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Top Tips for Teaching Online

Mike Lawson • MusicEd: Mentor Minute • March 27, 2020

At the end of 2019, I made one of the best decisions of my life – I started my Doctorate of Education degree. Being the non-traditional music educator that I am, I opted for a degree in Instructional Design (ID).

Instructional designers are the people who specialize in creating online learning- everything from slide decks and video scripts to full-blown online college courses. Thus, I feel I’m uniquely prepared to coach you through this time of transition.

Here are my best tips for you getting started.

Think Backwards

Instead of just throwing assignments at your students so they have something, start by considering what you want them to learn during this time, and work backward from there. If you want them to focus mostly on practicing at home, generate ideas for motivating at-home practice. Want them to come back with a better knowledge of repertoire? Give them listening assignments. Think now is a great time for them to learn composition or practice notation?

There’s plenty of ways to do that. Whatever you want them to know, start with that and work backward.

• What do you want them to know?

• How will you know they’ve learned it?

• What can they experience to get that knowledge?

Once you’ve identified these needs, you’ll more easily sift through the barrage of resources available to you. Seek out the ones that help achieve these goals, and don’t give a second thought to those that don’t, they are distractions.

Try it Before You Assign It

Want your students to sing along to a track and record themselves? Want them to use a digital audio workstation to create a collaboration? Want them to submit playing tests through an online form? Try it as if you were them.

Go through every step of the process you expect of them and discover what some of the challenges might be for your students. Will the assignment help them love music more? Does it meet your educational goals for them? Do they have the resources they need to complete assignments and achieve the outcome you want? If you wouldn’t do it yourself, why would you assign it to students?

Have a Single Contact Point in and Out

All of the resources I need for my doctoral classes are available through my student portal. Do you have a student portal for your students? A portal is a single page where you can place resources for students, and they communicate with you. It’s the single contact point.

I recommend having a single webpage. On this webpage you can embed videos for them to watch so they don’t have to go to YouTube. You can have forms for them to fill, also embedded on a single page. Links to PDFs, videos you create yourself, and a list of assignments can all be on this single page.

On this same page you should have the ways they can contact you and make it easy and accessible. Can they email or call you? Messenger? Zoom? Facebook chat? Whichever way(s) you decide to communicate should be accessible to them on this single page. If you have Google Classroom or Schoology you can make this portal easily, and your district should be training you in how. If you don’t have access to such tools, start with a Google site. It’s free and intuitive to use.

Make Sure Your Resources are for Every Type of Learner

Not every student can watch a video. Not all will be able to connect with Zoom. For each assignment, you should have accommodations. Videos should have closed captions, a PDF of the script, and MP3 of the audio. Give them every way you can think of to learn the same information.

Be a Strong Presenter

Many of you will be using video during this time. Here are some things you can do to make sure your video is as high quality as possible. First of all, you need to have good audio. If you’re recording using a laptop, be aware that the sound of you typing might be very loud in your recording. If you’re using a phone, test out the distance you can get from the camera before the audio quality starts to suffer.

As a general rule, I recommend using an external microphone of some sort. This could be a $12 lapel microphone from Amazon up to a $130 Blue Yeti USB mic that has built-in mixing features. You’ll also want to make sure there are no noises to distract your students. Record when your house is quiet, and there isn’t traffic noise in the background. Shut down any machines that could be making noise, and make sure if you’re using a microphone close to your face that it isn’t brushing against your shirt and picking up noises. Whichever way you go, having crystal-clear audio is a must.

If you want them to see your face, you need to have enough light on your face. Too often I’ve seen incredible presenters discounted by the viewers because of poor lighting. Invest in quality light and sound. It really does make a difference.

Don’t Be Afraid to Be Low-Tech

Yes, there are plenty of high-tech options out there for you, especially right now. But don’t be afraid to back off and just go with what you and your students know and use all of the time. Email. Text. A cell phone camera. Use what you know and let the music be the focus of your teaching and your student be the focus of your efforts.

One final thought: I have worked with thousands of music educators and I haven’t met a single one that doesn’t have the best intentions in the world for their students. There’s a lot of frustration and fear out there right now. Come together as a community, help each other, and know that we’re all here for you, too.

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