Colburn Transitions to Online Learning

Sel Kardan smiling in front of a window.

As private lessons, group classes, and lectures move online, Colburn faculty are taking the opportunity to rethink and restructure studies as arts education becomes an even more important outlet in this time of isolation.

Over the last several weeks, Colburn faculty and staff have been working tirelessly to ensure that students are able to continue their performing arts education online. We caught up with President and CEO Sel Kardan to discuss faculty creativity in preparing online lessons, how the shift to online instruction has changed the way we interact with each other, and more.

We’ve been transitioning to online learning in the Conservatory, Community School, Music Academy, and Trudl Zipper Dance Institute over the last several weeks, offering private lessons, group classes, and lectures. How did we get set up for that?
It has been a real collaboration between departments—Information Technology, Audio/Visual, and our Center for Innovation and Community Impact (CICI). They worked together to source hardware, research applications, and offer assistance to faculty and staff.  CICI has also been a terrific resource for best practice information related to online learning.

We were able to purchase a supply of new iPads for faculty to use for video conferencing, and we’ve made those available to them along with stands.  Our IT and AV departments have really done a tremendous amount of work in purchasing hardware and setting it up with the necessary software.

How has the transition been going so far?
Everything seems to be going extremely well, based on what I’ve heard from students and faculty. A number of our faculty have done online lessons quite a bit in the past, so they have some familiarity with it. But even for those who haven’t done it before, everybody’s been very willing to try. There’s been good sharing of information, and tremendous creativity too.

Individual lessons, dance classes, and academic classes are all taking place. We’re especially glad that our Jumpstart students have been able to resume private lessons this past week. Over 30 Jumpstart teachers, many of them Conservatory Teaching Fellows, are teaching almost 70 woodwind, brass, string, and piano students online. Jumpstart teachers will also continue to receive support and feedback from Colburn faculty to strengthen their teaching skills through virtual lesson observations.

The ensemble experience is a challenging one: orchestra, choir, wind ensemble, and chamber music. Those really just don’t work in the traditional sense. However, we’re experimenting with other methods of instruction. Even though a chamber music ensemble might not be able to meet, can they be listening to chamber music? Can they be comparing different recordings? Can they learn parts to chamber music individually? People are really being creative. And, we hope to implement some intensive ensemble experiences when we are able to return to campus.

It’s a good time to explore ways to do things that we might not have thought about before.
That’s for sure, and I think it opens up possibilities for the future as well, in terms of how we use technology.

Our dance program is at the cutting edge. From the moment we started thinking about how to implement online instruction, our faculty committed to making their dance classes interactive as opposed to just watching an instructor. They’re doing these huge Zoom classes and the interactive nature, plus the amount of content they’re producing, is really incredible. You can actually take more classes now than before.  They’re doing 86 plus classes a week that are open to students to observe or participate in.

What are some other ways faculty have been creative?
Some of our faculty are supplementing the online lesson. Richard Beene, our bassoon professor, has been having students send him a video before their lesson—in essence, a short performance. Then during the lesson, they can watch the video together and make that the platform from which musical and technical learning can take place.

A few people have decided to break up the normal hour-long lesson into two 30-minute sessions. One of the advantages of not having to drive is that they can use the time differently and more efficiently.

I’ve heard from faculty that it’s provided a fresh look at teaching. They have been able to rethink some aspects of teaching and restructure their lessons to fit the new format—the words you say and how you convey meaning over video really take on a new distinction. There’s also been a lot of information sharing. Faculty with more expertise have been sharing tips with those who might not have used the technology as much. Our academic deans have been great at disseminating information, tools, techniques, and tips.

Besides increased collaboration, what are some other ways that this shift to online instruction has changed the way we’re interacting with each other?
People have been finding that our students have more time across the board. Everybody’s at home and there are fewer activities you can engage in. Performing arts have taken on an even greater importance in their lives. I think our ability to go online right away has provided a great outlet for our students.

The piece that’s missing right now is being together as a community, especially since we’re not able to hold Commencement, the Community School Honors Recital, our gala, and all of the other end of year ceremonies and performances. Our challenge is retaining a sense of community even while interacting remotely. Some of our teachers have continued to hold studio classes to discuss different topics that they might not have had a chance to before, and just to see how everyone’s doing. I think we’ll see more of that kind of interaction take place, maybe outside the bounds of the instructional paradigm, because that’s what we all miss the most, right?

Another thing we’ve been seeing is people creating and sharing #ColburnConnected content on social media, such as our Suzuki students. It’s creating joy and opportunities for others to experience what’s going on in the performing arts world. I hope everyone will participate in the coming weeks.

How are we ensuring that the high quality of arts education that Colburn offers is continuing in this new setting?
It’s through constant discussion, feedback, and monitoring. We’re relying on our faculty, students, and parents to let us know how it’s going and how we can improve. Once we know what issues our students are facing, whether around internet connectivity or scheduling, we’re able to work with them and support them in ways they need.

The quality of our artist faculty still translates across this medium. We have such great teachers across the institution, and it still conveys through the screen.

Why is it important for students to be able to continue their education online?
Learning an instrument, dancing, singing—it is a 365-day-a-year commitment. In many ways, the academic calendar doesn’t really fit the pursuit of performing arts anyway, because it’s something you have to do every day. Our quick move to the online learning platform has allowed us to support our students almost seamlessly.

Faculty are teaching as much as they can right now to help provide not only the musical instruction, but also the human interaction that is more important now than ever as people are isolated. I can see that in my own family, in how my daughter benefits from being able to have her online cello lessons and talk to her teacher. So, I think it’s extremely important that we continue to provide online learning for all our students during the time Colburn must be closed. All that said, I can’t wait to be able to welcome our students, faculty, parents, staff, and entire community back to campus.