Expanding the Community

California Institute for the Arts offers the first massive online open course in dance.

In 2013 Koplowitz created site-specific work, lines, tides, shores... at the Milwaukee Art Museum.

The idea of online learning in dance is both laughable and profound. Laughable because, as we all know, the studio experience is central to learning dance technique and cannot be replaced or yet effectively replicated digitally. Profound because, in certain contexts, online learning has the power to bring more people to dance than we can imagine. Exhibit A: the 11,000-plus who signed up for Stephan Koplowitz’s online course, Creating Site-Specific Dance and Performance Works.

Koplowitz, dean of dance at California Institute for the Arts, has built his artistic career creating and theorizing about site-specific work. When he heard that CalArts had signed on with Coursera, one of the primary platforms for what are called MOOCs (massive online open courses), he immediately began thinking about a potential online dance course.

The university leadership was dubious. But, says Koplowitz, “I explained to them that I had been teaching and making site work for more than 28 years, and that I developed a very clear methodology about how to produce it. I had something very clear to teach that would work very well, visually, on this platform, since many of the examples would be visual and include work from all over the world.” Within three minutes, he says, they were intrigued.

A Word About MOOCs

Coursera partners with universities to offer free online education in many different disciplines, ranging from Buddhist philosophy to biology. The free versions of these courses do not offer academic credit. In many cases, however, students can sign up and pay a nominal fee to earn a Verified Certificate for the course.

The idea behind offering free content, says Koplowitz, is to draw students in. He notes that CalArts, like most universities, partners with Coursera to offer a glimpse of what happens on campus, particularly the high-quality teaching. Coursera enables universities to reach students from around the world who perhaps have never heard of them before.

“For me,” says Koplowitz, “it was a combination of pure interest from an intellectual, artistic point of view, and the fact that as the dean of dance at CalArts, I saw this as an opportunity for us to say to the world, ‘Hey, here we are!’ The idea that a course like this could potentially unleash new artistic activity around the world was really exciting.”

Seven-Month Roller Coaster

Koplowitz proposed his course in February 2013. Right away, he had to write a basic course description for the Coursera site. “That page went up in two or three weeks of me volunteering to do this, and it was really like getting on a roller coaster. Every week hundreds of people were signing up for it. And I was thinking, ‘Oh, God, thousands of people are signing up for a class that doesn’t even exist yet!’” The course launched that September.

Creating Site-Specific Dance and Performance Works consists of 10 hours of recorded lectures, quizzes, assignments and discussion forums. Once Koplowitz began working on the lectures, he realized he wanted to incorporate more than just his own voice. “I felt in particular with this topic that I needed to interview other people and I needed to show context and history, and I needed to imbed my topic with as many visuals as possible because it’s a visual medium.” This meant requesting rights to material and conducting interviews of other artists—all quite time-consuming.

The time crunch was intense. “All these things were going on simultaneously between March and September,” he says. “Looking at getting the rights; getting/producing the interviews; the writing and designing of my lectures. Then it was a matter of working with my videographer.” They recorded all 10 hours of lectures during two weeklong recording sessions. “Having to actually perform for the camera is really different from speaking to a classroom of students,” says Koplowitz. “It was an exhausting process; it was very rigorous, actually.”

Red Line Time (2013) took place in a Los Angeles Metro station.

The World Was Watching

By September, more than 11,000 students had registered, although that number dropped to 6,000 by the first day of classes. Each week for five weeks, says Koplowitz, about 1,000 people dropped out, until by the end, the registration hovered around 1,200. This is a typical pattern for MOOCs, which tend to keep 5 to 10 percent of the students who registered initially. But while those initial, staggering numbers may drop substantially, the global reach of these courses remains a major draw. Koplowitz’s students represented 152 countries.

In addition, he estimates that 50 percent of them were not specifically dance artists. “We had students who were dancers, theater people, visual artists, musicians and filmmakers,” he says. The diversity of nationalities and backgrounds, even those who did not remain active in the course, thrilled Koplowitz. “I couldn’t believe that many people were remotely interested.”

José Pérez of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, was more than interested. In an e-mail, he shared how he came to sign up for the course. “As a theater-maker I am in love with creating site-specific work. I had been pursuing it on my own for a few years before I took Steve’s course, but never had any sort of formal training in it. I happened to be perusing Coursera after following a link speaking about ‘free online courses.’ At first I couldn’t believe that such a thing existed. Then to see that there was an upcoming course in creating site-specific dance?! Crazy…It was thrilling that there was a place and people in the world committed to the same thing that I was.”

Michelle Cox, of Bridgetown, Barbados, is a theater artist with a background in dance performance and a love for performing in nontraditional spaces. She jumped at the opportunity the course offered, she wrote in an e-mail, since “here in Barbados we don’t have many dedicated performance spaces, and I felt that the course would be useful in helping me to conceptualize how we could use alternative spaces for performance work—especially theater.”

And...Launch!

As September drew closer, Koplowitz grew anxious. He and his team were still editing lecture videos, ultimately keeping a week or two ahead of the students once the course launched. Also, he says, “I felt a little exposed, being the first dance course offered” as a MOOC.

The launch went relatively smoothly minus a few technical glitches, such as students having trouble using a Google map when asked to note their location on it. (These problems have since been resolved.)

For those students who fully engaged with the course (as in most MOOCs, students could participate as much or as little as they wished), the forums became central to their learning experience. “I didn’t realize how powerful the forums were going to be in the sense that it put a face on the students,” says Koplowitz. “It really energized people and made it clear in a very immediate manner the impact the course was having on people. We were getting instant feedback.”

A critical aspect of the course was peer-assessed assignments, since it would be impossible for the instructor to assess hundreds or thousands of assignments. Koplowitz tried to be as present as possible, however, reading and responding on the forum. “But you see,” he says, “this is the interesting and powerful part of a MOOC: If you design it properly, it will sustain itself.”

Cox wrote: “I think the structure of the course was fantastic! ...The practical assignments really helped to put things into context. There was also very easy access to Stephan and the other community teaching assistants through the online forums. Finally, the peer assessment of practical work was truly useful—it allowed us to broaden our scope/understanding of site-specific work and was also encouraging to get feedback and suggestions from our peers around the globe.”

Teaching: Reloaded

For Koplowitz, teaching the MOOC unexpectedly reinvigorated his whole approach to and appreciation for teaching and artistic practice. First, he says, pulling together his entire collected body of knowledge on site-specific performance was exhilarating. “I now have this real overview on my own knowledge that was in different parts of my brain and all came together and into focus. That felt very good.”

As well, he says, “I was meeting online and sort of witnessing how people were receiving this information, using it, how it resonated with them, from all these different countries and backgrounds. Not just dance folk, but musicians and theater people and visual artists. It made me feel like I was just beginning. I’ve been doing this for like 28, 29 years, but oh, my gosh, this is like a new beginning for me.” DT

Lea Marshall is associate chair of dance at Virginia Commonwealth University and a frequent DT contributor.

 

 

Screen grabs from course lectures.

Content Is King

Stephan Koplowitz created and videotaped 10 hours of lectures for his massive online open course, Creating Site-Specific Dance and Performance Works. In addition to the recorded lectures, the course includes quizzes, assignments for peer assessment and discussion forums. For example, the first assignment is to “explore your neighborhood, city or region and see what sites and spaces inspire you,” writes Koplowitz. “The purpose of this assignment is to get you thinking and looking at the world in a different way and to permit you to go through a selection process before we deconstruct the experience later in the course.” Students were to find two locations and consider how a performance might be viewed by an audience. For each site, they submitted a 100-word description, a 100- to 200-word audience design summary and four photographs.

2014 Course Syllabus

Week 1: History & Context (1:14:30)

Course Welcome and Overview (9:02)

Why Make Site-Specific Work? (12:35)

Defining Four Categories of Site-Specificity (Part 1) (9:05)

Defining Four Categories of Site-Specificity (Part 2) (15:57)

The Origins of Modern Dance in Relation to Site Work (16:10)

Contemporary Dance Innovators (11:33)

Week 2: Working from the Outside In (1:02:13)

How Do You Select a Site? (8:37)

Getting Permission (18:53)

Designing the Event, Structuring the Audience (18:45)

Performers and Your Budget (XX:XX)

Making Decisions That Create Budget Lines (15:58)

Week 3: Research & Staging (1:21:28)

Introduction & Site Inventory (14:07)

Researching the Site: History (13:41)

Researching the Site: Current Use (9:10)

Researching the Site: Community (9:18)

“Reading” the Site & Staging Your Work (14:43)

A Demonstration: Examples of Site Inventory (20:29)

Week 4: Technical Considerations (1:44:35)

Generating Content (24:24)

Creating Your Sound (25:33)

Lighting Design (20:24)

Costumes (15:51)

Media (18:23)

Week 5: Creative & Production Challenges, Part 1 (1:40:20)

Rehearsal Process (15:28)

Safety (13:31)

Working in Urban Environments (14:42)

Working in Natural Environments (10:07)

Production Roles, Part 1 (7:14)

Production Roles, Part 2 (19:00)

Collaboration (16:30)

Week 6: Creative & Production Challenges, Part 2 (1:48:51)

Budgeting and Fundraising (23:13)

Promotion and Marketing (16:10)

Documentation (42:09)

Assessment (time)

Last Words (19:20)

Photos from top: courtesy of Stephan Koplowitz; by Scott Groller, courtesy of Koplowitz; courtesy of CalArts

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