Distance Education Builds Virtual Community, Develops Diversity

July 9, 2014

Distance Learning ClassroomIf you stuck your head into a first floor Haley Center classroom late on a hot Tuesday afternoon, you’d find Dr. Nancy Barry at a seminar table with several students, all GTAs in the Auburn Band program, engaged in a lively discussion of contemporary issues in evaluation of musical experiences. If you looked a little harder, you’d notice something else: a second group of students who are part of the discussion via distance education.

“I call those computer screens my Brady Bunch boxes,” Barry said with a laugh, referring to the 1970s-era television show where a series of character faces appeared in a grid during the show’s opening credits. “We are all together in this classroom intellectually, and we are all engaged in a common discussion of music program evaluation, but about half of our students are physically located in other states, including Illinois, Georgia, and South Carolina.”

This is the essence of the College of Education’s well-known and award-winning distance education program.

“The most important thing to focus on is the course content and not the fact that we are in a distance academic setting,” Barry said. “These students are all professional educators engaged in graduate study, and they are all musicians. We are engaging in an in-depth study of assessment of music learning. We just happen to be learning this in an innovative environment that enables students to participate in class from places outside of Auburn.”

Barry said most of the students learned about Auburn’s distance ed program by word of mouth.

“Typically our distance ed students know someone who earned their graduate degree in this way,” she said. “So our reputation is excellent publicity. But this should not be confused with a correspondence course. We have a great deal of virtual interaction and all get to know each other. Students must all participate as part of the class including group projects and on-line discussion forums.  As the instructor, I invest a great deal of time organizing the on-line components to try to keep things running as smoothly as possible for our students.  I typically find that I spend more time teaching and managing distance courses than I do on a traditional, on-campus meeting format.”

Barry makes recordings of lectures and key concepts that the students can download from Canvas and watch in their own time. But regular “real-time” meetings add coherence to the group, which facilitates an on-line forum that serves as a kind of virtual community of scholars.

“These students enjoy participating here as they do in any class,” Barry said. “These students are earning their Master’s degrees, trying to advance in their professions, and trying to become better educators. The great advantage is that in music education, as in our other graduate programs in the Department of Curriculum and Teaching, these courses are geared toward successful, accomplished professional educators, so we can enjoy a very high level of discussion.  Our students often contribute practical examples from their own teaching to illustrate our course topics.”

Barry points out that distance education is the very essence of outreach.

“The Auburn seal says Instruction, Research, Extension. Well, we are not only instructing here, we are extending our efforts to students in other parts of the country and from other school systems. This of course adds diversity to our classes. People from other states are able to share their perspectives and experiences of how things are done in their school systems, so this offers a broader perspective to all of the students. Diversity comes in many forms, and our music education students benefit greatly from this geographical diversity. This is a great learning opportunity for everyone involved … including myself!”

Story by George Littleton with photo by Scott Godwin