July/August 2002 // Case Studies
Is There a Strad in Your Attic?
Engaging Students in Active Online Learning
by Mary Cyr
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source (http://ts.mivu.org/) as: Mary Cyr "Is There a Strad in Your Attic?
Engaging Students in Active Online Learning" The Technology Source, July/August 2002. Available online at http://ts.mivu.org/default.asp?show=article&id=1034. The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

Awakening an interest in the history of Western music in students who are studying to be scientists, engineers, and architects can be challenging for an instructor. For many of my students, the music of Haydn, Beethoven, and Schubert lies well outside the sphere of their everyday musical experience. In my teaching, however, I like to demonstrate that films, newspaper articles, and their own family traditions offer ways for them to connect with classical music and its performers. I can achieve this in an ordinary classroom, but I find it works especially well in online courses delivered by distance education.

After years of classroom teaching, I began teaching two general interest courses, Introduction to Music (Exhibit 1) and its sequel, Masterworks of Music (Exhibit 2), about 5 years ago. Distance learning is a popular choice with students at the University of Guelph, and, in recent years, enrollment in these two courses has increased substantially since they were converted to a more flexible, individually paced format that employs online elements. The courses are also open to off-campus learners, many of whom work full-time or live in remote locations. Each class includes between 40 and 200 participants, and there are no face-to-face class meetings. For the larger classes in particular, a teaching assistant is a welcome addition for grading papers and for keeping up with the large volume of e-mail from students.

My primary objective in online teaching is to invite students to be involved in their learning experience by participating in discussions, sharing their own experiences, and working collaboratively. The following discussion illustrates how some of these objectives were realized in Masterworks of Music, but the same principles could easily be applied to other courses in the humanities or liberal arts.

Course Design and Development

After teaching Introduction to Music for many years in the classroom, I still found it challenging to develop materials that would enhance each student's learning experience in an active way. I learned that online teaching is very different from face-to-face teaching and that what works well in a classroom may not bring the same results in an online environment. Placing one's lectures or lecture notes on the course Web site, for example, does not motivate students any more than lecturing for a full hour in a classroom. I also found that creating a completely new course specifically for online delivery is, in many ways, easier than trying to adapt pre-existing material to a new delivery system.

At the University of Guelph, the development of a distance course begins with collaborative efforts on the part of the Office of Open Learning (OOL) and the instructor of the course. Even if the course exists in a classroom version, instructors are encouraged to develop new materials for online delivery, although this is not essential. Linda Gibson, an instructional designer from OOL, discussed the overall concept of the course with me from the initial idea stage throughout the preparation of assignments and course materials. We utilize online delivery whenever it supports the learning objectives of a course. For Masterworks of Music, we used Virtual University for online conferencing and the online grade book; the course template (Exhibit 3) and navigational structure were created at the university. While preparing course materials (during the semester prior to the first offering of the course), I met regularly with Ms. Gibson to discuss the types of materials that would suit my needs in the online environment. An undergraduate student, Erin O'Grady, who was completing the music program at the time, wrote a tutorial under my direction that helps students learn or review musical terms and concepts such as meter, rhythm, scales, key signatures, and chords. This tutorial (Exhibit 4) became an online resource to which students could refer at any time throughout the course.

During the summer semester of 2001, OOL began using software from Desire2Learn for most course requirements, such as conferencing, the calendar, the grade book, updates, and online assignment submission. The navigation bar is common to all online courses that Open Learning offers and is a feature that students appreciate when moving from one online course to another. My favorite feature on the navigation bar is the update function (Exhibit 5). When students log on to the course page, they immediately see the last "update" that the instructor has posted. I use updates as I would announcements at the beginning of class, and I try to add an update at least two or three times a week in order to announce an upcoming concert, an approaching deadline for an assignment, or even just a humorous remark. This strategy keeps learners engaged by offering them both a welcome to the class site and a reason to come back and check it frequently.

Linking Classical Music History with Modern Life

The Masterworks of Music course begins with the concept that a performance of a piece of music depends not only on the quality of the music but also on the skill of the performer(s). The way that musicians draw sound from an instrument or voice, as well as the physical characteristics of the instruments themselves, contribute significantly to the performance. A few well-chosen newspaper articles and reviews help students to see these issues as current ones in the musical world (Poole, 1999; Alberge, 1999). The difficulty of identifying an instrument maker's work, the possibility of hoaxes, and a recent review of a local performance that discusses the performers' skill in relation to their Stradivarius instruments form the foundation for students to reflect on their own family's musical experience.

An online group activity called "Is there a Strad in your attic?" functions as an icebreaker for the class as well as a way of talking about a family link with music history. After students read the reviews and newspaper articles, I invite them to post an online message about whether there are any antique or valuable instruments in their family and whether any family members are or have been musicians. Fran?ɬßois Giraud's 1998 film The Red Violin, which demonstrates what a long "life" an instrument can have in the hands of its owners, lingers in the memory of many students and often plays a role in this discussion.

Every semester the "Strad-in-your-attic" discussion has yielded fascinating stories about musical instruments that grandparents played or that have passed down from generation to generation, including a wonderful variety of pianos, organs, accordions, and violins, as well as a few references to Chinese or other non-Western instruments. As students get to know each other in this way, they also connect with the living history of musical instruments. For example, a student in my class recently described an old organ that still sits in her parents' home. It was made by the Thomas Organ & Piano Company in Woodstock, Ontario, probably during the 1920s. By her account, the instrument is beautifully ornate with very dark wood, but her family knows nothing else about it. After locating more information on the Web about Thomas organs through the Reed Organ Society, Inc., I was able to post some information for the class about Edward G. Thomas's founding of the organ factory in 1875 and its production of portable reed organs. Connecting this historical information with an instrument that belongs to one of the students provided an opportunity to connect classical music traditions with local history, and to invite students to visit nearby Wellington County Museum to see some examples of late 19th- and early 20th-century musical instruments from the local region.

The sense of community that students develop after this exercise is encouraging, and it makes their group work later in the course more enjoyable and effective. After this exercise, another student in the class contributed the result of his research by giving more information to the class about Antonio Stradivari (1644-1737). A Stradivari Web site that the Division of Cultural History at the Smithsonian Institution created has an excellent biographical reference section, pictures of violins, links to other violin makers, and information on the authentication and appraisal of violins. Having a student explain why he selected the site and what it contributes to the class discussion sparks student interest much more than if I had asked the class to consult the site myself. It also allows them to participate actively as they learn from each other and follow their own curiosity generated from the stories told by their classmates.

Amadeus and the Issue of Historical Accuracy

A second activity that has generated thoughtful discussion from students focuses on Milos Forman's 1984 film Amadeus. After students view the video on their own (by renting it from a local store), I divide them into groups of four to six members and invite them to discuss issues that the film raises. Essays by three musicologists, A. Peter Brown (1992), Paul Henry Lang (1977), and Ross W. Duffin (1999), point out some of the film's historical inaccuracies and raise the larger issue of whether historical accuracy is necessary in films. Having identified ways in which these three authors' opinions differ, each group of students discusses and formulates its answer to the general question, "Is our appreciation of Mozart's music changed by the film Amadeus? Why or why not?" As they continue the discussion online for several days, I ask students to comment on whether the film raises historical awareness of other personalities who are less well known than Mozart, and, by the end of the week, I ask them to write a short essay expressing the consensus of their group.

Teachers could conduct this project in a regular classroom, but the online format encourages students to respond more often and in greater depth than a time-constrained classroom discussion usually permits. It attracts active participation for several days and has generated many thoughtful comments on previous postings. I have found that most groups tend to agree that the film does not change our appreciation of Mozart. Moviegoers, they argue, do not expect historical accuracy and feel that there is room for exaggeration of the "truth" when entertainment is the goal. Lang (1977) and Brown (1992) argue the opposite point of view: that historical films have an obligation not to obscure historical fact, especially when it bears directly upon musical production. Armed with their own opinions, groups can approach the writings of these two eminent musicologists critically and make their own case for an opposing point of view, if they wish. Occasionally, a group cannot reach a consensus; in this case, its members can argue both sides of the question, using evidence from the three essays as well as their own point of view without coming to a single conclusion.

Group activities such as the Amadeus discussion also help students learn from each other. The size of a group can range from three to six members, but groups of four or five students are usually ideal. Although group work has been successful, not all students appreciate it. Often, highly motivated students become disenchanted with group activities. They sometimes feel that their own work might suffer if their colleagues join the discussion late or contribute mediocre postings. I have used several strategies to overcome this problem, including posting an update to the class before a group project begins and informing students that they must contribute a posting by a certain date. I also assign a portion of the grade to the individual effort of each student. Still another strategy is to require each group to formulate some "ground rules" with which to operate. This procedure can help to ease the anxiety of working as a group for students who are more accustomed to face-to-face academic discussion and struggle with the distance format.

Meanwhile, students have access to an online help desk through the Office of Open Learning, and they can also phone or e-mail me or the help desk for assistance with problems that they may encounter during the semester. As the instructor, I also have reliable assistance from individuals in OOL who maintain the Web pages and respond quickly if problems arise. For new instructors, OOL also offers seminars to introduce them to the software and help them learn how to navigate and instruct in an online environment.

Online Teaching: Flexibility and Interactive Learning

Masterworks of Music exists now only as an online offering, and its enrollment has increased each semester that it has been offered. The current enrollment of about 40 is an ideal size for the group projects that form part of the course work and also for lively online discussions.

Feedback from students in the course has frequently highlighted contributions that only an online course can make to their learning, insofar as it allows for circumstances that could not be accommodated in a classroom situation. For example, a student recently sent me an e-mail message in the fifth week of the semester apologizing for being two days late with her assignment. She went on to explain that she had given birth to twins two weeks earlier. She added that her three-year old and her twin daughters were all listening with her and appeared to be enjoying the classical music, too. Another student's comment summarized what must be a common reason for the popularity of this new mode of learning: "The flexibility and the online classes were fantastic in helping [me] to learn independently and then apply it in groups as well."

I am delighted with the opportunities that Web teaching offers, and I am especially pleased when students are able to enroll in courses that they could not have attended otherwise. I hope that my strategies for active engagement with online learning have helped to deepen students' appreciation for classical music. Perhaps these strategies will help others begin teaching in this fascinating and flexible way.


Alberge, D. (1999, March 15). Oxford's Messiah is branded a fake. The London Times, p. 4.

Brown, A. P. (1992). Amadeus and Mozart: Setting the record straight. The American Scholar, 61(1), 49-66. Retrieved May 30, 2002, from http://www.mozartproject.org/essays/brown.html

Duffin, R. W. (1999). Period filmmakers botch the music. Early Music America, 5(1), 48.

Lang, P. H. (1977). The film Amadeus. In P. H. Lang (Ed.), Musicology and performance (pp. 155-162). New Haven: Yale University Press.

Poole, E. (1999, October 25). It's the player, not the Stradivarius. The Toronto Globe and Mail, p. D5.

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