Saturday, May 23, 2015

What's in an Improv?

So, today I'm starting work on the different kinds of improvisation activities that Stacy and I are thinking about using in our open course course.

[Stacy: Don't you think this might be a good time to explain about improvisation activities in general?
Rob: Good idea. I can do that now, unless you want to?
Stacy: I'm happy for you to handle it.]

Like I was saying, I thought it might be a good idea if I shared some of our thinking behind improvisation activities and why they're important in the context of creating learner engagement.

From a student perspective, improvisation activities are useful for stimulating immediate, focused interaction and reflection related to specific concepts or skills. They also encourage both lateral thinking, or brain stretching, and creativity. Finally, these activities are great for both individual and group activities,

For learning designers and instructors, improvisation activities have four basic traits that make them valuable for student engagement strategies.

  1. The are environment independent -- To begin with, improvisations are activities that work extremely well for student engagement regardless of the physical or digital classroom setting. In other words, they can be conducted easily in both face-to-face or online environments. That's particularly useful for instructors who teach the same courses in multiple environments.

  2. They are subject independent -- In addition to being "environment independent," improvisation activities also work equally well across all disciplines. They can be used effectively in Humanities, STEM, and Business courses alike. So the old excuse of "that's a great idea but it worn't work for _________" just doesn't hold true with improvisation activities.

  3. They are time flexible -- Improvisation  activities are also extremely flexible with regards to time. You can create improvisation activities that last under 2 minutes, or more elaborate exercises that take up to 10-15 minutes. The choice and design are entirely up to the instructor.

  4. They support many different delivery options -- Finally, improvisation activities can be delivered or implemented in many different ways. This means that they can work for any type of teaching style or personality. This means the other old excuse of "that's a great idea but it won't work with my teaching style," is also a non-starter with these activities.
So, What's in an Improv?

When we set up an improvisation activity, we generally think about three separate parts -- 1) the setup; 2) the activity; 3) the elaboration.

The setup is really important because it explains what the improvisation activity is and why it matters. This also helps everyone feel comfortable with the activity. That's a big part of doing improvs with students since the open-ended nature of these activities causes a certain amount of anxiety for some. Not that discomfort is necessarily a bad thing – a bit of healthy anxiety can generate lots of creative thinking – but we generally want learners to be comfortably uncomfortable.

The activity part of the improv is the actual improvisation itself. That’s the part where everyone reflects, interacts, and creates based on the setup. 

But a good improvisation doesn’t stop there. We also want to capture the energy and ideas created by the community, and then use that to extend the connectedness of the activity. That’s what we call the elaboration.

In my next post, I'll outline our first improvisation activity example and discuss its many possibilities and permutations.

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