Educators Adjust, Finding Benefits Of Online Teaching


Victor Atkins, of the University of New Orleans, uses several types of software when teaching online classes.

(Photo: Courtesy of Victor Atkins)

Now that many educators have made it through months of online music instruction during a global pandemic, some are starting to ask themselves, “Which techniques are working well, and what do we need to tweak as we look ahead to the future of remote learning at my institution?”

Through Zoom videoconferencing, DownBeat caught up with esteemed educators around the country to discuss online synchronous instruction. One key theme that emerged was the need to exploit the benefits of technology.

Numerous educators praised the upside of screensharing in Zoom, as well as the advantages of filming a class session so that students could revisit it later (or share it with a peer who was absent that day).

During a group conversation with Dr. Gigi Johnson and jazz pianist Arturo O’Farrill, both of whom are on the faculty at UCLA, the former discussed the benefit of an instructor using his or her phone as a second camera to show their hands on the keyboard, in addition to the laptop camera showing their face. “That’s where I’m seeing some really great stuff with people who are saying, ‘I can now be showing you many things at once and actually be taking you through my experience,’” explained Johnson, the executive director for UCLA’s Center for Music Innovation.

O’Farrill, who often uses two cameras when teaching, likes to have a MIDI keyboard image displayed at the top of his computer screen. “It’s great for theory classes,” he said, “and it’s a quick way to show voicings and things like that.”

Victor Atkins, an associate professor at the University of New Orleans, echoed these sentiments. “I use ScreenFlow to record my desktop [activities], and I can arrange all these apps in different ways, and use Finale [software] and a keyboard,” he said. “I can film it that way and I can stream it. With my arranging class last year, I found that this was a better way to teach because I’m not having to write stuff on the board and then walk over to the piano and play this chord or that chord. I’m sitting down, so I can play it on the keyboard on the computer screen, and I can show students the notation. That’s really helpful when studying arranging.”

Another key theme that emerged during the interviews was the importance of ensuring that students are fully comfortable in the virtual classroom setting.

Jeffrey W. Holmes, director of jazz and African American music studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, recounted that last spring, he had a couple of students who struggled when they became the center of attention during a Zoom class. By creating a supportive, encouraging environment within the class, Holmes and his other students were able to help their peers overcome their anxiety.

“I’m certainly not a psychologist or anything, but musicians oftentimes get to that point where they use the instrument as a way of getting their personality out, and sometimes it’s easier for musicians to express themselves through their instrument,” Holmes said. “When you’re in a jazz ensemble [in a classroom], sometimes you can hide behind some of the stronger personalities. But you’re less likely to do that in this type of [online] situation, where everybody is being asked to be on an even playing field. Part of what I’m trying to do is to make sure that everybody knows that they all have the same right to be [in the class]. We actually are all helping one another.”

Atkins believes that remote learning requires a greater level of communication with students, and often educators find themselves putting in extra effort to help those who might not have an ideal learning environment at home.

“Unfortunately, not everybody’s got good WiFi, and sometimes somebody is stuck on a phone and the mic doesn’t work,” Atkins said. “It’s going to take a lot more time on our side, but you gotta keep up with them. You’ve got to find another email; you’ve got to figure out a way to get in touch with them and talk to them. I’ll be dealing with things on a personal, individual basis [so that my classes] are equitable and fair. I know I’m going to have to spend a little more time helping certain students.”

“The principles of good education are the same online as they are in the classroom,” O’Farrill said. “Even in a virtual environment, you still have to learn to listen to people. Whether it’s 10 people, two people or one person, you still have to really learn to listen carefully to what they’re doing, what they’re saying. You have to look at their eyes. So, for me, this [online] teaching experience has been one of more focus.” DB

This story originally was published in the October 2020 issue of DownBeat. Subscribe here.

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