You Can’t Teach Music Online – or Can You?

The following post was written by Susan Gedutis Lindsay, Associate Director for Instructional Design in the Office of Online Learning in collaboration with the Online Learning FLC, which includes Stefani Langol, Libby Allison, Kathleen Howland, and Ricardo Poza.

Many music teachers who are asked to design an online course may feel stumped about the best way to go about it. And some can’t imagine that it could possibly work. “You can’t teach music online!” they say. Music is a social art, and the maestro-student relationship is part of our tradition. It’s hard to imagine that that relationship, never mind the emotional subtleties of musicianship, could be fostered online.

Many teachers begin by asking me,

“How do I translate this passion and personality I bring to the classroom to an online setting?”

You’re a good teacher. If someone asks you what’s the key to your success, you say, “I captivate my students!” “I’m funny!” “I energize students with my passionate delivery of the topic.” “I read their faces and teach with compassion.”

You may wonder, “How in the world can I bring that skill to any form of digital learning?” But here’s the thing: This is not the question to ask. When designing an online lesson, the question to ask is:

“What skills or information am I teaching in the classroom and how can I ensure that the students learn the same thing using digital methods like online learning?”

This shifts the emphasis away from what you do in the classroom, to what you want the student to learn. That is the heart of designing effective instruction and it will be key to the success of your digital learning materials.

Online learning works with the right subject, the right teacher, and the right student. Not every course on campus is going to become an online course, and not every subject, student, and teacher is suited for this approach to teaching and learning. But there are students and teachers for whom online teaching and learning does work.

For those teachers who are creative and inspired to start thinking differently about how they are reaching students, there is enormous opportunity for innovation.

It all begins with a focus on the student. You plan an effective course by deciding what you want the student to be able to DO at the end of the instruction. By starting with the student, you’re already well on your way.

The tools and learning aides that these students will use need to be addressed as well. There is a widely held misunderstanding that online learning is about making elegant lecture videos or PowerPoint slides and posting them for students to read online. I refer to this as “just putting stuff up there.” But that’s not effective “online instruction,” any more than a textbook serves as a replacement for classroom teaching.

Why? Because “just putting stuff up there,” is static. It is devoid of the learning community and practice opportunities that have been marks of good education since Plato first came up with his ideas several thousand years ago.

Add one more “mark” to that list: assessment.

The best online learning occurs when students receive rich feedback on their performance, most often in the form of a dedicated instructor actively engaging with his or her students online.

And then there’s course design.

In an ideal world, to build an online course, a subject matter expert (that’s you, the music teacher) works with a trained instructional designer (that’s someone like me) to combine what you know about the subject to what we know about how people learn online. Here are some instructional design techniques you can use if you are planning to put your learning materials online as an online lesson.

How does an instructional designer think? We rely on instructional design models and learning theory to frame our thinking. Regardless of the medium, most educational psychologists agree that the best learning occurs when three elements are present:

  • Motivation. Make sure your students understand why this content matters to their musical lives.
  • Requisite and prerequisite knowledge. Ensure that they have all the tools they need to achieve the objectives.
  • Practice and feedback. Give them lots. But not too much; just enough.

Then, think backwards. That is, start with the end. Decide what you want your final assessment to be and then design instruction that leads your students to be able to do what you have asked them.

To borrow (and add just a little) to the Kodály method of learning music, here’s a solid way to present content:

  • Prepare: Provide information that they need to understand the task you want them to perform, and explain how to do the task.
  • Present: Show them examples of success.
  • Practice: Give them a chance to practice, and provide helpful tips along the way to help them improve.
  • Perform: Design an assessment that gives them a chance to show you that they can do what you asked of them.

While this instructional process appears rather linear on paper, it is often organic in process. Does it look familiar to you? Perhaps you’ve used these same principles when you’ve designed a classroom unit. Whether online or in the classroom, many of the same rules apply. But for online, the ongoing challenge is in fully utilizing the technological tools — the media, the activities, the online discussion forums, the assignments — that will allow students to explore and practice whatever skills you are leading them to learn. Then, give them opportunities to demonstrate that they have, indeed, mastered the prescribed skills.

Think beyond “just putting stuff up online,” and look for ways to motivate your students and get them engaged with you and with each other. Be sure that you provide them with plenty of guided practice. Develop assessments that allow them to demonstrate to you what they have learned to do. And make sure the design is flexible so that you can continue to improve the work with student feedback. Then, you are well on your way to creating online learning that is unique, personal, engaging, and effective!

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