Teaching Online – The Folly of Technophobia

For seven years, I lived and worked as a musician in South West France until an opportunity for my daughter brought us to Scotland where we now live and work. I had built a pool of pupils in France and was also planning to lead an A-Level student through her final year at an international school. It was important to me to maintain a link with these loyal and much-valued pupils. Since then I have given academic and instrumental lessons via Skype at least twice per week from our flat in Perthshire. The present COVID-19 crisis has presented me with an opportunity to share whatever expertise I may have with colleagues and friends and I am delighted to do so.

Latency

Latency is the short time delay between one party making a sound and that being heard by the other party. This means that it is near-impossible for musicians to play a piece together. When I am teaching face-to-face, I often play along with my pupil but, when I analyse this with honesty, I really wonder whether this is genuinely helpful to my pupil or just self-indulgence on my part. Removing this from my teaching style has had no noticeable impact on the quality of the lesson given. Also, if a teacher tries to play along with a student, the likelihood is that he/she will hear their own instrument for more strongly than that of their pupil, particularly if the pupil’s sound is coming from a phone or a PC speaker.

Muting

I have noticed that when my pupil speaks or plays, and I try to speak at the same time, the sound coming from my speaker tends to cut out, meaning that I am unable to hear the pupil. I’m unsure if this is in-built in the software or whether the technology is struggling to process two actions at the same time. At the end of the day, surely it is courteous to allow another person to speak or play before butting in.

Feedback

This is the phenomenon of a device hearing itself through its own microphone and setting up a loop of sound resulting in an unpleasant, high-pitched squeak. This is not to be confused with early-years violin students. The wearing of headphones eradicates this difficulty.

Wi-Fi connection

For me, this was a question of trial-and-error. Our Wi-Fi box is in our living room. If my family are at home, I will teach in the kitchen and the quality of the connection drops notably. In my case, the issue is the stud wall between me and the box. The physical distance of separation is still only about five metres. I understand that physical barrier is not always the issue according to the frequency of the Wi-Fi signal. I did purchase and Ethernet cable to try to improve the connection but the difference was negligible.

Physical indication

A challenge is that a teacher is unable to physically point to a place in a score. For this reason, I always make sure that pupils send a pdf or photo of their music well in advance. I can’t over-estimate how important it is to have clear and accurate bar numbers. Nothing is more painful than spending 10 minutes trying to indicate exactly which C# you mean within a score. I tend to use a print copy of the music and communicate with my phone. The other option is to have a second device upon which one can see the score.

tuning

If teaching online, a pupil needs to tune their own instrument. My pupils all use free apps to do this (Guitar Tuna, Soundcorset…) I disagree with those who say that tuning apps prevent pupils from using their ears. I think that playing a consistently well-tuned instrument develops the ear and familiarises students with the sound being sought. Surely it makes sense for a pupil to learn how to tune their own instrument rather than a teacher doing so for them.

Placing the camera

I have a stand which I got with a CD player. I tend to use this to hold my phone. We must remember that if we use a phone, we can pick it up and go close-up on hands and fingers to show detail. There’s no need for the camera to be permanently fixed in one place. Be creative and flexible.

Focus

I have noticed that there is a certain intensity of focus when working in this way. I think we get particularly drawn in to screen interaction and zone-out the world around us. It seems less appropriate somehow to accept interruptions as you know you’ll leave your pupil staring at your living room wall when you disappear.

Group teaching

I am yet to try real-time group teaching online but I am certain that this will be imminent in the current climate. I have run trial sessions with the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland (where I teach) and I feel confident this could work, as long as everyone is prepared and engaged. This might though be more difficult with younger pupils. I am a guitar teacher at a small school in Scotland and I have used a technique which I feel has been successful. I make dozens of arrangements for my guitar ensemble and I tailor these for the mixed range of abilities I have in my groups. I then record them, film them and put the result on YouTube. I make sure the parents know about these films and use them as a learning aid for the pupils. I love the fact that a pupil can both see and hear their part in context at any time. I think the parents like to be on board with what’s happening too. Kids enjoy playing along with the video and I have actually made videos with my own pupils participating at the end of certain performance projects. Many people assume I am a technological whizz as I am able to create these split screen movies but the process is very simple and my kit is extremely basic. Exactly how this is done is a discussion for another day. Incidentally, teachers can sell their arrangements of copy-written material on Sheet Music Plus and some earn income!

Interaction over Information

Feedback I have seen from RCS students is that they want interaction rather than information. I have noticed that class notes I upload to an online platform for our students’ benefit are, somewhat depressingly, rarely downloaded. When the interaction is two-way though, it is a different story. Even if real-time interaction is impossible, having a video of me speaking a few words and giving a deadline appears to create far more engagement. It gives the documents a sense of purpose and even consequence. We must remember that young people (I am talking undergrad students here rather than schoolchildren) have grown up with technological tools as their primary point of contact for information and advice. One-way sharing of information is fine but it is no substitute for expert interaction.

Safeguarding

There are a whole range of little-explored safeguarding questions which this style of teaching will bring into question. Firstly, it makes sense to use a platform hosted by the institution or an email account within this. By coincidence, the COVID-19 outbreak coincided with some face-to-face grading assessments which I was due to give to around 20 students this week. Many of these are international students and they headed for home while they were still able to do so. Consequently, I carried out many of these discussions via my own personal social media platforms which was rather uncomfortable, but we were caught out by the speed of events. Music-teaching colleagues will recognise the experiences of all-too-painful staff meetings where we argue until we’re blue in the face whether it is appropriate to touch a pupil’s hand or not in order to make a correction. That’s one issue solved at least! One could argue that the physical separation between pupil and teacher offers greater protection. Other suggestions include the automatic recording of sessions (to protect both pupils and teachers) and/or offering parents the possibility to monitor events. Big Brother perhaps…? It’s all in discussion.

At home or in the office?

It seems obvious but if you’re meeting a student online, it is appropriate to dress as you would if you were meeting them face-to-face. It would be horribly unprofessional to be wearing pyjamas with bed-hair and a bowl of Weetabix at one’s right hand. Brass teachers – you’ve been warned! (A joke…) Also, think of what is also in the shot. Pictures of family, posters of rock bands whose material some may find offensive (that;s you AC/DC fans) a pile of washing up… just use some good sense. Remember, the hang-up button is not always effective. Please, avoid doing something socially inappropriate the second you press that red phone icon. Belches, sighs, breaking wind or even worse, clapping one’s head in ones hands and uttering ‘Oh my days, save me dear Lord’ could be inadvertently shared by your pupil and their mum…

When I was a teenager, I remember the Musicians’ Union had a campaign called Keep Music Live. This was due to the MIDI revolution. Many believed that MIDI would put working musicians permanently out of work which was proved not to be the case. I think technology can be our friend. It is cultural ignorance and a lack of value placed on the arts which puts musicians out of work rather than technological advances.

Wouldn’t it be incredible if, after this crisis has passed, we had learned that we could halve the traffic on our roads and increase the time we have with our families at home doing the things we love through the intelligent application of technology? Who would refuse that opportunity?

Dan Jones March 21st 2020

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