Tips for Teaching Online

June 16th, 2015 by

More and more students are getting comfortable with learning from home via the internet, whether by making use of videos or online lessons.  I say “getting comfortable” because it really takes a little getting used to.  Technical glitches can make learning frustrating.  If you want to expand your teaching studio to the internet, be sure to think about some of these issues.

The Right Connection Software
Many people use Skype for lessons but I find it cumbersome because you and your  student have to be on each other’s phone list, and you are dependent on each other’s computer quality more than cloud-based systems.  Skype transmits the signals but depends on your computer to have the right software and handle most of the communications work.  Some software have quirky ways of meeting up with people, or low quality images.  But there screenare many systems out there and they are worth experimenting with.

My preference is Zoom.  Biggest plus – it’s simple.  Some systems are too complicated for students.  If a software has multiple windows, for example, you can be sure that someone will click on the wrong window and wonder where the picture went.  Zoom has only one window, with a few clearly marked controls that appear when you hover your mouse over the screen, and it can handle many users at once (connecting with more than one person for longer than 30 minutes requires a paid account).

The best thing about Zoom, though, is that you can give your student a link and they can join you by clicking it.  It’s that simple.  The first time, they’ll have to register their name and email but that’s pretty simple.       In summary, some qualities that are worth looking for in your conference software are simplicity, ease of connection, high-quality image, and cloud-based connection.

Lag Time
There is lag time when you connect over the internet, which means you can’t play together with a student as in a normal lesson.  You can get around this, however, by muting their microphone, and allowing them to play along with you.  You can’t hear them but they can get a lot out of this for short periods of time during a lesson, when they’d like to try out something you’ve shown them.  This can also work nicely with a group.

Due to the lag time, remember to speak clearly and not too fast.  Responding too quickly or interrupting your student can make a conversation hectic and hard to understand, and may require everything to be repeated.

Hands Off
You are miles away and talking through a screen, right?  So you can’t touch your student or their instrument.  You have to learn to do a lot more with verbal description than you might normally do in a regular lesson.

Framing and Lighting: What They See, part 1
You can ask your student to make sure you can see them and their instrument, but there’s only so far you can go requiring them to get everything right.  However, you can make sure you are well lit, preferably from slightly above and to the side, or both sides.  Lighting from below can make you look a little creepy.  If possible, no bright lights behind you, and no distracting clutter.  Wear something that makes you easy to see, not something that blends you into your background.   Check that when you sit or stand in the place you plan to be for the lesson, that the student can see you and your instrument as you play.  It’s frustrating to watch someone play when they are half out of the screen!

What They See, part 2
Remember that anybody in your student’s room can see you on the screen, so don’t go picking your nose just because your student is looking the other way (just an example!).   Also, you might be cautious about doing anything on your computer while teaching, because it looks a little weird to watch someone’s eyes jumping around their screen when you are expecting them to be looking at you.

Time Zones
On the internet you can teach people from anywhere.  When you make an appointment be absolutely certain you know the difference between your time zones.  I recently missed an appointment because I got confused about Greenwich Mean Time vs British Summer Time.

Cameras, Microphones, and Routers
The cameras and microphones built into computers or tablets are fine for students to take lessons, but I’d recommend you buy a decent camera, which usually includes a higher quality microphone than is in your computer.  But experiment a bit.   I found that between my camera’s mike and my computer’s mike, one worked better for voice and one for music.  I don’t alternate, though.  I use one or the other, and am not settled on which is best, better music or better voice.  Often the voice is most important while teaching.  I’ve learned to separate them, actually – when demonstrating some music, I’ve learned to mix talking and playing as little as possible.  For example, I might stop playing a note briefly in order to get in a few words of explanation, and then resume playing, rather than talk while playing.

Rarely have I had images freeze up during a lesson but if it happens it’s usually because someone is not close enough to their router or have spotty internet.  I think it’s important for the teacher, at least, to be plugged in by wire rather than connected to a wireless router.

Integrating Music Teachers Helper
Online students are, well, online!  And so is Music Teachers Helper.  It’s a no brainer for online students to use MTH and to benefit from its email reminders, lesson notes, online payments and receipts, and the File Area.  Use a different category and color for online students, in order to easily distinguish them from in-person students.

Special Benefits
There are a few unique upsides to teaching online.  One is that you place a link in the chat box, or email some sheet music,  and the student can begin making use of these materials while you’re still online with them.  In some instances you can share your screen with them and show them something from your own computer, such as music, a video, or an internet link.

Have I left something out?  Make a comment below to share your experiences and any tips you may have.  I can’t see teaching online ever replacing in-person lessons, but for people with specialized needs, homebound students, or those who live in remote areas, learning online can be a tremendous boon, and worth exploring.

Posted in Music & Technology, Teaching Tips

About the Author

Ed Pearlman
Ed Pearlman has focused on performing, teaching, and judging fiddle music for over 30 years, offering performances and workshops throughout the USA and in Canada and Scotland. His original training was with members of the Chicago and Boston Symphonies, and he played with orchestras and chamber groups at Yale and in Boston. He currently teaches privately in Maine and at workshops around the countr... [Read more]

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