The Faculty of Education at Wilfrid Laurier University (WLU) in Waterloo offers a two-year Bachelor of Education (B.Ed.) program. Students attracted to this program include those from faculties of music across Ontario who wish to become certified music teachers.
The B.Ed. program offers a variety of teaching specializations, with the music specialization, traditionally a low enrolment course, having a small cohort. Faced with budgetary implications arising from the array of specializations, administrators needed to find a way to not only retain their music specialization, but also control costs by increasing enrolment across the province.
With the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities (now renamed the Ministry of Advanced Education and Skills Development) offering funding to encourage collaboration among faculties of education for this type of situation, WLU applied for and received a grant in conjunction with the University of Ontario Institute for Technology (UOIT) in Oshawa to develop a course on teaching methods – but with a twist. Students learn how to teach music by studying primarily online.
With funding from the former Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities, the faculties of education of WLU and UOIT set out to create “Teaching Methods: Vocal and Instrumental Music,” a blended music pedagogy course for prospective teachers. The intent is for both institutions to share in the future instruction of the course, so the project included the development of a model for revenue and cost sharing on an ongoing basis.
A team was formed comprising of an instructional designer, music and education faculty, administrators, and the course author, Dr. Rachel Muehrer, who joined the planning sessions from UOIT via Skype. Dr. Colleen Willard-Holt, Dean of the Faculty of Education at WLU, served as an organizer/facilitator and advised on teaching and learning based on her experience as an educational psychologist.
Focusing on the practical and theoretical skills required to teach music at elementary and secondary school levels, the design team met monthly for 10 months as part of a planning process that spanned nearly two years, considering multiple iterations of its new course syllabus and assessments. When Dr. Meagan Troop was hired by WLU as an instructor, she contributed modifications to the design of the course before and while teaching it.
“Teaching Methods: Vocal and Instrumental Music” was first offered in Winter 2016 as a one-year pilot project intended to be offered every other year as part of a two-year B.Ed. program.
The pilot contained a variety of components, all offered online with the exception of a day-long workshop. Students accessed the course on WLU’s online learning environment, MyLearningSpace, powered by Desire2Learn, which includes a Dropbox folder for submitting assignments and a discussion board for activities. Students chose GarageBand or Sibelius to compose a song for an assignment, and used Adobe Connect and Skype to connect synchronously with instructors and peers.
“During the time we were designing our course, we weren’t aware of any institution teaching students online how to teach instrumental and vocal music,” said Dean Willard-Holt. “Because of this, we made a point of building in supports for the students throughout the course, including flexibility on the number of synchronous sessions, and individualized assistance on assignments. By way of online audio and video, we grouped students who were teaching each other to play a new instrument. We offered a synchronous workshop featuring prominent musicians teaching improvisation, allowing students at both WLU and UOIT to access these high-level presenters.”
Students were provided with ample resources at both Wilfrid Laurier University and UOIT. They could borrow musical instruments if needed and were provided with copies of the core texts for the course. All other necessary reading materials were provided electronically. Ongoing technical support was provided at both institutions.
Dr. Troop provided students with opportunities within the final two assignments for additional instructor feedback at the proposal stage and at the writing process stage. She made herself available to students who wanted to discuss their assignments or send samples for feedback, something she believes encouraged mastery learning: demonstrated learning through organized steps.
Peer-to-peer and instructor-to-peer interactions on the discussion board were an important element of the course. Students responded to a selected focus question with an original post and were expected to respond to a minimum of two other student posts. Dr. Troop facilitated participation on the discussion board by posing questions to prompt further consideration or deeper reflection of students’ responses. Student queries about certain topics led to the creation of a supplemental section where they could post additional resources related to music teaching and learning.
Other elements of the course include:
- e-Learning activities staggered throughout the course providing students with an opportunity to receive formative feedback and synthesize their learning on various topics in the course.
- A day of workshops presented by a series of facilitators on different music pedagogy topics, taught face-to-face. Students elected to experience the workshop in person at WLU or via Skype at UOIT, working there in groups in a face-to-face manner. A technician at WLU scanned the face-to-face classroom so those joining online from UOIT got a sense of the broader context of activity in the room.
- An exercise on the day of workshops in which students taught one another a song and were coached and assessed on their facilitation.
- A three-part assignment allowing students to learn and practice new vocal and instrumental techniques, practice methods of assessment and reflect on the process of teaching and learning. Students were encouraged to learn an instrument in a different classification than their most proficient instrument to best (re)experience the challenges of learning a completely new skill.
- An Ensemble Leadership and Activity Report, prepared after students selected one choral and one instrumental ensemble to observe, then interviewed the instructor/conductor and provided summaries about the rehearsal strategies and leadership qualities in each musical context.
- The creation of an Integrated Unit Plan, requiring students to draw on the themes and ideas presented throughout the course, and detail the underpinning philosophies and methodologies to be used, as well as a clear purpose for the unit.
As part of an assignment, Dr. Troop’s students kept a journal of their progress in a format they deemed appropriate. Some used charts and others used prose to express and delineate their rehearsal process for learning a new instrument. Dr. Troop provided anecdotal feedback. “The journals provided evidence of my students’ process of building a repertoire of effective teaching and learning strategies, as well as an opportunity for students to critically reflect on successes and challenges encountered along the way.”
Outcomes and Benefits
Nicola Gallagher, a B.Ed. student at WLU, took the “Teaching Methods” course as an elective. “I did not think a music course could be taught through a distance education format. Originally, I thought it would revolve around the teaching practices used in music classrooms – more theory-based – however this was not the case. There weren’t a lot of supports for future non-specialized music teachers such as myself, but some of the resources provided in class were fantastic. I benefitted greatly from the discussions with our professor, and when I asked, she was available for additional sessions to discuss material and topics. The music workshop we attended was also a fantastic learning experience.”
The resources standing out for Mr. Gallagher are those connected to the daylong, face-to-face workshop. “They were easy to understand and I could see how I might implement them in my classroom as a teacher. Perhaps this was due to the fact we discussed them as a class, or in person, and practiced them rather than learning about them through readings. The ones sticking in my mind the most are the bucket drumming and the movement warm-up activity where we played music and gave movement to it based on what we felt the music deserved. Both activities were well explained and laid out for how we might implement them in the classroom. I also found the videos in the course easy to follow and a good demonstration of how I might conduct a certain lesson or warm-up. The more-visual elements really helped me, as a generalist, to see how I might do these activities as I hadn't had any experience with these kinds of teachings.”
Mr. Gallagher found the online technology to be “not too much of a problem.” He was quick to find his way around the synchronous sessions without many difficulties. “The online format was easy to navigate, but it felt strange when exploring music. The videos were a great resource; however, putting some of our knowledge into practice was difficult and I would have liked more opportunity to practise the skills we were learning. Overall, as a commuting student, I appreciated the ability to explore the material on my own time, either in my home or on the go.”
Dr. Troop taught blended courses previously, but the online component was much more significant in this course. When she found the teaching isolating, she challenged herself to be creative in finding ways to build a strong community to connect her and her students weekly, if not daily, through activity and interaction. “For me, teaching music is a deeply connected human experience with relationship-building at its foundation. The online format helped me shape a broader conception of community and connectedness. I think the face-to-face component was invaluable and well-timed to be earlier on in the course, but there were many opportunities online to build new and meaningful relationships – they were simply different from what the experience looked and felt like when we were together on those face-to-face days.”
Challenges and Enhancements
Dean Willard-Holt notes while students were “game” to try out the online music methods course, some faculty from other universities were not open to the idea regardless of its quality. Other faculty expressed interest in seeing how the course would go. “Those who have philosophical issues with an online course in music methods simply do not have to participate.”
The “Teaching Methods” course was conceived specifically for students specializing in music, but with no music specialization at UOIT, the course was opened up to other students. This inadvertently created a “specialist” group (those with an extensive music background taking the course as one of two teachable subjects) and a “generalist” group (those with little music background who were in the junior division and were expected to grasp the music curriculum and incorporate it into their lessons and routines), which greatly complicated the teaching and assessments.
“The lesson learned,” said Dean Willard-Holt, “is to limit enrolment to music specialists or others who have a solid background in music. Alternatively, the syllabus will need to be differentiated for the two groups. The specialists found the course very helpful; the generalists found it much more challenging.”
Nicola Gallagher, who took the course as an elective, agrees. “I did learn some things about music education and social justice through the activities, however, overall, the elements of music education were difficult to grasp without a relatively large knowledge base in music to begin with.”
Dr. Troop made a few design changes prior to teaching the course and created a new course schedule during the first week after students found the original schedule difficult to follow. ”Students also helped inform some subtle design changes throughout the course as we negotiated the curriculum based on their needs and interests, specifically with the addition of synchronous sessions, timing for assignments, more options for formative feedback on assignments, and differentiated roles applied to their discussion board posts to increase engagement and range of student responses.”
Originally, only one synchronous online session was planned, but the enthusiastic response of students convinced Dr. Troop to add several more throughout the course to increase peer-to-peer and peer-to-instructor interaction. Student Nicola Gallagher appreciated this modification of the course design. “I’ve taken other online courses and they tend to work very well when they’re theory-based; however, music is a more practical field, with face-to-face interactions being far more beneficial for understanding the material being presented.”
Dr. Troop reports some students experienced challenges with the GarageBand/Sibelius composition assignment because they worked with a trial version of the software, an issue that may not have arisen if the students had a license for the software. Initially, the assignment was a cross-collaboration with groups consisting of students from both institutions, but this also presented too much of a challenge with the software limitations. After feedback from students, Dr. Troop reorganized the groups and the exercise proceeded more smoothly.
Nicola Gallagher and Dr. Troop agree the course was “assignment heavy” towards its end. Mr. Gallagher set aside time every week to complete the work, but found “sometimes the required readings and assignments became a lot, and it was difficult to find time to complete the course.” With a degree of flexibility available to her – the course ended approximately one month earlier than grades were due -- Dr. Troop spread out some of the deadlines and gave students options. “This added more challenge for me as the instructor, with less time to grade, but it allowed students who needed it to take more time to produce a quality assignment.”
The next iteration of “Teaching Methods: Vocal and Instrumental Music” will be offered to students from additional universities, and the longer-term goal is to include students from several other faculties of education across Ontario.
For now, Dean Colleen Willard-Holt is pleased all courses in Wilfrid Laurier University’s M.Ed. Degree program are hybrid. “The students are keen on this model as it preserves the best of both worlds: maximum flexibility, but personal relationships with the instructor and peers as well.” The Additional Qualifications courses for practising teachers are mostly blended, with a few completely online, and all core courses in the Education Minor are completely online. “We hope to launch a fully online doctorate in the medium future as well. Online teaching extends the Faculty of Education’s reach and reputation. I believe WLU will mount more online courses and programs as we strive to ‘meet students where they are.’”
For Further Information
Dr. Colleen Willard-Holt
Dean, Faculty of Education
Dr. Meagan Troop
Instructor, Faculty of Education