Today, in our gradually lockdown-easing world we find that necessity indeed, is the mother of invention. Truly amazing examples of creative solutions by teachers, tutors, parents and young people are seen weekly online with videos and live lessons on a variety of online learning platforms and solutions. For many there is no such thing as a problem, only an opportunity for a creative solution. One thing is for sure, mindsets around these issues are changing fast, because they have to. Teaching online is now part of a Music Service’s toolkit and excellent work is taking place across the country in developing safeguarding protocols and arrangements. We will also need to adopt collaborative approaches for developing good pedagogy in online learning and teaching, bearing in mind there will be a plethora of varying scenarios.
In 2016, I gave a presentation to educators at York St John’s University. It was my final week in local authority employment at the end of a 38-year career as a music teacher and Head of Music Service in Scotland. I shared with the audience that day findings of over 10 years of work in the set-up, management and delivery of our Instrumental Music Teaching Distance Learning programme in Dumfries & Galloway. More importantly, I highlighted the benefits for young people in their learning. In 2011 this work was included as a case study in the National Plan for Music. Although our distance learning programme featured in the National Plan, distance learning in instrumental teaching was not an area many Music Services were seeking to develop. However, I was invited to share this work at conferences in Malaysia, China, Australia, USA and Finland. There was certainly significant interest globally in the possibilities of online music learning.
Although we (in Dumfries & Galloway) were the first local authority in the UK to deliver weekly instrumental lessons (from 2005) via video conference, online learning in music goes back a long way. Those of us of a certain age will remember the BBC Radio programme ‘Singing Together’. For almost 60 years, this programme had generations of children singing in classrooms across the country. On Monday mornings at 11.00am, teachers across the country would turn on the radio and sing with their classes. The first programme was broadcast in September 1939 as a practical response to the difficulties of teaching during the war. Although intended to be temporary, it continued for many decades with an estimated 8 out of 10 schools tuning in. All children in schools had access to the ‘Singing Together’ programme, as long as they had a radio and a teacher willing to engage with the programme.
For many years, in other parts of the world, ‘online’, or learning over the airwaves, has been an important feature of life for many. Since 1951, thousands of children in the Australian outback have been educated remotely. And until 2003, this of course wasn’t done on the internet, but over shortwave radio. The system is called the ‘School of the Air’ and is still in operation today. In the 1950s, some pupils would find themselves on remote sheep and cattle farms with a limited electrical supply and would take part in live lessons using pedal radios. If they stopped pedalling underneath their desks in lessons, the connection to their virtual classroom powered by a generator, died! However, many ‘School of the Air’ students have reportedly said they had no regrets about their remote learning experiences and that in fact it nurtured resilience, curiosity and ‘grit’.
The instrumental teaching video conference programme we piloted and ran in our primary schools for many years received a very positive evaluation by the Department for Industry & Education at Warwick University. In remote lessons delivered via video conference it reported the following findings:
- Pupil progress was equivalent or better than pupils learning by conventional methods
- There were no behavioural issues reported
- Distance Learning was a positive learning environment
- The pupils very focussed
- Pupils had ownership of their learning
- It was empowering for pupils
- Online learning via a screen was a natural learning medium for young people
The above were encouraging findings, in settings where the young people received their remote lessons when they were in school, not at home. Issues of equity are a big area for consideration. Some young people have limited or no technology or bandwidth at home. Some may have one usable device in a family of parents working from home and several children. All homes are very different.
There are no easy answers going forward, however, teachers and schools are already coming up with ingenious solutions to meet the wide and varied needs of their students. Collaboration between professionals in schools and social services will become even more important moving forward.