Connecting students and delivering learning in the age of self-isolation

From virtual classes with a-list celebs to tips from Oscar-winning screenwriters, Jon Wardle, director of the National Film and Television School, explains how the institution is keeping learning alive amid a global pandemic

The pandemic has had a phenomenal impact on the day-to-day lives of so many, and the education sector has been no different. From closures to remote teaching, technology has played a big part in ensuring institutions can regularly communicate with their students and stay connected during this time.

For educators, this period of crisis has been challenging. In order to continue teaching, institutions have had to dramatically shift their way of working and, in many cases, upskill digitally to ensure they can continue to reach their students. For us here at the National Film and Television School (NFTS), continuing to deliver the curriculum has been a key priority, as well as staying connected with our students during this unsettling time.

Our school has fuelled the film and television industry for almost 50 years (and more recently within games) with a mission to educate the directors, writers and artists of the future and produce creative leaders that will innovate a sector that’s critical to the UK economy.

We have 521 students, which means I know each of them personally. In March, when lockdown became a reality and we needed to close our doors, we were faced with needing to communicate quickly and ensure our students’ wellbeing on previously untrodden ground.

Staying connected in crisis

I’ve been in the education sector for over 20 years and the scenario we face today is truly unique. At NFTS, we take our students’ welfare very seriously and know many study far away from their families. Beyond the current crisis there has always been a need for clear communication and check-ins, but evidently this became more crucial once we moved into lockdown.

For us, this crisis has made it imperative that we have a communication platform that enables us to share updates with students, provide two-way feedback and allows for true collaboration in the virtual world. Too often, institutions are satisfied with rolling-out expensive, clunky intranet systems as a platform to communicate with students. What they forget is that these systems purely act as places to host content, siloed from other tools and with no opportunity for engagement or feedback. Even without the current crisis, institutions need more than this in order to connect and fuel their community.

Now, without the opportunity for face-to-face interaction, having a way to connect with your students is more vital than ever; especially if you are to understand how they are working, what pressures they might be facing and how you can adjust to meet their needs whilst teaching. For students, in turn, having access to teachers in class or on a one-to-one basis means they can get the support as and when they need to progress with their studies. We introduced Workplace from Facebook 15 months ago to share updates and content but also to connect people beyond their individual course or area of work. We needed a platform that could work for both educators and students, so deploying an interface that most already used meant there was little-to-no training involved to get everyone onboard and connected. Yet, beyond this, it also allowed us to create a sense of the school’s community – that already existed in person – online, something that’s been crucial to maintain amid today’s circumstances.

Keeping the curriculum alive

Coronavirus has forced many organisations to shift their offering, and this has been no different for higher education institutions. A huge question for us when moving to lockdown was: how to provide parity of student learning in the virtual world?

Rather than sending out reading lists and leaving students to work in isolation, we wanted to bring the hive mind and energy of our physical lessons and seminars into the digital world. So much of this is down to ensuring our students have the right technology to connect. From video conferencing to live updates and direct messaging, technology has opened up opportunities for us to make this reality. And having online groups set up by course enables students to share, engage and come together to discuss anything from script writing to production.

And it’s not just our students that stand to benefit from this approach; our teaching staff in different departments have also been able to collaborate, experiment and innovate with how we deliver our curriculum. In fact, it immediately led us to the idea of holding masterclasses with world-renowned masters of industry such as Judd Apatow, director of the 40-Year-Old Virgin, and Eric Roth, the Oscar winning screenwriter behind Benjamin Button and Forrest Gump, to keep our students engaged and motivated. Needless to say, we would have filled out our 150 seater cinema twice over if we were able to host these on-campus!

What will the future of teaching look like for us?

It’s very difficult to predict what the future of teaching will look like in the UK. Will institutions need to offer even more of their curriculum online? What will the student experience look like from September? At the NFTS, we are totally committed to the same transformational, high quality experience we are known for. But as we move ahead, it’s likely that along with everyone else in the sector, we will have to adapt to a ‘new normal’ way of working. But we are used to that – filmmaking is all about adapting and problem solving. As a direct response to the pandemic, for the first time ever in the school’s history, we will shortly launch a brand-new ‘blended learning’ Certificate in Filmmaking. It will run for six months and will comprise of 48 webinars and two weekends at the NFTS.

There are also great lessons to be learned from this time. We’ve seen that, even in crisis, when equipped with the right technology, our students can still come together, can still learn and can even experience new types of classes that we’d previously never imagined would be possible. Ensuring that we can connect with our students and gauge how they are doing is paramount to continuing to support them through this crisis and preparing them to stand out in their future careers.

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