Monday, June 20, 2011

Online learning - why bother?

So this is a blogpost as rant/cry for help. I have read plenty of these before, but never written one.

I'm Head of Musicology at ANU School of Music, and Chair of the Education Committee there.

My main responsibilities in the first job are to coordinate the academic areas of music students' study - music history, cultural inquiry, music theory and analysis, non-western musics - and to teach the first-year course in same (of course the most important course the students take!). I'm just coming off a hugely successful blended course in first semester, about which I am presenting at Moodle Moot AU in a month.

In the second part of my job (Chair of Education Committee) I'm responsible for coordinating the introduction of a wholly new BMus degree by 2013, one that is built upon principles of flexibility, student-centered learning, and makes full use of current and future learning technologies.

Just now, I have had to make a change in staffing for music theory teaching in semester 2: the person scheduled to teach it now won't be. So, looking to make an opportunity out of adversity, I decided to teach the course myself, online.

Now, this makes excellent pedagogic sense. Learning music theory requires students to learn a set of skills and concepts that are essentially compositional: how to put notes together to make coherent structures of pitch and voice. They do this individually - while I am a big fan of group learning, music theory is probably one thing that needs an individual focus. But the plus side of this is that students can work at their own pace - theory is probably best taught asynchronously, with the students having as much (or as little) time as they need to tinker, to get it right. There is minimal "content" - the notion of a music theory lecture is almost absurd. The students need to practise these skills, sometimes many times (thus whetting my appetite for a gaming-based course progression). They need individual feedback on their attempts - an individual dialogue with me the tutor. They above all need to hear their work, see it written down, and make corrections - music theory is an ideal instance for multimedia learning.

For all these reasons, music theory is just made for online learning, if it's put together well. I intend to put together 16 or so 15-minute podcasts - all of which can be accessed from the beginning of the course - with me talking through some concepts and examples while the student see them unfold on the score. The students will then work through some examples themselves, which I'll post as MusicXML files; they can upload their attempts, with questions, and I'll give them feedback.  As they successfully complete the exercises, this will unlock new pathways and concepts.  I'll stream the students into groups on Moodle so they can see the questions and feedback of students at about their level. I'll give extension/creative work for the students who really have a flair, and who want to extend the slightly artificial world of the harmony exercise into full-blown composition. Finally, I'll offer a two-hour "drop in" face-to-face opportunity each week, if the students really and literally need me to hold their hands as they complete these exercises. Summative assessment will by the submission of a folio of sixteen completed exercises. They can do all these in week one, or in week twelve, or do one or two a week - whatever suits them.

Now the rant part.

So, I explain all this to my colleagues who I am supposedly leading to a bold new educational future, expecting at the very least some thanks for bailing them out of a difficult staffing situation. But what do I get? Sheer, unadulterated horror at the idea of the students not getting "face-to-face support". An automatic assumption that online learning is to save time and cut corners. That is is second-rate. One colleague, a very nice guy, even offered to take some tutorials himself, if I didn't have time, so "the students weren't disadvantaged".

I patiently explained that the students were going to be better supported this way than if I had crammed them into tutorial groups of twenty and spent two hours wandering about looking over their shoulders correcting consecutive fifths; that in fact, doing it online was going to take considerably more of my time than doing it face-to-face (LOTS of preparation time and LOTS of feedback time, whereas face to face I could literally do with no preparation, half asleep); but that the reason why I'd teach it online was to give the students a better-quality learning experience.

No dice. The colleagues offered sheer, blank incomprehension of this argument; worse, a smug certainty that, whatever I said, they were never going to question their own assumption that being in the holy physical presence of the divine lecturer was going to be a superior learning experience, come what may.

Must be something in the deodorant they wear, I guess.

So, frankly, I'm wondering why I should even bother. I'm going to be putting myself out doing something innovative (but not all that innovative!), something better - but I'll have several vultures looking over my shoulder waiting for something to go wrong. I feel like binning the whole idea, and hiring some matronly back-room piano teacher to drill the poor buggers in cadences, Dulcie Holland style, for two hours a week for thirteen weeks.

I'm not going to, of course. I'm going to go ahead with my plans. But I'd really appreciate some moral support from the eLearning crowd who might have been here before.


  1. In my experience, we don't bother because our direct, physical colleagues care (most of mine think I'm nuts for using this bollocks social media stuff). We do it because we the people we respect care. Probably badly phrased as I don't mean to imply you don't respect your colleagues - what I'm referring to is the completely different world we know from being online.

    I think what the solution to the problem is, is that somebody needs to make a film like Dead Poets or To Sir or Good Will Hunting that features online learning. I suspect people still have this rose-tinted idea that teaching students face to face means they have a chance to be somebody's Keating.

    I also think that composers are not the only ones to suffer the fate of being unappreciated in their lifetimes - a hundred years from now when we're dead, people will be lauding these punk thinkers who tried to teach impossible things like music theory online. That's possibly not very comforting, but I think has an element of truth to it.

    If colleagues really get intolerable, maybe point out that there's this uni up here that does outrageous things like teach performance and composition online (quelle horreur!!).

  2. Thanks for this post. It's great to read an academic who is thinking about how students experience their learning so creatively, rather than focusing on how they teach.

    There's been quite a bit written in Australia about why it's good to be moving at least some of your teaching online (this, for example), and the main theme is that new tools are available that can provide expereinces that today's students find engaging. If academics don't learn to use them they risk losing the respect of their students. Of course some students will learn better with traditional ways of teaching, but, by and large, students respond well to new technologies in teaching - if they are well-planned and embedded in strong curricular thinking, as yours seem to be. And of course, school leavers now take online learning for granted. They can get quite resentful if there is none available when they move into higher education.

    Without knowing any of your colleagues, it sounds to me as if the teaching they are doing is more about their needs than about their students'. Their pedagogical views are outdated, frankly. We know that students learn in many different ways, and sometimes the presence of someone they dislike or don't respect in a teaching situation can actually interfere with their learning. I don't suggest you use this as an argument, though! :)

  3. Forget the haters; go with what the students want. If your students are a majority of people moving into higher education for the first time, I can almost guarantee they'll much prefer the online version to the face-to-face.

    So give it time, and make sure to give the students ample opportunity to tell your instructors (including yourself!) what they want. They'll realise in due course that what students want (expect even!), and what they're offering as stubbornly traditional teachers don't quite match up anymore.

  4. My 8 year old is learning to play guitar.

    I wonder why people bother uploading and wasting their time uploading guitar tutes to YouTube (as they can all play). I wonder why any serious musician would bother talking to a game designer to create Glee sing-alongs on the Wii and allowing 8 year olds to croon as a machine flashes stars up at them. I wonder why you'd bother making GarageBand for the iPad, real guitar players use amps. I wonder why people tab out Jesse's Girl to Ultimate Tab, and why hundreds of people vote for the best version.

    Last week, I sadly attended my friends funeral, who also taught her guitar along with all the kids in the community it seemed from the turn-out. I was somewhat of a mess, when my 8 year old stood in front of the assembled relatives ad friends - sang and played Jesse's Girl.

    If it was me, I'd go with your instinct and at the same time kick out some grounded theory and present the sucker at a conference as t why it worked or not.

    I think the key here is you're talking about learning, and don't see walls as the best way to support it in your context.

    If you're going online - maybe think about not just going online, but going mobile-friendly - and in that perhaps see what they can do with mobiles ... Sounds like there's a YouTube video in this to me.

    Where can I find a woman like that.

  5. Thanks all. I am much inspried. They won't know what hit them. As @afsteed has pointed out offline, I am wrong about the potential for social learning here, and I might structure some cooperative learning opportunties ...

    But most of all, my rant falls into the classic "content"/"delivery" dichotomy, which is all bullshit. I had defaulted to a "keep the content, change the delivery mode" mindset (because of the shortness of time), but that's stupid. What's music theory for 2011? Well, as Dean points out, it's something that happens through YouTube on your iPhone. And of course it is, and of course that's what they'll do in my course.

    OK, I'm pulling out all stops and going crazy with this now. I'll keep you updated. thanks for the help so far!

  6. Why bother? Because you know it will make a difference for the students and probably for yourself.

    I doubt your colleagues will only ever appreciate it after they've gone through the necessary learning. So give them another 15 years or so and they'll probably be doing the same thing you're talking about now.

    Do it for yourself and your students. That's what's important.

  7. Thanks for the call out Jon. Great ideas, I look forward to seeing you present the results at edu conferences later.
    Wondering about peer feedback and collaboration as one option as well, also alternative modes of music making? ( Music is clearly not my field, sorry). Sounds like an excellent potentially flagship project ripe for exploiting as much as possible.

    It is more than 15 years since I completed my first online learning course. I vividly remember the compelling excitement and the passion I experienced being part of an international online class.Generations will be coming through who will willingly choose online, mixed/blended and f2f experience for learning- if they are available.

    But be careful- online teaching and learning is addictive- and it won't be a selling point for your colleagues if it consumes all your time ( hence suggestion for peer reviews)

  8. Go for it Jon, the end results will be the only thing to convince them in the end!