Friday, March 20, 2020

The challenges of teaching online

Equipment for Online Lessons
I have been teaching online lessons since the first software was available.  I teach guitar and mandolin, violin and viola, Irish bouzouki and tenor banjo, electric bass and electric guitar.

I also offer Music Theory, Singing and ESL classes. 

I think it was GEOS who had the first graphical user interface that came bundled with America Online, and the first online chat service.  It was slow and inconvenient, but it meant I could stay at my home in Shelburne Falls and teach bluegrass fiddle to students at UMass Amherst.  This was pretty great, because the drive to Amherst from Shelburne could take up to an hour each way depending on the weather.  That was 1989.  AOL maintained it's control over the instant messaging activity online until Microsoft came out with it's version.  I migrated over to that because the software was faster and integrated with other MS products.  In the early 1990s, I took coursework in HTML and web design and learned how to create my own online chat box.  I worked as webmaster for Apple Hill Center for Chamber music from 1998-1999 and there were lots of opportunities to innovate using HTML and later CSS as I managed the website and taught myself how to set up encryption for taking online donations, parsing and bitmanagement for uploading video files (Apple Hill Chamber players would send me videos from concerts in China, Pakistan, Palestine, Egypt to upload and share to the community).  In the early 20s, there was an explosion in online platforms for chatting, but one platform rose above the rest: Skype.  I was an early adopter, and converted all of  my online students to it.  It was fast, convenient, easy to use and free.  But soon enough they started charging for some of the international services, which put a damper on my ESL lessons.  So I started looking around for another free platform.  And there were lots to choose from.  I'm afraid I was a little confusing for a while as I cast around looking for something as solid as Skype, but free.  I finally settled on Google Hangouts, which were offered free to anybody with a Google account (a Gmail address), but later as they phased out their Google+ service, they eliminated the free Hangouts service.  I had to look for another home.  That's when someone suggested I try Slack.  I was skeptical at first, because of its clunky set up, but found it to be quite manageable.  Now my whole studio is on Slack, and I use it also for my family and friends to communicate privately away from social network busybodies on Facebook (Cambridge Analytica) and the cost of using platforms like Hangouts and Skype. 

Some of the other challenges have to do with connection speed.  I have always had a business account  first with dial-up, and later with cable.  Business accounts always get priority in service, have the fastest connectivity, and in a power out, offer a battery backup service so you can stay online until the power turns back on.  They're pretty great.  Sure a business account is very expensive (triple the average retail account), but the added security and service more than makes up for the expense.  My students who experience lag during a session are encouraged to use a cable connection instead of Wifi as it will always be faster.  For students who use hand-held devices like iPads or others may run into trouble as the video software only runs on Chrome and some Apple products don't work well with Google services.  I always recommend using a PC with a cable connection.

Lighting is also a factor.  Students should consider having a light in front (on the desk or wall) and not in the back (like windows, for example).  Back lighting renders the front in shadow always.  If you need to be in a lit room, turn the camera so the light is on your face and not your back.  Get a folding table for your laptop or move the webcam off the PC to a better location.

Even though most webcams offer an internal microphone, I recommend getting a separate one.  I use the Blue snowball microphone, it's great!  You want something that will pick up your instrument AND your voice.

COVID19 / Coronavirus
With the onset of social distancing and the coronavirus outbreak, many people have turned to online classes as they can no longer attend in person ones.  I highly recommend taking lessons online!  It's easy and convenient.