Blurring Technology and Teaching

Nearly six years ago, I began offering a free online course teaching interested persons how to play the Irish tin whistle. I conceived of putting the lessons on YouTube while a student at Fordham. Given only an hour a week with a large number of students, I utilized YouTube as a resource. I could record a short video, upload it for, and have my students watch them from home.

Little did I know that the videos would have a much greater reach than my little class. 102 videos and ~4,000,000 views later, I continue to upload tutorials. Over the last five years:

  • 69.2% of my audience is male
  • 20.7% are men between the ages of 45-54
  • 29.6% are men under the age of 34
  • 9.6% are women between the ages of 45-54
  • 14.2% are women under the age of 34
  • 22.5% are between the ages of 55-64
  • 6,721 people have subscribed to the YouTube Channel
  • The top ten countries in order of video popularity: USA, UK, Germany, Ireland, France, Canada, Italy, Spain, Netherlands, Australia 
  • On average, I moderate anywhere between 20-60 comments left on the videos each day. Inevitably, I have to delete several of them, respond to a few, and scratch my head over others. 
Several times over the last few years, colleagues in Irish music and dancing will relay to me that they "met" one of my students. Indeed, several times musicians have entered music competitions and said that they were my students...even though I've never set eyes on them before! Many times I have met people at feiseanna or at Irish events and they'll know me - they read the blog, they watch the videos, they take the lessons - and it's a totally surreal experience to have someone inquire after the frequency with which you do laundry (sometimes the laundry basket appears in the background of the videos) or they'll suggest changing brands of mouthwash (which, also, are sometimes able to be spotted in the background). 

As helpful as the videos have been, there is a drawback. When I'm teaching in person, I am adapting to the needs of the student. I may adjust his fingers to cover the holes better, I may encourage her to hold the whistle in a different way, I may correct the timing of the tune or help to break it apart for easier learning. Sometimes I close my eyes and listen to the person play and then, hearing something that particularly delights or intrigues me, I burst out with a "Yes! That's great!! Do that again!" There is nothing comparable to the look of delight that passes over a student's face when he or she gets such positive feedback. 

Teaching music is not about conveying how to play notes. It's about finding expression, it's about teasing out an inner voice that is - sometimes - rather reluctant to emerge. Sometimes the teacher has to coax, cajole, or drag the music out of the student and then rejoice as it flowers. There is no one-size-fits-all approach that can be taken. It's as much about coaching, of creating a relationship of trust and mutual respect, wherein the student is empowered and challenged to grow in new ways. 

A story in the Chronicle of Higher Education by Professor Pamela Hieronymi addresses the rise in online education. She writes:
Education is not the transmission of information or ideas. Education is the training needed to make use of information and ideas...Just as coaching requires individual attention, education, at its core, requires one mind engaging with another, in real time: listening, understanding, correcting, modeling, suggesting, prodding, denying, affirming, and critiquing thoughts and expression. 
Professor Hieronymi's article confirms something that I have feared for some time: despite my best efforts, the failure of my own video instruction has been that they convey information - how to play - are are not as successful at empowering students to play on their own (as evidenced by the number of tutorial requests I get to teach tunes which they should be able to pick up on their own). Lost on the internet is the personal touch, the coaching, the relationship between Teacher and Student.

At the start of the new school year, it would prove beneficial for students to recall that going to school is not simply about getting information. It's about being formed, it's about learning how to think in new and innovative ways, it's about being coached and challenged into making use of what is learned. Content, surely, is important. Anyone can pick up content. It takes a teacher, though, to help to impart and shape a student's style. It bears repeating that students should find an instructor whom they respect and whose 'style' they wish to emulate.

College is extraordinarily expensive. If a student wants to treat the college experience as daycare with information added, it might be better just to take online courses. If, however, a student really wants to be educated, she will apprentice herself to a master, take the risk of being being coached, and embark upon an educational adventure which will shape her heart and her mind in new and exciting ways.


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