The School That Has Produced Four Oscar Winners

Christina Gómez
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Sydney, Australia

How do you teach creativity? This is the main question that the Australian Film Television and Radio School (AFTRS) has been asking itself from the very beginning, since it took on responsibility for fostering the country’s film industry. AFTRS has a very high reputation, having had five students nominated for the Academy Awards and four who have actually won an Oscar. One of the winners was Andrew Lesnie, the cinematographer behind Lord of the Rings.

David Balfour, who is the Head of Teaching and Learning, and Bree Sigsworth Pryce who is theCourse Leader talked about what it’s like to teach the passionate pursuit of excellence that AFTRS is known for and how online resources have helped in their efforts to impart knowledge.

When AFTRS was trying to take advantage of the new enthusiasm for e-learning in 2014, it was careful to understand that teaching online isn’t necessarily better just because it’s online. It wanted to make sure that online learning would be the best way to get information across to its students, and if it wasn’t, it wouldn’t use it. The first obstacle it came across was handling equipment. Being so well known around the world, AFTRS is recognized for having some of the best equipment on the market, and students look for that when they enroll. It was impossible to send a student who signed up for an online class a high-end camera so he could learn. This made them think that teaching cinematography online wasn’t a possibility.

What David and Bree realized was that teaching both the theory behind cinematography and the technical part on a camera in a classroom leads to information overload. Students don’t fully understand either the theoretical or the practical part. They decided it would be best to teach things like color, composition and movement online. That way, students would fully grasp the concepts and go back to the lesson, since it was online, to review them. Afterwards, they would be asked to make a recording of what they had learned using any camera they wanted, either their smartphone camera or a more professional one. That way, they would focus on the theory they had learned instead of on the technology, and finding a low-tech solution would, in turn, fuel their creativity.

(Right) David Balfour, Head of Learning & Teaching, Australian Film Television and Radio School and (Left) Bree Sigsworth-Pryce, Course Manager, Diplomas. Photo: AFP Wendell Teodoro.
(Right) David Balfour, Head of Learning & Teaching, Australian Film Television and Radio School and (Left) Bree Sigsworth-Pryce, Course Manager, Diplomas. Photo: AFP Wendell Teodoro.

After students grasped the key concepts, they could go to their on campus class, put their knowledge to the test, and try out the equipment. It’s outdated to think that the best alternative is for a student to sit in a classroom to hear someone speak for hours, since the classroom should be used as a workshop, for exchanging ideas and for practicing a skill. The same goes for radio and television, where students need to learn not only how to manage certain topics but also how to handle equipment. David and Bree have found that by far the best way to teach is via blended learning. When the school first adopted e-learning, it was nervous about whether it would be able to maintain its reputation and provide the best teaching while also teaching creativity without face-to-face interaction between teachers and students.

Both David and Bree agree that although it hasn’t been an easy ride it has been interesting, even though they have faced some challenges, However, every time they have made an error, it has helped them to make the next decision in terms of their e-learning curriculum. AFTRS started its online program in 2015 with about 10 online courses. Some ran for only one semester and showed they didn’t work well, while others lasted for the full two semesters. Based on that, they decided they would keep online teaching in 2016.

Because of what Moodlerooms gave them in terms of technology and plugins, they decided to adopt e-learning because they felt it really offered everything they needed. One thing they had to keep in mind was that the production of screen and broadcast content is a highly collaborative art form. There is no way one person can direct, act, film and write. With this in mind, they needed the technology that would allow students to cooperate with each other. One important factor that they have found keeps creativity alive in classes that usually take place once a week is keeping an open forum all the time, where the dialogue between teacher and students never stops, so there’s no break between classes and students are always alert to something that might enrich the conversation.

“AFTRS decided to adopt e-learning because they felt it really offered everything they needed.”

Something else that AFTRS has established is that it doesn’t necessarily employ teachers who are very academic or who have a lot of teaching experience, but rather people who are coming directly from the industry, such as screenwriters who have just written a movie, to teach what it’s really like to write for Hollywood and other industries. Through a process of induction and mentoring all industry practitioners are given the skillset to start teaching their craft.  The same goes for students, who are accepted purely on merit. A portfolio that shows much creativity and potential is more likely to be chosen than one that illustrates perfect technique.

Even though the Australian Film Television and Radio School’s online program is still in its infancy after 15 months, both David and Bree agree that there is enthusiasm for this mode of delivery. Basically, AFTRS takes three important things into consideration when planning its curriculum.

1. Prioritizing the outcome of the class. Figuring out what the student should look like by the end of the course, what the main parts of the class will be and what teaching method to use. That way, it can find out if the class should be completely online, blended, or if it would be better for it to be taught on campus.

2. Talking continuously with the industry. Knowing what is expected of students when they graduate, what steps the industry is taking next and preparing students to be able to handle them, and giving them sufficient practice so they are prepared for the workplace.

3. Having no fixed point of view when teaching creativity, as everything has to be evolving. Creativity is born through practice, through doing, through reflection and through a community. Creativity is about taking risks and losing the fear of failure. Creativity can’t be right or wrong, it’s an ongoing evolution of someone’s idea.



* David Balfour, Head of Learning & Teaching, Australian Film Television and Radio School and Bree Sigsworth-Pryce, Course Manager, Diplomas.


* AFP Wendell Teodoro.

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