«Surviving Bologna» – a presentation, summary

I attended the Swedish Research Council’s annual symposium on artistic research on November 27th and 28th, and while there gave a presentation I had called «surviving Bologna». The talk – and the slides – were in Norwegian, but I have translated the slides, and post them here with some comment (since they are a little cryptic on their own).

I will emphasize: this is not a transcript, and I was a little more detailed and a little less flippant when actually presenting. But the content is more or less the same.

Not much to say about this one; I introduced myself and The Norwegian Film School.

Wasn’t the European education landscape lovely before Bologna? Wild, varied…and somewhat unpredictable.

This got a laugh. And, I’ll admit, I hoped it would.

It’s a fair depiction of how I view the aims of the Bologna agreements: create a uniform landscape where the «product» – the students – are ready for commercial exploitation. (i.e. the labour market).

I started working at the Norwegian Film School in 2009, and around the same time we received word that all arts educations in Norway were going to have to adhere to the new national regulations derived from the European Qualifications Frameworks – the product of the Bologna agreements.

We determined, rather quickly, that we needed to define this turf for ourselves, rather than sitting back and waiting for someone else to do it for us. Most likely in a way we would not appreciate… We did, however, have to teach ourselves some new terminology like «learning outcomes» and «Blooms taxonomy» as we felt we needed to master this language ourselves if we were going to make good use of it.

This also meant delving in to the relationship between conventional academic education and fine arts education.

The more we looked at it, the more apparent it became that our approach to education is fundamentally different from what one finds in (most) academic programmes.

I probably should have put quotes around the word «common» here, but regardless:

As far as I know, the classification of higher education done by the OECD in 1973 was the first attempt to compare higher education systems around the world. One unfortunate byproduct of this work was to place fine arts as a subset of humanities, effectively reducing the importance and autonomy of art schools connected to universities. While there has been much work done the past 15 years to change that classification, it represents a mindset we still encounter every day.

As a result we needed to spend a lot of time and effort creating a new landscape.

In this view, fine arts education is completely autonomous from and parallel to academic programmes – although we are naturally still part of the education landscape. The important point is to make it clear that much of what is applicable to one is not applicable to the other (although there is naturally some overlap as well)

Just claiming a difference is not enough, of course. It has to be clarified.

The $64,000 question.

We can begin to answer it by looking at the way learning outcomes are structured.

Knowledge is key to all education, on some level. We take «knowledge» very seriously indeed. Not only are many disciplines in filmmaking extremely technical, working on a film set can potentially be fatal if people don’t know what they’re doing. Both Norway and Sweden have seen deaths occur on film sets in recent years.

Add to that people are working with electricity, power tools and construction, traffic…there is a lot of stuff filmmakers have to know.


But
– we never formally test the students in what they know. The have to demonstrate knowledge constantly, but they will never be tested in it.

Skills are another important learning outcome under the EQF, and given that filmmaking can be viewed as a skilled profession, acquisition of skills can also be seen as important. And indeed, operating sound equipment, setting proper lighting, creating an appropriately distressed look on the walls of a set; these are a small handful of the many skills Film School students are expected to learn and, in some cases, master over the course of their three years.

Again, as with knowledge, however – their skills will never be formally tested. There is no lighting exam.

How can this be? Well, quite simply, we are not a professional school; our mandate does not end with the skills our students acquire – it begins there.

And that is what «general competence» is about, isn’t? What can the student do with their knowledge and skills.

Although…we never really liked that word «general».

«Artistic competence» is much more telling, and gives us a chance to define what it actually is the students will be tested in (more on that later).

Once we had set the ground rules on how we approach learning outcomes, we need to define the learning outcomes themselves. This was a time-consuming process, and involved going though lesson plans, placing them in some kind of order, identifying holes, rewriting, hounding teachers for revised plans, rewriting those…

In March of 2011 we had a revised and updated description of the Film School’s study programmes.

That left a small problem we had created for ourselves.

Just how does one test and evaluate artistic competence?

Luckily, we have the appropriate tool. Years ago, the Norwegian Film School did what artists around the world have been doing since the origin of art: we stole a good idea from someone else and made it our own.

This is the «hensiktserklæring», which can be translated as either «declaration of intent» (more literal) or «statement of intent». I prefer the latter, primarily since the «declaration» seems unnecessarily bombastic.

For every production exercise the students make throughout their studies at the Film School, the students must write a statement of intent. Early in the studies these are quite simple, but as they progress through the programme they become more and more elaborate and detailed.

We (the teaching staff) put together the teams (one member from each of the disciplines we teach). Each team has to come up with a collective statement of intent and each individual team member must then write his or her own. These are written with guidance from each students’ teacher, and must be completed before the main creative work begins. For example, a director will hand in the statement of intent before principal photography begins, while the sound person (who will do both production sound and post sound) will hand hers in once she has seen the locked picture edit.

So – what goes into this thing?

First of all, the student needs to describe what she wants to achieve with this exercise – artistically / creatively. We give the students fairly specific tasks for the production exercises, and so they are already set on a fairly narrow path, but there is still a fair bit of leeway to be creative and express oneself artistically.

The key is that they are specific; the example I used in the presentation is «I want the audience to feel sad, even cry, at the end of the sequence.»

Ok. How?

This is the key to an effective statement of intent: the how.

«I am going to work with my actors to help them find a way of conveying the pain the character is feeling without slipping into cliched gestures.»

«I will find use a still camera with only subtle movement that finds a framing that leads the viewer closer to the character and their emotional state.»

«I will create a soundscape that gently brings the audience into the characters head at the same time as the camera brings us physically closer to him. I will highlight this with instrumental music that is melancholy without being sentimental.» 

All made-up examples, but they give an idea of what the statement of intent could contain.

We are extremely rigid about never commenting on the «quality» of a finished production exercise in an evaluation situation. To put it bluntly: we leave it to the film critics to opine about whether a film is good or not.

What we do it read through the statements of intent and discuss and analyse whether the intent has been achieved. Why and why not are key questions. A good quality evaluation situation can only occur if the statement of intent has been specific – and ambitious enough to allow for the possibility of failure. If students never fail, they’re not trying hard enough…

Procedurally it’s simple: the whole class and all the teachers gather; we see the film and hear the statements of intent read out loud. We then discuss these statements with the members of the team. Often another film team will be assigned the task of leading the discussion, both to ensure that everyone participates in the end and also to ensure that the students get to speak first.

Invariably it takes a few months for the students to get the hang of this process, but generally they become quite adept at it during the second semester of their studies.

A long-term benefit of this practise is that it teaches the students to reflect over their own artistic practice constantly, leading them to become more confident and skilled artists.

The final stage was to define the structure of the educational programmes at the Film School.

The Norwegian word here is «emne», which, depending on the country you’re from, could be «subject» or «class».

You take a certain number of classes throughout your degree programme, with some electives along the way, and this way construct a programme that leads to a specific degree. Most of these classes, or subjects, are relatively self-contained, with their own set of requirements for successful completion.

At the end of each one you get a certain number of points or credits, and when you have enough – you graduate.

Not so at the Norwegian Film School. Although we on paper do have subjects, these subjects are fluid and blend in to each other. They are integrated, and none of them are completed before the entire programme is completed.

It is only at the end, after completing the 3-year, integrated whole, that you will have competed all the subjects.

Which, of course, means there is only one exam. At the end, and it’s for the whole pot of 180 ects credits.

The basis for the exam is the examination film, a 25-minute dramatic film the students have made in teams the final year. In addition, all disciplines other than director and producer have a personal project they have completed which gives them an opportunity to explore some aspect of their specific discipline in more depth.

As with production exercises, the statement of intent is key. The film will not be judged on some theoretical measure of quality, but the students contribution is judged on the basis of their specific and detailed intentions.

What the exam really tests in the end, is: has the student been able to use the knowledge and skills they gained to develop as an artist?

Each student should have a much greater understanding of what kind of artist they are, what their strengths and weaknesses are, where their potential lies. Insight is key, both for developing as an artist and, more prosaically, for passing the exam.

What about the other way around? How does the Film School develop?

For every workshop, every lecture, every production exercise: students give us feedback, most often written feedback. The purpose is twofold: we believe that when students give feedback on a given workshop or other module, they raise their own awareness about what they’ve learned.

The other side of it is we can constantly monitor what’s working and what isn’t, and dynamically adjust the course of the education. We use this feedback both to adjust what’s coming for the current class, and of course to plan an altered course for the next class.

As a result, we never have successive groups of students who have identical experiences – although the broad strokes are certainly recognizable.

Ok, so this slide didn’t really work.

I tried to draw an analogy between being out on a dark night experiencing a meteor shower and both being awestruck by the beauty and gaining an awareness of your place in the cosmos, and the experience you get when faced with great art. I then went on to say we want to produce artists who can give an audience these experiences.

A little bit about what’s next for the Norwegian Film School.

And referring back to the flowers at the beginning: we want fine arts education to partake in designing the landscape. It has to be done by people who understand how this kind of education works and what it needs.

There wasn’t much time for questions, unfortunately.

“The future of education” in #edcmooc

Really, I should be finishing a grant proposal, due Monday. But…#edcmoocing is more fun.

Hardly a small thing we are to contemplate in the second week of #edcmooc. The very future of digital technology and education, no less… Is this a future to look forward to? To dread? Is it coming no matter what we do? Can we controll what’s coming? Will it be recognizable?

Questions humans have worried about since the beginning of time, I suspect.

This week’s films look at ubiquitous technology in a near future, with the most realistic being A Digital Tomorrow, the only one which looks a mundane «warts and all» future where technology is just as capricious and unreliable as we experience it to be today – and, just like today, even the unreliable technology is indispensible.

What makes this interesting to me is the fact that as we take technology into the classroom, and begin to develop didactic methods based on technology, the fact is: sometimes it just doesn’t work. The net goes down, the os crashes, an app update interrupts, or information is mysteriously not presented the way it ought to be because of some strange glitch.

The two ads for Corning and Intel present a «perfect» future, where technology is seamlessly integrated into every part of our lives and just works. This technology is «invisible» in the sense that one does not have to think about it, just use it. This is the way we want our technology, which is what makes the worlds being presented so appealing (at least, at first glance).

Problem is, the world jus’ don’ work like that.

Anyone who has struggled to connect a laptop to a projector has experienced this (usually subject to some version of Murphy’s Law).

This too, is the future of education. Things will not work as desired, usually at the worst possible time.

However, that is not what this week was supposed to be about. It was supposed to be about metaphor, and the use of metaphor in the films and how that relates to education. An opportunity to delve deeper into the dangers of using digitial tools as mere versions of physical objects, allowing us to continue teaching the way we have for centuries insead of exploring new ways of constructing the teacher-student relationship that builds on the potential of the technology.

But Murphy’s Law was more appealing.

Back to that grant proposal.

Determining my attitude to determinism within #edcmooc

First, a dislosure: I have been stuggling with moocguilt this week. You know the one, the guilt that strikes when you come home from a draining day at work, and, after a family dinner, sit down with a computing device and say to yourself: «I will now reactivate my brain and go the #edcmooc resouces and get moocing! There are connecitons to be made, learning to encounter». And seconds later, comes the little follow-up «But first I need to relax a bit.» Some Twitter, catching up on some rss feeds, some mindless surfing…and before you know it the evening has passed you by.

I seem to remember that is what did me in last time as well.

And then I realise – this is what life is like now, isn’t it. Academics, teachers, students, goodness knows who (everyone) else. I have the world at my fingertips, through this science fiction-like technology I controll with my fingertips, and there I times when it is overwhelming. Quite beyond my capacity to controll at times.

Is this deterministic? Have I fallen prey to the effects of a technology that har inevitably changed both my, and the society in which I live? A technology that has changed the way society works, the way education works, the very way our brains work?

Trouble is, there’s this little nagging voice that reminds me that I did not suddenly learn procrastination when I acquired my first modem in 1993. On the contrary, I was quite adept at it before. When I see my teenager procrastinating online, I am reminded that as a teenager I procrastinated with television, dungeons and dragons, mindless doodling, comics, and whatever else was more interesting than the task at hand (yes, also in class). Rather than adding to my consumption of mindless crap, access to the internet has replaced one source of mindless crap – television – with another – my iPad.
 
The difference being that I can – and do –  actually use the iPad for productive reading and writing as well.

Of couse technology has affected both myself and society, but when I look at education, for example, I am far more worried about the creeping (and not so creeping) commercialisation of education than about the use of computers and other ed-tech in the classroom. I believe the commercial forces are taking advantage of technology to extend their grip, rather than the spread of technology driving the increasing commericalisation of society. (That’s a whole other discussion I won’t get into here)

Have I changed in 20 years online?

I should bloody well hope so! I am 20 years older and wiser (or at least more experienced).

Has that change been determined by technological advances? No, I do not think so – although it has definitely been affected by them.

A take on dystopia. Or is it utopia? A stream of consciousness blog for #edcmooc

Ok, then. #edcmooc has begun, and the first unit is about utopias and dystopias. Naturally enough, given the focus on digital culture and education, we are to look at the first assignment while contemplating education…

At first we are asked to watch 4 short films. They are

All of them have a different take on technology.

Bendito Machine is a fairly standard parable about the dangers of technology, specifically televion, telling us how it corrupts a society. The more subtle background is a commentary on how perhaps humans are dependent on something to worship, and whether it is a gold calf or high-tech dancing television beast is not important to us. Indeed, the people in the film are quick to discard their idols for the next impressive thing, as their overflowing landfill will attest to.

Inbox is more sweet, a fable about connections, showing how if we allow ourselves to connect based on content rather than appearances, suprises and even love may ensue. The "inbox", in this case, is a magical paper bag – or rather, two, connected paper bags. In this case communications technology becomes a magical force bringing unlikely lovers together.

Thursday is the most complex of the selection. We are introduced to an urban nightmare, a sterile, mechanised, soul-sucking cityscape. And yet, within this seemingly sterile enviornment, life seems to thrive. A bird feeds and raises her three chicks. A man and a woman find each other and love. A clever twist on the dystopian tale, where the victor seems to be life and hope.

NewMedia is mostly a nightmarish meditation, where machines seem to float around feeding on the brains/thoughts/souls of the few humans around.

And so?

Science fiction is full of dystopias; words that tell us about the dangers of science, technology and messing with nature. It has been that way since the dawn of recorded history, starting with the story of Prometheus and the theft of fire from the gods. Progress is dangerous, and for all the benefits it also brings disaster for both the giver and receiver. Frankenstein is another example, where grave consequences are the result of meddling with nature. In real life, the introduction of cane toads into the Australian fauna can be seen as an example of a similar hubris.

Don’t mess with nature. Science will lead us to disaster; one of the more common themes of science fiction, especially now that we all see so clearly how human "progress" is poisoning our very planet and endangering our future.

The list of films that paint a rather bleak picture of the future is long. Metropolis. Westworld. Blade Runner.

Even films that at the outset seem to have a more positive view of technology end up with a rather bleak view, with a prime example being 2001: A Space Odyssey. Even a film like Source Code, where the technological progress saves a city has a downbeat ending.

One of the few examples of an unconditionally positive view of technologial progress is the Star Trek universe, and even here there are plenty of warnings and the two most recent films seem to have abandoned techno-optimism altogether.

Ok, then. What about education and digital cultures? That is what we are supposed to be reflecting on, isn’t it?

I don’t know yet.

I love gadgets and the connections the internet allows me to explore.

I think networked education has a huge potential, one I have experienced myself through experiments with things like #etmooc, #moocmooc, #ooe13, and, more recently, the Norwegian #smartlæring.

But, at the same time, the potential of networks to be misused is frightening – and Edward Snowden is not the first to point this out. We have been warned about it for a long time. This is a dystopian view of the world as it is today, and it is chillingly convincing.

What does it mean to educate within digital cultures in the modern surveillance state? What should I, as an educator, think about. What should I teach my students about this.

I am reminded about the slogan sometimes used by supporters of the national rifle associaton in the the USA:

Guns don’t kill people. People [with guns] kill people.

To which the obvious retort is:

So keep the damned guns away from the people!

But we can’t do that.

Can we?

And, even if we could – do we want to?


These thoughts are not yet digested, but I seem to have been chewing on them for some time now. This block in #edcmooc has just brought them to the surface again…

My #edcmooc «statement of intent»

A key part of our pedagogic method at the Norwegian Film School is the «statement of intent» (in Norwegian: hensiktserklæring). Every time the students are given a film assignment they have to write one of these, both individually and as a team, and at the end of the exercise, when the final result is screened, their success or failure is measured solely against this statement of intent.

I seems only fair that I write one of these for myself as I enter into a learning process of my own.

On the surface, the statment of intent is simple. There are only two questions to be answered in it:

  1. What do I want to learn / achieve / develop through this process?
  2. What (specific) steps will I take to ensure that I learn / achieve / develop the way I’ve planned?

So. What is my statement of intent (SOI) for #edcmooc?

To figure that out, I must go to the «assignment». Every good SOI refers to the assignment and takes into account the constraints and possibilities inherent in the assignment.

In this case, the assignment, as it appears now before the course starts, is:

E-learning and Digital Cultures is aimed at teachers, learning technologists, and people with a general interest in education who want to deepen their understanding of what it means to teach and learn in the digital age. The course is about how digital cultures intersect with learning cultures online, and how our ideas about online education are shaped through “narratives”, or big stories, about the relationship between people and technology.

In a follow-up email, this is further elaborated:

First we will look at ‘utopias and dystopias’ and second, we will focus on ‘being human’ in a digital age. Throughout, we will be discussing how these broad themes relate to the ways in which we think about online education. Please note that the focus of the course will not be on practical guidance for creating e-learning courses or materials, but is rather an opportunity to consider how wider cultural ideas impact upon the way we think about technology and education.

That last sentence could be a bit of an issue, given my declared ambition (previous blog post) is to learn from this course some of the things I need in order to create an online course of my own (funding agency willing)… But, issues are made to be solved, are they not?

So, back to the statement of intent. This will be a draft, as I am sure it will develop through the first few weeks of the course.

What do I hope to achieve?

It is my intent that, after completing this course, I have an increased understanding of how online interactions can differ from face-to-face interactions. Using my previous experience with MOOCs (like #etmooc, #moocmooc, #oole13, #smartlæring) as a springboard, I want to gain a deeper insight into how to use digital media and communications tools to their full advantage. I also want to be able to introduce others, especially those who are less comfortable with digital tools, to these advantages.

How will I work to achieve this?

Aye, there’s the rub. Learning machines do not exist (thank goodness!) and learning requires work. And so: I will need to comit to participating in the various scheduled chats, hangouts, whatever else there are of sychronous event (with two caveats: participation in the local curling league comes first, and I will not use Facebook for this course). I will blog. Repeat: I will blog! And comment on other peoples blogs.

And I will make and hand in the final «digital artifact».

Ok. There it is. My comitment to myself; and when this is all over I will measure my success against my statement of intent (surely modified by then).

Anticipating #edcmooc

Third time lucky?

This is the third year the University of Edinburgh is running #edcmooc  The first year I saw it, but did not sign up. Looking around my PLN, that appeared to be a mistake.

The second year I signed up. Period. I think I followed it for about a week, but did not do a heck of a lot, in part due to an insanely busy semester at the Norwegian Film School that left me with little energy for participating in a MOOC.

So…here we go again.

This time will (may) be different.

How can I tell? Well, for starters, I’ve written this blog entry. That is an improvement in and of itself…

Also, while work is still pretty insanely busy, I have an increased motivation. Yesterday I submitted a funding proposal here in Norway to design and run an online course for training film school teachers – and I think participating in #edcmooc will give me some inspiration towards that end.

I’ll give it a shot, anyway.

On Creativity

I read Stephen Downes’ blog regularly; I always find it thought-provoking and interesting. Today was no exception.

Today’s entry, entitled No Paradox Here (go read it at the source) inspired me to think about my own work at The Norwegian Film School, where creativity is our bread and butter…

Specifically, Downes quotes Spencer, who writes:

Creativity: It happens when students have freedom and limitations

His response is:

Creativity is possible even if there are limitations, but only if there is freedom.

Well…not exactly. And it depends on how you apply limitations and freedom.

We are a school for creative artists (filmmakers), and the entire programme is built around the conscious application of limitations in order to stimulate creativty. It’s not our own invention by any stretch, but we have over the years refined teaching methods that enable the students to both explore their own creativity and push the limits their own abilities through the imposition of limitations.

In our experience, too much freedom stifles creativity rather than encouraging it. (And yes, we do realise misguided use of limitations can also stifle creativity.) By specifiying a series of condititions for each film exercise the students are given we give them a well-defined area to explore, encouraging them to make mistakes and take chances within those limits.

There is theory for this, and we lean on Vygotski with his development of the concepts scaffolding and zone of proximal development, and also conscious of the importance of letting the students reach a state of flow. Being an arts school where all the teaching staff are practicing filmmakers, not trained educators has led us to set up weekly staff meetings where we discuss the students development, future teaching plans and the practical and theoretical aspects of this pedagogy.

So, in this case, Spencer is correct: creativity will only happen where there are both limitations and freedom — the limitations designed to encourage creativity and the freedom to explore within these limitations.

But Downes is also correct: this is no paradox. Rather, it is a necessary condition for creativity.