Students Deserve More Than Video Chats says Berklee College Of Music President Roger H. Brown

The coronavirus drove colleges online. Now, as many colleges weigh the likelihood of more online classes for semesters to come, we have to make virtual classroom experiences meaningful, says Berklee College Of Music President Roger H. Brown.

Guest post by Berklee College Of Music President Roger H. Brown

I recently saw a video that begins with a music teacher sweetly explaining that she had written a song about her transition to remote teaching. She picks up a ukulele, strums a bright chord progression, then lets out a frayed scream only somebody truly at her wit’s end could muster. The video, titled “How I’m Handling Online Teaching,” has hundreds of thousands of views, and hundreds of comments, many from empathetic teachers. “Truly the anthem for the time we’re living through,” wrote one commenter.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Not for teachers, and not for their students. Much of the struggle we’ve seen this spring has stemmed from the necessary attempt to trap that classroom lightning in a video conference bottle. This approach makes sense as a temporary response to an emergency and the ability of teachers around the world to do this is impressive.

“we can’t continue with this limited Zoom-driven teaching style and expect great learning outcomes or satisfied students”

While video chats are part of the online learning experience, they’re not enough on their own. As the summer and fall approach, we can’t continue with this limited Zoom-driven teaching style and expect great learning outcomes or satisfied students. Nothing can replicate a college campus. But when done right, online learning can help us make good on the commitment we make to provide students a robust and rewarding educational experience, one that’s worthy of their talent and time.

I know this is possible because over the last two decades, Berklee has invested heavily in building Berklee Online, and I have witnessed some of the most skeptical people become the most passionate advocates of online learning. In contrast to the functional but thin and exhausting experience of emergency remote teaching, Berklee Online was built from the ground up to properly support online education and provide a learning environment designed to be varied and engaging.

We built a platform that can blend together an array of educational tools, short video lectures, animations, audio/visual examples of topics, interactive quizzes, symposium-type discussions, and any additional media that can deepen students’ understanding and their sense of classroom community. Berklee faculty and industry professionals are at the heart of the experience, and they have an expert design team supporting them, including instructional designers, video producers, animators, graphic designers, and others.

Illustration by Eric Ko

To enrich students’ musical experience, we use programs such as Soundslice and Mix Visualizer to analyze music in real time, Soundtrap to collaborate remotely on recording projects, and applications to record audio and video assignments inside the lessons themselves. These tools help students understand the material more comprehensively by allowing them to interact with it in a variety of contexts. The learning is driven by projects that are based on the work expected of professionals in the fields of study — simulating what will be needed in actual film-scoring sessions, recording studios, booking agencies and other professional environments.

It’s worth mentioning that the focused investment we’ve made in online learning has seen impressive results. We’ve been able to expand access to a Berklee education well beyond the 20-somethings that typically fill our campus — welcoming students completing their degrees 40 years after first attending college, students managing chronic illnessesstudents working multiple jobs and parentingveterans reintegrating into civilian life, and high achievers already active in the music industry. And as campuses were closing down across the country, our online school experienced the most successful spring semester in our history.

” higher education is going to need to change in response to this wave of extraordinary challenges”

Which is all to say: as we sort out all of the ways higher education is going to need to change in response to this wave of extraordinary challenges, it’s worth considering that the task of educating students online can be an asset rather than a cost; and the learning can be deep and rich. This is a service already in high demand — one that’s already delivering a meaningful experience to many who could not be well-served by traditional residential colleges — and we’ve seen that our students can translate their education into real-world skills and careers.

We’re all working to figure this out together. It’s easy to envision how this crisis could leave educators stuck with the half-measures we’ve relied upon to get us through this period. But we need to form more durable pathways for delivering higher education during the era of social distancing, and we need to prepare for the possibility that the percentage of students we serve through online learning is only going to keep growing in the years to come. This is an opportunity to invest in building robust, hospitable online learning environments; they are counting on us to get it right.

“don’t let the prospect of online learning deter you from your goals”

To those students and prospective students who might have reservations about starting or continuing your education right now, I want to say this: don’t let the prospect of online learning deter you from your goals. There are programs out there, like ours, that have carefully thought through every aspect of the online learning environment, and that can deliver an extremely high-quality, meaningful education, even if none of us are able to be on campus together right now: 97 percent of the students who have studied with us at Berklee Online are satisfied with their experience.

In music we often discuss tension and release, the build-up of intensity that eventually dissolves and brings about a deeper feeling of relief. How well this drama unfolds often depends on the musicians; how much time they’ve invested in their craft can determine how well they find that resolution, that perfect harmony. The coronavirus pandemic has gripped the world in tension. It has displaced our communities and filled our daily lives with anxiety and uncertainty. Perhaps worst of all: we do not know when, exactly, that tension will resolve. But even as we wait for the release we know will come eventually, there is work for us to do, for the sake of our students, to make the most of this moment, unprecedented in our lifetimes.

Founded in 2002, Berklee Online is the premier innovator and largest provider of worldwide music education. Accredited by NECHE – the same agency as Berklee College of Music, MIT, and Harvard – Berklee Online offers more than 75,000 students from 144 countries the renowned curriculum of Berklee at a fraction of the cost.

Berklee Online earned an unprecedented 97 percent student satisfaction rate in a recent graduate survey. Through award-winning online courses, certificates, bachelor’s, and master’s degree programs, Berklee Online students receive expert music instruction and emerge with the skills to exceed the demands of the music industry.

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