Carol Johnson, online music expert: “I saw people’s lives change because they had the opportunity to learn music”

Dr Carol Johnson. Image by Rod McGaha.
Dr Carol Johnson. Image by Rod McGaha.

Having moved from the northern hemisphere to join the Melbourne Conservatorium as Senior Lecturer in Music (Online Learning and Educational Technologies), and having just published a book on online music pedagogy, Dr Carol Johnson is making sure the way we teach music keeps up with the ever-multiplying possibilities of modern technology.

As told to Sophie Duran

Hi Carol, your new book Pedagogy Development for Teaching Music deals with online music pedagogy, pulling together research from experts in several countries. Can you tell us a bit about it?

I co-edited the book with musicologist Dr Virginia Lamothe. We had found that it was difficult to locate research and literature that supported music instructors with online teaching practices, so we sent out a call to the music education community to see how they were researching the practice of online music teaching. What we ended up with is a book filled with current research in the field, research-informed practices and strategies, and some of the history of the development of online music teaching.

Online music teaching is happening globally, and the book highlights that with international authors representing Brazil, Canada, USA, and Australia. The editorial board provides the UK context as well.

Is teaching and learning music online any different from teaching and learning any other subject online?

Music embraces more sensory learning than many other academic disciplines. In an online environment, there are some pretty interesting teaching challenges to address, and the intricacies of the craft require careful instructional design and technology integration. Like our science, maths and language subject counterparts, we’re all learning how best to teach our disciplines online. I believe there’s a lot to learn from a diversity of disciplines.

What would you say to a music educator who resists embracing online technologies? Someone who points out that music has been taught and learned without the internet for hundreds of years? 

I’d ask them what they like best about their current teaching methods and talk to them about tech at their comfort level, and how it can be used to support them and their students. It’s not about using a piece of technology because it’s the latest and greatest tool – it’s about harnessing technology to better teaching and learning.

You joined the Melbourne Conservatorium late last year as Senior Lecturer in Music (Online Learning and Educational Technologies) – the first position of its kind. How would you sum up your role and responsibilities?

My position involves teaching and research – I’m currently developing online music subjects and continuing my research studies in online music pedagogy. I also look for ways to apply innovation to music teaching, employing technological tools in order to support student learning.

What is the state of online music teaching/learning at the moment?

The number of online music subjects is increasing at an exponential rate in North America, and I suspect Australia is quickly moving in that direction. If this is the case, there’ll be an increased need for effective online music instructors. I’ve seen poorly developed online music subjects and nobody wins from that.

Developing strong student communities where the students respond to and learn from each others’ video or text posts is essential. Music is a social experience, and learning about music should replicate that, no matter the environment.

You worked previously in Canada and the United States. Can you tell us a little about your involvement in music education there?

After growing up in Canada, I spent a lot of my music performance and teaching life in Nashville, Tennessee. While there, I was involved with a private, non-profit organisation that focused on teaching music to those who couldn’t afford it in Latin America. It was a pivotal time in my life – I saw people’s lives change because they had the opportunity to learn music.

Meeting people that were content in life with very few material possessions also pushed me to reflect on what I value, and on how fortunate we really are. I began looking into ways to use the internet to support music lessons, and founded The Virtual School of Music in 2006.

How did music come into your life?

Music was a big part of my life growing up. Classical, country and American jazz music was played at home which influenced my musical tastes. I learned classical piano and violin, and played saxophone, clarinet, flute, percussion and drum set throughout junior high and high school.

My passion for music and its expressive nature led me to study jazz saxophone. Recently, playing has taken a bit of a backseat, but I’m most me when I’m playing. I’m really looking forward to playing opportunities here in Melbourne.

What are your impressions of Melbourne so far?

It’s like Nashville, but on steroids. I love it. Melburnians love and support music, value family and friendships, and are envisioning ways to change the world for good. And they love great coffee. Those all sound like good reasons to call a place home.

The Melbourne Conservatorium of Music is hosting a book launch for Carol Johnson’s book, Pedagogy Development for Teaching Music, on Thursday 21 June from 5.30pm in the Tallis Room, Parkville. Book via Eventbrite.