The 4th e-Wall

The 4th Wall

Live theatre artists learn early in their careers about the 4th wall.

Imagine you’ve got a great seat for a famous show- Phantom of the Opera for example- in the West End of London! Or ‘Chicago’ –-members of the Beyond Distance team saw a fabulous production to a packed house at De Montfort Hall in Leicester on Thursday – so it’s fresh in my mind.

If you are in the audience, you obediently sit facing forwards, reasonably expecting to be able to observe and absorb the action on the stage and follow the story – after the curtains have parted. If you were performing on the stage, you would have the backdrop behind you and the wings to left and right. And in front of you- the audience.

The transparent barrier between the illusions created on the stage and the audience is known as the 4th Wall.

The 4th wall is a well established convention to enhance the viewers’ enjoyment, creating the idea of watching ‘real’ action. Of course, 4th walls are also dividers, barriers, blockers. Maybe you’ve guessed where I’m going with this … for university teachers there are 4th walls to consider.

The closest clone of live performance for education is the lecture – indeed we call the space provided a ‘lecture theatre’. Lectures are established, efficient, expected ways of conveying information, some of it very complex. The best teachers are intuitively know that for their audience to absorb and apply the information – create learning- there need to be ways of reducing the invisible barrier. Some cross the divide themselves; sometimes the ‘audience’ is invited on ‘stage’. Occasionally, even in the 21st Century, the 4th wall is made of glass, and less easily shattered. Some professors may believe that some kind of magic and mystic should remain, clear of the wall. (No ‘Mr Cellophane’ for them!)

When it comes to e-learning, maybe the computer screen is the wall? A wide variety of concepts are used to bridge the 4th e-wall. Common examples are enabling learners to work together through the mediation of the learning technology or exploiting the medium through interactive video. Ever since I first started researching the impact of remote groups I noted that some people saw themselves inside all the action that was going on ‘all of us here together’ whilst others remained convinced that they remained on the peripheral (sometimes called lurking) and the scintillating engaging stuff was happening ‘out there’ !

Web 2.0 is all about the spirit of crossing the 4th wall. There’s a growing, challenging movement of avoiding any walls! Now, the learner can create a representation of him or herself and join the action on the ‘stage’ – fly over a few walls- perhaps by driving an avatar in Second Life. Or directly contribute to the ‘storytelling’ by posting ideas, examples and learner-generated resources.

So Friends, Romans, colleagues, lend me your ears;

I come to bury Walls, not to praise them.

(Sorry Mr S.)

Gilly Salmon

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  1. Teaching at a research-led, dual-mode university « Beyond Distance Research Alliance Blog

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