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From the Highlands to the Borders - A day in the life of an OU online creative writing tutor

Jules Horne Author:

Jules Horne teaches Advanced creative writing and Master of Arts in Creative writing for The Open University.

She is based in the Borders and is an award-winning playwright and fiction writer.

Jules Horne

How can Open University (OU) students perform a scene from a play together if they’re hundreds of miles apart?

How can tutors help students feel the structure of Act 5 of Hamlet (the one with the skull), from their kitchen table in Orkney?

These are some of the challenges I’ve been facing as a tutor for the Open University’s Advanced creative writing module, which focuses on dramatic techniques and voice.

I’ve travelled to Glasgow from the Borders to teach face-to-face day schools and was amazed how far students would travel to attend. But with around 1 in 4 OU students in Scotland living in rural, remote and hard-to-reach areas – such as islands and oil rigs – the OU’s teachers are also getting creative in the online world.

Plenty of OU associate lecturers (like me) live in remote areas, too. So I decided to try out the OU’s distance live workshop platform, Adobe Connect, to see if my practical face-to-face workshop could translate to online.

Into the online classroom – teaching, technology, trepidation…

Adobe Connect is a very flexible platform, with video, audio and whiteboard options, as well as screenshare, groups and other handy facilities.

Laptop, headphones and a pile of booksHowever, for my first time out, I was keen to keep things simple, and left out video. Many students don’t have fast broadband, anyway, and one of the advantages of online teaching is not having to suit up!

So step one: get set up. Put on headset, do the tech test, adjust volume levels. So far, so good.

Then I click to go into the online room. Blimey! A couple of students are already waiting – it’s the same with face-to-face tutorials. I place them on hold so I can get my materials ready in the room.

Just as in face-to-face tutorials, the rooms are used by different tutors. You sometimes find whiteboard scrawls and left-behind handouts in the digital space, too. Must remember to leave it tidy!

I post up some script extracts for discussion, my PowerPoint on dramatic cornerstones, and some handout notes. I also have a link to a video I sometimes use. It’s time to find out which elements will work online. With face-to-face tutorials, I like to be flexible and respond to what emerges from group discussion – it’s creative writing, after all.

So I’m interested to see how creative interaction can work in a high-tech online platform. Creative writing is highly individual (is tech too restrictive?); script work is often collaborative, physical, spatial (is distance a problem?). Chalk and talk just isn’t how it works. So it’s a teaching as well as a technical and practical challenge. Lots of questions!

Is online teaching compatible with creative writing?

Back in the room: Around 15 students have arrived from across Scotland and into Yorkshire. I establish that we can hear each other and also speak – great! And there’s a chat space for people who prefer to type.

The chat space is great for icebreakers and, as it turns out, also for creative writing. The students describe the view from their windows, and offer some lovely snapshots of autumn trees, island horizons and a neighbour carting away a lawnmower.

We get a sense of place, space and character – ideal as a starting point for drama. Next, they describe a nearby object – an old bookcase, a bowl of oranges – and a flurry of adjectives appears in the chat space.

Man holding a skull While I cover some of the course ground, the students ask questions – both typed and through their mics. But close-reading of scripts is a challenge. How to bring a script to life when you can’t perform it?

Or can you? I decide to throw tech caution to the wind and ask for volunteers. Luckily, OU students are highly intrepid and several voices speak up from around the country.

I find myself casting a cold read of Act 5 of Hamlet with two students I’ve never seen or met. And they’re brilliant! Not quite a world premiere, but certainly a first for me, and I suspect the students, too.

With the next group, we try a radio script, and one of the students improvises sound effects – using a liquidiser and chopping board. It gives a great sense of how the script feels and plays, which will help when it comes to close-reading the script as writers.

Overall, online live teaching through Adobe Connect is an odd experience. You’re fielding written and spoken questions, watching out for virtual hands going up, trying to switch windows and praying your microphone is working, while trying to listen, respond and teach.

It reminds me of running a radio studio, and it’ll take practice. But the potential is enormous, and it opens up access and connection enormously. A far cry from the old days of night-time black-and-white BBC2!

Next stop: video. Maybe a live re-enactment of a student’s script in progress? Watch this space!

Find out more about the OU's Advanced creative writing module as well as our Master of Arts in Creative writing.

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