Guest article by Rebekah Russell-Bennett.
Once upon a time…
…there was a professor in a university for witches. She wore flowers behind her ear and the streaks in her long dark violet hair ranged from dragons-blood magenta to nightshade purple (depending on her mood). This professor taught subjects in how to design new spells and magical items which was a very popular class with the young witches and warlocks who attended the university. Then one day, quite unexpectedly, a plague swept through the land forcing all students to fly back to their homes, some nearby and others in far-flung lands.
The university didn’t know how long this mysterious plague would last; there was no known cure and being highly contagious could spread silently through the magical community. While the soothsayers consulted their oracle and many looked for signs in the stars the Ministry of Plagues and other Dangerous Diseases decreed that until answers could be found the university could no longer practice in the physical realm. The only option was to operate in the Aetheric realm which was the fourth subplane of the physical plane (the others being solid, liquid, and gaseous matter). The Aetheric realm, also referred to as the virtual realm by mortals, invokes knowledge and images that can be transferred through the air.
The professor knew that entering the Aetheric realm could be highly dangerous, a place less trodden by her ilk due to the unforeseen dangers that lurked. The university had considered delivering classes on this plane but had not yet deemed it safe so was not equipped for a speedy transition. Yet it seemed, that the fates had conspired to nudge the University and instead of a tentative entrance, full-blown emergence was now required.
The Aetheric Plane was characterised by uncertainty and risk, with many of the budding witches and warlocks preferring to handle magical supplies and ingredients for spells in a classroom designed for such matters. Many of the other professors had little to no experience of how to teach in this plane and clambered to navigate the realm. The professor with the pink streaks had experience of teaching in both the physical realm and the Aetheric plane however this teaching was limited. Now she needed to manage the uncertainty and risk for herself and her students with limited resources; time, and, cognitive and emotional capacity.
The professor read the portents of change earlier than others and had the advantage of time; she entered the Aetheric plane a week earlier than her colleagues and realised that the frailty of the magical character needed to be dealt with if she was to teach successfully in this realm. In her readings of an ancient codex from the mortal world (see Figure below), she knew that the magical brain shared a process in common with the frailer beings, behavioural biases.
These mental shortcuts came in handy when under pressure and suffering a lack of resources however would present problems for the young witches and warlocks in adapting to the new way of learning. She soon learnt four things about teaching in the Aether (virtual realm):
1. The need to know what to remember
Some students will have difficulty knowing which information taught in this mode is important to remember. Two of the biases likely to be present in this virtual environment that inhibit memory processes are negativity bias and absent-mindness. Negativity bias is the way that the brain emphasises negative experiences more than positive experiences and can create an overall impression of negativity. Thus when students are asked “how is the virtual learning going”, they may be more inclined to remember the less pleasant aspects of the experience. This can spill over to social media and create an impression that the experience is more negative than perhaps the reality. Absent-mindedness is the lack of focus and ‘zoning out” that can occur when listening passively to virtual lessons. The drifting of the mind to other, perhaps more interesting, topics can mean that students do not ‘hear’ and therefore cannot remember important information. Thus they may miss the information about dosage of a key ingredient such as the flower of an Angel Trumpet plant (of the same family as Deadly Nightshade) to ease a nervous disposition and instead end up putting someone into a coma. So it is important to create sufficient interaction with the students to keep them focussed and to create a positive experience. White magic can help here.
2. The need to act fast
When change is thrust upon us, we are faced with conflicting demands on resources and the uncertainty of future payoffs. The resources that become scarce are time, effort and sometimes ability. Dealing with the effects of sudden change, like a plague, trigger biases in our brain to help us act quickly. When we favour the abilities and knowledge that we already have, such as teaching in a physical room or the use of a cauldron to brew potions, we are demonstrating the endowment effect. In this situation we ‘endow’ our current knowledge with more value than new knowledge and we can therefore be reluctant to part with this knowledge or ability. This emphasis on what we already have is also evident in the bias of loss aversion where we are motivated by what we think we will lose than what we might gain. For instance, while there might be more opportunities in being able to teach potentially brilliant young witches who cannot travel to attend the school we are more concerned about what we might lose in doing this. The reluctance to change can stifle creativity and stop us from viewing opportunities in our scrying bowls and lead us down the path of the dark arts.
3. Too much information
One of the effects of a plague is shock, and shock can cause anxiety, even in magical folk. This can lead students to experience confirmation bias where they look for signs that reinforce their worries. For instance, if a young witch is worried that she will fail an assignment because she is not in her usual environment and can’t easily practice her potion-making skills, she is more likely to perceive communication aimed to be helpful as threatening. When she is overloaded with information, she may interpret frequent ‘helpful assignment tips’ as evidence that she is not competent. Reducing the frequency of communication about assignments may help alleviate these dark thoughts. One way to do this might be highlight key tips in a way that draws attention, thus reducing the need to repeatedly say the same thing. This is the Von Restorff effect, named after the great Wizard who studied the mysteries of the mind. Also known as the ‘isolation effect’ (which is appropriate during a plague), presenting information in a way that differs from the rest of the class content will get attention – for instance creating information in the form of an astral projection will definitely cut through the clutter.
4. Not enough meaning
Sudden change, particularly change that is outside of our control, can create increased need to find and create meaning. Sometimes we seek reassurance from other people that our thoughts, beliefs and actions are correct, in other cases we think we are communicating our thoughts and feelings to others to create shared meaning. The bandwagon effect can be present when young witches find that the classmates who used to attend physical classes are not present in the Aetheric realm and so they too decide to join the non-attendance bandwagon. Before they have a chance to find out that virtual learning may not be as bad as they think, they have mad up their minds. Wooing these students back can then be quite a challenge. Professors too jump on bandwagons and use the tools that are popular rather than the ones that are best fit for task – think the new Zoom astral projection that everyone is talking about. If fledgling witches and warlocks do attend the virtual learning, they may suffer from the illusion of transparency, that is, they may overestimate the abilities of the professor (who is doing their best to conceal their worries or fears about managing multiple spells and magical items simultaneously. The students may also overestimate the ability of their professor to detect any anxiety or worry -emotions are difficult to detect remotely even for the most skilled witch). Providing a mechanism for sharing these emotions to reduce the bias is important – emojis might help here.
Three magical items
In addition to the broadcast tool of Zoom, the professor identified three tools that became essential for her virtual teaching in the Aetheric realm;
1. Miro. (www.miro.com) This website has a heap of useful templates that can be shared with students live or asynchnously. This helps to communicate visually where they can see the template being completed live in a class. We used the customer journey template to map out the student magical journey.
2. Slido. (www.sli.do) This tool can be accessed via an app or website and can be integrated into a PPT presentation. This is a great way of doing polls, receiving questions from students who are too shy to speak up and for students to vote on topics or issues. This worked really well when we had a guest speaker from the Ministry.
3. Tangible items. Just because the learning is remote doesn’t mean that tangibility and the senses are no longer involved. Students can’t easily make potions virtually– so sending them home-kits or asking them to obtain items and keep them handy for class can create more meaning and avoid absent-mindedness.
How to stay in contact with your students during a plague
Thinking about the behavioural biases that can be present in the Aetheric (virtual) world, communication needs to be Easy, Attractive, Social and Timely (the EAST framework leverages bias).
1. Make it easy to take a risk. Low-stake learning can reduce perceived risk.
2. Make it funny so that it is memorable and attractive to read. Possibly include a joke or pun.
3. Make it social to create a sense of belongness and emotional transparency. Share personal stories, tips that work for most people and encourage others to share theirs.
4. Make it timely. Highlight the important info in a way that stands out and only say it once when the time is right.
Avoid the dark arts and leverage your white magic.
Professor Rebekah Russell-Bennett
Unit Co-ordinator of UG and PG units in innovation and designing goods and services, Deputy Director Centre for Behavioural Economics, Society and Technology (BEST), Founder of the Academy of Magical Arts,
Queensland University of Technology, Australia.