Enticement, the ludic and learning
Dr Peter Thomas (then writing as founding director of HaileyburyX) and founder of The Eventful Learning Co. Summer Howarth reflect on a recent co-production, enticEd — an adventure in engagement.
A few weeks ago we hosted a Zoom event called enticEd. It was billed as “a serious event with unserious means…or perhaps the other way around.”
The motivation was our observation that most of the effort in online learning, especially in a school setting, is focused on effective pedagogy; and on our feeling that what has been neglected is the experiential character of learning spaces and how they can create enticing, compelling and engaging experiences.
This is not surprising: the challenge of rapidly transitioning to remote teaching has foregrounded the role of technology platforms as content delivery vehicles — whether that content is courses or video conferences.
As we have observed before, teachers have done an incredible job of using technologies that they were only just becoming familiar with, for purposes for which they were never intended.
Take the videoconferencing platform Zoom, for example. Until earlier this year, Zoom was a business-class application usually reserved for when there was no possibility of in-person meetings. It wasn’t intended for remote teaching. And an LMS platform like Canvas, which we also use at Haileybury, although useful to support blended in-class learning was never intended to be part of the new remote teaching territory in which we found ourselves.
And like any technology that gets bent out of shape for new purposes, the cracks tend to show. In the case of Zoom, these were, as widely reported, security flaws, usually in the form of a lack of features to support some of the complex and specific workflows in teaching. Although predictable in retrospect, those who just intended to have fun at everyone else’s expense — and worse, those who set out to do harm — were always going to exploit those insecurities. By and large, Zoom has done a good job of rectifying some of the issues, but we have had to contort ourselves to make sure that students remain safe and undisturbed while they learn.
But there are other cracks that appear when technologies are rapidly scaled up for things for which they were not intended. Those are about experience.
Zoom meetings, let’s all just admit it, suck.
The entire experience — from the invite setup, to the waiting room, the fiddly audio settings, the bizarre controls for breakout rooms, not to mention the complex, confusing and growing set of preferences — is distracting and mildly anxiety-provoking. It's like we have been set an escape room challenge and we are looking around trying to figure out whether pulling the handle (read: changing the microphone source in Zoom) will lead to freedom or drop us into a lower circle of hell.
But this is to be unfair to Zoom. In fact, almost all of the online spaces we are increasingly forced to inhabit are like this. If you want to go beyond scrolling TikToks, posting Insta images or messaging, it all gets pretty sucky pretty quickly.
You may have seen this very funny, and very wry, take on Zoom from BBC sports broadcaster Andrew Cotter
Although we both wish more colleagues were dogs, or visa versa, Andrew points up just how most meetings go. There are Mabels everywhere.
But humans are inventive and they are doing some cool stuff — so we have virtual fitness, virtual theatre, virtual coffee hangs and birthday parties, virtual yoga classes and lots of virtual choirs.
Mostly though, the uses of technologies like Zoom both for learning and other things — are mostly straight, and mostly no fun.
We decided to go to some different ideas and see what we could make of them when applied to a Zoom gathering of educators and others who might be interested in not just talking about engagement but doing some engagement.
We drew on some ideas around performance, customer experience, learning design and especially the ludic — a playful, spontaneous, ironic and absurd experience or narrative — to create a little event called enticEd.
So on a chilly (at least in Melbourne) Monday evening, our guests joined us for 60 minutes of absurdity.
We trailed the event with a mini-marketing campaign based around the image of a leaping rhinoseros and quotes from Eugène Ionesco, author of the absurdist drama Rhinoseros about a town where the inhabitants turn into rhionoseroses.
The quotes were chosen to nudge attendees off-balance even before the event— to try and entice them into wondering what might happen.
We posted videos to Twitter and LinkedIn and images containing quotes and created a fake movie poster for the event:
The evening before the event we sent a set of secret instructions to our attendees in personalised videos with random instructions. We never mentioned them again.
We also customised the Zoom waiting room (a handly little function buried in Zoom’s advanced settings) to say RHINOSEROSES ARE HERE, YOU MAY STAY HERE FOREVER and EXPECT THE UNEXPECTED.
We didn’t reveal to anyone what we might or might not do, and had never tested any of it (although the experience itself was highly scripted into four acts with a prologue and epilogue, a cast of characters and stage directions) — so at one level, we were as much participating in the experiment as our guests were while it was happening.
During the event, we curated a range of ludic experiences starting with breakout rooms for characters including The Dancer, The Artist, The Writer, The Poet, The Voice, The Musician and The Drawer who all led mini enticEd sessions in their rooms. (For biographies of these talented artists and performers, see below). We didn’t brief those who led the breakout rooms either, so they too were participants in the experiment. We also randomly shifted people between rooms without notice.
Later, we played an intermission movie (Elvis Costello’s Watching the Detectives set to a vintage movie, by Eel Pie Films on Vimeo) during which some people left — having essentially been given permission as this was an ‘intermission’ (although it was, of course, part of the experience), before starting a dialogue on the ludic, experience design and learning by Peter and Summer as hosts.
During the talk — an ostensibly serious, academic and professional dialogue — we did things like changing participants’ names (another very useful setting buried in a dropdown in the Zoom interface) to RHINO or HUMAN and later, many of their names to X Æ A-12, asking them to whistle or hold up a treasured object and we played a livestream of Pandas and had participants who were houseplants.
So what did we learn? And what did we want our guests to take away, and maybe do differently, as they think about the design and delivery of learning experiences?
One was to illustrate the law of effect, and how creating more intense experiences can strengthen engagement.
Just as Zoom meetings were once a novelty, that novelty has worn off and we need to continually turn up the dial to get engagement. Some of the things we did turned up the dial by making participants pay more attention to what was happening around them. If some of it made no sense the lesson is to pay even more attention, to make connections and to try and resolve uncertainty.
Another was to illustrate just how important it is to engender flow states for optimal engagement. Creating Ikigai and flow, so that time becomes distorted, are techniques that can be used to good effect in learning.
Finally, we looked at the obvious topic in this area — gamification—through a lens that current attempts to gamify are mostly formulaic and rapidly lose their stickiness, and that what is needed are truly ludic approaches to make serious learning serious fun.
Was this event successful? If some of the ideas about how the ludic can create a long tail of learning — imprinting ideas through a playful, spontaneous, ironic and absurd experience or narrative in the minds of those who experience it— are right, success is maybe somewhere down the track. We’ll have to wait and see.
A serious event with unserious means and the other way around.
Those who generously gave their time and considerable expertise, skill and energy to the event were:
CHARLOTTE FORWOOD (THE DRAWER)
Dr Charlotte Forwood is particularly interested in helping students develop both their oral language and their ‘internalised’ vocabulary. She loves the challenge of teaching students how to articulate their thought processes, ideas and feelings. Charlotte enjoys incorporating metacognitive strategies into classes and the workplace.
TOM DE FRESTON (THE ARTIST)
Tom de Freston is an artist based in Oxford. His practice is dedicated to the construction of multimedia worlds, combining paintings, film and performance into immersive visceral narratives.
DR SAM GUGLANI (THE WRITER)
Samir Guglani is a doctor and writer. He is Director and Curator of Medicine Unboxed, a project he founded in 2009 to engage health professionals and the public in conversation around medicine, illuminated through the arts. He is a Consultant Clinical Oncologist in Cheltenham. His debut fiction, Histories, was published in 2018. https://www.hachette.com.au/sam-guglani/histories
TIFFANY ATKINSON (THE POET)
Professor Tiffany Atkinson is an award-winning British poet. In 1993 she moved to Wales where, after completing her studies in Cardiff, she became a lecturer in English and Creative Writing at Aberystwyth University. In 2014, she was appointed Professor of Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia. Her fourth collection, Lumen (Bloodaxe Books, 2021), includes a sequence exploring representations of pain, illness and recovery — work that won the 2014 Medicine Unboxed Prize.
MELANIE PAPPENHEIM (THE VOICE)
Melanie Pappenheim is a singer, performer and composer. Her versatility has allowed her to explore several different genres. She has worked with leading contemporary composers including Jocelyn Pook, Orlando Gough, Gavin Bryars and Graham Fitkin and performed in a huge variety of venues ranging from The Royal Opera House, the ENO, The Royal Albert Hall, the National Theatre, Glyndebourne, a barge on the Thames, a tent in Sussex, a tower in Wells, in clubs, in lighthouses, hillsides, halls and basements everywhere.
GILES PERRING (THE MUSICIAN)
Musician and producer Giles Perring lives and works in an island studio, Sound of Jura, named after the seascape it overlooks and is located in an old school built on Lowlandman’s Bay on the Isle Of Jura. Giles’ style has developed over 30 years working in diverse projects ranging from rock to contemporary classical music, electronica to free jazz, sound design to world music. Acclaimed for his cinematic approach to music and sound Giles’ work includes sonic sculpture with Echo City, musique concrete with Unmen and TV and film production music for the Extreme Music Library.
enticEd is part of the HaileyburyX Ed. series of events that aim to create an open and challenging exchange of views that widens the aperture on some of the key issues in teaching and learning. More at https://haileyburyx.org.au/ed-events/
Peter Thomas is director of FORWARD — The Centre for Future Skills and Workforce Transformation at RMIT University. He was previously founding director of HaileyburyX, the first organically-grown K12 edtech from an Australian independent school. He holds current concurrent visiting professorships in financial innovation in China and the UK and is founding partner of THEORICA, a global think-tank for the future of finance.
Summer Howarth is founder of The Eventful Learning Co. Summer has expert knowledge in learning experience design, design thinking, middle years schooling and environmental education, and has taught in schools across Australia & the USA, taught Master of Teaching units at Sydney University and delivered global projects with teams including Education Changemakers, The Global Education Taskforce on SDGs reporting to the United Nations, IDEO’s Teacher Guild and AITSL. Summer has also delivered professional learning for audiences across Australia and the globe including Middle Years of Schooling Association, American Middle Level Education, ISTE, Northern Territory Government, Victorian Government, Zoos Victoria and TEDx.