Five things we’ve learned about online learning

Online learning

After several weeks under coronavirus lockdown, George Hess reports on his experience of leading online learning for his students at Sunway University in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia


We’ve now completed our first month online. My university has an unusual schedule in that our two long semesters begin in March and August. So unlike many of you in the US, rather than finding a way to make to the end of the term, we knew from the beginning that we would be online for the entire term. Many of you may face a similar situation in August.

It’s really not been that bad. Yes, even though we knew ahead of time that we’d be online, we still only had a few weeks’ notice and had to scramble to prepare. I’ve put in a lot of hours prepping and am still putting in a fair amount of time creating new materials. But I make up for some of that by having reduced my commute from 45 minutes to 45 seconds.

A key factor is that all of our students knew the courses would be online, yet they still chose to enroll. This has made it much easier as there’s been little complaining about being short-changed. And while we have lost a few students, in general, attendance and engagement have been excellent in my classes.

So here are five lessons I’ve learned so far.

1. Contact time is less important than quality interaction time. 

Classes at my school meet for four hours a week. With an average class of 24 students, that comes to 10 minutes per student. Of course, it never quite worked out that way. For some of that time, I’d address all of the students, take attendance and handle admin tasks. So individual attention was considerably less.

In the online class, rather than try to meet all 24 students on a laptop screen for four hours, I broke it down into four groups of six students that I meet one hour a week. The course materials are all in the individual space as are most of the admin tasks. My contact hours remain the same and each student actually gets the full 10 minutes of my time.

2. Don’t try to recreate the classroom

Everyone agrees that online learning is a poor substitute for the classroom. So I’m not even trying. By looking at online learning as a unique thing in itself, with its own strengths and weaknesses, I’ve been able to create an experience that is as valuable to my students as the classroom would have been. It’s different, and some of the things I’d like to do can’t be done. But the students are learning and they are engaged.

3. Let the students do the work

After the first couple of Zoom classes, I was exhausted. I reflected and realised I was doing all the talking. It’s an easy trap to fall into as awkward silences are much worse online. Now, I come with a plan where I talk for a few minutes and then ask questions. With the small groups, no one can hide and the discussions have been enjoyable. And when my classes are over, I’m not worn out.

4. Don’t over-assess

Assessment is one of my pet peeves. We overassess, assess the wrong things, and generally use assessment as a stick more than a carrot. But that’s not how it works in music. We work on a piece until it’s time to perform it and that’s when it’s assessed. Assessment in my classes is a continuous, formative experience and the grade is based on the process as much as the results. Students are never surprised by their grades and I have never had one challenged.

5. Connection is everything

Great teachers know the key to getting students to learn is relationships. If you connect with your students, they’ll learn for you and for themselves. Connecting online takes extra effort. In addition to the small group tutorials, I post a one-minute video each morning, with advice about music, school, or just life in general. Nothing too heavy; it’s mainly to let them know I’m thinking about them. I’ve also been holding optional chat-based office hours using Discord, a gamer’s app, and I have more students attending them than ever before.

Online learning doesn’t have to be a drag. It’s all about attitude. Embrace it, take advantage of what it offers and you may find a way to reach your students that may actually work better than ever.


About the author

George Hess is an educator, guitarist, composer and author who has taught music technology, jazz and theory at leading universities for over 25 years.

The author of Create Music with Notion, he is a regular contributor to leading music education publications and his tutorial videos are published by Groove3 and featured by MuseScore.

Dr Hess is an Apple Distinguished Educator and award-winning teacher who serves on the board of directors for the Technology Institute for Music Educators (TI:ME) in the US. A certified Flipped Learning trainer who regularly presents at conferences and workshops around the world, he is currently Associate Professor of Music at Sunway University in Malaysia.

Website: http://georgehessmusic.com

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