Monday, March 16, 2020

So You Need To Teach online: Music History and Music Theory Edition

by Emily H. Green and Megan Lavengood

Update: The authors acknowledge that the work to migrate courses online might simply be impossible in this situation, given that many of us are or have family in risk groups and/or have children now off from school. The semester may simply be over. If it’s not, we hope these strategies are helpful.

So, there’s a global pandemic, and you need to teach online! Ack! Ack for so many reasons!

Let’s all take a deep breath (not in front of a snotty person) and talk about strategies. I (Emily Green, EG) have some experience with online teaching and thought it would be helpful to start a conversation. I would rate my experience level at about a five out of ten: I’ve taught one hybrid course and one online course. I think that limited experience could be helpful, though, because the courses were discussion-oriented and for graduate students—a type of course that is less straightforward to put online. One can’t simply record lectures or post slideshows and expect students to get anything near to the usual graduate school experience.

My colleague, Megan Lavengood (ML), has more experience, is more tech savvy, and teaches in a different field (music theory), so I’ve asked her to chime in as well. Most of the technology advice below is hers. We are both writing from teaching positions in the United States. My hope is that those with more and different experience might join in the conversation with their own ideas through other communication channels of the AMS.

Here’s the good news: you already teach partly online. Think about how you already work with platforms like Blackboard or Canvas. Or using streaming services like Spotify or YouTube. Or through course materials, as in the case of the latest edition of A History of Western Music (Burkholder, Grout, and Palisca). Much of your listening and reading are already online—and maybe even some of your grading. What we’re talking about here is expanding your use of those resources.

If you’re skeptical about online learning, you’re not alone. But here you are, getting ideas about how to teach online. . .online. These comments are meant for someone of approximately average technology skills who is apprehensive about online instruction. (This basically describes me about a year and a half ago before I talked to ML and other colleagues.) 

Before you start: Intellectual property (IP)
Check with your university about the intellectual property of what you will create and post. This is good to know anyway. Who owns the IP of your Blackboard content, for instance? Here’s the message I wrote to our AAUP representative—you could write a similar message to the appropriate person on Faculty Senate or similar: 

“I have a question as we transition to online teaching because of COVID-19. Who owns course content on Blackboard? I assume we do, as faculty, but I wanted to ask that we could see some reassurance from the university that the administration understands the intricacies of intellectual property with respect to this new online content.”

The AAUP has resources available on this subject.

Sharing course content

If you didn’t have your course materials online before, consider making the switch now. Even if you have a required textbook, do all your students have it with them where they are? If students stayed home over spring break, they may not have brought everything with them. Try to be forgiving if students don’t have access to the books they’re supposed to. 
In any case, you may need to do some extra scanning and/or sharing of your own resources.


Don’t reinvent the wheel. There is often a huge amount of information publicly available online, and much of it is designed with pedagogy in mind. You might not want to use Wikipedia as a “reading,” but there are many other options. Here is a list of good open-access resources for music theory and musicology education.
Quick tip: You don’t need to post everything on your school’s learning management system (Blackboard, Canvas, etc.). It may be easier for you to collect your documents in a folder on an easier-to-use platform—Google Drive, Dropbox, etc.—and then share the link to that folder with your students. This can bypass the learning management systems altogether, which might be useful as those websites are notorious for going down when under heavy loads.

Recording mini-lectures 


This is probably the first thing you think when asked to put your course online. I (EG) highly recommend mini-lectures (like 5–15 mins) over long ones, no matter the course: the files are more manageable, and students are more apt to sit and watch in one sitting. 
I recommend crafting a slide show first, making an effort to economize content: few slides, minimal bullet points on each slide. No fancy transitions or animations. The fancier it is, the harder it can be to sync it up with your lecture. (That’s my experience—others may disagree here!)
Mini-lectures are great for lots of purposes: introducing readings, explaining concepts, wrapping up subjects, jump-starting discussion in a wiki or discussion board (see below). We all tend to do these things in quick succession when we teach in person. Now you’ll just do them iteratively.


  • Blackboard works fairly seamlessly with an app called Kaltura, a simple screen recording and video editing software. There is a learning curve, but I (EG) was able to learn within 1–2 days, and I consider myself only moderately tech-savvy. You can sync your lecture to PowerPoint by uploading it after you record it.
  • You might also consider using screen recording software of any kind. On Mac, the built-in tool is Quicktime. For PC, their screen recording software is branded for video games, but really it will work for any sort of content.
  • If you’re using an iPad or similar to create your video (e.g., to annotate a score, or draw things on staff paper), the iPad also has built-in tools for screen recording
  • If you need to illustrate topics on the staff from your computer (e.g., not using a camera or iPad), you can use whatever notation software you’re familiar with while you record your screen.
How to play music in a lecture? It’s not a good idea to simply play any pre-recorded audio through speakers, then record it back through the microphone, as you’ll get significant sound distortion. I (ML) wrote a blog post explaining the relatively simple process of combining two inputs into one. EG, here: If you’re making a video quickly and/or aren’t comfortable with some of these tools ML suggests, you can simply tell students to pause your lecture and stream/play a particular excerpt on their own. They can keep your lecture paused on a particular slide to keep in view whatever listening parameters you suggest. You can give them time stamps for particular events, like: 0:07: heterophonic melody, 0:15: call and response, modal collection, 0:20: tutti theme.

Recreating discussion

Wait, what? How is that possible? Well, it is, especially in smaller groups or between pairs of students. 


Peer review is very easy to implement online using discussion boards, chat, or just email. You have students post work and then comment on each other’s work—very straightforward. I (ML) like to give my students guidelines for their comments that are similar to those you would get from a journal on how to conduct peer review, but modified to refer to the grading rubric.
Quick tip: Create a file of comments that you give your students. You’ll give the same comments over and over, and it helps to cut and paste. Now there’s something you can’t do by hand on paper assignments!


For Blackboard: wikis and discussion boards 
  • Wikis have advantages over discussion boards, which can get unwieldy with larger groups. I (EG) like putting students in groups—Blackboard can do this randomly or you can do it manually—and setting them loose to interact only within that group. I use the wiki function quite a bit. I will write an assignment of sorts with a variety of types of content (defining terms, finding primary source quotes in the reading, and good old-fashioned discussion questions). Then, the students can fill it out individually while also encountering what someone else writes. They don’t even need to coordinate if they don’t want to. Quick tip: The default with group wikis on Blackboard is that one group can’t see another group’s wiki, so you don’t have to worry about confusion or cross-fertilization, as it were.
  • Discussion boards are similar to wikis. Give them a prompt and require them to respond to some set number of other posts. Quick tip: More than two or three starts to get a bit hairy with the format.
  • For grading, you can read all of them and then send the whole class general comments—correcting misreadings and anything else. You can also write in directly to the discussion board or wiki. Quick tip: Wikis are less cumbersome. 

Slack is a text-based chat app that gets used in professional contexts. I (ML) use it. It’s free to sign up for both you and your students. The advantage over something like Facebook chat (besides the professionalism aspect, of course) is that it’s a hierarchical organization: your entire space is called your “workspace,” and within that workspace you can create separate “channels” for different purposes. For example, within my workspace for my graduate seminars, I have a #general channel for announcements or other class-wide notices, #homework-questions for … homework questions, #partner-responses for their one-on-one discussions, and #random for off-topic discussion (recital announcements, memes relating to class, etc.). Getting everyone signed up properly for Slack can sometimes be a challenge, but once everyone is on board, my students have said they find it much easier to use than a Blackboard tool. The disadvantages are that there would be no built-in grading structure, and also that because you can enable notifications, it can give the impression of needing to be always on. Quick tip: Encourage yourself and your students to set Do Not Disturb hours and other reasonable expectations.

Video conferencing: this is another thing you probably think of right away with online teaching. So far everything we’ve mentioned has been asynchronous. Coordinating schedules can be tricky, and there is a learning curve for the technology. But you can dial in multiple people to a conversation. And you’ve done it before—whether professionally or personally. Use Skype, Zoom, FaceTime, whatever works for you and (hopefully) is supported by your university. Video conferencing works very well one-on-one. Quick tip: If it’s a smaller class, replace a week of teaching with individual video conferences on projects. You can optimize your use of that technology by taking advantage of chat functions to share relevant links and resources while talking.


It’s best to keep it simple here. You don’t need to use the on-board exam functions in Blackboard/Canvas. Rather, I (EG) recommend using the same document you usually use and set it to be available only at a certain time. Then also set a deadline that recreates the usual amount of time students have for such an evaluation in class plus a little extra for technological difficulties. If your class is 75 minutes, give them two hours. Edit your text to make directions even clearer, as you don’t want them to be confused or need to ask you questions. (Still, it’s a good idea to be available over email in that time.) They’ll then upload the document when they’re done.FAQ: But what about online plagiarism? Well, yes, that’s a possibility, but we all have eagle eyes for it. The more you ask them to respond to particular primary sources the less likely plagiarism is—and the more obvious it will be if it shows up. I (EG) have done this kind of exam many times with few glitches.

It’s all one big learning opportunity

Try to see the positives as well as the negatives to this jarring change in format. Yes, teaching will not be the same. There will certainly be bumps along the road, and nothing will be perfect, especially given the time crunch all of us will be under. The dopamine charge for you and the students is definitely less than with in-person exchange, and the online interaction does often feel like a constant stream of writing and grading. 

However, you get to hear from everyone in depth on every topic. Absolutely all students in the class. That never happens in person! What does that quiet student think? How about that person who’s shy because of a language barrier? Now you know—and I’m guessing you’ll be pleasantly surprised. Second, it’s a great lesson in loosening the reins as an instructor. By its very nature, this format lets students drive discussion. And they often do a great job. 

These are just our own thoughts. Others will have different suggestions; we hope more advice shows up in the comments. Thankfully, even if online interaction might disappoint your social needs in the classroom, we can still use it to support each other as instructors in this challenging time.  


Emily H. Green is assistant professor of musicology at George Mason University.

Megan Lavengood is an assistant professor and the area director of music theory at George Mason University, where she teaches undergraduate core theory and graduate courses in advanced theory topics. Her research primarily deals with popular music, timbre, synthesizers, and recording techniques. Her dissertation is titled “A New Approach to the Analysis of Timbre.”