Annus Horribilis: COVID-19’S impact
on teaching, learning and creativity in 2020
By Kerreen Ely-Harper and Clare Toonen, Curtin University
COVID-19 has been a disruptor and awakening of epic proportions that in a few short weeks changed the academic experience for our screen students and educators in a multitude of ways. Although we have largely avoided community transmission in Western Australia, the virus has remained all around us since the beginning of the year despite not literally having invaded the air we breathe.
This visual essay aims to examine the impact of the pandemic on a particular unit of study, Introduction to Screenwriting. Our desire to produce this work is inspired in part by our need to document the experience for ourselves, and in part by our screenwriting students as demonstrated in their own works and personal reflections. The essay consists of two primary areas of scrutiny, the first being our abrupt move to online teaching and its consequences on content delivery, participation. communication and mental health. The second is the subsequent effect of the pandemic on the creative works submitted by the students, many of which specifically featured concepts of contagion and isolation.
We began the semester assuming it would run like any other; but one month into the semester the university campus became quieter and emptier. We found ourselves refreshing news websites on repeat. With the seriousness of the pandemic becoming clear the university scrambled to adjust to the disruption. Students were forced to simultaneously deal with multiple upheavals/traumas at once: adapting to a new method of online learning, the unpredictable global health crisis, losing employment and income, and needing to assist struggling family and friends. Students participating in exchange programs were forced to pack and up leave the country at very short notice, and had to adapt to remote learning with the added challenge of navigating the time difference.
After only a week’s break to organise new teaching methods, the classroom space was replaced by Blackboard Collaborate, a Zoom-like online forum that enables video and text discussion, file sharing and ‘breakout groups’ whereby participants are organised into small private groups. As educators, we questioned how we would maintain students’ trust and keep them engaged. We wondered how we could adapt a curriculum designed to enable high levels of student interactivity developed on a pedagogy of kinaesthetic F2F (face to face) strategies and learning principles (Drago, Wagner 2004, Kemp, Grieve 2014, Dhawan 2020, Roell 2020).
Lengthy online interaction brings with it a hefty level of exhaustion; the absence of non-verbal cues and sustained eye contact feels tiring and unstimulating (Sander, Bauman, 2020). Three hour seminar workshops became one hour online Collaborate sessions, with the option of a longer (90 minute) workshop if students wanted one. All theory content (delivered as slides and films screened in class) was redesigned as single online weekly modules that students could work through in their own time.
Upon reaching out to students throughout the semester in regards to seminar attendance and journal entry submission, several cited their mental health (in particular, anxiety) as a significant impediment to remaining engaged in the unit. Our observations were consistent with mental health experts’ findings on the impact of COVID-19 on young people (Bartone, Hickie, McGorry 2020, Teesson, 2020). In the students’ self-assessments, submitted at the end of semester, many acknowledged that they struggled to maintain focus. Several students argued that F2F learning cannot be replaced and its absence was felt in regards to motivation, communication and creativity:
“I like going into classes because there is a sense of accountability. When everything is online, it is a lot easier to not do all the work set and with no immediate consequences, it remained difficult.”
“I very much hope classes go back to the way they were. I think that will make it a lot easier to talk about ideas. Sharing ideas can be quite personal and it is nice to gage another person’s physical reaction to what you are saying.”
Students predominantly chose to remain anonymous and turned off their cameras, this was mostly driven by not wanting to be seen but also to limit bandwidth usage. Many students preferred to type responses rather than to speak through a microphone, which resulted in conversations lagging and a loss of immediacy. We remained connected to all of our students, yet the images of their faces faded in our memories and we became only able to identify them by their names on the screen.
However, a few students cited an upside to the online format, explaining that they felt more comfortable contributing answers and ideas via the text chat (as opposed to speaking up in class), and that the randomised ‘breakout group’ function in Collaborate allowed them to interact with students they otherwise wouldn’t have:
“Ever since going online, I did feel more comfortable in participating and contributing to the discussion due to anonymity and not having to talk, just type.”
“While my hand might not have shot up at every asking in our original ‘physical’ classes, I have always appreciated small group discussions and getting to hear other people’s specific ideas and opinions in a less intimidating forum.”
Dhawan (2020) cites many examples of studies that indicate students experience and engagement with online learning is affected by technical problems, their ability to co-ordinate learning and study tasks with family, social and employment responsibilities, level of e-learning skills and overall academic competencies (p8-9). Accessibility was directly linked to participation and willingness to adapt. Collaborate was vulnerable to constant drop outs, and if the student had a stable home environment with good internet they appeared to fare better than their peers who didn’t. It revealed very quickly students’ individual circumstances. Many had no desk or laptops, or the computers were shared between household members. Surprisingly many were relying solely on their phones. Despite being constantly available to the students online we felt as though we still didn’t know what personal circumstances many were dealing with or which factors left them unable to complete the semester’s work to the best of their abilities.
Creative Works & Findings
Our teaching weeks for the impacted semester ran from late February to early June. The semester ended up being roughly one quarter face-to face classroom teaching and three quarters remote teaching. Almost all assessments (bar a few in-class presentations) were completed and delivered online. What this means is that our students’ two narrative and ‘creative’ assessments – a digital storyboard and a first draft screenplay – were constructed during the most uncertain COVID-19 lockdown period here in Western Australia (March – June 2020).
This context and the content produced within it should not be overlooked – here we were asking our students to conceive visual stories during the most significant global pandemic of their lives. We vowed not to encourage it as a potential ‘subject’ for story content, but rather, as always in our teaching approach, foster individual stories to see what emerges from the students’ own imaginings and presentations. Despite this, it remained no surprise that a number of works submitted across all five classes (119 students) were thematically and narratively tied to COVID-19. They did not simply touch on vaguer concepts of loneliness or isolation, but within the works themselves characters were depicted dealing specifically with COVID-19 and its mandated lockdowns. Overall, the works demonstrate the desire to share and communicate their understandings and thoughts to an audience; they became vehicles in the students’ learning process as they adapted to the new social world they found themselves in.
The storyboard task gave students the opportunity to respond to a selected title provocation (for example: ‘Sweet Dreams’, ‘The Room’ and ‘If Only’ – conceived in January, prior to COVID-19). Students are free to interpret the titles, the focus being to communicate a coherent narrative through images only. Upon viewing the completed works, we realised we had not seen so many narrative references to a real life event so consistently across the screenwriting cohort. We showed some of the works to youth mental health service provider, Youth Focus CEO, Arthur Papakotsias. What can we make of this? Are these students ok? He reassured us that creative tasks were providing “A great opportunity for students to express how they really feel.” He confirmed this might be the only outlet they have where they can do this safely and in a structured and creative way.
Figure 1: Images from “Winter”, revealing a disconnected lockdown during the holiday season. Emily Sweeney, 2020.
Figure 2: Images from “Sweet Dreams”, created by an American exchange student forced to return to his family in March. Cristian Seitz, 2020
Figure 3: Images from “If Only”, depicting social distancing, the global spread of COVID – and our obsession with the news. Megan Harris, 2020.
Figure 4: Images from “If Only”, a watercolour illustration of ‘then and now’ during COVID. Gabriella Sinsua, 2020.
All four storyboards emphasise the feeling of isolation, a reflexive concept considering the images themselves were produced by students working under isolating circumstances. More specifically, the works all feature an overall focus on the juxtaposition between ‘Then and Now’: ‘Then’ being moments in the past where we took for granted the opportunity to share the same oxygen as our loved ones, colleagues and neighbours, and ‘Now’, being the reality that we are anxious, alone and unable to leave our home.
Figure 1 illustrates a real and impending prospect for the billions of people living outside our Australian bubble – COVID-19 disrupting and destroying the familiar rituals of the Christmas season. The first couple of images illustrate a semblance of Christmas cheer with toys being manufactured and wrapped by elves. However, by the last image we realise these bearers of gifts for the world’s children are locked up in quarantine. There will be no Santa, no presents this year.
Figure 2 depicts a similar pessimistic shift. Our protagonist seemingly wakes to a new day of opportunity and enjoys pre-COVID freedoms, including spending time with family in a safe and familiar home environment. The storyboard’s penultimate image reveals their reality as they read an article titled ‘Trump extends federal stay-at-home guidelines to April 30’, and the final image shows our despondent protagonist in an entirely different bedroom. They’re not at the home they had dreamed about; life under COVID is a waiting game, played out in alone in a dark space.
Comparatively, in Figure 3, COVID-19 has already arrived and our protagonist is shown navigating the beginnings of social distancing and mask wearing, with arrows intentionally pointing to the physical human contact they have now been advised to avoid. As in Figure 2, there is a key image of them watching news updates, which here has been repeated to demonstrate both our desire for information and our inability to shut it off. This storyboard also ends with our protagonist alone and disconnected from the world, but this time they have contracted the virus themselves.
Figure 4 literally encapsulates ‘Then and Now’ by distilling the concept down to before and after watercolour illustrations. We see a street and an office, depicted in pre-COVID times as a functioning world of colour and in current times as a chaotic grey limbo flecked with angry red. The narrative shows the initial collapse of society and then the implementation and consequences of learning to live with social distancing. But it is not all doom and gloom. Whereas the previous storyboards all conclude with their protagonists isolated from others, Figure 4 offers an image of hope with our two subjects physically separated but still connected.
The major assessment for the unit was a first draft screenplay, which students were encouraged to start conceiving from week one of semester. The students’ weekly module tasks, completed remotely during lockdown, were frequently centred around their own developing narratives and encompassed everything from idea generation through to dialogue and script editing exercises. As expected, a large number of students gravitated towards the horror, thriller and apocalyptic genres, however during the marking process it was impossible to ignore the several screenplays which directly featured pandemic-ridden story worlds and explicit contagion language.
Figure 5a, 5b & 5c: Logline, Writer’s Statement and scene excerpt from “Leila”. Elliahn Blenkinsop, 2020.
Figure 6: Scene excerpt from “Medicine for the Apocalypse”, which explored ethical ‘survival of the fittest’ themes. Luke Button, 2020.
Figure 7: Scene excerpts from “The Great Panic”, which re-imagined the pandemic as the result of alien interference. Anon, 2020.
Figure 8: Scene excerpt from “The Long Journey Home”, which focused on migrant workers (underclass) being more affected and vulnerable to the virus. Shong Wut Yi, 2020.
Figure 5 presents a worrying side effect of the pandemic – not from the virus itself, but from its subsequent lockdown of society. In the screenplay excerpt (Figure 5b), an unstable and desperate man takes matters into his own hands upon realising how lonely and bleak COVID-19 has forced his future to become. The student’s writer’s statement (Figure 5a) affirms their intention to focus on the lockdown’s negative impacts on mental health and its potential to push already vulnerable people to undertake drastic actions.
In Figure 6, an unknown virus or disaster has plagued the globe, with the protagonist selected as one of the few deemed worthy enough to be saved and protected based on his supposed societal role as a doctor. This survival-of-the-fittest screenplay broaches the ethics of recent debates over treating the aged and the economics of who to save and not – submitted in June 2020, the work feels even more relevant months later with the world watching the strategic distribution of the newly-approved COVID-19 vaccines.
Like Figure 5, Figure 7 is set during lockdown. The first two short scenes in the excerpt outline the protagonist’s isolation, shortage of essential goods and their struggle to comprehend the state of the world outside their home. The third scene however, delves into sci-fi territory with the introduction of a spaceship, combining our real-world pandemic with an other-worldly alien invasion (later revealed to be behind the virus) – a critique on our uncertainty of COVID-19’s origins and on our governments pointing fingers of blame.
Finally, Figure 8 focuses on the lockdown experience of not one protagonist, but a collective of vulnerable migrant labourers. In this narrative, hunger and exploitation pose just as much as a threat to their survival as COVID-19 does. Like the protagonist in Figure 5, this work examines the pandemic through the eyes of those living on the fringes of society, potentially without access to emotional, mental and financial support.
If the semester and its curveballs have taught us anything, it is that teaching, learning and creativity cannot exist in a bubble, that they are shaped and influenced by their surroundings. The destabilising impact of COVID-19 on our screenwriting unit revealed inequalities between students’ learning experiences based on their online accessibility, personal circumstances (i.e. loss of income, unstable home environment), and mental health. It revealed that we could not, as educators, expect the same level of participation and motivation in the fragmented virtual space that we had become accustomed to in the classroom. And yet, it also revealed that some students found the anonymous online platform to ultimately be a safe and comfortable place to speak up and contribute. Finally, the pandemic reinforced the strong link between context and creativity, with students narrativizing their personal experiences and disseminating the COVID-19 narrative (received through media channels and their own communities) through the act of visual storytelling.
It is possible that this semester was a one-off, that things will indeed return to ‘normal’ and that teaching and learning within our screenwriting unit will resume in person for good. But we do not know for sure. We still feel uncertain, but our necessitated adoption of new methodologies has undoubtedly made us better equipped and more resilient, both as educators and visual storytellers. COVID-19 forced to us become more flexible, more tolerant and kinder to ourselves. We had to be, as our students needed to be for us, forgiving.
The authors wish to thank the contributing students for making their creative works available for study and publication.
Bartone, T., Hickie, I., McGorry, P. (7 May, 2020) AMA Joint Statement – COVID-19 impact likely to lead to increased rates of suicide and mental illness. Retrieved from https://ama.com.au/media/joint-statement-covid-19-impact-likely-lead-increased-rates-suicide-and-mental-illness
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Papakotsias, A. Youth Focus. Interview by Kerreen Ely-Harper, 21 April, 2020.
Road To Recovery, New National Report. 3 August 2020 News & Opinion, University of Sydney website. Retrieved from https://www.sydney.edu.au/news-opinion/news/2020/08/03/first-dynamic-modelling-of-suicide-prevention-strategies-release.html
Roell, K. (2020) The Kinesthetic Learning Style: Traits and Study Strategies. ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/the-kinesthetic-learning-style-3212046
Sander, L., Bauman, O. (2020) Zoom fatigue is real – here’s why video calls are so draining https://ideas.ted.com/zoom-fatigue-is-real-heres-why-video-calls-are-so-draining/
Teesson, M. (2020) Maree Teesson Masterclass: Coping with mental health issues during COVID-19. The Matilda Centre, University of Sydney. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XzOR60tULjE