Engaging Students: Essays in Music Pedagogy, vol. 2

Table of Contents

On the Assessment of Technological Competence in Online Music Courses

Gregory R. McCandless, Full Sail University

Although fully online college courses and programs have become commonplace over the last decade, only recently have technological developments such as free or low-cost music notation software, virtual classrooms, and learning management systems (LMSs) led to an increased interest in and demand for online music curricula. I have been teaching music theory in a fully online college program for over four years, and have seen firsthand the amazing things that software and hardware can currently offer students, from animated video productions that quickly and efficiently communicate complex musical concepts to Java- or Flash-based apps that drill students on a wide range of theory concepts and offer immediate, customized feedback. Several other outstanding technologies are available as well, many of which are discussed by Stephen Gosden in the initial edition of Engaging Students.

I have also experienced the variety of interpersonal dynamics that result from teaching theory in a technologically mediated environment and have begun to understand the unique ways that online instructors and students tend to assess one another. As an online music professor, just as with traditional campus-based music courses, you are evaluated on your communication skills, fairness, knowledge, availability, etc. However, like it or not, you are also being viewed as a tech support specialist, and in order to succeed in the eyes of your students, you must excel in both roles. Avoiding the potential pitfalls of online instruction takes planning; you must thoroughly learn your selected technologies and be comfortable supporting them prior to the start of your course in order to be viewed as an effective online teacher. As Gosden notes, this often takes more time than you expect.

Just as the addition of technology to the classroom yields another set of criteria by which students may evaluate their instructors, it provides instructors with an additional basis for student assessment. Successes and failures related to student hardware/software use arise frequently in online courses, as technology plays a role in every communication and every assignment, every day. Its importance, however, is easily downplayed on rubrics and syllabuses, as assessments in music classes are traditionally limited in scope to musical, behavioral, and grammatical topics. This essay will focus on the questions that music instructors must answer related to the assessment of technological competence when planning online courses.

To Assess or Not to Assess?

The extent to which you will formally assess students’ abilities with technology depends on your personal educational philosophy and the educational philosophy of your institution with regard to the following question:

1. Is my job primarily to prepare employable professionals or to foster musical knowledge?

While these goals are of course not mutually exclusive (with the latter goal supporting the former), most traditional music schools, particularly those with a liberal arts background, can be said to focus primarily on fostering musical knowledge, despite the recent trend toward viewing the role of a college education in the humanities as pre-professional training that should be subject to ROI studies. At first glance, then, some instructors teaching online music courses at traditional schools may gravitate toward the notion that assessing technological competence is outside the scope of their duties, particularly if courses addressing digital literacy are offered elsewhere by their institutions. However, NASM-accredited schools offering professional degrees in music (i.e., B.M. degrees) are charged with the task of readying graduates for professional work through training in the areas of “performance, aural skills and analysis, composition and improvisation, repertory and history, and technology” (NASM Handbook 2013-2014, 100, italics mine). Faculty teaching in these degree programs may feel more pressure to include technological assessments in their courses.

My institution is presently accredited by the Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges (ACCSC), and therefore represents the viewpoint focused on employability. Instructors teaching at similar institutions may be more apt to approach technological competence as a crucial component of musical/professional training, and assess it accordingly.

Perhaps more important than institutional accrediting agencies’ philosophies, though, are your own ideas about the role of a college education in music, which help to address the crucial question:

​2. Is it appropriate to assess technological matters at all in a music course?

Following the first, more general question regarding professionalism, you must decide whether to place a grade weight on technological competence. Some instructors would likely opt against doing so, for a variety of reasons. They may argue that one course can not possibly serve the totality of a student’s educational needs, and that this is accomplished instead by the variety of courses in which a student enrolls throughout his/her college career. They might contend that a musicianship course, for example, should focus exclusively on musicianship, with the course grade needing to be a numerical representation of one’s musicianship that is as accurate as possible. They may point to the fact that technology courses do not include grade weights for musical skills, and therefore posit that music courses should not be required to include grade weights for technological skills. They might consider it sufficient to simply communicate with students when they are not using technology properly, and to perhaps offer extra technical assistance when it is needed in order to get them on track with the rest of the class.

On the other hand, proponents of assessing digital literacy in music courses would likely argue that a more professional musician is a better musician, and claim that aspects of professionalism in today’s music industry include strong writing and communication skills, punctuality, and facility with technology. They might argue that while music courses typically do assess students’ time management skills and writing/communication skills, they do not address technological skills—a failure that is particularly inappropriate in the context of an online class. They may shudder at the idea of two students earning the same course grade despite demonstrating drastic differences in email quality, file naming and formatting, score clarity, etc. They might, like Anna Gawboy, espouse authentic assessments and insist that technological issues related to the creation and delivery of files are real world problems faced by professionals, making the assessment of technological mastery relevant and necessary.

Assessing Technological Competence

If you decide to assess technology, further questions emerge:

3. Is it more appropriate in the context of this class to have a percentage of the overall course grade devoted to the successful use of technology, or to have portions of certain assignments’ grades dedicated to technical matters?

Certainly, the type of music course being taught will affect your answer to this question. Music history courses, for example, will tend to involve less technology use than electro-acoustic composition courses, and may be better served with a general, comprehensive assessment provided at the end of the semester. Additionally, your college may dictate or suggest the extent to which you assess the student use of technology. My institution has implemented a university-wide policy addressing the issue obliquely, reserving 10% of all course grades for a broad assessment of “professionalism.” Professionalism assessments relate to behavior, attendance, participation, and attentiveness; the final category allows instructors to address each student’s ability to follow directions. In my online counterpoint course, I typically limit assessments of the use of technology to this portion of the overall grade, as the majority of the tech-heavy assignments in the class include “walkthrough” screencasts I’ve prepared that provide step-by-step directions. However, several of my colleagues with more technical courses choose instead to provide such assessments at the assignment level (e.g., grading the mix and delivery specifications of a composition in a film scoring course).

​4. What is the best way to assess a submission that is complete and musically flawless, but was uploaded to the LMS/cloud storage client in the wrong format, rendering the file unavailable for download?

Some instructors may simply turn the other cheek in these situations, as it can seem unnecessarily punitive to give a student a zero or even to deduct points at all—especially because instructors may make similar errors themselves during the semester. Others may feel that in online courses, assignments always become three-part challenges, with the successful download, completion, and upload of the material all being crucial aspects of the tasks. These instructors may deduct a percentage of the grade upon resubmission or not accept a resubmission at all. Regardless of your point of view, it is important to communicate an assignment (re)submission policy in advance of your course start. Issues like these take place weekly with nearly a quarter of the assignments in my courses; establishing clear expectations from the outset of the semester helps avoid drawn-out exchanges and potential charges of unfairness.

5. Will I accept late work due to software issues?

“Software issues” are, in my classes, the most commonly cited reasons preventing students from finishing their work on time or even getting started on it, and can function as the online equivalent of “the dog ate my homework.” It can often be difficult or even impossible to verify if a student’s account of a software issue is true, especially after the fact. Additionally, “software issues” can be the result of user error related to a lack of following directions. In my experience, two solutions have proven useful. First, I require that students open the files and access any online databases related to their assignments earlier in the week with a separate deadline called the “Tech Issue Deadline,” so that we can work together to solve potential problems well in advance of their actual assignment submission deadlines. Second, I ask students encountering software problems to take screenshots and save error messages, noting that I will not accept late work simply due to a textual account of a problem. Though these policies may seem extreme to some, our university provides students with the same computers and software as it does faculty; being on the same operating system and software versions typically allows for quick solutions to a relatively limited number of problems. It may seem more appropriate to be lenient with software issues and deadline extensions in situations where students and instructors are using a wide variety of technologies.

6. Will I accept “Internet issues” as a valid reason for missing an assignment deadline?

You should expect your online students to be responsible for maintaining a fast, reliable Internet connection throughout their studies in an online program, since one is necessary for accessing the LMS, downloading and uploading coursework, streaming music examples and videos, etc. However, do not assume that students are aware of such an expectation, or that your definitions of “fast” and “reliable” match theirs. It is important for Internet requirements, ideally including specific minimum download and upload speeds, to be communicated to your students at the beginning of the course or program as a whole. This can prevent a student from presuming, for instance, that he/she will be able to upload a 100MB video to the LMS as part of an assignment using his/her five year old smartphone while driving through the country ten minutes before a deadline. Of course, there are legitimate Internet problems that can take place, such as storm-related ISP outages, router or network/wireless card problems, etc. Should you decide against a blanket policy that prohibits late work due to Internet issues, it is worthwhile to consider the types of situations that you will accept/reject when granting extensions, even if you choose simply to evaluate student requests on a case by case basis.

7. Should my course/program assess technological competence uniformly, or should the technology component of the grade be worth relatively more toward the end of the semester/program?

Though we often refer to today’s college-age students as “digital natives” or the iPhone generation, it is dangerous to assume that all students will have an equal or near-equal set of abilities with specific software (or with technological tools as a whole). It is advisable to teach the technologies used in your course assuming that students are new to them. If students are learning software while they are learning musical concepts in your course, you may find it appropriate to be more lenient with technological assessment at the outset of the semester. Similarly, it might seem sensible to limit the grade weight assigned to technological matters in freshman music courses relative to upper-level courses that use the same software.

Such tapered weighting structures make course design more complex, and typically affect the weights of other components of the grade (homework assignments, tests, etc.). A less nuanced solution that may be more desirable is to map out the technology-related learning outcomes of the course and simply assess whether students achieved those outcomes by the end of the semester, regardless of the path they took to achieve them. Alternatively, you may choose to assess technological competence consistently throughout the course, with no tapering at all. (This is probably the easiest method from a planning standpoint, and it may do a better job getting students to focus on the technical side of their work from the get-go.)

Regardless of your answers to the questions posed above, it is necessary to communicate to students that when they take an online music class, their success will depend on their musicianship as well as their technological savvy—whether their rubrics indicate this or not. Students should be encouraged to strengthen themselves in both areas in order to prepare themselves for professional life as 21st-century musicians.

Closing thoughts

As layers of technology are added to the classroom in today’s music curricula, it becomes more and more difficult for students (and instructors) to excel in all areas. This is particularly the case with online music courses, which need to lean heavily on complex third-party software such as notation programs or digital audio workstations to allow students to submit work. However, the issues raised here are relevant for instructors of hybrid and flipped classes as well. Indeed, the extent to which you assess students’ technological competence is an important consideration when planning any music course that involves technology. Planning your personal answers to the questions posed in this essay prior to the start of your course can help you be consistent with your students throughout the semester. This will in turn foster positive relationships and allow the majority of your discussions to remain focused, appropriately, on music.

This work is copyright ⓒ2014 Gregory R. McCandless and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.