was on the receiving end of poor-quality training, just being away from the desk and having time to reflect had a value in its own right.
The best concerts, exhibitions or plays are where you feel fully immersed – “lost in another world.” It’s not so easy to do that at home where daily chores and worries intrude.
A close second to being bullied as a reason for hating school is that it’s “boring and pointless”. In other words, children cannot see how what they are learning applies to their own life.
Many of the TV shows that have done well in the UK during lockdown are ones which allow us to live vicariously (and maybe thereby learn about) cultural experiences – Race around the World, The Repair Shop, or Grayson Perry’s Art Club
But not all teachers or subjects translate well to video, and learners still need to be able to interact with the teacher so that they can understand how to apply the knowledge to their individual situation. You can give individual attention and co-create online, but again numbers need to be limited to about the same as a classroom size, to allow proper 1:1 interaction.
The audience or learner wants authenticity – they can spot a mile off when a teacher or entertainer is phoning it in. This is why a lot of e-learning is so dry – actors voicing narratives about how to be a leader just do not resonate. The most popular YouTube videos are where the person is narrating in real time as they play a game. The first video that came up when I was searching for help on how to cut my son’s hair was a hairdresser in a barber shop cutting hair while explaining his technique.
We insist at Japan Intercultural Consulting that all our facilitators have authentic experience of working in Japanese organisations and also have lived in the counterpart culture. We also encourage our facilitators to tell stories from their own experiences during the training. Our participants need to feel that we have “been in your shoes”. But the only way we can be sure this happens is to interact with participants, to understand their experiences.
Parents are struggling trying to do home schooling and work at the same time. Schools were invented partly so people could go to work. Before universal education, only rich people could afford home tutoring, which then perpetuated the professional elite path of going to university to become a lawyer or clergyman.
The only way to work from home and teach your children at the same time if you are not rich enough to afford a home tutor is to teach them through the work you are doing. This was how craftsmen in the past educated their children – they were apprenticed to their parent or to another “master”. The modern-day equivalent would be getting your children to alphabetize your files, or helping you design a spreadsheet for your sales data – or in my case, getting them to edit and add subtitles to my videos.
Japanese companies are still resistant to classroom-based learning and even more so to working remotely, particularly for soft skills. The reason for this is that most Japanese companies are family style in mentality – learning is done through apprenticeship and on the job learning.
I admit I already loved Tidying up with Marie Kondo on Netflix, but it wasn’t just because it added to my Japanese cultural expertise – my obsession with TV decluttering shows stretches back to House Doctor in the 1990s and lockdown has impelled me to binge watch Call the Cleaners. There is something very cathartic and inspiring about watching other people confront their fears and phobias, purge and then move on with their lives, and this is what I needed to do with online learning.
Although we may have a sick feeling in our stomachs about the threat of technology, teachers and trainers will never have to eat themselves. So long as we are authentic and know what we are talking about, then we can help the learner apply the knowledge for themselves, and recreate experiences. We can set scientific experiments, maths problems and history essays to be done away from the classroom, in the knowledge that they need a teacher to guide them and check the result.
If, like now, we can only teach online, then rather than trying to dump a mass of information online or learn how to build an interactive module, we should focus on creating good offline assignments that guide the learner as they explore, apply their new knowledge and recreate experiences for themselves. But learner numbers will be limited if this is to be supervised and checked properly. Ultimately, the cost per learner in terms of time and salaries is not going to be much cheaper than a classroom-based experience if the assignment is well framed and resources are properly curated.
A teacher or entertainer in a germ-infested room full of people is still the most cost effective and emotionally impactful way of transmitting knowledge, insight and experience. Our enforced isolation as teachers and entertainers should be a time to declutter, focus on what sparks joy and maybe add one or two new gadgets into the freed-up space.
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