Music Distance Education Online - Current & Future Perspectives

The aim of this white paper is to explore the potential of online distance education research and technology as it pertains to music education. During the literature review for this white paper, I discovered that music education is very difficult to present in a distance learning context. Part of the reason for this is the need for immediacy in the experience: simultaneous or near simultaneous interaction between the instructor and learner for the purpose of assessment and instruction, the critical need for richness in content (good quality audio and video), the need for lower failure rate and high reliability in the instructional content delivery system.

Until recently, video conferencing strategies have been used to fulfill the previously listed needs to support music education. However, video conferencing is expensive as it requires the use of a proper video studio with technicians, additional subject matter experts/moderators and in the case of synchronous learning contexts in distance education, requires two studios (one each for instructor and student). Video conferencing is prone to failure (sometimes at the worst times). Additionally, the desire of some institutions for subject matter experts of the master (typically a famous musician) level and scheduling conflicts with these individuals, many of whom have performance touring schedules, make it difficult to create and to broadcast instructional content.

Other distance education methods have been used: self-directed learning in the form of "easy to play" books for instruments have proven to be largely ineffective because of the lack of expert guidance during the course particularly for beginning learners who have no previous experience with the instrument. Audio-conferencing falls short because of the lack of video feedback which diminishes accuracy of instruction and assessment.

Online distance education (in the context of this paper means web based or computer based instruction using network connections) has gained significant popularity and acceptance by large educational institutions during the last decade. The cost of technology during the 1990's has diminished making high quality online and multimedia based instruction possible for a larger segment of the educational market. The growth of the Internet and the access and availability of broadband access (high-speed Internet) now make it possible to deliver robust content in distance education contexts.

Online distance education for music can now receive the full benefits of this technology and further research must be done in order to expand the current literature and to help push (or to sell) this notion to music educators and their institutions which by and large still subscribe fully to the belief of face to face instruction being the best and only way to teach music.

Current Research

During the literature review for this white paper, I discovered that there was very little current research on the topic of online music education (and for that matter, very little on distance education for music). What little there is describes emerging technology of the last decade. Consequently, some of the tools mentioned in these articles no longer exist (Microsoft Net Meeting) or have been replaced by better technology (for example, streaming video over 56kBps modem vs. Ethernet at a minimum of 1 MBps transfer rate).

Furthermore, the literature review included discussions about the idea of rich content (video and audio in a full-duplex transfer mode with adequate bandwidth to support it) as a critical aspect of online education, collaborative software as a way to facilitate instruction, and video is perceived as being a critical element for online musical instruction. I will discuss these last three points with more detail.

Rich content is a term used to describe the quality or robustness of what is being transferred between the learner and instructor. In the context of networking (including the Internet), this typically means the transfer of compressed and de-compressed audio and video content. Network technology has sufficiently matured so that the ability to transfer rich content is no longer an issue - many websites routinely post or stream video and audio (, portal for the Comcast cable network uses a Flash application that is updated intermittently during the day with fresh video clips a breaking story from CNN, for example). Rich content in online music education means that it is now possible and affordable to have a virtual lesson in a synchronous manner between student and learner using a computer with a network connection. This new development replaces videoconferencing as a more reliable and relatively inexpensive and logistically viable method for instruction delivery. Moreover, rich content is critical to the work of music instruction which involves showing the student how to play an instrument properly and instantaneous feedback.

Collaborative software was described in one research paper as a means to display abstract concepts that are not easily articulated on a musical instrument (basic chordal theory, or string orchestration, for example). In this case, Microsoft NetMeeting was used in one study as a way to chat during the session, pass files to each other and the white boarding feature allowed the instructor to jot down notes and notation that was visible to both parties during the lesson.

The availability of video (as real-time ITV/CTV type broadcast, online digital streaming or taped playback) was mentioned in another paper as being hyper-critical to music education. As mentioned in the previous passage about rich-content, any form of video presentation to deliver instruction was the key in allowing the best method of instruction if face to face sessions are not possible. Once again, it is because video gives the instructor the ability to conduct the lesson in great detail with accurate assessment (or as in the case of video taped lessons, a student returning to the instructor a taped video of their playing to show skill progression). Archived video (VTR playback or Quicktime movie for example) also allows for the student random access to course material, rewinding, slowing down and to pause the activity as he/she sees fit.

Berklee College of Music in Boston, MA has created huge amounts of new courses specifically for online distance education. Berklee has identified that approximately 30% of their students are from countries outside the United States. It is their desire to satisfy this growing segment of their student body (and I suspect to increase revenue, student enrollment and a desire to propagate the Berklee music culture worldwide) that is at the crux of their distance education program.

I visited the site and tried their demo class in basic songwriting. I observed that the class design, which was primarily asynchronous in nature, featured Flash animation and Flash tutorials. Flash (.swf format) is a moving picture format similar to Quicktime (.mov) and is developed by Macromedia a software company based in San Francisco. The .swf standard has been accepted by the Internet as a way to deliver rich content in a highly compressed but stunningly vibrant graphical format. For example, in a well developed Flash presentation, graphical, video and audio quality can be maintained at a high level and the size of the .swf file may still be small enough for web delivery.

During my visit to the online demo, I was impressed by many different aspects of their course: clean, simple and easy to use web interface; explicit instructions on how to use the interface and course expectations; the overall feeling of community and support engendered by the instructor and later, as evidenced in forum postings, the students themselves; how Flash tutorials were transparently integrated into the online classes.

Berklee College has truly bought into the distance education system in a big way in so doing, have created a online music education program that, in my opinion, is a benchmark for how others will be designed in the future.

Future Study

I believe that there is much work to do with respect to design of collaborative software which could be optimized for music education. Microsoft NetMeeting was a tool that some educators were using for online instruction. NetMeeting was a product that came free with the MSN Messenger program in late 1998. In addition to online chat, NetMeeting had the ability to share files and whiteboard among the chat participants. This aspect of being able to graphically illustrate a conversation and file transfer was what attracted the music teachers and gave added dimension to their online classes.

Microsoft has cancelled this free product and in its place is Live Meeting, a subscription service that greatly expands NetMeeting. Live Meeting pricing ranges from $180 per person plus annual subscription rate up to $12,000 for a 50 seat room plus annual subscription rate. This pricing scheme may be out of reach for music educators who face a future of diminished educational resources and funding.

At this time, there is clearly not one product that is truly designed to deliver musical instruction, although any one of the previously mentioned products is very capable in delivering classes and collaborative projects online. Further research could reveal, for example, that any of these products, if leveraged to deliver musical instruction would work (and which one is better?). Additionally, if there are shortcomings within these systems, how can they be addressed or corrected? Would developing new a stand alone product similar to the others but optimized for music instruction help to solve these issues? What, then, would be the improvements over the others? Would templates or plug-in (mini-programs that run in conjunction with another program) applications that work in conjunction with Groove, Live Meeting or Breeze be sufficient to correct these issues? Can this new product be developed in open source? Are there other applications of this new product besides music instruction?

Finally, additional research should be done that champions online music education and distance learning technology to address an issue that A. J. Anderson, a music teacher from Australia describes (and challenges in much of his research of online music education) as "...the best, if not the only, way to study music is to apprentice with a master." Moreover, his researches revealed that the master-apprentice model remains entrenched in music education and the psyche of music educators who only favor face to face, individual instruction as the primary means of tuition. Media comes in the form of paper based print, photos and sometimes an audio tape which supports face to face lessons and nothing more.

This may explain, in part, why there is so little research done on online music education, let alone distance learning of music education. Perhaps, current musical academia is simply not aware of the technological advances that have occurred within the last decade that has helped to bring information to the masses quickly; or perhaps there are no resources to fund initiatives that would bring this technology into their own institutions. In any case, technology will only continue to grow and become better as the new technology that educators use becomes supplanted by newer and better versions of itself. Technology expands -- this is the overriding principle in our increasingly new digital world and one that music education must deal with in the future.


Alan J. Anderson, A. E. (2001). Using desktop video to enhance music instruction. Australian Journal of Educational Technology, 17(3), 279-294.
Alan J. Anderson, A. E. (2003). An Action Research and Learning Approach to the Implementation of Web-supported Music Instruction. Lismore: School of Social Sciences, Southern Cross University.
Fred Rees, J. G. (2000). Distance Collaboration for Making, Teaching and Learning Music (Abstract for Presentation at the ATMI Conference in Toronto). Toronto: School of Music, IUPUI, School of Education, NYU.
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