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.