Congratulations to Amnon Buchbinder from Cinema and Media Arts, who is this year’s recipient of the AMPD eLearning Award for his work on the Biology of Story, a pan-faculty year-long fully online course. We recently had a chance to interview Professor Buchbinder about the origins of the course, how it was created, and to hear some of his reflections on developing pedagogy for the online learning environment.
The Biology of Story has grown out of your book, The Way of the Screenwriter, into an interactive documentary website, and is now a fully online course. What drew you to eLearning as one of the outcomes for your work on The Biology of Story?
There were multiple factors that drew me to eLearning. First, I had learned so much interviewing 120 story creators and story thinkers for the Biology of Story project, and wanted to synthesize those insights, and teaching a course in any forum is always a good way to do that. Second, having created this rather massive (70+ hours of edited moving image material) online resource, I simply wanted to do more with it; since the material was already online as part of the Biology of Story interactive documentary, an online course seemed a no-brainer.
Another reason for teaching a Biology of Story course was that I felt I had essentially uncovered a hidden discipline, “Story,” and wanted to develop pedagogy appropriate to that discipline—sort of an “introduction to a discipline that doesn’t exist yet”. Since this obviously has implications well beyond my own year-to-year teaching, I liked the idea of doing it in a format that could theoretically become available to others to teach. I also sensed the subject might allow for an opening out of some of the experiential potentials of online learning, since the subject itself is so fundamentally experiential rather than abstract.
Your course is linked to The Biology of Story interactive documentary website, a SSHRC-funded research project. Can you speak to the relationship of teaching to your research?
Teaching and research have always had an iterative relationship for me. I think this is the genius of the academy. I realized early on that without ongoing research-creation, my teaching would become sterile; meanwhile teaching has immeasurably deepened my game by keeping me asking questions; or more exactly, the students ask the questions and I have to answer them. Like most teachers, I am often surprised by the answers and can then bring those insights to my research.
In what ways are you engaging your students with the course material online, and how do you think they benefit?
The most important thing was taking an approach to creating filmed lectures that wasn’t based on the idea of doing what I would do in the classroom and filming it, but rather developing a form for the lecture that suited the online environment, knowing that students might be watching stuff on their phones, or pausing to check Facebook—in other words, leveraging the advantages of the online environment (multimedia, reviewability, linkability, expandability, etc.) to compensate for the disadvantages.
How do you find teaching online different from your face-to-face courses?
I never thought I’d teach online, because the live classroom encounter is something I cherish. Online teaching seemed about as appealing to me as, I don’t know, online eating. At the same time, there are definitely certain kinds of engagement I experienced from the students towards the online course that were never possible in the classroom. For example, there were much more complex discussions and explorations of ideas, as students have time to reflect, and write their thoughts out in detail, and then respond to one another. To be honest, I see online vs. face-to-face teaching as almost fundamentally different things, in ways that I don’t think are sufficiently recognized. There is this notion that you can just take courses and move them online; but I think the reason my course is working is because it was conceived from the ground up for the online environment. I have another course that I am currently reworking for a blended format, but that’s a different matter, in that case one is using online tools to support a process that’s still grounded in the live encounter.
Your course is built on a library of interviews with screenwriters, authors, academics, and story-tellers from around the world. You’ve also created a series of video lectures full of animations and short clips from a wide range of films. Can you share with us your workflow and how you managed the volume of material that you’ve pulled together for this course?
It was a massive, massive undertaking. The Biology of Story project itself was initiated as part of SSHRC research-creation project and represents more than 3 years of work. Creating 16 lectures for the course required the most time. In addition, we spent time fully developing the learning activities and building the Moodle site.
The work I am talking about here started with scripting the lectures, which in turn involved delivering the lectures for the camera. In order to avoid reading for the camera, I decided in advance which passages in the lectures needed me to deliver them on-camera, as opposed to which could support cutaways to other imagery. I memorized those on-camera sections (as we went along: I’d pause, memorize a short paragraph, then do takes until I was satisfied). It required about 10 days of shooting. I had two recent BFA grads from our program working full-time from April through December editing the lectures under my supervision.
To do this, I made visual scripts for each lecture — i.e. specified line-by-line what images should be used. Images were pulled from YouTube or other media products, with careful attention to fair use guidelines. There were an average of four to six progressively refined video “drafts” for each lecture clip with me giving notes after each pass. We could not have done all this without online collaborative tools. All the scripting and notes, as well as spreadsheets used for tracking everything, and sharing of video clips was done using Google tools. These lectures, along with about 80 assigned interview video clips from Biology of Story, plus footnoted transcripts for the clips formed the learning materials for the course.
I felt, to be fully engaging, the lectures had to be short and dense. This just seemed more suitable to me for a recorded lecture, which can quickly get boring. In the classroom, I do not have any notes or anything in front of me when I lecture, never, even in large lecture classes. I need to be looking at the students and engaging with them continuously, asking them a lot of questions, discerning from responses how much they are grasping, and adjusting my delivery accordingly. None of that is possible in an online course, not in real time. So I wanted make the lectures as engaging as possible, but in such a way that there would be a lot to unpack, and unpacking these dense lecture clips is part of the work of the course. (Each week has 3 or 4 lecture clips that are about 4 to 5 minutes each, plus 5 assigned interview clips of about the same length.)
How have you structured the course in ways that you think are innovative and/or new?
I don’t know what in the course is “new”, because I haven’t seen more than a few other online courses. However, I think what I’ve done has very little in common with them, and because I thought everything through from the ground up, I would say the whole thing was innovative, in the literal sense. We basically innovated the course.
What is the most important thing that you hope people will take away from this course?
My goal is to open peoples eyes to something most of us love, but that surrounds and inhabits us so fully we are unable to see it clearly; humanity’s oldest conceptual tool (possibly older than language) and most universal creative process: Story; to begin to understand it as a pattern, as, like living organisms, both structure and process; to appreciate the indigenous world that gifted it to us (and retains the deepest understanding of it); and to begin to discern the ways that many of the narratives that surround us invert the values inherent to Story.
What do you find most exciting about the online teaching experience for faculty and students?
The possibility of rethinking pedagogy, moving beyond conventional disciplinary boundaries, opening up to wider dimensions of the web as a knowledge base, and harnessing the conversational potentials of the online environment.
I’d also like to mention what I see as the biggest dangers with eLearning: on one hand the tendency of the economic tail to wag the academic dog, i.e. the pressure to move courses online for the University to save money, without sufficient regard or respect for the fundamental differences of online learning. Another big issue is the tendency for the online environment to signify “point and click” to students and amplify an entitled sense among poorly motivated students that they don’t actually need to do anything.
What advice do you have for faculty who are considering designing an online course?
I believe there is tremendous potential, but only if you think about it in an expansive way, rather than just squeezing an existing course into a Moodle template. I believe we in AMPD have an advantage: one simply needs to think about it in the way an artist approaches a new medium. If you are going to make a sculpture, you don’t try to apply the aesthetics or techniques you bring to making a painting. You need to understand, and develop a relationship, with the medium you are working in. We all experienced this as teachers, walking into the classroom for the first time, and realizing that telling people what you “know” isn’t really teaching. Actually, for me one of the exciting things about teaching an online course was that it required me to start over, in that sense, and come to teaching again for the first time. Of course, I made mistakes, which hopefully I am learning from.