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During the coronavirus crisis, arts programs face the challenge of online learning

How do you teach jazz, violin, and ceramics over Zoom?

The campus of the Berklee College of Music in Boston is quiet without students, most of whom are trying to continue their studies remotely.
The campus of the Berklee College of Music in Boston is quiet without students, most of whom are trying to continue their studies remotely.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

On a recent Monday morning, dance instructor Lindsey Leduc cleared as much furniture as she could from her Watertown dining room, balanced her iPad on a nearby ottoman, and prepared to teach a jazz course to 23 Boston College students over Zoom.

She connected her iPhone to a Bluetooth speaker to provide the music, and arranged for her fiancé to take their 1-year-old daughter — who was continually grasping for the iPad — out for a walk.

Leduc, 38, had low expectations for the first meeting, hoping that at least a few students would show up for their first online class since the college went remote on March 19. But to her surprise, all 23 students called in, many of them from their bedrooms or living rooms, coffee tables pushed aside and ready to dance.

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“I was looking at all their little faces in their little boxes in their own homes [and] I was moved,” Leduc said. “It was beautiful.”

Since announcing last month that they would be holding classes online for the remainder of the school year, colleges and universities around Boston have been using a variety of virtual tools — Zoom, Google Hangouts — to simulate the classroom experience.

But while many areas of study transfer relatively seamlessly to an online setting, arts programs like dance, music, drama and studio art, all based on experiential learning, have been forced to get even more creative than usual.

Sophie Wellington, a music major studying voice and fiddle at Berklee College of Music, logs on to Zoom every Monday afternoon for her directed study course with professor Bruce Molsky and another student.

On the agenda are fiddle techniques, old-time bowings, and the styles and tunes of well-known fiddlers. But because connection lags cause slight audio delays, none of them can play their instruments together. Instead, Wellington plays a QuickTime recording that Molsky has sent beforehand and plays along with it, live.

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“We’re able to make it work in roundabout ways,” Wellington said.

While adapting to the new technology has been tricky for everyone, students in classes that focus on three-dimensional art face particularly daunting challenges.

Yve Holtzclaw, a senior ceramics major at Massachusetts College of Art and Design, has been digging up clay in the backyard of their parents’ house in Georgia to complete school assignments from home. But without access to a kiln, none of those projects can be finished.

“Some of the mediums are definitely having an easier time than others,” Holtzclaw said. “I know some people who have eight roommates in an apartment in Boston are really struggling to find space.”

One MassArt student circulated a Change.org petition last week urging the school to reimburse students for the face-to-face education they are missing out on, saying certain aspects of art education are impossible to recreate online. The petition has been signed by over 2,700 people. MassArt has already reimbursed students for 50 percent of housing costs and meal plans.

Dan Serig, associate vice president of academic affairs at MassArt, says the college wants students to understand that moving online doesn’t mean they need to stop using their hands to make art.

“They will still be getting assignments, they will still be using their hands and the materials,” Serig said. “They know it is not the ideal situation, but they are doing the best they can.”

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Fred Liang, who teaches painting and printmaking at MassArt, says he thinks the move to digital learning will change the future of higher education. The experience has underscored the economic divide among students, he said, that isn’t as apparent in a classroom setting.

“Some students have fast Internet, great resources, great access to things. They can do whatever they want technologically," Liang said. "Other students, it is very apparent they may not be able to access remote online learning. Maybe this is a good canary-in-the-coal mine scenario where we can test what some of these roadblocks are.”

While many arts professors report being initially overwhelmed by the new technology, many are doing their best to adapt and tailor the platforms to their different disciplines.

Eiji Miura, who teaches voice lessons and diction courses for singers at Boston Conservatory at Berklee, uses Zoom for his classes and is able to share sheet music with students using the program’s screen sharing function.

“I’ve had to change the way I deliver content, especially in voice teaching, because you can’t make sounds at the same time," Miura said. "There’s a lot of call and response happening. I’m having to ask the students ... to think about what I’m saying, instead of having me demonstrate to you.”

One challenge many arts programs are facing is how to assess student learning in majors that typically culminate in a final project, such as a recital or an art exhibit, that isn’t easily transferable to an online format.

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At Boston Conservatory, piano accompanists are recording backing tracks that students can sing along with and record videos to submit in lieu of final recitals.

Since MassArt students can’t access the printmaking studio, Liang changed his final class project to a multimedia collage that can incorporate drawings, rubbings, and existing prints, and will involve a research component that students will present over Google Hangouts.

“We are used to using physicality and material ... delivering an education through a flat screen doesn’t quite translate,” Liang said. “There are nuances of body language and when you speak to someone on a screen you are not sure how they are responding to it.”

But through it all, Liang is encouraging his students to remain positive.

In his first two online lectures, Liang noted that some of history’s greatest artists produced their best work during times of turmoil, like famine and war, while others thrived artistically in times of isolation.

“They are on the backs of giants, other artists who have gone through the same situations and used tremendous artwork to respond to the challenge of the time.”

This story was produced in collaboration with the Northeastern University School of Journalism.