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Tensions and textures – exploring embodiment in a digital learning landscape.

This post contains an excerpt from a recorded conversation between Dr Katie Natanel (IAIS) and Dr Kerry Chappell (GSE), co-leads on the  Incubator-funded project Digital Innovation in Project-Based Learning.


This project explores how ‘project-based learning’ (PBL) can be enhanced through digital technologies and creative pedagogies in HE classrooms, which work through face-to-face interaction and virtual learning environments (VLEs). PBL engages students in solving real-world problems, and provides a deeper, more contextualised learning experience that results in active engagement and higher attainment, but little is known about its creative integration with technology.

Our primary aim, therefore, is to understand and share how digital technologies can be creatively integrated into project-based learning in a way that complements, and ideally enhances, their capacity for deep, creative knowledge production.

We will build on Natanel’s ongoing use of PBL on her course ‘Gender, Sexuality and Violence in Palestine/Israel’, combining it with Chappell’s educational research into creativity and creative pedagogy, and both academics’ experience to date of working with digital environments.

As part of Ed Tech Exeter, we aim to assess how combined VLEs and face-to-face interaction can best support creative project-based learning in the interest of maximising impact and enriching ethical communities of practice.

Screengrab from the module’s homepage on ELE

Katie: After all of the hard work, I think it’s worth using this space to talk and think through some of the textures and tensions that have emerged during the process of research…

I’ve been really struck by the extent to which our question about the significance or role of digital innovation has actually been underlined – or undermined? – by what seems to be a clear need for students to have high quality face-to-face contact with me as their instructor.

My initial thought was that perhaps we could shift some of the class-time teaching and learning to a digital platform like VLE, in order to make space/time for research, discussion and exploration.  This would allow us to centre student-led enquiry and independent learning within the space of the classroom, where students can still rely on the guidance of their instructors.

Above: screen grabs from ELE including: two reflections from Dr Natanel on the seminar material made available for all students to engage with; and a redesigned version of the module’s contents page with a more accessible/appealing user interface – ditching folders and files for tiles! 

However, as I continually built the digital infrastructure, students increasingly required clear scaffolding in order to be able to access and use it – this meant taking time out of class to introduce them to the resources and opportunities on the VLE site, as well as often helping them to ‘practice’ engaging or interacting with the materials.

So while my lectures and the resources became more digitally sophisticated, this didn’t remove any pressure from our class-time!

Why do you think this is?


Kerry: I don’t have a ‘right’ answer to this, but from my own experience as an educator and from researching the creative process in education, there might be a number of reasons behind this…

Unless a VLE is extremely sophisticated it can create something of a ‘one-size-fits-all’ access point to the intended learning experience.

When we teach face to face we constantly differentiate our descriptions, embodied interactions, tone etc to respond to the learner/s we’re working with, our knowledge of their histories, ILPs, learning preferences; we tailor what we’re asking of them in the moment and it’s extremely difficult for a VLE to do this.

This means that we both have to make the VLE learning experience more differentiated to meet our learners’ needs, as well as actively build time into face to face sessions to responsively scaffold them into it and help them make the connections between the VLE experience, face to face learning and their learning objectives. VLEs aren’t a quick shortcut to fill up learners’ knowledge banks.

I also know from my own teaching and reflections on it within PCAP, that there is always a tension between the teaching and learning that happens face to face and that which happens digitally. My own teaching in dance and creativity education forefronts the embodied as key to the learning experience.

In relation to your conundrum, I wonder what is unique within your face to face teaching that students cannot get on the VLE. Perhaps it’s the embodied experience in the moment; the felt experience of the types of aesthetic practice you’re encouraging in the PBL. Perhaps it’s the interaction with you within the material environment?

This then leads us to ask how a VLE can complement these in a way that builds learning through different modalities……

….and I guess that’s where the questioning journey continues for us both, as we take what we’re learning into our future teaching in IAIS and GSE.

This is the first of three posts by in a series on digital innovation and PBL. You can find out more about Katie and Kerry’s project here

RELATED EVENT: a Workshop to explore the findings of this project is taking place at Exeter Phoenix on June 13th 12-3pm.  All welcome. Lunch provided. For more information and to book tickets click here.


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