09.04.2020

Is learning still fun?

For many of us, the ongoing pandemic means being stuck at home, left with an overabundance of time and at the mercy of a decent internet connection. It would seem like a perfect time to take up some learning; isn’t that what everybody else is doing? Yet if we sign up for a new online course, aren’t we just bending to the pressure of still being productive when everything else is on pause? Can we even enjoy participating in community theatre if, of all places, it has somehow moved online? In other words: is learning still fun? We dedicate this important topic all the attention it deserves, and have called on three experts to help us with the conundrum.

It’s Monday. I just woke up. I think I’m in pain. 

A standard reaction, for any person living in the 21st century, is of course to Google the symptoms, which I immediately do. Be still, my heart: as something of a hypochondriac, I am slightly anxious of what catastrophic self-diagnosis my online search will result in this time. Catching the coronavirus is of course my top concern, as it is the case for any person who is also trying to survive 2020.  Yet surprisingly, Google does not seem to think I have it, at least not today. I let out a sigh of relief: even if at 29 I am not very likely to develop serious symptoms, already the most common one – the loss of taste and smell – would effectively ruin some of my plans for the lockdown (I have been steadily working my way through a 700-page cookbook).

Strangely enough, once Google convinces me I do not have the virus, my symptoms almost vanish. I do, however, acknowledge that I might still have some light muscle pain. For that, I decide to blame my daily online yoga class with Adriene.

If you believe the internet, and my social media feed in particular, yoga and fitness classes are what we have all taken up, which suggests that by the time this period of confinement is over, we will look as if we have spent it at a military boot camp, and not on the couch. I will admit here that I have some doubts over how fit we will actually be once we finally enter a brave new, post-pandemic world. After all, judging by which supermarket shelves are empty, we will mainly have survived on that low-carbohydrate diet of pasta, crisps and anything that can be made of plain flour or potatoes.

Personally, I am not so sure whether I took up these yoga classes to balance out my current overconsumption of chocolate, to admire Adriene’s dog (who sometimes makes an appearance), or to reassure myself that, just like my friends on Facebook (not to mention the adult education community!), I am also using this strange time for self-betterment. If my motivation is unclear, then my chances of sticking with the classes are probably doomed, although I cannot tell what would be considered an appropriate measure of success in these exceptional circumstances. Much to my dismay, it seems highly unlikely that I will receive a framed certificate of appreciation at the end of this lockdown, with “Well done! You have achieved all of your learning outcomes!” written in appropriately large and preferably gold letters.

For those of us who love choir singing, community theatre or dancing, and for whom the joy of attending these activities lies in the feeling of togetherness, is there even a point in trying to do them online?

Perhaps I should give up already: I might work in adult education and be a teacher by profession, but my personal track record as an adult learner can only be described as mixed, at best, whether the classes I attend take place in a classroom or in my living room. The few times I managed to get to the finish line were when the course activities included enough games, physical movement and group discussions to keep me engaged (or at the very least, awake) at 9:00 pm; admittedly, a real challenge for the teacher, who also had on average twenty other students and their diverse levels of exhaustion to manage on a Monday evening.

If it is not always easy to find a class that is interesting, motivating and, most of all, enjoyable even during the normal times, how can we do it now that everything has been forcibly moved online? If our sole motivation to learn is to keep up with the pressure of still being productive when everything seems to be on pause, is it more reasonable to stay on the hamster wheel, or to collapse on the couch? And for those of us who love choir singing, community theatre or dancing, and for whom the joy of attending these activities lies in the feeling of togetherness, is there even a point in trying to do them online?

In other words – can any learning still be fun in these dark times of the coronavirus? I am on a quest to find out.

 

Steffi

I start out by knocking on the door of the most compulsive learner that I know – and I mean it in the best of ways – my friend Steffi. Needless to say, I don’t actually knock on her door. While theoretically I could just walk out of my apartment and arrive at her place in ten minutes, under current lockdown measures I cannot really do it without risking damage to her health, my health, the health of anyone in the neighbourhood, or to my criminal record. I therefore go for the safe, legal and socially responsible option: I bother her with my questions online.

If you’re looking for a fun course, online or offline, Steffi is the one to ask.

Steffi is the kind of person who, if you ask her the usual LFS question (“What non-formal adult education classes have you attended in the past four weeks?”), will probably come up with more examples than most of us will for a reference period of one year. I do not ask her the question as I already know that some of the courses that Steffi has attended in the past few months include, in no particular order, an intensive course on storytelling, weekly coaching in improvisational theatre, and Lindy Hop dance classes.  I assume that all of these have been put on hold, but I am not surprised to find out that Steffi has been keeping herself busy with learning languages on Duolingo, reading up about Japanese culture, and practicing dancing through an app (and has made an interesting discovery in the process: her staircase, she says, has proven to be almost tailor-made for some of the dance moves).

Yet while Steffi has already found some online substitutes for her daily activities, and has been keen to seek them out herself, I wonder how many of us would go that extra mile. I explain that I am mainly interested in how the usual learning activities can successfully transition online and stay interesting. She confirms that the majority of teachers and course providers she knows here in Brussels seem to have stepped up to the challenge, continuing their activities online in some shape or form, and sometimes in unexpected ways.

I already know that some of the courses that Steffi has attended in the past few months include, in no particular order, an intensive course on storytelling, weekly coaching in improvisational theatre, and Lindy Hop dance classes. 

“The school where I used to take my Lindy Hop classes is now instead doing a class on swing in literature, which they live stream on their Facebook page,” says Steffi. I look up the page, and there it is, a recording of the last class, which immediately makes me feel at home. It is, incidentally, delivered at the teachers’ home, their living room full of books and CDs, complete with a funky tablecloth and even an impressively quiet baby. I scroll down and I find that the teachers also have a Youtube channel, where older dance classes are uploaded. “During the classes at school, they would sometimes repeat all of the moves at the end for filming, and this way we could practice them later at home,” explains Steffi. 

Such classes, whether pre-recorded or live streamed, do not really surprise me, and I have seen them before. Yet I remain convinced that there must be limits to what can be moved online and stay enjoyable for learners. How about improvisation? Surely there is nothing fun in practicing it in the confines of your own home.

Again, Steffi has an example to contradict me, and shows me the online community she is part of since she started doing improv several years ago. After the lockdown started, the improv exercises have moved there. For example, games of associations (which, as Steffi explains, are normally done as warm-up, with movement), are now posted as a daily exercise. The cue of the day appears as a Facebook post, and the chain of associations builds up in the comments section; it might range from word associations, to music videos or film dialogues, depending on the instructions. Judging by the number of comments – exceeding 1,000 for some posts – the format has proved popular. But my curiosity is sparked by another example that Steffi gives me. 

“There is also a new series of online improv workshops that somebody started,” she says. 

I decide to find the perpetrator.

 

Peggy

Peggy Pexy Green is a trainer and artistic director in theatrical improvisation, and holds workshops for self-organised groups and different cultural organisations in Belgium. “I get contracted to do a series of sessions, and this means that, for example, I meet with one group every Monday evening for a few weeks,” she explains.

Peggy Pexy Green is a trainer and artistic director in theatrical improvisation.

As the lockdown effectively cancelled all of the commitments she had booked, as an actress and a trainer, Peggy and her improv theatre company La compagnie qui pétille moved some activities online. I know little about improv, but I can imagine that a lot of it depends on building a good rapport with other people in the room, which seems like something difficult to recreate online. Are online workshops at all like the real thing?

“They’re not at all the same,” Peggy admits.

She adds that she has only organized two workshops so far, and that it has been a challenge. Improv, as Peggy explains, is built around the physicality of the exercises: movements, body language, touching, sharing the space. These dynamics are not easy to replicate online. “Obviously, you can’t really do the physical part during an online workshop. What I did instead was to do more games with sounds and words, or building a story together,” she says.

Another workshop she did was less about practicing improv, and more a reflection about it.

“I’m working with a community of women that do improv, and I organized a session that was more specifically about women’s challenges and identities in improv. We had really interesting exchanges about our experiences of what it’s like to be a woman in this environment, and what roles we tend to take – or not to take,” she says.

And what about live performances – are they still feasible?

Peggy is testing these waters as well, having done an online performance with fellow improvisers from France a few days ago. “It’s true that the interaction is different when it’s online, maybe it would have required more preparation. But we had fun.” She also does monologues, live-streamed every day on Facebook, in which she reads out excerpts from different books. To keep a rapport with the audience, she asks them to suggest a particular mood for the reading, which they can do in the comments section.

“I think what we’re doing now in improv is more about staying in touch, keeping a community,” she tells me. It seems that the community might even be growing: thanks to shifting the workshops online they have become more accessible, and are reaching the unusual suspects.

“One positive aspect is that I have new people joining, who wouldn’t normally participate to the workshops I give in Brussels because they’re not based in Belgium,” says Peggy.

  

Maja

I also decide to expand my data collection beyond Belgium, and investigate if educators abroad are equipped with a similar degree of creativity in crisis management. Most importantly, I need at least one more person who will be able to give my research question of the week – is learning still fun, as of April 2020? – the attention it deserves.

It only makes sense that I contact Maja Maksimovic.

We talked just a few days ago, to discuss Maja’s class on activism in adult education, which she teaches at the University of Belgrade. I was supposed to interview Maja for a project on problem-solving in lifelong learning, but the topic of the coronavirus derailed us more than once, not least because our call was interrupted by the police. (I assume this requires no further explanation, but in case you are wondering: Maja was put in quarantine as she had recently travelled abroad, and the police checks on her regularly).

“This is actually very much about problem-solving: our main issue at the university now is how to organize classes online,” said Maja. She was about to try out online teaching for the first time later that week, so I contact her again on Friday to discuss how it went.

Maja Maksimovic, EAEA’s former Board member, is Assistant Professor at the Department for Pedagogy and Andragogy/Adult Education at the University of Belgrade

I know that Maja’s classes tend to be engaging and participatory, never a frontal lecture; movement, artistic expression and negotiation of spaces are all inherent parts of the learning process. This is very much the opposite of how I remember my university studies. I always feel that if I had ever had Maja as a teacher, my experience with formal education would have been more an exercise in self-exploration than it was in sleep deprivation.

I am curious to know if Maja has enjoyed transitioning to the online environment. Is it the same vibe?

“It is not the same vibe at all,” Maja says categorically during a call I quickly set up.

She lists the things that are different, and that she misses from face-to-face teaching.

“I like working with different senses: making collages, moving your body, exploring and claiming the space around you. I feel like now we are reduced to sight and hearing, and that’s it.”

“I also like using different group activities, when students can work together, and I feel that now I can’t use them. Or even the fact that our class is late on Friday, and sometimes we go for a drink afterwards, and continue talking about the topic, which is philosophy of education. Learning is not just about the information you transmit via an online platform, but also about what goes on between different spaces.”

Learning is not just about the information you transmit via an online platform, but also about what goes on between different spaces.

And finally, Maja addresses the elephant in the room; the one aspect of digital learning we all think but never talk about.

“Let’s be honest: it just feels a bit awkward,” she says.

My experience with online teaching is limited, but if the series of video meetings I have been doing in the past month are any indication, I can only agree: it sometimes feels awkward. I think of all the times when my interlocutor on Zoom has tried a fun virtual background, and then once we establish that the conversation is now getting serious – how we might all need to start crowdfunding to survive, for example – takes an infinitely long minute to figure out how to go back to the normal background of their own kitchen.

“It’s like: I know you’re trying to tell me important things here, but I just can’t take you seriously while you’re still a tiger in a zoo,” I state.

Maja is curious to try a few backgrounds as well; and while she hovers in space, before landing on to a beach, I continue to prod her with my questions. So, does it mean that the class was a flop?

“I think it actually went well,” she says. 

“At the beginning of the class, we asked them to take an object from their house which is important to them right now, and did an opening circle, so that everyone could share something about their object. I think it’s really important, and also helps students to get used to hearing their own voice. When they feel more comfortable, it’s easier for them to speak out.”

The feeling of inclusion and togetherness is, according to Maja, the most important, and joyful, aspect of learning. And paradoxically, while it would seem that it is missing from online classes, under these circumstances, students might attend them precisely because they are seeking some company.

“They all showed up!” says Maja. “All twenty-five of them. I was so surprised!  I think they were all there because they felt that this way, their identity as a student was still stable, they still have this routine. And you could tell they are motivated to continue. Our students have some activities to prepare as part of the class, and we suggested that they do them as podcasts, but it turns out they would prefer to do them live. They also want to have an open space for discussion on our e-learning platform.”

It is a good replacement right now, but we can’t just give up on face-to-face meetings, on being together in the same space, when it is again possible. We need to make sure that this remains an exception.

And then she shares the most telling feedback of all:

“At the end of the class, they were still there. They didn’t want to leave. So we continued talking.”

It worked, then! It might not have had the same vibe, but it worked. Maja remains cautious:

“It is a good replacement right now, but we can’t just give up on face-to-face meetings, on being together in the same space, when it is again possible. We need to make sure that this remains an exception.”

Before we finish, Maja gives me another example: “I miss my tango classes so much! I’m doing some tutorials online, but it’s just not the same.”

 

***

I continue my never-ending string of video calls, this time with my friends and family, throughout the weekend. During a family get-together on Whatsapp, I see my two-year-old niece literally running in circles for the duration of our rather long conversation. My sister seems unfazed, looking on with a face expression that clearly says: “You should have seen what she was doing yesterday”.

Thinking about my niece, I’m not sure if I feel more sorry for her because she can’t go to a playground, or more jealous of the infinite amounts of energy she seems to possess. Whatever it is, I recognize her feelings very well: don’t we all feel trapped? If we can’t run around in circles – either because it is not quite age appropriate, or because we still have some mercy for our neighbours – there is not much left to do, but to hold on to whatever bits of reality still feel vaguely familiar. I think back to what Maja was telling me, that initial awkwardness of getting together for a class online, but staying on, because sticking to our pre-pandemic routine might be the only reasonable thing to do.

Another Monday. I am three weeks in my classes with Adriene, and the obligation to roll out the mat every morning is slowly turning into something I look forward to. My breath is steadier, my mind is clearer, and while I am still skeptical of “finding my third eye”, I no longer sneer at the idea. I really think I’m making some progress here. I even manage to block out the sounds coming from the park in front of my apartment building, which mainly include Belgian police attempting to exert authority through a megaphone. (I cannot quite understand what they are saying from the distance of my window, but I suppose they are trying to disperse a crowd with particularly criminal ideas, most likely involving a picnic).

It seems that regardless of my original motivation behind the classes, they are serving some purpose, giving my days a resemblance of structure and – dare I say it? – something new to enjoy.

It seems that regardless of my original motivation behind the classes, they are serving some purpose, giving my days a resemblance of a structure and – dare I say it? – something new to enjoy.

Maybe the question I have been asking all along should be rephrased. Under these circumstances, and the overwhelming amounts of stress and anxiety we are all dealing with – as teachers, learners, families – it’s hard to expect learning, or anything really, to still be fun. Fun, however we define it, seems like such an alien concept right now, a dispatch from another era. But maybe if learning something, or just sharing the experience with other people, is making us feel a tiny bit better, it’s already making an important difference in our lives.

At EAEA we always underline the power and joy of learning as the two key factors that tend to be overlooked in the prevailing political discourse, which too frequently reduces education to a puzzle, matching jobs with skills and skills with jobs. So here’s the question: is there any power and joy in learning in this trying time? Personally, I get the impression that even if some of the joy has temporarily fizzled out, learning has been helping many of us to keep our anxiety levels in check, to re-create a feeling of community and to keep going.

And that, if you ask me, is a pretty powerful thing.  

If you’re also using this time of self-isolation for learning, here are some resources you might find interesting, per expertise and advice of the three women I spoke to:

  • Learners anywhere, especially those with a creative bone in their body: if you’re trying to practice dancing at home, Steffi recommends Steezy. She also has her eye on Domestika, which is about all things creative (I will let you know if she tries).
  • French speakers: follow Peggy’s website and Facebook page La compagnie qui pétille where you can find her live-streamed performances.
  • Adult educators: if you’d like to find out more about Maja’s work in non-formal adult education, now is the time to have a look at our AE-PRO online course where she designed and facilitated some of the sessions. Are you interested in life skills or a feminist perspective on nationalism in adult education? Enroll now.
  • Anyone with a yoga mat (or something that can double as a yoga mat):  since two out of my three experts interviewed for this piece tell me they also do yoga with Adriene,  I am left with no choice but to link her profile as well.

That said, before you sign up for a free MOOC, or download a brand new app, do make sure that you also check the offer of your local adult education centre. Perhaps your yoga studio, language school or community centre is still organizing courses, discussions or cultural events online, and in these challenging times, it is counting on your participation and support to survive.

This article was published as part of a series on the impact of COVID-19 on adult education, and how adult education could help to mitigate the consequences of this global health, economic and social crisis.

 

Text: Aleksandra Kozyra, EAEA
Pictures: EAEA, Easy Swing, La compagnie qui pétille, Shutterstock

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