Looking back over the past year or so, it’s incredible to see how much we as a society can endure, and the creative ways in which we have adapted to this new normal. We’ve had shower curtains with sleeves to hug loved ones, Dinosaur outfits as PPE, and not to forget my own personal favourite of pyjamas becoming the new workplace attire. Job opportunities have opened up globally for many people with remote working becoming widely accepted. Communication channels worldwide have never been more open. And we really have changed the way in which the overall workplace operates (down with capitalism, am I right?). But throughout all of that, it really showed us how much we took for granted and how pivotal physical interaction has been in our everyday lives.
One key example of this is in the education system, and how schools and educators are still working towards finding the best solutions to effectively teach students online. This proves even more difficult for young children through to adolescence, during a stage of their lives when social interaction is not only vital for their development but also essential to their engagement in learning. When Fighting Words approached us with the challenge of adapting their workshops – typically full of life and energy, with the added benefit of disrupting the usual curriculum – into an online space, we knew it was going to require a unique outlook and innovative solutions to overcome the new set of obstacles caused from remote learning.
So who are they?
Fighting Words are a nonprofit organisation who provide free tutoring classes and workshops in creative writing to children, young adults, and adults with special needs. Their workshops are delivered primarily by volunteer writing tutors, and prior to COVID-19, they took place in person, in schools and in local centres. Now, however, their workshops are limited to online over Zoom calls, which has provided a lot of new challenges in creating the same levels of engagement and interaction with participants.
What did we do?
When approaching this, we had to garner a good understanding of the service they provided, the context in which it was delivered, and the participants themselves. To do this we sat in on some of their sessions to get a good first hand experience of the structure of the workshops, and see what’s working and what’s not. This approach also allowed us to get a good sense of all the various moving parts, such as the books they produced from the workshops and the integration of illustrators to capture the students stories. We also became more familiar with the various characters involved which add a theatrical flair that not only creates an atmosphere in the workshops, but would also go on to inform some of our approaches.
So let’s begin… Research
As with any project, it all starts with research. Once we had a good understanding of the workshops and how they were run, we needed to get more of an insight into the audience, as well as the platforms being used and how they could be utilised to their full potential.
A key influence in our initial research was exploring aspects of existing platforms and their respective content creators, and the ways in which they engage with their audiences. The main platforms we focussed on include YouTube and Twitch, as both are video/streaming based services with high emphasis on engagement that the chat and comment sections feature. These are also two of the primary sources of media that both children and adolescents alike consume, ensuring that whichever creative solutions we explore, it will appeal to our diverse audience. Another focus during our explorations was ensuring that we captured the essence of typical classroom nuances in this virtual space, such as reward systems (star stickers etc.) and props for when reenacting their stories. Although this can never be fully replicated in a digital space, our goal is to recreate the familiarity and playfulness associated with these that helps motivate students to participate in the workshops and remain engaged.
Following on from our research, as well as reflecting back on the structure of the workshops themselves, we devised a list of asset types to work towards.
The asset lists we devised included:
- Zoom Backgrounds
- Break time graphics
- Character design
- Document template
- Audio Suite
- Stickers & Illustrations
For a lot of these assets, it meant utilising some of the existing properties and features of Zoom, such as the backgrounds, profile images etc. These provide great opportunities to create a more inviting space and establish a strong visual language associated with the workshops. However, the goal for this toolkit overall was to extend beyond just the visual language. To not only overcome the new set of challenges collectively, but also reintroduce some of the aspects of classroom interaction to keep energy and engagement levels high.
Through our research, and drawing on common practices of streamers, we had the idea of incorporating graphic overlays into the workshops at multiple different points. This would – should we be able figure out how to achieve this – immediately open up a new channel of communicating and engaging with the participants. It would allow us to create a wide array of assets that would capture those nuances of the classroom previously mentioned, such as the reward system and props, and to also help students visualise their stories in real-time (which, similarly to the audio suite, will help establish a tone and setting for their stories).
So at this point we’re just left wondering…how we’re actually going to do it. Prior to this we hadn’t considered it possible on a videotelephony platform, so that was going to be the first thing we had to overcome. But we were determined to figure it out as this new feature had the potential to redefine how Zoom was utilised and opened up countless possibilities for development should it be required. We jumped back into our research, but this time focussing more on the ‘behind the scenes’ side of streamers and content creators and we stumbled across Open Broadcaster Software (super creative name, I know).
Open Broadcaster Software
Open Broadcaster Software (OBS) is an open-source streaming and recording program. It allows users to create multiple scenes, incorporate a variety of cameras, and even introduce some external graphics and videos. Despite being typically reserved for streaming platforms such as Twitch, YouTube, Facebook and Instagram, we wanted to challenge this and see how well it could – if at all – adapt to a platform like Zoom or Google Meet. The key feature within this program that made it all possible was the ability to create a Virtual Camera, which essentially means that the program is now recognised on your computer as another camera that is controlled within OBS itself, by various scenes and media sources that the user creates. Once we reached this stage, it was as simple as changing our Video Source in Zoom to our new Virtual Camera and we were off!
We pulled up our sleeves, *calmly* placed all of our hair strands back in their respective follicles now that we’ve overcome the hurdles, and started creating a series of looping animated stickers and graphics to address the challenges they faced. From stars and hearts to tents and megaphones. Everything that we could think of that could either enhance a story, mirror the audience, or engage with the audience either visually or emotionally…we made it. We were also very conscious when making the majority of these to avoid capturing specific scenarios or circumstances to ensure that there was a degree of versatility and dynamism to them, that would allow the co-ordinators to utilise them in a more playful and expressive way rather than them being restricted in their applications. The beauty of this process though, is that it can constantly grow and develop as the needs of workshop increase.
We’ve only just scratched the surface on what the possibilities are for this, and as we move more into this new way of working, it has the potential to redefine how we deliver virtual workshops, present projects to clients, online events and webinars, and so on. On one hand we’re very proud of the work we did for Fighting Words, but on the other hand we’re quite saddened that it was required in the first place. These past twelve months have presented us with some of the most challenging times of our lives on a global scale – emotionally, financially….physically (as I look down and admire my new found quarantine weight) – which we all collectively share. But in spite of all the hardship, it has allowed our creativity to flourish and our support for one another has never been higher. It’s shown us what truly matters and allowed us all to gain a little more perspective in life, which is something I think we all took for granted previously.
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