Teaching Skill Based Courses Online

One of the classes that I teach is Keyboard Skills, often referred to as “group piano.” In a face-to-face (F2F) classroom, there can be anywhere from 12-36 students, each seated at a digital keyboard. Keyboard Skills classes typically meet on the usual MWF or TR schedule. Students rely heavily on frequent teacher modeling, demonstration, and feedback tailored to their specific needs. This is a typical sequence for teaching any skill: students watch, learn, and are inspired through the demonstrations of a teacher or mentor. The students then try their hand at the task, and the teacher offers immediate and frequent hands-on feedback.

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One of the classes that I teach is Keyboard Skills, often referred to as “group piano.” In a face-to-face (F2F) classroom, there can be anywhere from 12-36 students, each seated at a digital keyboard. Keyboard Skills classes typically meet on the usual MWF or TR schedule. Students rely heavily on frequent teacher modeling, demonstration, and feedback tailored to their specific needs. This is a typical sequence for teaching any skill: students watch, learn, and are inspired through the demonstrations of a teacher or mentor. The students then try their hand at the task, and the teacher offers immediate and frequent hands-on feedback. This need for frequent and individualized feedback may seem incompatible with online or hybrid formats, especially if your class is asynchronous or if the skill you are teaching has a motor component requiring frequent fine tuning, such as playing the piano. But having just finished a successful fifth semester teaching group piano online, I can offer some suggestions for anyone considering teaching a skill or a performance in an online context. Teacher Modeling through Demonstration Videos One of the differences between a skill-based and a traditional course is that in a traditional course, the learning tools are primarily informational: audio or video lectures, text-based materials, or images. Although content learning (the “what”) is also a necessary component of a skill-based class, the skill itself requires repeated physical modeling (the “how”). Video demonstrations allow you to clearly describe and model the correct execution of the skill. Moreover, you may wish your students to follow a certain practice routine.” In my teaching videos, I devote quite a bit of time to demonstrating each step of the practice process that leads to skill mastery. This is also a good time to point out common errors and provide students with self-assessment strategies. In some respects, the opportunity for repeated viewings is an advantage over a F2F class. Here are the videos that I use: http://bit.ly/2bkk0v8. Independent/Peer Learning through Group Practice Great content can provide excellent models, but there is no way to avoid the time-consuming feedback cycle required in skill mastery. In group piano, students need to be visually and aurally assessed at frequent intervals. Because my class was asynchronous, with only a few live sessions, I needed an effective, ongoing process for feedback and skill refinement. For foundational skills such as technique, music reading, and rhythm, I focused on activities to foster independent and collaborative learning, limiting my feedback to more complex tasks, such as performance of repertoire and improvisation. To this end, I assigned each student a partner. Partners were to practice together, then complete an assessment of specific skill mastery five times during the semester. Grading for these assignments was done solely by the partners, with the aid of this rubric: http://bit.ly/2aYtEm7. The rubric helped students focus on the separate components of each skill they were learning. There are obvious dangers here, such as grade inflation or blatant dishonesty, and I do not currently utilize a system to verify that the students actually met and worked together. Going forward, I might implement something simple, like requiring submission of a photo of the partners at their meeting or a video recording of a portion of the session. Because this class is taught as a hybrid course, enrolled students expect some on-campus meetings. Although most of the pairs meet in person, either on campus or at another location of their choosing, there have been times when this was not possible. In this case, partners may opt to video chat using one of the many free platforms such as Skype, FaceTime, Facebook Video Chat, or Google Hangouts. If a video chat isn't possible, another alternative is video sharing between the partners. One set of partners in a recent class sent videos to each other via text message. Even though I try to limit this course to beginners, invariably there are students who have some piano skills, background on another instrument, or experience singing. It is actually quite rare to have a student who has no musical experience. This turned out to be an advantage once I realized that I could pair less-experienced students with more-experienced students. With the help of a rubric, more-experienced students could not only assist their partners, but could also benefit from the clarity of thought that teaching imparts, thus improving their own skills. These collaborative partnerships were a hit, and former students have reported to me that they still maintain friendships with their partners from class. Group Critique of Peer Work through Social Media In an F2F piano class, the group experience is motivating and fun. Individual and group performance is the norm. Students teach and learn from one another. The teacher provides critiques and offers suggestions. To recreate this aspect of the live class experience, I created a “secret” group on Facebook (class members only) for students to upload, view, and critique video performances. Students work hard on the production of these videos, knowing that their performances are visible to all the members of the class. Furthermore, each student is required to provide a short critique of two of their peers' video performances, based on specific guidelines. It is in this social media “classroom” that I provide most of my feedback on more complex performance skills. Using Facebook, I am able to post comments that will be helpful to the student performer as well as to other class members. I can link to external content as a review, or to present another point of view. My comments are brief but detailed, and I often ask students to respond to a question that further engages them. This confirms that they have read my comments and are continuing to consider how they can improve. Over the course of the semester, students' critiques are ever more accurate and useful as they become better able to articulate creative suggestions. In discussion I use student comments as a point of departure before adding my own. Although this happens on social media, the grades for these performances are posted on our Learning Management System using a visible rubric, never on Facebook. If I see uncorrected problems with subsequent video submissions, I ask a student to contact me for assistance. Although I opt for Facebook, any blog or app such as VoiceThread can be utilized. While each has advantages, I chose Facebook because of its accessibility and ease of use, especially when uploading video. If the response time to my posts is any indication, students are constantly checking their Facebook notifications. It is noteworthy that participation in a secret Facebook group does not require that the members of the group become friends. Group Performance at Live Meetings Because I teach this class as a hybrid course, I am able to require attendance at two or three on-campus meetings spaced at regular intervals during the semester. These meetings are scheduled at critical points when new challenges are presented. At this time, I do additional teaching, answer questions, and provide personal assistance. But the primary activity is creating a performance space where students come together to make music in a fun, collaborative environment. All in all, this course was successful in teaching the skills required for beginner's-level group piano. The key was finding the right balance between instructional quality, teaching efficiency, and student engagement, a balance achieved primarily through student participation in peer activities and the creation of a social space where students could share their work.
Susanna P. Garcia is a professor of music at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.