Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Pilot Lessons: Will Hybrid Online Music Education Take Off?

By Mark T. Burke

I've been wresting with the question...Will online music education take off?  While other subjects have continued to grow at 43% annually (as evidenced by this report from Innosight Institute Inc.), music and the arts are still in the developmental stages. (There are only 2 mentions of music program integration from the 40 case studies).  This report specifically talks about hybrid education models, where brick and mortar schools integrate online curriculum into the classroom learning environment.  I believe this model should be the focus of schools as it provides the best set of benefits to students. However, I also believe this model presents the most scary set of unknowns for many traditionalists.  I talk to more music educators who admit they are traditionalist as compared to progressives. This is why I continue to have the question, will online music education take off?  To help me answer that question, I've conducted several pilots over the last 2 years. 

So, what is a pilot?  Some say a pilot is an experiment or a trial run of a specific program.  Those activities are far less organized than a real pilot.  Good pilots are organized implementations of a learning program at its early stage of development for the purpose of gathering valuable program.  That feedback helps the developers of the program make changes before the program is released to a wider audience.  Pilots help developers lessen the chance that small issues will become global issues. Experiencing a problem with one customer is better than experiencing the same problem with 100's.

I've conducted three music curriculum related pilots and one non-music over the last 3 years.  These pilots have given me the opportunity to compare music and non-music subjects.  They have also given me great insights into the answer to the question "will online music education take off?"

So what have I learned?
  • Support From the Top:  When school administration is involved in the integration of online learning programs, the programs are approached with more energy.  Their involvement ensures the value of the program is more widely understood and thus the effort and time to manage the integration is robustly supported.  Without school administrator support and involvement, online learning integration often fails.  
  • Teacher is KEY!:  The teacher who delivers the program must be a prolific communicator, often communicating daily if not several times per day regarding the program, the educational content and assignments, issues, solutions and student progress with the pilot manager.  When teachers take ownership of the pilot in regards to the student interactions with the program, online programs provide the intended student benefits.  
  • Evaluation Check Points:  Integration of any new program should be assessed.  Written reviews, thoughts, feedback and daily notes are essential to ensuring the online offering meets the needs of the school and students.  When the school provides in-service time for teachers to work with program managers and provides subs to cover their classes, sufficient time can be spent collecting data to ensure program success.
  • Team Spirit:  Integrating online learning into a traditional educational setting takes teamwork.  No one person holds the key to success.  This teamwork can be scary for some traditional educators. It makes some feel they are handing over part of their program to outside organizations.  The whole team has to be open to change, sharing failure, solving problems and adjusting their course of action.
  • Shared Urgency:  As a manager of several pilots, my sense of priority and urgency is obviously high.  In the cases where the school's urgency was just as high, the pilot integration was run more efficiently and collaboratively.  I would add the effort was even more FUN for the team.  This collaborative, shared urgency ensures no piece of the pilot falls short of expectations.  In turn, the students benefited from that shared urgency.
  • Global Goal: Everyone on the pilot team must know what the educational goals are.  There are no rules on what those goals should be.  Sometimes they are simple, "get more students into this class."  Other times, they are more performance based, "improve skill XYZ," and sometimes they are attitudinal, "raise students interest in XYZ." Regardless of what the goals are, they must be communicated and and VALUED across the team.  The goals must also mean something to the school.  If the program succeeds in reaching the goals and those goal don't mean anything to the school, the program integration will fail
  • These lessons learned are cyclic, tied together, non-linear.     
So will online music education take off?   I believe the first step is to ensure the value of online, hybrid music learning.  I believe we (those who design, develop and deliver online music education), have our work cut out for us.  The integration of online education has matured since the late 90's (the early days of online education programs). In order for online music education to positively influence students like I know it can, we have to understand that schools will NOT simply choose to roll out online courses and see what happens.  We are not offering Algebra, Biology and Foreign Languages.  Providers in those fields benefited from the trendiness of online learning in the 90's and still hold the lead in enrollments (due in part to state testing and STEM proliferation).  We will be held to a higher standard and we must reach for that standard. The lessons learned above point to what I believe is a minimum support system.  Within systems exhibiting these traits, online music will become a great asset to our students.   


  1. The "babysteps" approach to the ensemble and applied aspects of music education will surely save headaches for everyone.

    As someone with both a music conservatory and instructional technology background, I'm able to see a point at which technology can enable remote performances, ensemble work, and other fine-tuned areas of the craft.

    The work of Hugh Sung brilliantly illustrates this convergence. Hugh teaches and accompanies students at one of the most exclusive music schools on the planet. He sometimes performs on an electric keyboard when travelling, he uses paperless musical scores (a tablet computer), and even invented a foot pedal to turn digital "pages" for him.

    More recently he successfully taught Debussy's "Claire de Lune" via a series of blog posts and webinars. Unconventional for sure - and for the self motivated online student, effective. http://www.hughsung.com/blog/

    The real question in light of examples such as this, is how soon traditionalists will view the possibility of technological collaboration as an opportunity rather than a threat. Ten years ago I couldn't see it happening - today, I think it's impossible not to. The digital culture is unavoidable for all of us, especially students - and common sense boundaries allow us to exploit the benefits.

    Anticipating these social and organizational dimensions is crucial to easing this transition into the future - as this post illustrates. Thoughtfully producing content and curriculum that set students up for success, combine their curiosity with the unlimited resources of Web 3.0, and avoid as many frustrating tech glitches as possible, will lead the way.

  2. Thanks Life Tree....I had an interesting conversation with one of the founders of our academy a few days ago. We talked about the apprentice model, solo work, small ensembles and large ensembles. Your post made me think of another lessons learned....Teaching students individually as if you're directing a band (or orchestra or chorus) lessens the value of individualized instruction.

    In the pilots I've conducted, when the learning is truly focused on individual students (the power of eLearning), their own creativity, expression and needs, the program was accepted quickly and without questions of value. When the program was approached as a band program (where it was used solely for accountability) the value was weakened and the integration struggled.

    The one pilot (which is in progress) that is non-music also reflects this finding. When an environment is created where individual students are allowed to be individual students, supported by eLearning tools and teaching techniques, program integration is natural and incredibly powerful.

    My point is that the value of the apprentice learning model is something that I believe has slipped from our musical programs. Large ensemble mentality has overridden instructional best practices. I believe all ensembles have a place, but they should not necessarily guide the overall teaching system. This is where I believe a large part of our guidance can be focused in helping traditionalists. This is also the area where eLearning can provide solutions.

    Thanks again for posting...appreciate it very much.

  3. I stumbled into this conversation via LinkedIn. I am petrified that I won't do as well remotely than in my students' face. These discussions on hybrid Music Education are just what I personally need to continue to become the best teacher that I can be-F2F or online. Thanks!

  4. Hi Joyfulnoise63

    Your concern is a good start really. When f2f teachers assume teaching online is the same, they struggle. The number 1 reason teacher's fail online is that they transfer the "I am an island" approach (often supported at schools) to teaching online. Online teaching requires a team approach. Hybrid teaching even more so. Having a mentor who travels with you (as the teacher) for an extended period of time, providing frequent feedback is a necessity. This is a new model of "professional development" really. Rather than attending a 1 day training and then diving in, a continual parallel approach to program implementation and professional development around teaching in a hybrid environment ensures program success.

    So rather than go on, you mentioned you are nervous. Are you using online learning at your school? What makes you nervous? Share and let's see what we can uncover.