A future for futures workshops?

A future for future workshops 1

If there is one thing we learn early on when delving into the discipline of Futures Studies is that there is no such thing as ‘the future’. There are in fact many futures, some desirable, some likely, some imagined, some used, recycled…  So it will come as no surprise that what you are about to read is a reflection on something that may configure a future for futures workshops, one of many ways forward in a post-pandemic world: namely, hybrid virtual/in person workshops.

The impact of Covid-19 on learning and teaching at all levels cannot be underestimated. In UK universities, we have had to deliver whole terms entirely online, changing module outlines and assessment regimes whilst maintaining standards and achieving the intended learning outcomes of our courses. In our Theatre degree at Middlesex University, this has meant entire productions had to be rehearsed, realised and performed remotely; in other cases, students/performers were allowed on campus, but had to perform in masks, to empty rooms, or to virtual audiences. And even as campus reopened and restrictions were eased, some students were unable to attend (either because of international travel restrictions, or because they were shielding or self-isolating), and so we had to deliver sessions with some students on campus and some remote, with tutors sometimes on campus, sometimes joining virtually.  I have written about one of the ways in which a module was adapted, using futures thinking as a vehicle, here.

In all of this, much learning has taken place, and not only by the students. Staff have become more adept at teaching virtually, but also in a combination of modes, exploring new possibilities that technologies afford and finding solutions for the intractable problem of presence – a key term in theatre and performance studies, rendered even more problematic by the use digital technologies.

And so it is that I came to plan and deliver a few sessions for our FUTURES project with this experience in mind. Running in early May 2021, these workshops were aimed at exploring some of the design principles underpinning a potential Futures education programme for personal and professional development, the first intellectual output of our research project.  My role in the project is to bring in practices and techniques from theatre and performance into futures work. So I felt it was important to try and run workshops that involved immersive, experiential dimensions, in a space that might allow for participants to work physically – or at least that allowed for remote participants to feel actively engaged with the proceedings.

I designed a three-session workshop, with the theme ‘The Future of Higher Education’, and participants were current Middlesex staff and PhD candidates, who therefore had a stake in the topic.  I also allowed for a ‘hop-on-hop-off’ type of engagement: participants could join for any or all of the three sessions. This is one of the findings I believe to be important in online/hybrid models: people’s ability to engage is constrained by various factors beyond the facilitators’ control, such as childcare, room-space etc. So offering a flexible, modular approach, with no session lasting more than two hours is key.

Sessions 1 and 2 were hybrid (online/on campus), and session 3 was fully online (i.e. I was also working from home, not in the theatre studio on campus). I will focus on sessions 1 and 2 here. While there were no participants in the studio with me (those who had signed up for the on-campus experience could not attend for various reasons), the workshop was designed with this dual-mode of participation in mind. Still, I was in the space, and I placed myself inside the activities, too; playing the games alongside the participants, establishing the crucial link between the 2D world of the screen and the 3D world of the studio.

Session 1 opened with brief introductions, jumping straight into a version of the Polak game where broad attitudes to the future were gauged. This was then followed by another round of the game in which a time-horizon of 20 years and the topic of Higher Education were given.

Session 2 started with a brief PowerPoint presentation of the project and some key concepts; the notion of the Futures Cone was introduced; participants brainstormed futures for higher education 20 years from now in breakout rooms, and then we engaged in what I’d like to call the ‘Voros game’ – a way of immersing ourselves within the Futures Cone; participants placed themselves/their visions in the relevant area on a section of the cone, marked on the floor; they were then asked to imagine their preferable future – and a new area of the cone was introduced.[i]

The most crucial observation about these hybrid sessions: as mentioned before, linking up the 2D and 3D worlds is key. So the space in which activities take place is important – there needs to be room to move around, affording a sense of even basic scenography. In the virtual space, it is good to make use of the features offered by the platform – chats, breakout rooms, sound-share etc., but without overcomplicating it. And I would suggest that those in the physical space also have access to the technology, even if on their phones, so that they can participate in whatever happens on screen.

To bring the on-screen participants into the room, we had a high, birds-eye view, camera; having a camera from above is very useful, in that it gives those not there a better sense of the room. It also enables them to “see themselves in the space” as one participant put it, using physical objects as avatars.

A future for future workshops 2

So when setting up the Polak game, in which players need to physically locate themselves in relation to axes on the floor-space, I took some objects I found in the room (some stationery) and showed them to the on-screen players. I asked them to, on the count of three, type into the chat which one they wanted to ‘be’. This was a ludic way to assign avatars, which were nonetheless physical, having a presence (that ever elusive beast) in the space. As the only player in the room, I used my own body, occasionally replacing it with my laptop bag, if I wanted to move around the room and ‘step out’ of the game to comment and discuss it, as well as moving the other avatars around. To reinforce the person-object bonds established, I changed the names of the on-screen participants to, for example, Johnny Sticky-tape, or Susan Staple-gun (Johnny and Susan are made-up names here, but in the workshop I kept the participants’ first names). When giving feedback, a participant stated: “The use of stationery to represent us in taking part in the activities, let me feel that I was there but not attending online!”

A future for future workshops 3

Ultimately, this is the litmus test of a hybrid workshop session: that you cannot tell anymore where you are. It is refreshing that in a world besotted by so much talk about virtual reality and the wonders it might afford us, it was in fact the simple, relatively low-tech use of a Zoom call and some stuff on the floor that achieved that effect. That is the magic of theatre at work: if I say that a laptop bag is now Pedro, this is who it becomes. A future for futures workshops might in the end rely on this very old trick.

[i] The ‘Voros game’ is a new tool in development, to facilitate futures thinking. There is no scope to write about it here, but it is an exciting potential outcome from this project.