Online, offline, classroom

This posting may seem to be a little off subject but I think it’s germane in the long run.

This Spring semester of newly minted year 2011 I’m auditing a class called ‘Choral Conducting’ with Dan Graves (who also happens to be a good cycling buddy). It’s at 8am Monday, Wednesday, & Friday and initially I thought that I would have difficulty getting up in time to attend the class. But it’s been so compelling that the early start has not been a problem even in the icy weather we’ve had lately.

There are a number of reflections I have about the class, the pedagogic process and the role of technology. Conducting for a choir is one of those areas where, though there is a vast body of written work out there, one cannot learn how to conduct from books (or, as we will find, by any other media); rather one needs a teacher who has the role of tutor or coach. But this is also not just an individual exercise since one also needs a group of people to sing — the other members of the class. Observing Dan’s teaching method as well as focussing on improving my own technique has been an interesting experience.


There are three areas that I saw where technology could be used.

  1. In the past, Dan has used a video camera to record the student’s practice sessions and has employed a Teaching Assistant, Bernie, to do the work. However, this has been cumbersome since the tape has to be edited to extract the student’s individual work and then burned to a CD/DVD.
    This year we’re using a Flip camera (recording HD quality!) to record digitally. This has some marked advantages and a couple of drawbacks. Advantages are that it’s easy to create separate recording files for each person — just hit the red button to record and to finish.  Disadvantages are the HD video, while good quality, produces big files very fast and we have a 128Mb upload limit. So Bernie (the TA) has to use VideoChimp on the Mac to downshift the video size from 1200 to 960×528 (Apple TV size). The other drawback is that there is no real zoom to this camera so it’s not possible to zoom in on the conductor.
  2. Commenting. An initial assignment was to comment on someone else’s conducting efforts for the first assignment.  I was gung-ho to do this by means of a Forum in Moodle. After all that’s what forums are for, right? Well, Dan shrugged off my badgering and opted for written assessments which we had to give copies to him and to the other person. In the event, it proved wise since some of the comments were apparently rather sharp.
  3. Moodle. How to display the video recordings of conductor’s practice efforts? I found by trial and (lots of) error that Moodle 1.9.9 will play MOV and MP4 video files. So, what moodle activity should I use to frame the student’s videos? It had to be something that was straightforward for the TA to operate, so cutting and pasting URLs was out. There were three options:
    1. Forum. This would have been fine if we were looking for comments to be made by everyone in the class. But this wasn’t the case so we passed on that.
    2. OUWiki. I had in mind a class wiki with the videos for each class session on a single page. Here again Dan wanted individual display of videos.
    3. OUBlog. We ended up using the OUBlog activity and one ‘blog’ per student. Bernie would have write access to the blogs and would upload the video files, create a new blog post and link to the new video.
  4. Dan wanted the students to have access to all their conducting videos at the end of the course. Here is where some forethought was required in the arrangement of folders. Rather than group the video files by class (which would have been initially easiest) I had Bernie create one folder per students and then upload the student’s most recent video file into that location. Thus at the end of the course it’s a simple matter to zip up all the files together and place a link to the Zip in the appropriate blog entry.

Dan opted not to do anything else online. Written assignments were to be handed in during class, and were returned. Comments on one’s own performance were to be written down and handed in on paper. Even the readings, of which there were many to start with, were ‘on reserve’ in the Library rather than scanned as moodle resources.


As I alluded to above, it’s been instructive to both observe the teaching style of a highly experienced teacher and to be taught Choral Conducting technique at the same time. One thing that does stand out is the importance of discernment in the use of technology. If Dan had been more comfortable with technology the perhaps more things would be done online (eg handing in written assignments). But even as I complained about the hassle of having to take books out on two hour reserve and read them in that time I realised that there’s something to be said for encountering the written word in it’s original medium. There’s no way to replicate the feel, and even the smell, of an older book which does add a certain something to the way we process the knowledge contained therein.


One thought on “Online, offline, classroom

  1. I find your observations in this post to be similar to my own experiences. My son is planning on conducting (high school band and choir), and his faculty members did record the students for later study and comment. I will have to ask him how they did it! I do know that they put the video into a portfolio system. Do you not use Mahara?

    I also use a Flip camera. I like dead easy. You are correct about the lack of a zoom. We have also had a little disappointment with the audio quality. Sometimes I needed to enhance that a bit before giving the video back to the instructor/student. Which means post processing, which requires time, equipment (at least hard drive space), and software (which is usually expensive).

    I share your frustration with the lack of annotation capability for video. There is probably something out there, but cheap and easy to use might be asking too much! 🙂 When you find this magic tool, I hope you will share it with the rest of us!

    I will conclude by saying that I think it imperative that the instructor provide some safe places for comment. Sometimes I interpret that to mean that we keep conversation about controversial topics or topics where a student is still trying to figure out what they believe (and might be changing their view point rapidly, vociferously, and passionately all at the same time) in the walled garden. Writing for the public has its place also, but I try to take care that my students are well able to tell the difference and choose the venue that most suits them.

    Sharp comments can be valuable, but you have to have a measure of trust in order to see them as constructive instead of destructive. Therefore, I wouldn’t just through all the video into an open forum without some real preparation with the class. You could, perhaps, have split the class into groups and had the groups critique their own members. Maybe easier to build trust there, and ensure that the communication is constructive (and taken so!)

    Sorry this comment is longer than your post! 🙂

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