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Finding creativity and taming the online activity beast

10 Dec 2021 | Rachelle O’Brien Senior Digital Learning Designer and #creativeHE network co-lead, Rachelle O’Brien, Durham University, shares her thoughts on finding creativity in learning and teaching and developing creative online learning activities.

Finding creativity

This blog post is late. Why am I starting a blog post like this, how is this relevant you may wonder? Well, for good reason. Creativity is challenging. I think many people have a misperception that creativity is easy for everybody. It really isn’t. The first thing I do when I’m stressed is become very serious and completely de-prioritise creativity. But I did it! I gave myself permission to have time and space and find creativity, and now I’ll make sure to celebrate this as a small win!

I want to make a start here and say, that it’s ok. It’s perfectly normal to be like me and find creativity tough sometimes. Nobody will judge you for this, and honestly, people tend to be none the wiser! It’s perfectly normal to be the opposite and always feel creative. Oh, and it’s perfectly normal to be neither of these things. The reality is that creativity is different for everybody.

Creativity is not only an integral part of my own philosophy of education, it’s integral to the job I do. Working with technology requires a lot of creative thinking! Often though, it can be difficult to think creatively. And so it should be. The process of being creative in itself involves overcoming barriers. For me, giving myself permission to have time and space to find and feel creative are big barriers.

So once creativity has been apprehended, how do we channel it into online activities? The first step is recognising that the intricacy of creativity, especially in an online context, is new and evolving. It’s a practice that seems limitless but can feel overwhelming. Some things will work, some things will crash! But it’s important to remember to take a step back and take a breath. If things don’t go to plan, try again. The key to finding creativity is recognising it’s a journey, not a destination. But most of all, it’s about trying.

It's a journey

My creative journey tends to look a little something like this:

  1. Prioritising creativity
  2. Accepting failure as part of the process
  3. Go forth and conquer!
  4. Recognising when it’s not happening and accepting that it’s ok to stop
  5. Maximising on opportunities
  6. Being vulnerable
  7. The power of silence
  8. Oh no, I’m overwhelmed!
  9. Loop back, loop back.
creative 2

Drawing is something I’ve got little confidence in, but I thought I would practice what I preach, share my drawing, and be vulnerable!

So, creativity really is a journey, at different times you will be at different points. Remember, the key to creativity is trying!

Developing creative online learning activities

Now we’ve found creativity and recognised it’s a journey let’s think about how to apply it to developing creative online learning activities. The starting point when thinking about any learning activity is to think of a purpose. If you’re looking for the pedagogy here, this is the middle part of constructive alignment, the thread that would lead learners from the learning outcome to the assessment. The actionable bit that holds everything together.

With purpose, I tend to use a very simple rule of thumb. You should be able to explain the purpose of your activity in one sentence. If you can’t it needs to be simplified. I think this is even more important with an online delivery mode. Especially as there tends to be less opportunity to read the room and much more chance that learners will be figuring things out in their own space.

The other benefit of keeping it simple of course is that you can build complexity retrospectively, as the activity and your thinking progresses. Plus, it gives you space for creativity in the moment. It’s much more difficult to take away complexity than it is to build it in later. So, I tend to think of this as a layering activity.

From experience, developing creative activities can feel overwhelmingly large and unbounded – where do you start, where do you finish? Equally, when feeling inspired this is the point where complexity can creep in and before you know it, you’re wrestling an unruly activity beast, trying to make sense of it.

This is where my second piece of advice comes in. Think about your audience.

To decide on your audience, ask yourself the following questions. What is the point of this activity? What are learners doing? Do they need to have achieved anything from this activity? If so, what is it?

Finally, applying a very loose structure can give you some flexibility but also a way to hold things together. This might sound counterproductive to creativity, but I actually find this helps me to keep purpose and audience at the forefront of my mind and helps me to keep unruly activities in check. After all, we don’t want the activities developing a mind of their own and taking over… or do we?

Key takeaways

Here are a few key takeaways to bear in mind when you yourself are exploring creativity and planning creative online learning activities.

  • Give yourself time and space to find your creativity. What does it look like? Do you have any barriers? If so, what are they? Understanding this will help you to keep an eye out for things that may be hindering your creativity.
  • Remember, everybody has a different journey. You might find mapping yours out a good place to start.
  • Try, try and try again. Filing, or chaos, or crashing doesn’t matter – it’s just part of the process. Sometimes it’s these situations that reveal golden nuggets!
  • Celebrate small victories! I can’t emphasise this one enough. If you struggle to recognise your own success, find a peer to champion you.
  • Remember - purpose, audience and structure. Keep that online learning activity beast tamed – or don’t! The choice is yours.
  • Finally, here is your Creativity get out of jail free card. Use this card to give yourself permission to try, to explore, to fail. Tweet me and tell me about what you’re exploring @rachelleeobrien


Rachelle O’Brien is a Senior Digital Learning Designer at Durham Centre for Academic Development at the Durham University. Rachelle has worked in education for over 10 years and her research interests focus on digital education, cognition, creativity, play and games. To find out more about Rachelle follow her on Twitter. @rachelleeobrien

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