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From A Distance

 
  Andy Edelstein
 
  Andrea Stolpe
 
  From the left: Jeff Dorenfeld and John Czajkowski
 
  Ann Peckham
  Susan Wilson

It has become a cliché that the evolution of modern telecommunications - from the telegraph to the telephone to satellites to the Web - has increasingly brought people closer together. Many activities that were once possible only when individuals were in relatively close physical proximity to one another have now entered the virtual realm. Today, people can engage in various pursuits, or a remarkable simulacrum of them, whether they breathe the same oxygen or are thousands of miles apart.

Educational instruction has been a part of this transformation. A few decades ago, "distance learning" meant correspondence courses in drawing or radio repair into which you enrolled by mailing off a matchbook cover. At that time, schools claimed to be able to teach you to play the piano, but the results were patchy at best. (Early-20th-century avant-garde composer George Antheil tried to market his visual piano-instruction system "See-Note" and lost his shirt.)

But with the interactivity of the Web, musical instruction now has new possibilities, and Berklee's online music school Berkleemusic.com exemplifies this trend. Today, for example, Berklee Keyboard Method by Berklee Piano Department chair emeritus Paul Schmeling is taught through Berklee's successful online school. In 2006 the University Continuing Education Association (UCEA) named Schmeling's course as the best online college course. And Schmeling's class is just one among a range of offerings in performance; music theory, harmony, and ear training; music business; arranging; songwriting; and music production that have been taught to more than Berkleemusic.com 20,000 students all around the world.

Some activities still cry out for real-time, in-physical-space human interaction. And while it's not easy for a teacher to encourage diaphragmatic breathing to show a student the right way to hold a bow, adjust a reed, or correct a hand position on a guitar neck without physical contact, new technologies have helped compensate. Many in the audio education field say that if you don't hear what students hear through the same speakers in the same room, it's difficult to judge how well their performance on assignments in miking instruments, editing, synthesizing, processing, and mixing music. But increasingly, the idea of distance education in the audio world has gained acceptance, and according to at least one practitioner, it can be quite valuable.

Creating New Avenues of Learning

Over the past 28 years, Andy Edelstein has been a member of Berklee's Music Production and Engineering Department as well as a music producer and engineer. He spent a couple of years at Columbia University and earned an electrical engineering degree at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. If anyone can claim the label "old school," it is Edelstein. Over the past five years, however, he's also helped develop the tools of this generation of music producers, such as courses in Pro Tools and other software for Berkleemusic.com. In addition to writing the curriculum, Edelstein also teaches courses at the online school.

For the uninitiated, online education may seem less rigorous than courses in the physical world. But Berkleemusic.com's curriculum is no quick-and-dirty, -get-you-up-and-running overview. Courses last 12 weeks, and cost $1,000 or, if a student wants to earn college credit at Berklee or another institution, $1,200. That's about 30 times longer and twice as much money as a similar in-person course in a Digidesign training center. Students are expected to devote several hours a week to their coursework.

"I was skeptical at first," says Edelstein. "I thought, 'How can you do this and not be in the room with [students]?' But I'm a convert. I now think that online courses in some ways are considerably better than conventional courses, especially compared to shotgun programs that try to cover everything in two or three days. Students can't absorb concepts that fast, and they don't get to put in anywhere near as much time with the tools."

Berklee's online teachers and students find themselves using all the tools that the Web has to offer, and that works to the courses' advantage. "I'll do an [online] 'office hour,' but rather than have students come in and talk to me individually," Edelstein says, "it's a multiuser live-chat session, and that session is logged so that students can return to it anytime. And we continue discussions interactively offline. Comments stay online, and everyone has a chance to pipe in. We're sharing links, blogging, uploading files, and we hope to have live split-screen video soon."

Virtual media offer benefits for student interaction and more effective learning as well. "For today's students, online communities are their baseline as much as real communities," he says. "They bond in the class: they help each other out in areas where they need to. They're sometimes less self-conscious than they would be in a class in front of the teacher."

Sharing large audio files, of course, requires fat pipes. "We use DigiDelivery, which is very fast," Edelstein says, "but it's not an exercise you want to try with a dial-up connection. Even DSL is a little slow. With a cable Internet connection, a 500-megabyte file will be finished by the time you get back from lunch. But we also keep the sessions that students upload short: typically they'll do one minute of four tracks. When they do a final mix, we may have them submit it on MP3. We tell them to try different settings and use the lowest rate that sounds good to them. That's an educational process in itself."

A typical class has as many as 20 students, a volume that is difficult to accommodate in the real world. "It's tough to provide a teaching studio or lab that can accommodate large numbers of people," Edelstein notes, "but there are a plethora of off-site resources that students can use, like their own setups at home. Another challenge in a conventional classroom is that a student can be present physically, but not really be there; it can happen that you get little or nothing out of the experience. There are outside forces at work too, which can get in the way - what you had to eat for breakfast or how late you were out last night - which can affect how a teacher does that day or how a student takes a lesson in. But move that into an asynchronous learning environment, and it's no longer a problem, since the student can always look back and pick up something he missed; all the previous lessons stay available."

What Is Berkleemusic.com?

In the early days of the college, Berklee offered several successful correspondence courses in music theory and arranging to students in far-flung locations. So, about a decade ago, Vice President for Berklee Media Dave Kusek approached Lee Eliot Berk, Berklee's former president, and Gary Burton, the former executive vice president, about extending educational opportunities to musicians who couldn't attend Berklee. Kusek's idea was to update the concept by making Berklee curriculum available through the Internet. Berk and Burton gave the green light to Kusek; Debbie Cavalier, the dean of continuing education; a technical team; and various Berklee faculty members to create the online curriculum. In April of 2002, the first Web courses went live.

Many of the initial course offerings were based on books published by the revitalized Berklee Press imprint. Since then, Berkleemusic.com has greatly expanded its curriculum to include such disciplines as music theory and harmony, music business, arranging, songwriting, music production, vocal and instrumental instruction, music education, and more. Six years later, Berkleemusic.com offers 90 courses and has taught a total of 20,000 students from around the world. Last year, continuing education enrollment reached 10,000. Each course runs for 12 weeks and requires students to devote six to eight hours of work per week on assignments. Three kinds of achievement certificates are awarded to those completing between three and 12 courses. Additionally, Berkleemusic.com credits are accepted at Berklee and hundreds of other institutions.

Over the past six years, Berkleemusic.com has become recognized as the world's largest and most successful online music school. "We intend to continue growing the program," Cavalier says. "We feel that we've barely scratched the surface with the development of programs and the number of students taking courses. Recently, we've added courses in voice, percussion, and video-game audio."

Currently, there are 100 Berkleemusic.com instructors drawn from the ranks of the Berklee faculty and alumni as well as from the music industry. Faculty résumés feature diverse credits, including writing songs for Grammy Award-winning albums, negotiating multimillion-dollar contracts for entertainment industry clients, engineering major recordings, performing with some of the industry's top artists, and more.

A majority of the Berkleemusic.com students are between the ages of 35 and 55 and hail from all parts of the world. "A lot of our students have full-time jobs and families and have always wanted to attend Berklee," Cavalier says. "That's not possible for them now, but they find our courses and certificate programs fit beautifully into their lives. For both students and faculty, the freedom to study or teach using a laptop at any hour of the day from any location is a huge factor in Berkleemusic.com's appeal."

Depending on the subject matter, the lessons might feature audio messages, video clips of the instructor, MP3 lessons, interactive diagrams, Flash animation, discussion forums on which all class members weigh in, assignments that are uploaded after completion for grading, and a final summary by the instructor. Each teacher also schedules a weekly "office hour" as an online chat session in which class members participate. "The different time zones make it a challenge for teachers to schedule chat times," Cavalier says, "but the diversity in each course section makes for interesting conversations. The chats are archived so students who couldn't participate in real time can see what was said. There are also forums on threaded discussion boards where the students can keep the dialogue going throughout the course. In the songwriting classes especially, there is a lot of dialogue between class members." All of these elements contribute to a sense of community among students and teachers even though they may never meet in person.

Cavalier emphasizes that the online model complements rather than replaces human expertise. "When we started this initiative, some people worried that teachers would be replaced by technology," Cavalier says. "But Berkleemusic.com would never work without the faculty. No matter how cool all the interactive features of a course might be, we've always known that what matters most to our students is the interaction with the instructors and their evaluation of the students' work."

 

Designing Curricula for the Web

On Berkleemusic.com, alumna Andrea Stolpe '98 created and teaches the songwriting course "Commercial Songwriting Techniques." A blossoming songwriter living in Los Angeles, Stolpe has had her songs cut by singers Faith Hill, Daniel Lee Martin, Julianne Hough (of Dancing with the Stars), and others. In 2007, Stolpe released her debut CD, Breaking Even, and in addition to pursuing her career as a solo artist, over the past two years she has taught online songwriting courses.

Stolpe says that preparing material for her course was a yearlong process. After outlining the content and dividing it into 12 weeklong segments, she sought input on how to display the course work in formats other than simply pages of text. "I did some brainstorming with Craig Reed and the other Berkleemusic.com course developers," Stolpe says. "They helped turn my ideas into interactive lessons. We explored options with drop-down boxes and other interactive things that help people with different learning styles get the most out of the course."

One such exercise covers the use of prepositions and conjunctions. The site features drop-down boxes that allow students to insert various word choices to see how different selections affect a lyric's meaning. Stolpe's belief that writers should write every day - just as instrumentalists practice every day - prompted her to make daily writing assignments for the course. Students post their assignments to the site so others can see what they've come up with and offer feedback. In addition to the exercises, text, MP3s, and assignments posted online, she has also added a list of books for supplemental reading.

Stolpe believes that online teaching enables her to focus on the progress of individual students. "In a classroom setting with a large group, I'm not able to check to make sure that each student is really digesting the material," she says. "There may be a few people who are very verbal, while the rest of the class members sit back, feeling hesitant to share their writing. Online, though, each student gets the same amount of time with me. I can meet them at their skill level and move them toward their goals. No student gets left behind if they keep up with the assignments. We hold a one-hour chat each week, and I spend five to seven hours per week, per course, responding to students' needs. My class requires writing daily, so there are five or six assignments that are turned in by each student per week."

According to Stolpe, peer responses to class assignments are helpful on at least two levels. First, students get feedback on their work. Second, they get experience in critiquing by evaluating someone else's melody or lyric. "I can imagine an interactive class in the future where a student sequences a melody and moments later it appears on the screens of each peer, ready for their input or simply to be shared," she says. "There are many new directions for technology to go in this area."

Stolpe says that music lends itself to online instruction. "Some people have a hard time imagining how music can be taught online," Stolpe says. "But there is so much about music courses that fits well with online learning. It's amazing to be able to study whenever and wherever you want. A lot of the value of taking any music class is the momentum it gives to continue practicing your art outside the classroom."

And while some argue that Berkleemusic.com's courses are expensive, Stolpe has a different perspective. "For a course that runs 12 weeks, it works out to be around $75 per week," she says. "That's about what you'd pay for a private lesson on an instrument. I tell my students to think of our sessions like private lessons."

Virtual Vocals

While skeptics doubt that an online course in vocal instruction can be successful, Anne Peckham is a believer. A professor in Berklee's Voice Department and author of The Contemporary Singer: Elements of Vocal Technique, Peckham has taught vocal technique in the traditional teaching studio environment for years and recently authored "Vocal Technique 101" for Berklemusic.com.

The course uses video demonstrations, animated illustrations, and sing-along tracks with rhythm section accompaniment to teach students how to develop accurate intonation, sing melodic embellishments and simple harmonies, improve breath control, and care for the voice. Additionally, Peckham's course addresses warm-up routines, performance anxiety, movement on stage, and the use of microphones.

"Putting the material together was a tremendous challenge," Peckham says. "The song choices for assignments had to be original compositions or public-domain songs so the students could download and print them out for their studies. I tried to create interesting and contemporary-sounding arrangements of songs to appeal to the type of student that is typically drawn to Berklee. Developing a variety of relevant and useful material for the online environment kept me on my toes. It is very different than the traditional classroom.

"There is a set of basic technical skills based on breath support and tone projection that everyone needs. Learning to sing with good intonation, healthy tone quality, and coordinated breath support takes time. Incorporating these skills into songs with lyrics is another challenge. Singers do this by performing the songs in their weekly assignment and by listening to and commenting on their classmates' performances as well. The need for drill and practice for true command of vocal technique is a perfect match for the infinite patience of the computer."

From the Road to You

John Czajkowski is a 1998 graduate of Berklee's Music Business/Management Department and, since leaving Berklee, has been active in the concert touring industry. Czajkowski has worked as a tour manager, tour accountant, production manager, and road manager for such major artists as Bruce Springsteen, Shania Twain, Ringo Starr, the Strokes, and others.

Czajkowski and Berklee Associate Professor Jeff Dorenfeld co-authored the Berkleemusic.com course "Concert Touring." Also a UCEA award winner, the course covers the preparation and logistics involved in developing, budgeting, executing individual performances and full-blown tours, and alternate revenue streams for touring musicians. Additionally, the course instructs on terms, concepts, and key players and their roles in the touring industry. Czajkowski teaches the class as he travels the world, which is another benefit of the online instruction model. Czajkowski gave his input for this article, for example, from the United Kingdom, where he was amid a yearlong tour with the band Oasis.

"One of the coolest things about this course is the fact that I'm actually on tour while teaching a course on concert touring," Czajkowski says. "So it's not all textbooks and academia, I'm sharing my day-to-day-experiences with the class. That makes every section that I teach unique, because we're working in real time."

While developing the course material, Dorenfeld and Czajkowski spent a lot of time finding ways to make the course fun and informative. "We wrote volumes of text and came up with some ideas, but the real delight came when we saw the treatment that Berkleemusic.com and course developer Boriana Jeleva applied to that material.

"Jeff decided to film his 'Keep It Live' panel discussions at Berklee and intersperse the footage throughout the course," Czajkowski says. "This allows students to watch industry leaders discussing many topics touched on within the course material. Now that a majority of people use broadband connections, it's been great to be able to use rich content in a business course."

Another feature of Czajkowski's course is that his work has taken him to places where he can meet his online students. "I've treated a few choice students to a show and a tour of the venue I'm working at," he says. "That's something you won't get in a traditional classroom setting."

"The music industry is moving increasingly online and going digital," says Berklee Associate Vice President for Berklee Media Dave Kusek. "We're leading the way in music education via the Internet to provide thousands of alumni and other music professionals with the latest information and competitive advantage. Everybody needs an edge these days, and we are doing our best to help people figure out what that means for them through Berkleemusic.com."