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Finding a new path: Building affective online learning spaces for creative writing and arts practice

Francis Gilbert, Senior Lecturer in Education at Goldsmiths, University of London Miranda Matthews, Lecturer in Art and Design Education at University of London

While we have seen a justified focus upon schools during the Covid-19 crisis, relatively little attention has been paid to how teacher-educators are adjusting their practice. In the UK in mid-March 2020 all of us working in education had to radically change within the space of a few days. In our case, school visits were replaced by online tutorials with the beginning teachers we train. ‘Real-time’ lectures were pre-recorded, and seminars conducted via video link technologies such as Microsoft Teams and the Big Blue Button. Staff meetings also became ‘virtual’.

In the midst of this massive upheaval, we met in mid-May to discuss how to respond creatively to the crisis. Feeling constrained by such much frenetic, regulated activity, we decided to do some ‘free writing’ which allows you ‘to write anything’ (Bolton, 2010, p. 23). Our rationale was that such writing provides a space for feeling to exist. We reflected that while educating our trainees online had been a creative process – we were constantly innovating – there was little chance to express our emotions. Working online can demand a perfectionist sensibility. Virtual learning spaces are tightly curated by the software’s neat design: every keyboard tap and every interaction is logged somewhere. Both of us wanted to escape these ‘sanitised’ constraints and purposefully create an overspill, to be experimental. Experiences of risk and imperfection are essential for creativity (Biesta, 2013); in addition, we wanted to see if free writing might provide us with further insight into how to deal with the new paradigms of online learning, social distancing and the global pandemic.

‘We wanted to see if free writing might provide us with further insight into how to deal with the new paradigms of online learning, social distancing and the global pandemic.’

The free writing encouraged us to consider whether nurturing a similar ‘lack of perfection’ using this and other techniques, such as spontaneous drawing, might help our students. We came to perceive that immediacy and rawness are an essential part of creative development, and would like to think about how more polished online interfaces for learning could accommodate the emotive within teaching practice. Bound by the structure of online spaces, following tight rubrics of assessment and control of interaction, do teacher-educators and students need to have a chance to find a new path (Craft, 2011)?

Our thinking about this connects with a posthumanist research methodology (Fox & Alldred, 2015). Posthumanists look beyond human interactions to explore how nonhuman and more-than-human forces affect us. One posthumanist approach is to see life as ‘machinic’ (Deleuze & Guattari, 2013), in that human society has an interconnection with animals, matter and the spatial environment. Human agency is inseparable from materiality: as found in the push and pull of atoms, of ecologies, of weather patterns, of migrations, of social hierarchies, of institutional structures and of technological developments. These ‘machines’ form ‘assemblages’: they combine to create new machines of ‘vibrant ecological matter’ (Zapata, Kuby, & Thiel, 2018, p. 493) which are synergies of ‘intra-action’ between social and environmental forces (Barad, 2007; Jensen, 2019, p. 659). So, for example, in the sea change of Covid-19, the machines of the virus, of human bodies, of global travel, of computer technologies and of educational structures have led to an upsurge of ‘online learning’.

If we approach the current situation by decentralising human control (Barad, 2007; Braidotti, 2013), we could recognise that the natural world has tried to take back some of its presence in the spaces left between humans. Could we perhaps create ‘safe breakout spaces’ online that relate to this shift in the natural world, and nurture affective and spontaneous creativity? What kind of online tools and processes could help this happen?

The next steps in our research will be to see if freedom of expression in online creative breakout spaces might build a forum for social justice and inclusion in learning.


Barad, K. (2007). Meeting the universe halfway: Quantum physics and the entanglement of matter and meaning. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Biesta, G. (2013). The beautiful risk of education. Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers.

Bolton, G. (2010). Reflective practice: Writing and professional development (3rd ed.). London: Sage.

Craft, A. (2011). Creativity and education futures: Learning in a digital age. Stoke on Trent: Trentham.

Deleuze, G., Guattari, F., & Massumi, B. (2013). A thousand plateaus: Capitalism and schizophrenia. London: Bloomsbury Academic.

Fox, N. & Alldred, P. (2015). New materialist social inquiry: Designs, methods and the research-assemblage. International Journal of Social Research Methodology, 18(4), 399–414,

Jenson, M. (2019). Digital literacy in a sociomaterial perspective (pp. 659–661, XIII). European Conference on E-Learning, Aalborg University, Copenhagen, Denmark.

Zapata, A., Kuby, C. R., & Thiel, J. J. (2018). Encounters with writing: Becoming-with posthumanist ethics. Journal of Literacy Research, 50(4), 478–501.