When Zoom Replaces the Cinema: Reimagining Film Studies Online During COVID-19 Through Collaborative Teaching and Community Building
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Teaching film studies traditionally involves a social process predicated on students and educators gathering communally to view films. COVID-19 has ruptured this process, forcing us to reimagine our teaching and how we might recreate or approximate the interpersonal and social dynamics that are unique and valuable to our discipline in an online environment. In this article, we reflect on our experience of collaborative teaching in a first year “Introduction to Film Studies” subject at Monash University. The progression of real world circumstances in Australia enforced a series of rapid and significant transformations from a face-to-face teaching model to an entirely digital learning experience for our cohort of 340 students. Our teaching team consisted of five early career screen studies scholars with an established working relationship. Teaching this subject together, we developed a set of collaborative student-centred strategies for engagement, community building and student retention.
This article will discuss several key challenges that we were forced to work through:
transforming our curriculum and content into material for an online environment, learning to navigate the fora at our disposal (Zoom, Google docs, our institution’s Learning Management System), and facilitating active learning via synchronous online tutorials, asynchronous weekly lectures, and a carefully selected film syllabus. Finally, we will consider the fundamental impulse behind these remaking processes: how to create a dynamic film culture online to make film studies meaningful (personally, politically, intellectually, socially) and also a site of relief for our students during this catastrophic moment.
Teaching film studies traditionally involves a social process predicated on students and educators gathering communally to view films. But what happens when Zoom replaces the cinema? This article describes how our team of five early career screen studies scholars reimagined our teaching of the undergraduate subject “Introduction to Film Studies” as an entirely digital experience, following our university’s sudden cancellation of on-campus classes as COVID-19 emerged in Australia in February 2020. We firstly examine our rapid transformations of curriculum and content necessitated by the transition to an online environment, including adaptation of material for synchronous and asynchronous delivery, and some trials and errors we experienced navigating various platforms and software at our disposal. We then explore some considerations specific to film studies as a discipline, detailing our efforts to maintain a pedagogical approach for our community of students that preserved our sense of cinema’s capacity to be socially meaningful in different ways—personally, politically, intellectually – in this new socially distant context.
“Introduction to Film Studies” is a first semester, first-year level subject we taught to a cohort of over 300 students across Monash University’s two Melbourne campuses. It introduces students to film studies as a discipline—a body of knowledge, and also a practice for approaching and analyzing audiovisual texts. The subject establishes screen literacy, teaching formal analysis as well as issues of culture and genre, including representational and national cinema approaches over three modules. Perhaps more than other subjects we teach, this one customarily takes on a weekly rhythm and structure that evolves as the semester progresses. Each week begins with a film screening that is not compulsory but usually well-attended (often films are unavailable online). This occurs in an on-campus cinema, where a one-hour lecture follows. Students typically stay, chatting in the brief interim, although the lecture is recorded and made available online via Moodle (Monash’s Learning Management System). Mandatory tutorials occur later where students work, often collaboratively, to understand key concepts and prepare for assessment tasks. We teach “Introduction to Film Studies” as a group of instructors: students encounter multiple lecturers as the semester progresses, but their tutor remains consistent. The cinema setting and interstitial moments before and after classes offer opportunities for general film-talk between students and instructors. As such, the subject becomes a community of inquiry centered on the “disciplinary content” of film studies but also actively guided by attendant contexts, structured by “sustained dialogue” relating to film culture, broad media literacy, and academic life.
When COVID-19 struck Australia at the start of the 2020 academic year it suddenly and indelibly ruptured the conditions under which we had prepared to teach this subject. We first felt the pandemic’s impact as many international students, notably some of our large cohort from China, were barred from arrival due to governmental travel restrictions. It appeared inevitable that case numbers in Australia and Melbourne would mount but there was uncertainty about how restrictions would impact higher education. Our university responded to the emergent situation in a swift but complex way: the start of semester was delayed by a week, and Week One would take place entirely online while the rest of semester would proceed as usual. Within the first days of Week Two and the en-masse arrival of students on campus, however, the confluence of medical and political uncertainty in response to the growing pandemic meant that in person teaching was no longer a viable option. The university announced a suspension of teaching and the subsequent relocation of all learning online, giving us a brief window to transform our curriculum for an online environment.
Our initial response was to pose several semester-defining questions. Would lectures and tutorials be synchronous, asynchronous, or a combination of both? What are the advantages and disadvantages of each approach? How would we continue to offer weekly screenings to students (a fundamental part of our school’s pedagogy)? At the heart of our response to each question was a consideration of how to keep students engaged in the material and attending tutorials, yet also not overload or overwhelm them with an entirely new wave of online material that they would have to navigate and manage alone. With this principle in mind, our move online sought to achieve a fine balance between synchronous tutorials as the primary teaching mode and asynchronous activities (lectures and screenings) that would encourage a flexible and fulfilling mode of engagement.
Reconstructing the lecture in this new online environment is not a difficult task, as our institution has recorded and uploaded lectures online for students as standard practice for several years. While this is an efficient system as a secondary port of call, finding a format that replicated the feel and function of in-person synchronous lectures while mediating the online space as the primary delivery for weekly material required us to experiment with form and style. We opted against delivering both lectures and tutorials synchronously over Zoom after considering issues of access when it came to bandwidth and location (our students were situated in a range of locations and time zones, often with poor internet connectivity). The eventual format we delivered was a standard-length lecture (50 minutes) divided into at least four parts and uploaded to Moodle, with further resources (clips, articles, quotes, links) interspersed. Anecdotally, students responded extremely positively to this format, noting that it provided conceptual and theoretical challenges with the advantage of greater flexibility and control (the ability to pause, return to an earlier part), and opportunities to absorb the material (the relationship between the direct lecture and additional resources). We omitted synchronous screenings; films were selected from material accessible online through our library. Students then attended a 50-minute synchronous Zoom tutorial, participating in discussions, engaging in activities in breakout rooms, and revisiting and analyzing salient moments from the assigned screenings.
Developing this teaching model involved collaboration on our part in order to learn the limitations and capabilities of the platforms at our disposal. Our institution’s education designers were prompt in providing seminars to instruct staff on how to use Zoom, and to share ideas for how we might rapidly adapt our classes to this online environment. However, as most of us discovered, these seminars were often swamped with dozens of panicking academics, many of them flooding the chat with questions, interrupting the hosts, or offering resigned statements about the impossibility of teaching online. While these sessions did teach us the basic Zoom functionalities, it was in separate meetings between the five of us that we were able to model the student experience: testing using breakout rooms and experimenting with showing film clips. This meant we were also able to build discipline specificity into our lessons from the outset, rather than applying it post hoc. These practice sessions in Zoom were enhanced through ongoing conversations in a WhatsApp group chat where further hurdles and successes could be shared between the team; the chat then became a valuable mode of communication to share weekly lesson plans and feedback throughout the semester. This collaboration and experimentation allowed us to troubleshoot problems together, anticipate issues, and gain confidence using Zoom.
It was through regular communication in this way that we adopted Google Docs as a classroom tool, sending one out to each class each week with tutorial activity instructions and links to further resources—particularly film clips. Students were able to analyze selected scenes from the week’s assigned film in small groups, then write notes directly into the shared document during breakout room conversation. We used these notes as prompts for further whole-class discussion. Members of our team took different approaches to post-class feedback on the document: some wrote comments expanding on students’ ideas, correcting where they were off-track and offering encouragement; others collated the most interesting responses from all their tutorial groups into a “master notes” document. Either way, this meant that students were able to refer to the notes as a study aid for assessments, which helped emphasize that the discussions they had in class in themselves constituted learning and that their contributions were valued.
Our institution encouraged us to exploit the pedagogical possibilities of our Learning Management System and its ability to provide students with quizzes, extra learning resources, pre and post-class activities and social forums. However, we found that student uptake of this platform for anything other than lectures, assessment submission, and checking grades was limited. This may have been in part due to software overload (we were conscious that students were being asked to engage with many different platforms across their subjects), and in part due to the impersonal nature of these modes of learning. Students, isolated in the pandemic, preferred being able to email us with questions, or to have one-on-one Zoom consultations when possible, and these forms of personal interaction reaped benefits in terms of engagement with the material. While some of our colleagues viewed the shift online as one that could involve less directinteraction with students, our experience was the opposite. To understand the scope of film studies and build the capacity and confidence to critically analyze texts and arguments, we found that students needed more guidance and structured opportunities to talk to us and to each other.
Making Film Studies Meaningful Online
As we developed new technical skills, we were faced with a further question: How do we replicate the community and culture of film studies when our students are isolated in their homes? Our usual on-campus screening schedule provides a communal viewing experience, while in lectures and tutorials we screen clips from a range of films and model the process of close textual analysis with students present in the room. We pause, replay, and mute our chosen clips, sparking robust discussion and debate on the aesthetics and politics of cinema. Our students are usually active contributors and drive our tutorials. They collaborate to analyze materials on weekly themes: form, narrative, authorship, genre, ideology, documentary, national cinema. Often, they want to spend significant time reflecting on their own viewing experiences in relation to these topics. Though we may watch The Breakfast Club in a class on genre, our students relate their discussions to every other teen movie they have seen.
As we moved online, we were unsure how we would cultivate this kind of culture as part of the learning experience. We based the design and delivery of the subject on the assumption that our students would want to spend the semester in conversation with each other and the cinema. Initially, we set up online forums for asynchronous discussion, encouraging their use as a social space for casual reflection on assigned screenings and any other cinematic experiences through the semester. However, our students were reluctant to post and were even less willing to read or respond to their peers. To get beyond this hurdle, we found it essential to integrate opportunities for unstructured and unmonitored social interaction into our synchronous online tutorials. We achieved this by grouping students into breakout rooms on Zoom and allowing a few minutes for casual discussion prior to commencing the specified activity. This provided students with the opportunity to connect with their peers and acted as a “warm up” for their class activities.
Mid-way through the semester we solidified these social bonds in a collaborative homework activity that replaced a previously scheduled “reading week” study break. Students were required to work together to research a topic, find an appropriate journal article, and evaluate it. They were asked to give a brief ungraded presentation the following week, which meant they would need to work together outside of synchronous class time. This activity worked well to establish strong social bonds in our classes. Rather than encouraging our students to study and work in isolation, this activity gave the cohort a chance to get to know each other and build productive working relationships. We found that students remained in conversation with their group members throughout the semester and were more willing to respond to each other in our larger group discussions. Following the activity, our students keenly participated in casual discussion on their viewing habits, favorite films and “guilty pleasures” throughout Zoom tutorials. They willingly talked about their cinematic tastes and experiences, using terminology taught on the subject to reflect on issues of gender, class, and race in the assigned viewing, along with their favorite films.
We believe the success of this approach can be attributed to its alignment with the Community of Inquiry (CoI) pedagogical framework, which understands academic staff and students as active participants in the learning process. CoI is premised upon meaningful educational experiences occurring at the intersection of cognitive presence, social presence, and teaching presence. By integrating cognitive and social elements into the design and delivery of online learning, we built a strong community of inquiry through the implementation of tutorial activities. This integration of disciplinary rigor and social interaction was the gateway to cultivating a film culture and an engaged cohort in an otherwise isolated learning environment.
In this isolated context, as our colleagues have noted, screen media have been central to our experiences and “emotional management” of the pandemic. We discovered that teaching and learning in this landscape did not render film studies less meaningful. Instead, it forced us to confront, question, and refine traditional modes of delivery, embrace the possibilities of remote teaching, and facilitate an environment where students became active agents in their approach to film analysis. Given this transition to an entirely online model, students were not able to watch films as a collective but had to self-regulate the ways that they viewed and engaged with the material. This created an opportunity for students to exercise agency over their learning, reading, and viewing of film texts as part of their tertiary studies: they were able to slow the process of analysis down, take their time examining the films and watching lectures, and make their own decisions on when to pause, rewind, and review each piece of content. Students watched the selected films under a multiplicity of contexts, which contributed to a diverse range of reactions, experiences, and interpretations.
Furthermore, this learning experience allowed students to blend modes of watching films for leisure (which often takes place in private domains) and to fulfil the requirements of study (which takes place on campus in communal screening settings). As a result, the practice of doing film studies in this subject became further entrenched in a culture of film spectatorship that already encourages self-directed viewing due to the popularization of streaming services. This may pose significant long-term implications for what film studies means, how the discipline is taught in the future, and how course materials are delivered.
By aligning online teaching with the CoI framework, film studies educators can facilitate a shift from a film culture shaped by collective viewing to one of individualized practice that maintains a communal experience of cinema. This enables students to have more agency over how they watch selected films and lectures, where they watch them, and at what pace they evaluate learning materials. Our students were largely able to manage their learning in a way that suited their individual capabilities and gave them the best chance to get the most out of their experience with films. Indeed, end of semester student evaluations indicated a major increase in students’ overall satisfaction with the subject compared to the previous year including, at one campus, a 9.5% increase to 90.67%. Surveys also evidenced an increase in students’ own appraisal of their attempts to engage with the subject, including by 5.6% to 88.16% at one campus.
Our final initiative in the semester—an hour-long informal conversation among the instructors where we discussed the challenges and highlights of the semester—was the culmination of our sustained efforts to not only manage but excel in the imposed shift online. In this video, our very real and united chemistry signaled a kind of micro film culture community within the contours of our discipline and the constraints of our online environment. Beyond helping to cement our online presence as a collaborative team of instructors, this video constituted a definitive statement of our own investment in the ongoing disciplinary and social dynamics of the subject, and film studies more broadly. Our impetus to create the video was born from an intensity of experience as, faced with exigent circumstances across the semester, we were repeatedly pushed to re-evaluate the educational utility of film studies and extend our concerns for the wellbeing of our students. Recalibrating this subject affirmed for us the communal power of cinema as a site for emotional and psychic succour as well as significant intellectual fulfillment.
Dr. Luke Creely teaches Film and Screen Studies at Monash University. He is a screenwriter and film director. His research areas include Australian cinema, national cinemas, horror cinema, and film production. He recently completed his PhD which specialized in the visual analysis of cinema and explorations of film style and directing craft.
Dr. Robert Letizi is a Film and Screen Studies Lecturer at Monash University. His research is focused on the audiovisual essay, technology and aesthetics, and progressive pedagogy. He was awarded an Education Fellowship by Monash University (2019) to develop teaching innovation and enhance curriculum design and is co-coordinator of the subject that this article discusses, “Introduction to Film Studies.” He has published in JCMS on audiovisual essay teaching pedagogy.
Dr. Whitney Monaghan teaches in Film and Screen Studies at Monash University. Her background is in screen, media, and cultural studies and her research examines the representation of gender, queer and youth identities, digital culture, and new forms of screen media. She is the author of Queer Girls, Temporality and Screen Media: Not ‘Just a Phase’ (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), co-editor of Screening Scarlett Johansson: Gender, Genre, Stardom (Palgrave Macmillan, 2020), and co-author of Queer Theory Now: From Foundations to Futures (Red Globe Press, 2020).
Dr. Grace C. Russell is a teaching associate in Film and Screen Studies at Monash University and an online training development consultant. She recently completed her PhD as part of the “Utilitarian Filmmaking in Australia 1945-1980” Australian Research Council Research project. Her research focuses on instructional filmmaking, industrial safety, and non-cinema uses of film.
Dr. Simon Troon teaches Film and Screen Studies at Monash University. His research explores the representation of disaster and eco-catastrophe across film genres and styles and is concerned with ethics, realism, and methods for textual analysis. In 2019 he was awarded an Education Fellowship by Monash’s Faculty of Arts to develop teaching innovation and enhance curriculum design. He has published in Studies in Documentary Film and Australasian Drama Studies.
D. Randy Garrison, Terry Anderson, and Walter Archer, “Critical Inquiry in a Text-Based Environment: Computer Conferencing in Higher Education,” Internet and Higher Education 2, no. 2 (1999): 87-105, https://doi.org/10.1016/S1096-7516(00)00016-6; and D. Randy Garrison, “Theoretical Foundations and Epistemological Insights of the Community of Inquiry.” in Educational Communities of Inquiry: Theoretical Framework, Research and Practice, ed. Zehra Aykol and D. Randy Garrison, 1-11. IGI Global, 2013, 4-5 ↑
A further complicating factor in addressing these areas was the removal of attendance requirements by our institution, meaning students who once had to reach a certain quota for tutorial attendance could instead choose to not attend a single class. ↑
D. Randy Garrison, Terry Anderson, and Walter Archer, Critical Inquiry in a Text-Based Environment. ↑
Julia Vassilieva, Claire Perkins, and Billy Head, “Tuning into COVID-19: How the pandemic has changed screen content and viewing practices” Monash Lens, 8 July 2020 https://lens.monash.edu/@politics-society/2020/07/08/1380781/tuning-into-covid-19-how-the-pandemic-has-changed-screen-content-and-viewing-practices ↑