Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Talking teaching or technology? A lesson from Pixar

Reflecting on how we train tutors to use Elluminate (our audiographic conferencing system) for a meeting of the Open University's eLearning Community, I realised that our attitude has done a 180 degree turn in just a few years.

When we began, we thought it was very important that tutors learned how to use all the Elluminate controls before thinking about how to teach with it, despite the time it would take them to do so. (The full manual is 365 pages long!) Now we're more inclined to the view that the first thing a tutor should do is to watch an Elluminate tutorial, or even better - with just a little basic preparation - to take part in one, run by someone else. Once they know what can be done, they can find out how to do it for themselves, with the aid of the manual if need be - and now with the motivation to do so.

The great thing about this approach is that it values the competences which tutors already have, rather than plunging them into an area where they're unskilled and are liable to become demoralised when the inevitable technical problems arise. ("There you are, I told you I'm rubbish with computers.") Our tutors are already brilliant at bulding rapport with students, with reassuring and challenging them, and creating a safe space in which they can admit to problems and make mistakes. All they need to do is to learn to do these things through a new medium.

To encourage tutors feeling nervous about the technology, I tell them the story of John Lasseter: the director or executive producer of some of Pixar's greatest computer-animated films (Toy Story, Monsters Inc, The Incredibles, etc).

In 1981, when he moved from Disney to the division of Lucasfilm which would become Pixar, computer animation was still very much dominated by programmers and technologists, and the sorts of films they made showed rotating cubes with changing images on each side, or geometrical shapes rising out of pools of molten liquid, or the play of light on complex textured surfaces. (I remember going to a computer animation festival at this time, where one of the presenters got very, very excited about the precise fractal algorithm he'd used to generate the texture of ice and snow on a simulated glacier.)

By contrast, Lasseter's 1984 film "André and Wally B" was a story about a little man and a bee, and it was shown at a computer graphics conference where it got a tremendous reception. After the showing, a guy came up to him and said: "Hey, your film was really funny!" to which Lasster made a polite and appreciative response. Then the guy asked: "What software do you use?" and Lasseter explained that it was just a basic key-frame animation tool, pretty much what everyone else was using, nothing very special. The guy was visibly disappointed. "Yeah," he mused, "but your film was so funny!"

And Lasseter realised that the computer guy was assuming that the film's being funny was somehow a product of the software. It wasn't, of course: it was a product of character, emotion, narrative and timing - all things that Lasseter, as a former Disney animator, knew how to do, and do well.

So what I remind our tutors is that if someone says to them, as we hope they will, "Hey, that was a really great online tutorial you gave!" it won't be because of the excellence of the software or even their expertise in using it. It will be because of those qualities which already make them great tutors face-to-face and which they've learned to apply in the online environment.

References: John Lasseter has told this story in interviews for the BBC TV programme 'From pencils to pixels' ('Imagine' series, transmitted 10 December 2003) and at the 2001 London Film Festival
For OU staff only: a video of my talk to the eLearning Community is at (under 15 November 2011, Session 3, 27 mins in) and details of the event are at

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