THE FIRST YEAR OF RUNNING AN ONLINE SCHOOL — PART 1: SETTING IT ALL UP
Relationships in education and work are changing faster than at any point in our history; the way we now meet, work and communicate are re-defining our social patterns and in so doing, altering the traditional landscape of how we learn. In the light of these exciting, but rapid changes, those of us in teaching have been asking ourselves not only how best to adapt to this uncertain future, but whether that future will even require our presence for much longer.
Spearheading this change has been the growth in online teaching. Of course, distance learning has been with us for some time, but developments in mobile technology have opened up this market to a growing networked audience with 24-hour mobile access and new possibilities for interaction via presentations, downloadable PDF’s, interactive workbooks, audio-files, screen-sharing tools and of course video work that is tailor-made for the 21st century student seeking tuition in academic subjects. But, what about other arts? As a teacher of Tai Chi for over 25 years, I wanted to know if an Online School had any advantages over the traditional classroom, because, if I were honest, there was nothing particularly sacrosanct about teaching in a cold and dusty church hall or a shiny new multi-gym alongside the booming-bass felt underfoot from the spinning class next door. What, I wondered, would be the objections to Online tuition?
Objections to Teaching Online
1: QUALITY OF TEACHING
It is argued that the movements of Tai Chi, the postural work, and energy breathing techniques can no more be transmitted digitally than can a class in swimming or cookery. Yet when I searched the online platforms, I found that swimming and cookery were popular online courses.
Perhaps, the success of these online courses has something to do with group size. When learning any physical skill in a large group, it is difficult to see and hear everything a teacher is demonstrating. Often students feel self-conscious about pushing to the front or feel silly about asking the teacher to keep repeating a technique if the rest of the class has grasped it already. Perhaps, with online tution, a student could replay infinitely a technique or a demonstration until s/he felt confident before moving on.
2: PHYSICAL PRESENCE
Some argue that only in a real class can you receive real instruction. Yet, on average, each student in a class of 20 will receive only 3 minutes attention during a class lasting one hour. Deduct from this, time spent repeating moves again and again, time spent with new students or returning students that have missed a class, or time just spent listening to a Tai Chi teacher talking about the importance of him or herself (it happens), then you are left with very few minutes if not seconds.
3: STARTING OUT TOGETHER
Running a local class is always tricky. History had shown me that students will go away on holiday, start a course late, miss a class due to work or ill health or gradually drop out and the course would then become underfunded and eventually scrapped. It occurred to me that online teaching could overcome these restrictions by offering 24 hour enrollment, 52 weeks a year. People could start when it suited them and stop when they wished. They could spend as long — or as little — as they liked on the course. They got to choose the frequency of their classes, the level of their instruction and the level of interaction.
4: LEARNING LOCALLY
In private, many teachers admit that their students end up in one class or another simply because of geography. People go to their nearest class. But, given a digital choice, perhaps students would choose the teacher that they most wanted to learn from, the style that most appealed, irrespective of location.
5: YOU CAN’T COMPETE WITH FREE
As Youtube now offered much basic Tai Chi tuition for free, how could anyone or anything compete? Yet, I had first heard this argument some years back in the publishing world: “No-one buys books now” we were told, you can get all the information you want free online. Yet Amazon and iBooks have provided an alternative source for paid original and entertaining material that was well presented and well edited. Why not with video too?
After looking at these objections I was convinced that online tuition could offer choices that local classes could never offer. I resolved to give up teaching my local classes and begin a years travelling and recording for a new curricuculum of online tuition. It all sounded good. I started researching the price of tripods and microphones and then, after losing days disappearing down rabbit holes, I realised I needed a master plan.
Writing Your Master Plan
Teaching the same subject year after year is not conducive to writing a master plan. As students come and go, you just repeat the popular basics again and again. Why change anything? Yet most teachers yearned to expand their curriculum beyond techniques and forms, to explore the rich culture and philosophy behind the art. Time, however, prevents us all from doing so. But in the world of digital tuition, time was an ally. All that was needed was a devious (master) plan to:
- Provide video instruction in the elements of posture, movement, breathing, form, applications etc (the popular, but tedious bit).
- To provide monthly instruction manuals that could be printed and consulted off-line (to reinforce the lessons and offer an analog balance to the exclusivity of digital learning).
- To explore the history and philosophy of the art through short documentaries (previously impossible due to limitations on time).
- To offer contemporary examples of Taoist poetry, art and culture as a backdrop to the studies. (Just for the sheer hell of it)
The combined content of my devious plan would be available via download, streaming sessions and in addition, I would make myself available via social media for questions and feedback throughout the course.
It all sounded good, but a niggling voice at the back of my mind kept telling me that I was merely updating and re-packaging the old DVD format. Was this no more than a spin on an old discipline?
I looked again at my content. It sounded thorough, but dry. It reminded me of an IKEA wardrobe self-build leaflet. Practical (arguably) but neither memorable nor characterful. Something had to change.
In the books I had written on Tai Chi, I had tried to blend humour and popular culture to explore issues of application, ideology and history. When I taught workshops, I had often used my own failings and shortcomings as descriptive examples of how an idea did or didn’t work. Perhaps, I told myself, were I to teach using a more playful rather than a studious approach, it would give people permission to stumble and fall, to play with the subject and in their playful stumbling, take only that which they felt was useful, whilst discarding the rest.
Finally, I reminded myself that this medium was offering a multi-dimensional approach to learning. If I were to use rhythm, rap, poetry as well as narration I might inspire and excite as well as inform. Yes, I told myself, dribbling with excitement and ferver, this course would be revolutionary in not just format, but content and delivery. I dug out my old Che Guevara beret. It still fitted!
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In the meantime, you can view one of the many introductory videos made for the Immortality Course below and you can take a look at the online school here for an idea of how the final course appeared. Contact me (teapotmonk) on any social media platform if you would like more info).