Thursday, September 30, 2010


By Mark T. Burke

Myths about what online courses are are at the tip of many educator's tongues.  Those myths have unfortunately become "truths" to many because there are too few of us communicating the real stories and honestly, there are too many organizations producing courses that meet the low standards of those myths.  To many, online courses provide options for the students that don't conform to some norm.  If a student doesn't meet the standards of social behavior, doesn't fit in, isn't smart enough, falls below AVERAGE, they should enroll in an online school, that's what I often hear.  In all of those cases, I say...GREAT...if an online program can meet those student's needs, good for us for being forward thinking enough to create flexible, student centered programs.

What I want people to know however, is that online courses are for ALL students.  In fact, when I was involved in the creation of one of the very first online high schools, I worked with students who fell across all lines of social and performance measures, struggling students, to those who excelled.  I often imagine how different online curriculum adoption would be if the myth were "Oh, online courses, they are only for really smart, over achieving students."  While it would still be incorrect, perception is powerful.

Niche vs core curriculum is a growing topic among my peers.   What is the world of online education best suited to deliver?  After 10+ strong years of K-12 online curriculum development, most if not all online schools have the basics, Math, Language Arts, Social Studies, and Science.  Chinese was one of the first "niche" courses that really started taking off.  Many schools did not provide Chinese, that's why it was called a niche course, certainly not because of the need for it.  Where do we (online schools) go from here?  If we all have the core subjects, what's next?  Obvious, I believe we MUST look to niche courses like music and the arts.  We must round out student experiences in online schools.  Most online providers do not have, nor will they invest in the staff to build niche courses.  Actually, I don't think they should.  I believe they should continue to develop best practices within the core areas and partner with niche programs like viaAcademies to build and deliver niche courses.  Niche programs have dedicated staff, focused on the art, or the subject being delivered.  As we think about what will truly innovate online education, I believe few are feeling it's the next Algebra course.  Innovation will come from niche organizations and their quest to ensure online students have more than core curriculum. 

Needs should always outweigh innovation for innovation sake.  We're in a wake up period in education right now.  How do we prepare tomorrow's leaders?  First, they have to be rounded leaders.  I've written several posts on the subject including this one...."The Creative Workforce...."  While STEM courses will remain ever important in our basic education, the needs for students to learn about themselves, others, to create, imagine, solve and innovate is critical.  I believe in the saying "Why should we expect different results from doing things the same way as we have been?"  Since it seems most of the news and events of the days are filled with economic troubles, continued bleak employment rates, growing concerns over health care and more, it's clear that education for us all must change.  We can only achieve based on what we have learned, experienced and the skills we have developed. Where do we do that? School.  I believe the system will not be quick to change at it's core, but those of us who can provide much NEEDED niche courses are flexible and ready to play our part.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

MENC: Supporting the Past While Shaping the Future of Music Education

By Mark T. Burke

MENC, an organization that's had a presence in the lives of music educators for generations, is an organization, like most, faced with the reality that educational systems are just beginning a revolution like no other in our past. I had the professional pleasure of participating in a SoundTree sponsored Webinar with MENC's Executive Director, Michael Butera. Dr.Jim Frankel hosted the meeting, keeping the conversation rolling on various topics including alternative music delivery systems, non-traditional music education, teacher prep and more.  I encourage everyone to listen the webinar by visiting the link above.

I was pleasantly surprised by the clarity and aggressiveness of the vision and the actions already taken by MENC to advocate for alternative music curriculum delivery, innovative topic inclusion and over-all technology adoption. Since leaving my traditional classroom music job, I haven't counted on MENC to provide resources for virtual education programs. I honestly felt MENC was more concerned over maintaining the status-quo in regards to music education.  I can happily say my beliefs have changed. 

Having the Executive Director of MENC available for questions right in my living room was a fantastic opportunity.  Here are my thoughts on several key areas discussed during the webinar.

  • Alternative Educational Systems
    • MENC recognizes the need to collaborate with alternative educational organization including charter and virtual school support groups.
    • Why? The shift from traditional brick and mortar schools to alternative schools is significant.  Music has just NOT been available in alternative schools and that must change.  Alternative schooling (as compared to the traditional public school model) is becoming less an alternative and more a commonplace choice. Music needs to be offered in these programs..plain and simple.  Also,  program cuts are a HUGE issue. What do those kids do after their school programs have been cut?  We need creative, cost effective solutions as alternatives to cutting programs. Often times, programs are cut 100% because no apparent option exists to do less than that.  Options do exist!
  • 21st Century Skills
    • I was SO excited to hear Michael talk about future leadership and how ensuring students today have creative experiences, including music of course, helps ensure future leaders are prepare to lead.  Leaders need creativity to solve complex issues, they must show empathy and they must be diligence about solving organization challenges. These are the very skills students develop through music.  
  • Advocate Through Value
    • When we launched viaAcademies, we told the story of how our curriculum was designed to help failing programs through highly successful programs.  In regards to both, our structured curriculum, our assessments, and the way we use technology to track student progress helps organization at all levels validate their efforts. We knew this was critical, so hearing Michael reinforce this need is fantastic. 
  • Reaching the Other 80%
    • I love teaching instrumental music, conducting groups and small ensembles.  During my career I have also had the thrill of teaching "general music."  I've taught 7-9th General Music, 9th Grade Arranging / Composition, Electronic Music, and various other courses. The number of kids I was able to reach in general music far overshadows the number of instrumental students I've taught.  I took that responsibility seriously since the reality is this...80% of the population won't play an instrument or sing in an organized choir.  My belief -- we can't ignore the other 80%. In fact, we must innovate toward that 80%, engage them, ensure they have quality music offerings. Again, when you listen the webinar, you will hear MENC's support in this area.
  • Professional Development
    • From Michael..."More, now than ever, we [music teachers] must be professionals in our field." Tomorrow, I am writing about some of the latest information on teacher skills (as related to online teaching) that supports this need.  Like no other time, we must increase our skills, we must demonstrate professional abilities, we must be organized beyond showing up, we must assess our programs and prove, using data they are valuable, and we must apply a business context to our programs, without prompting, now. Teacher can no longer NOT adopt technologies, ignoring the very nature of how kids are wired and how they learn. Professional development must get past the basics and ensure teachers demonstrate professional level skills, not entry level skills in technology use and online teaching.  (I'll post a link here after tomorrow's post).
  • Expand our Catalogs
    • Courses on new instruments, new styles of music, new software must be developed to keep pace with the opportunities kids have in other subjects.  This is why we developed our Exploring Music course and have more in development.  Additionally, this is why we deliver innovative instrumental music curriculum.  If we continually count on "the way we used to do it" we will quickly find the world has moved by us. 
I urge everyone to listen to the webinar and take to heart the words of wisdom shared by all that participated, especially those of Michael Butera.


To learn how viaAcademies can help you validate your program, provide innovative, cost effective options rather than cutting programs and provide web-based or local professional development, contact Mark Burke at



Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Arts Build Better Leaders

By Mark T. Burke

A few weeks ago, I posted "The Creative Workforce:  How Music Students are Prepared. Are You?"  Within the post, I linked to a valuable guide on the traits employers seek in employee leaders.  You can find the chart on our site at:  "The Creative Workforce Characteristics."

A few days ago, a teacher for viaAcademies, Mr. Tom West, posted "Ben Cameron on the New Performing Arts Reformation."

The importance of the Arts in our economy, to the health of our communities and the success of organizations has never been better articulated.  After watching Ben Cameron's TED Talk video below, I couldn't wait to publish the video again, to talk about the critical nature of the arts in building better people, better organizations and better communities through better leaders. 

Company and school leaders....if you watch no other part, watch these two sections.

8:49 - The Arts are critical to the health of our communities
  • The Arts will be more important to the economits in the future....
  • Business leadership will depend more and more on emotional intelligence ... the very capacities the arts cultivate.
  • Yale and Harvard...Recently restructured their MBA programs to include CREATIVE thinking...

10:40....The Creative Age....The Integrated Left and Right Brain Age.

Leaders who have experienced the arts, personally, through participation are more prepared to communicate their organization's mission and vision.  They can engage other employees toward the mission and vision and can react to change through creative problem solving.  On top of that, the arts promote a deeper understanding of human nature.  A leader who truly empathizes with employees and customers is able to create change for both.  That change will increase the organizational value and contribution to the world.

Challenges to all...
  • Music inspired to advocate for your curriculum and your role in your schools.
  • Innovators....innovate and unite to ensure music and the arts maintain their place in educational systems. Let's not let the complexity of our world accidentally push the arts aside. 
  • Business Leaders....hire creative people, trust them and empower them, get to know them.  Involve yourself with the Arts.  Let go of your spreadsheets and numbers for periods of time, they will be there for you when you come back.
viaAcademies is a proud innovator of cutting edge music curriculum and services.  Learn more about our instrumental and general music offerings at 

Thursday, September 2, 2010

There's No Replacement for Online Learning...An argument reversed

By Mark T. Burke

For those of us in online education, a phrase often heard is "There's nothing like live instruction."  Variations include, "There's nothing like a live classroom,", and "There's nothing like being taught by a live teacher."  This perfectly aimed comment puts the entire online education world on the defensive.  On more than one occasion, I've jumped head-strong into a list of pros, spouting off in defense of online education. I am certain my ears turned red and my eyes bulged to the point of popping out during more than one of my soap box speeches.

Online instruction has earned a place in the educational world, and it's time to recognize there is no longer a place for the "which is better, live or online" argument.  In fact, just to make sure I'm NOT coming across as being against live instruction, I'll respond to the comment, "There's nothing like live instruction."

My response: "That's right. There is nothing like live instruction.  As humans, close, personal contact with mentors and teachers creates a powerful learning experience.  When we can see our teacher's eyes, absorb their energy through their body movement, facial expressions and the sound of their voice, learning is an incredible experience.  No, nothing can replace that and nothing should."  
 Hopefully that clears up my stance on face-to-face learning.  Now on to online.

"There's no replacement for online learning."

My response: "That's right. Online instruction is all about providing education that is learner focused in terms of content, location, timing and breadth. Online education provides the environment where learning can occur in the here and now.  There is nothing like the feeling of opening a laptop and finding answers to question, interacting with experts, reviewing past work as well as future assignments when and where I want. Being empowered to control my education, is AWESOME."
We could easily start to list pros and cons of each, but why?.  Providing the best education for everyone is about learning from the cons and providing solutions.  Online providers have learned from 100's of years of face-to-face instructional best practices and face to face schools have started integrating online learning to help them meet their challenges.  I believe we are (and must) turn the corner on the debated value of online learning.  Doing so starts with each of us and how we think and communicate the values of both. I no longer get defensive when I hear the phrase, "There's nothing like live instruction."  That's right and "There's nothing like online learning."