Teaching Through and Beyond the COVID-19 Epidemic
Updated: Apr 19, 2020
Like most of my colleagues, for now and until further notice, I'm only teaching online, using Zoom, FaceTime and Skype. Many parents and students have embraced the new format in order to continue with music lessons. Some have even asked to increase the pace of music theory classes. Unfortunately, others have been obliged to put lessons on hold due to new financial constraints that are directly related to the pandemic.
This shift to online teaching has become the new normal, requiring that we adapt our pedagogical approach. For many of us, becoming familiar with new technologies has been a steep learning curve. Within the online music teachers' community, it's been beautiful to see many helping hands, shared tips and positive experiences.
Although many of us wobbled our way through teaching our first online lessons, I think that we're starting to get the hang of using the various audio and videoconferencing tools. Several weeks of online teaching has now provided hands-on experience and enabled us to start assessing this new method of working. This post will consider a number of the pros and cons of online teaching, discuss using Zoom for teaching theory, and offer a few thoughts on how these new technologies will affect our teaching beyond this current public health crisis.
There are many benefits and drawbacks to online teaching. Here's a few to think about:
Lesson schedules which are maintained allow a steady income for teachers
Teachers become more comfortable with new/current technology
Students are motivated to practice by keeping lessons regular in times of disruption
Added convenience of avoiding travel in traffic and poor weather conditions
Access to quality instruction if living in a remote area
Greater flexibility in scheduling lessons
Student engagement is increased by use of technology
Theory classes are energized by using current and popular computer applications
Video lessons can be recorded and played back later for review
Younger children will need parental assistance to use the technology and the lesson may need to be shortened
Distractions can affect concentration if the lesson area is in a high-traffic zone of the home
Video and sound quality will be variable due to microphone, camera, speaker and sound card properties
Weak Internet connections can disrupt the video feed and flow of the lesson
Zoom meetings inconveniently terminate at 40 minutes (unless on a paid plan)
Internet sound delays prevent accompaniment or duet-playing
Camera is often positioned for keyboard view, preventing teachers from observing the whole student as he/she plays
Frequent re-positioning of the camera is time-consuming
Impossible to provide hands-on correction of posture, weight transfer, pedaling technique etc.
Technology enables interaction, but it lacks the warmth and humanity of teaching in person
So, how will our current required use of studio videoconferencing affect our teaching as we move past this crisis? Speaking for myself, I've been wanting to teach online for some time now, and was reticent (and perhaps a little intimidated) to explore unfamiliar technologies. Now, faced with no other options, I'm happy to say that, like many other teachers these days, I've learned valuable new skills and am becoming quite adept at using Zoom (thank you YouTube tutorials!) It was the push I needed to expand into online lessons and even revamp my website to dedicate a page to this new avenue of teaching.
Zoom is particularly good for teaching theory and harmony. My students and I each have our own RCM workbook, and homework is submitted via text or email. Zoom's screen-sharing function enables all too see corrections and explanations. Exercises can be uploaded as photos and completed on-screen, and the whiteboard is also an invaluable tool. I find that teaching theory across a screen works just as well as across a desk; it's just a question of occasionally re-positioning the screen for keyboard demonstrations of chord progressions. Then again, students can also play them on their own instrument, with the extra bonus of sight-reading thrown in.
An online theory class is ideal for students wishing to form a small group to share the cost of tuition without having to physically meet. Remote online instruction is an option for students unable to find a local teacher to prepare them for their advanced theory examinations. It's also a great option for accelerated classes, especially for advanced students who find themselves quickly approaching their 5-year theory co-requisite deadline. (As in, "I need to do 5 exams in 9 months, can you help me, please?" Yes, this has happened...more than once...but I digress.)
As a piano teacher, I feel that while online instrument lessons have their place, they are best used as a temporary or occasional substitute for the in-person studio experience. Instrumental pedagogy regularly requires a 'hands-on' approach. When I think of all things we music teachers instinctively do at a lesson: from spontaneous keyboard demonstrations to a re-positioning a student's hands, or keeping a watchful eye on pedaling while listening attentively...all of these are either difficult or nigh impossible to do when teaching piano online.
However, I can easily foresee an increase in our students requesting a mix of in-studio and online classes as a matter of convenience, especially if it's a format they've become used to during the current COVID-19 pandemic. And quite honestly, I'm sure I will find myself proposing the online piano lesson option as a backup in case of illness, weather, or transportation issues, as well as actively promoting online theory classes.
So yes, it's a brave new world of online teaching out there! Let's continue to broaden our skills and embrace the strengths of technology as we nurture, inspire and educate our music students. And the day things get back to normal, we will treasure the joy of human interaction as we continue to teach with enthusiasm and dedication in our music studios.