Online Lessons: Friend or Foe?

When the COVID-19 pandemic forced us to switch to teaching online lessons almost overnight, it was quite a baptism of fire so to speak. In some ways, you could argue I’d had a bit of a head start having had online flute lessons for about three years. Whilst it meant I knew they could work, I had no experience myself of teaching online.

Fast forward some 18 months, and where are we now? Against a backdrop of continued uncertainty, teachers are tentatively making a return to face-to-face teaching in-person. But for many of us, online lessons are here to stay, and perhaps now, for positive rather than negative reasons.

In this blog post, I wanted to explore some of the considerations around teaching online as music teachers navigate their entry into what we might term to be a ‘new era’ of teaching.

1. Online lessons don’t suit all teachers

Despite having had lessons online myself, if you’d asked me my opinion 18 months ago on teaching them, my answer may not have been repeatable. There was something about being thrown in at the deep end against a backdrop of worry and uncertainty which, in many ways, made it a deeply unpleasant experience. I wonder if some of our students will ever fully realise how much was involved in getting those first few weeks up and running smoothly?

I guess that inevitably, as time went on, we got used to it. We found out, mainly by trial and error, what worked well and what didn’t. Like the human creatures we are, we adapted to this new environment. It certainly hasn’t been without its problems, but I think that overall, we’ve made a pretty good go at it. That said, even if you’d asked me a year ago, I would have been one of the teachers who said I couldn’t wait to get back to face-to-face lessons and never teach another lesson online ever again.

Over the past year, I’ve mellowed a bit. There are aspects of online lessons which do suit me. There are some which, in particular, suit the kinds of students I teach. As I’ve written before, teaching online has offered us a different perspective. Nevertheless, online lessons don’t suit every teacher. Some will be returning as fast as possible to the pre-COVID setup of face-to-face lessons only. For me personally, online lessons are here to stay. I’m not giving up teaching face-to-face, but online lessons have become part of the service I offer.

2. Online lessons don’t suit all students

One thing which I have learnt over the past year is that online lessons don’t suit every student. In fact, it’s been quite brutally clear where they suit and where they don’t. It’s not always age-related or even instrument-related, but more about personality. We all learn in different ways, and for some students, the online world doesn’t meet their needs. For some, it has been an uphill struggle for both them and their teacher. For others, they have made a seamless transition and I notice virtually no difference.

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Perhaps the challenge for us teachers who are taking forward a mixture of face-to-face and online lessons, will be to carefully assess which suits which student (where there is that option). Maybe we will need a little longer to think about those students, their personalities and their attributes, for whom online lessons have been most effective.

3. Online lessons are different, but not necessarily worse

Over the past year, there has inevitably been much talk and discussion about whether online lessons are worse than face-to-face lessons. In some ways, I don’t think this is a fair discussion because it’s comparing two completely different things. As many of us come to online teaching having taught extensively face-to-face (I have been teaching for 20 years), we come from a somewhat different viewpoint.

As I say, I don’t think it’s a question of better or worse, but rather an acceptance that online lessons are different to face-to-face lessons. That said, there are still many similarities too. As I’ve said above, online lessons will never suit every teacher and they will never suit every student, but then that is true of many things in life.

4. It’s not all about the technology

Not long after we transferred to online teaching, so came the plethora of blog posts, webinars, online courses and videos all designed to help us achieve the best tech setup for our online lessons. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who felt overwhelmed by all this, albeit, well-meaning advice. Microphones, headphones, screen-sharing and multiple camera angles were all possible, and many teachers have used some or all of these to great effect.

But even then, I’ve learnt that online lessons are not just about the technology. Technology can help, but it can also hinder. Neither is technology a replacement for the teacher themselves and what they teach. Personally, I’ve relied on my five-year-old iPad Pro and a mix of FaceTime, Skype and Zoom depending on the student’s preference. No microphone, no headphones, no screen-sharing and no multiple camera angles. I suspect that as time goes on, I might explore one or two of these tech enhancements more fully, and maybe I will introduce them, but even then, we are still working with the devices and connections that our students have in their own homes.

The future

So, what does the future hold?

The future is inevitably going to look different for different teachers, and indeed their students. Some teachers will return fully to face-to-face teaching, whilst others may combine those with teaching online. Perhaps some will remain online entirely. I’m sure the debates about whether online lessons are effective, will continue. At the moment, these considerations are still set against a backdrop of an uncertain world.

For me personally, online lessons have opened up some possibilities. I can now offer lessons to those who are not local to me. Since I added a specific page to my website, I’m teaching three online-only students scattered as far afield as Liverpool, London and Aberystwyth. Even though the majority of my existing students here expect to return to face-to-face lessons, many are keen to explore a hybrid model which also combines online lessons.

Teaching online has forced, or should I say, enabled us, to reflect on the way we teach, the ways we connect with our students, and indeed, the way we run our businesses. The future is both exciting and slightly scary all and one at the same time, but there are certainly online possibilities worth exploring.

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