Reflections on a Half-Semester of Teaching Online

As I noted in last week’s post, this past semester was easily the strangest in my 20+ years in higher education. The shift to all online teaching and learning was a shock to everyone, and with so little time to prepare there were certainly “bumps in the road.” While in some respects the experience was less-than-satisfactory, in others it was helpful. Here are a few thoughts after a couple of weeks’ reflection.

The Bad

Let’s start with what didn’t work so well. Depending on the class, online education could not replicate the in-person experience. The majority of my teaching load is in one-on-one applied music lessons. When both student and teacher had a quality microphone, an audio interface, and a fast internet connection, things worked reasonably well; the absence of any of these factors caused problems. Certainly any reader will be able to see that teaching and learning becomes challenging if the student’s equipment cannot record and transmit sound in a truly representative fashion. And even in situations where all of those factors were present, the inability to play along with the student was a significant loss, as were the absence of live piano accompaniment, chamber music, and live performances. Internet technology will have to develop much further before those factors can be replicated in the online environment.

My low brass methods class was even more problematic. This is a lab course for aspiring band directors where students—regardless of major instrument—learn to teach trombone, euphonium, and tuba, and develop at least rudimentary playing skills on those instruments. In a normal semester, the vast majority of our class time is spent playing, but the students did not have access to their “methods” instruments while quarantined at home. Playing labs and tests were therefore replaced with Zoom lectures and papers. While I think I am able to competently discuss and explain the finer points of low brass pedagogy, at some point “talking about playing” is not a sufficient replacement for “playing.” Happily, we were at least able to spend the first half of the semester playing trombone, so students can figure out euphonium and tuba by analogy to trombone. Even so, it would have been better for them to do that “figuring out” in class with me.

The other class I was responsible for teaching this semester was a graduate brass pedagogy course, a quasi-directed study with only two students. The vast majority of this class consists of discussion, writing, and revision, all of which were able to continue reasonably well via Zoom. However, students teaching lessons in class with various levels of players was also supposed to be a part of this course, and in the end we were able to complete only a third of the planned teaching sessions.

I have (as a student) taken asynchronous lecture courses online in the past and found that to be more or less satisfactory. The only real loss was the informal interactions between professor and students and between the students themselves before and after class times, in the library, in the hallways, etc. In some ways these informal experiences are as important as the lectures themselves, and can only be somewhat replicated online. Thus, while a lecture course or seminar might be able to function almost normally online, even then something is lost. Add to that difficulties with online testing platforms that students have reported to me, and maybe even this mode of online instruction remains in need of improvement.

The Good

While I am critical of teaching music online for the reasons discussed above, it was not an entirely bad experience. I have for some time “put off” developing greater online teaching skills, and this experience forced me to rectify this. I clearly do not think that online music teaching can entirely replace in-person instruction, but it is a nice tool to have in the bag, allowing for continued instruction while I am traveling, additional engagement with high school students too distant for in-person lessons, etc. Additionally, as I’ve noted several times in passing and hopefully will discuss at length next week, I have used the time to improve my understanding and proficiency with audio and video recording and editing technology. These are increasingly necessary skills even for those of us that play acoustic instruments.

Perhaps the most successful educational initiative during the “quarantine time” was having discussions with “virtual guest artists” from other universities. My students greatly appreciated hearing the perspectives of my colleagues in other states, and I enjoyed visiting with students elsewhere, as well. I actually hope to continue this practice even after in-person instruction resumes, as it is a great way to have students work with other performers and pedagogues without the expense of having those guests actually travel to Oxford to teach and perform.

Conclusions

As even the most cursory reader will be able to tell, I am very much ready to resume in-person instruction. While I am thankful for the new skills developed while working from home, these technologies do not yet offer a fully satisfactory replacement for live, in-person instruction. At the same time, I do believe that online education is with us to stay. The technologies will continue to evolve and develop, and perhaps one day we’ll truly be able to say that the online teaching and learning experience is very nearly equivalent to the in-person one. It certainly behooves us to develop and maintain skills in this realm so that we are ready to adjust to new developments—or even emergencies like the COVID-19 event.

“Very nearly equivalent,” but only that much. There still is that impossible-to-fully-articulate element of human interaction that can’t be fully replicated with cameras, microphones, and fast internet. At some point we need and long for real, personal human interaction, and the arts foster that in a very special way. Let’s by all means learn the computer skills, but let’s also remain cognizant of what the limitations of technology are…and always will be.

About Micah Everett

Micah Everett is Associate Professor of Music (Trombone/Low Brass) at the University of Mississippi, Principal Trombonist of the North Mississippi Symphony Orchestra, Tubist/Bass Trombonist of the Mississippi Brass Quintet, Bass Trombonist of the Great River Trombone Quartet, Assistant Editor (Audio/Video Reviews) for the International Trombone Association Journal, and an S.E. Shires trombone artist. He is the author of THE LOW BRASS PLAYER'S GUIDE TO DOUBLING, published by Mountain Peak Music, and released his first solo recording, STEPPING STONES FOR BASS TROMBONE, VOL. 1, on the Potenza Music label in 2015. In addition to his professional work, he maintains an avid interest in the study of the Bible and of Reformed theology. He holds doctoral and master's degrees in music from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, a bachelor's degree in music education from Delta State University, and a certificate in systematic theology from Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary. The ideas and opinions expressed here are not necessarily shared by the employers and organizations with which the author is associated.
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