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No need to call ‘cut!’ - Workplace from Facebook keeps the National Film and Television School teaching during COVID-19

Jessica Twentyman Profile picture for user jtwentyman May 21, 2020
During the current pandemic, students are still learning at the NFTS as Workplace from Facebook takes over in delivering remote training and education.

(via Pixabay)

Like pretty much every school and college right now, the doors of the National Film and Television School (NFTS) in leafy Beaconsfield, some 25 miles north-west of London, are closed for the foreseeable future. But the school’s director, Jon Wardle, is pleased to report that its 500-plus students are still pushing ahead with their studies.

Filmmaking is all about creative problem-solving and staying reactive to on-set situations, he says, so he’s particularly proud of the ingenuity his team has shown in making sure that the learning continues remotely and that the close-knit school community stays that way, even in the face of the coronavirus pandemic.

Three days before the UK government officially announced a nationwide lockdown, the school was already delivering high-end workstations to the homes and accomodation of students who need them for visual effects, composing or games design work. At the same time, Wardle enlisted celebrated director David Fincher (director of ‘Seven’, ‘Fight Club’ and ‘Gone Girl’, among others) to kick off a coronavirus season of virtual masterclasses via Zoom.

These have continued at a brisk pace of two or three a week, and have attracted a dazzling roster of big names, including Academy Award winning director Steve McQueen (‘Twelve Years a Slave’); ‘The Usual Suspects’ writer and director Christopher McQuarrie; and comedy legend Judd Apatow.

A sense of community

The bedrock of the NFTS’s online offering to students is Workplace from Facebook. This was implemented last year, with two primary goals. First, it’s a place where practical information is shared with students, such as class schedules and locations, and information on where to turn for help with accommodation, financial hardship, mental health problems and so on. But also, Workplace also gives students a better view of what their cohorts are working on, at a multidisciplinary institution that covers more than 30 specialist areas, such as cinematography, model making, composing, visual effects, sound design and so on. Says Wardle:

As the director of the School, I saw all this amazing stuff happening in different departments - but I was also aware that I was probably one of the only people who really saw everything that was going on. If you’re a screenwriting student, you might not feel able to drop into the modelmaking department and see what model makers were doing. If you were in the visual effects department, you didn’t know what the composers were up to. I just wanted to create a space where the 520 or so students and another 100 staff could understand what was happening in other bits of the school, which frankly, is a bit of a rabbit warren of different studio spaces and workshops. 

And that’s definitely happened. Every time the model making course finishes a set or a puppet, for example, they post pictures of it on Workplace - and that’s really powerful for the students, because they get to see what their peers think of their work. I’d like to think that far more students go through the school now seeing what their peers do and understanding better the wide range of roles and specialist skills that go into making films.”

Remote learning

Wardle was thrilled, he says, with how quickly students took to the enterprise collaboration platform - but it’s during the current crisis that its value has really come to the fore. There are those masterclasses, of course; the times and Zoom links for these are posted on Workplace, so that all students can participate, along with those for regular seminars and tutorials. At the same time, the Chat function has become an important way for the entire school community to communicate, regardless of location:

The reality is that, at the moment, a student’s experience at the school is entirely mediated through Workplace - for them, that IS the school right now. Instead of travelling to the campus and walking through the front door in the mornings, they open up Workplace. And right there, they can see their schedule for the day, have a chat with a classmate or member of staff about a project they’re working on, check deadlines for assignments, take a look at what virtual events are open to them.

Since the NFTS is a registered charity, it gets Workplace from Facebook for free - and after a lengthy career in higher education, in which he’s seen his fair share of costly virtual learning environments and cumbersome intranets, that feels “pretty remarkable” to Wardle, he says. Students don’t struggle to use it or to access it via their mobile devices, and staff have really risen to the challenge of using it to deliver new ways of learning:

There have been practical filming and sound recording exercises that students can complete at home; online demonstrations of lighting live from Cinematography tutors’ houses; group screenings and reviews of student films already in post-production, with sixty-plus staff and students gathering on Zoom to critique work. And Student Services have chipped in by organising mindfulness and meditation sessions. But for me, the most important thing is that students continue to feel supported by the School during this crisis. In fact, they’ve told us that they do, and for me, that means the platform’s working for us.

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