David Balfour, Head of Learning & Teaching, Australian Film Television and Radio School and Bree Sigsworth-Pryce, Course Manager, Diplomas.

Australian Film Television and Radio School on Teaching Creativity Through Blended Learning

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The following story is an update of an article originally published on E-Learn Magazine on Jun. 21, 2016. Click here for the Spanish version.

How can you teach creativity in the classroom? This is the main question that the Australian Film Television and Radio School has been asking itself from the very beginning since it took on the responsibility of fostering the country’s film industry. Founded in 1973, the school has now 450 students and a very strong reputation, having had five alumni nominated for Academy Awards and four Oscar winners, including Andrew Lesnie, the cinematographer behind Lord of the Rings.

David Balfour, head of teaching and learning, and Bree Sigsworth-Pryce, course leader, talked about what it’s like to teach the passionate pursuit of excellence that the Australian Film Television and Radio School (AFTRS) is known for, and how online resources have contributed in their efforts to impart knowledge.

Online Learning and Creativity

When AFTRS was trying to take advantage of the school’s newfound enthusiasm for online learning in 2014, they were aware of the fact that teaching online doesn’t necessarily correlate to a better classroom experience simply because it’s online. They wanted to ensure that online learning would be, in fact, the best medium to get the information across to their students.

The first obstacle the school came across was on how to handle the equipment. Being so well known around the world, AFTRS is recognized for having some of the best equipment in the market, and students look for that when they enroll. However, sending every online student a high-end camera for their course wasn’t an actual option. At this point, the school thought that teaching cinematography online wasn’t a real possibility.

Balfour and Sigsworth-Pryce then realized that teaching both the theoretical and technical aspects of cinematography in a face-to-face class could lead to information overload. As a result, the team decided it would be best to teach subjects like color, composition, and movement online. That way, students could fully grasp the concepts by having the option of going back to each session and reviewing the content at their own pace.

The students would then be asked to make a recording of what they had learned using any camera at their disposal, such as their smartphone camera. That way, they could focus entirely on the theory they had learned, instead of the technology behind it, and finding a low-tech solution would, in turn, fuel their creativity.

Once students understood the key concepts, they could then attend their on-campus class and put their knowledge to the test with the proper equipment. After all, many education institutions globally are embracing new pedagogy techniques, such as using in-person class time as a workshop for the exchange of ideas and practicing a skill.

The same is true for radio and television students, as they also need to learn the theory behind certain topics as well as how to handle equipment properly. Balfour and Sigsworth-Pryce have found that using a blended learning approach is by far the best method. When first adopting online learning, AFTRS was nervous about whether it would be able to maintain its reputation and provide its world-class teaching standards without face-to-face interaction between faculty and students.

These fears were soon mitigated. Both Balfour and Sigsworth-Pryce agree that although it hasn’t been an easy ride, it has been interesting, and that every time they have erred, it has led them to make better decisions in terms of their online learning curriculum.

A Very Successful Experience

AFTRS started its online program in 2015 with about 10 online courses. Some only ran for one semester and showed they didn’t work well for virtual learning, while others lasted the full two semesters. Based on that, they decided they would keep online learning for the 2016 academic year.

The school adopted Blackboard Open LMS because they felt it offered everything they needed — several options in terms of technology and plugins.

According to Balfour, the open nature of the LMS allows AFTRS to plug in a variety of excellent partner features that meet their specific needs as a high user of audiovisual content. “Specifically, we use Kaltura to deliver audiovisual content to courses, and the integration is terrific,” he affirms.

Balfour also points out that the continued use of Blackboard Open LMS to deliver programs has allowed for the teaching faculty to trail and experiment with more approaches to engage students, such as developing powerful ways of peer collaboration.

“Blackboard has been terrific in providing ongoing advice and support in the development of our online and blended programs. The service is stable and reliable, providing great peace of mind,” says Balfour.

Meeting Students’ Expectations

When AFTRS started implementing online learning, one aspect that had to keep in mind was that the production of screen and broadcast content is a highly collaborative art form — there is no way one person can direct, act, film and write all at the same time. With this in mind, they needed the technology that would allow students to cooperate with each other.

One important factor that they have found keeps creativity alive in the classroom is keeping an open forum at all times. In the forum, dialogue between the teacher and the students never ceases. Students are always alert to ideas that might enrich the conversation or learning experience.

AFTRS insists on hiring instructors with ample industry experience, such as screenwriters who have just written a movie, to teach what it’s really like to write for Hollywood and other industries. Through a process of induction and mentoring, all industry practitioners are given the skillset to begin teaching their craft. The same goes for accepted students. A portfolio that shows ample creativity and potential is much more likely to be chosen over one that illustrates perfect technique.

After offering online learning for four years, Balfour has noticed that students’ needs and expectations have diverged. “The majority of students are coming to an online course with a high level of expectation about functionality, accessibility and usability, as well as look and feel. A small cohort comes with real difficulties of access — some of our students come from very remote areas,” he explains, indicating that they have plans to increase their online learning offerings in the near future. “We are looking forward to seeing the service continue to grow.”

Planning the Curriculum

The Australian Film Television and Radio School takes three important areas into consideration when planning its curriculum.

1 Prioritizing the outcome of the class. That means figuring out what skills and knowledge the student should have by the end of the course, what the main parts of the class will be, and the teaching method that will be used. That way, they can decide whether a class should be completely online, blended, or taught on campus.

2 Ongoing conversation with industry professionals. Knowing what is expected of students when they graduate, what steps the industry is taking next and preparing students accordingly, as well as giving them sufficient practice so they are prepared for the workplace, are some of the school’s best practices.

3 Having no fixed point of view when teaching creativity, as everything has to be evolving. Creativity is born through practice, through doing, through reflection and through a community. Creativity is about taking risks and losing the fear of failure. Creativity can’t be right or wrong, it’s an ongoing evolution of someone’s idea.

Photos: AFP Wendell Teodoro.