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Me and Distance Learning Are Old Friends

This is an interview between Sarah Jones and myself, some of which will be used in an upcoming article about Audio Distance Learning in Mix Magazine. You are getting this before going to press.

Ok, first of all, tell me about your background (I’ve been scouring your LinkedIn page-I’m very interested in the evolution of and Audana, as well as your educational work!), and how you got involved with SAE.

My career has been amazing to date I have an entrepreneurial heart and I’m always looking for the next development, looking forward is one of my strengths, I wouldn’t say I was a visionary but I am very much an early adopter.

In the early 90s, having served in the Royal Navy as a radio/communications aircraft technician (which incidentally gave me the physics background), I began working as a studio engineer and live PA engineer, festivals and what not, and around that time a musician teacher friend of mine asked me if I wanted to teach some sound engineering to a local college. At first I raised an eyebrow, pretty odd concept to me at the time, but agreed anyway, and to cut a very long story short I was soon loving the space, really relishing teaching and in fact over time went on to develop the sound engineering department from a mere part time course offering to a full suite of music technology courses at various levels up to Jazz Degrees, and a total student number of about 500, there was no going back! I then got academically serious, and learnt how to teach, and in fact took a Masters in Open and Distance Education through the Institute of Educational Technology in association with the Open University, this was cutting edge stuff, we were doing social media media back in 99. This Masters was the spring board for me to launch the first ever dedicated portal for online sound engineering qualifications, it grew quickly and we modestly qualified people from all over the world. I met so many great people through that period, most of which I have never met physically. I was also lecturing and developing university courses throughout this time, and really did earn my edu colours, through all sorts of committees and projects. In 2007 I was approached by Rudi Grieme, Managing Director of SAE and entered into negotiations, and as they say the rest is history.

I started my as a Digital Agency in order to service clients such as SAE Institute. We are specialists in elearning, and of course most things digital such as Search Optimisation, Social Media, Newsletters, and also events. Basically a place which offers the experience I have gained through working as a digital specialist since the mid 90s.

What were your main goals in designing the SAEOnLine program?

Essentially SAEOnLine has many programmes with two primary goals in the first instance.

The first being to target the hobby market where we can offer a dynamic flexible learning system for people that are not in a position to be able to attend a college, for a variety of reasons ranging from busy work schedules or geographical constraints. With this market we are gradually building up a very large prospectus of very tightly focused courses, where students are able to “mix and match” the exact techniques they wish to focus on in the fields of audio, games, film, animation, creative media and business. The courses range in level from beginner through to advanced and expert, the key being small tightly packed bite-sized courses.

The second goal is to offer post-graduate solutions in our core products, we already offer a Master of Arts in Creative Media Practice (MACMP) which is a research based Masters which affords students to obtain this high-level qualification whilst staying in their job, we activity encourage students to tailor their programme to their professional practice. Obtaining a Masters is without a doubt a valuable investment as across the board it is a fact that salaries are increased significantly through being qualified with one. I love the concept of our MACMP as for the most part students study independently, though they can also be attached to an SAE Study Centre, like SAE Oxford which is the recent flagship campus boasting 40,000 square foot of space, situated in academia heaven, Oxford is of course renown for its academic excellence!

How do the considerations differ when creating an online curriculum differ vs. designing a more traditional program?

In terms of standards, quality control, academic rigour and student experience, absolutely nothing. All of these things are vital for an online student, there should be just as much forethought to the implementation of these vital aspects. In addition, the curriculum itself should be identical, I mean to say, if the course outcome is to up-skill a student in preparation for a job in film scoring there should be no discernible difference in the outcome be it available on or offline. The difference comes in the applied use of technology, how the student experiences their learning, and how they communicate with their Learning Advisors. Any reputable instructional establishment, be it off or online will create a curriculum which is based on learning outcomes. This means that a student by the end of his/her course will have achieved a certain number of outcomes, how those outcomes are achieved is not of too much significance, and in fact this affords a high-degree of student autonomy and flexibility, student X and Y may navigate the learning material differently but still arrive at the same outcome.

SAE has years of academic partnerships and associated credibility so we put in place a dedicated SAEOnLine Academic Consultative Committee, drawn from high-level academic professionals from various world regions. This ensures we operate with the best possible practices along with attention to academic standards, it’s a personal passion of mine too, delivering high-value educational experiences, I want the students to remember the experience as being life-changing.

Audio engineering has long been evolving over the years from an apprentice-based craft to one requiring formal studies. How does distance learning complement the “hands-on” approach, and what types of courses make the most sense online?

True, which is typical of many young subject disciplines, for example audio engineering is a very young field when we compare it to say languages, the art or mathematics, so it is constantly evolving as an educational subject within faculties around the world. In addition, as audio engineering is predominantly technology based the skill-set simply does not stand still due to the ever advancing nature of technology. Ten years ago colleges were still teaching students how to splice analogue tape, now we see that skill is a pretty rare commodity, who would have known we would now be working with digital equipment looking to emulate analogue colouration and making music on our phones collaboratively?

The old method of “school of hard knocks” is dead, as many engineers come to us late or mid career looking to fill the holes they have in their theoretical knowledge. Let’s be blunt about this, “audio engineering” is, well, an engineering subject, which is maths, physics, acoustics. When we broaden the definition into areas such as musical performance capture there are elements that come into play which involve such disciplines as psychology. If we broaden further and look at the business aspects nobody would seriously try to run a business these days without having a studious approach to it. Therefore, the notion that engineers simply grow up making tea and advance from there is simply not true, that reputation damages and in facts limits career possibilities. It’s all very well being able to balance the faders and tweak the compressor but you also need to know how a DAC works, what over-samping is, and understand the Sabine formula for reverb time, if you are running a team you need to know how to manage, control budgets, organise projects. It is through understanding the fundamental theories that more creativity is exposed, deeper understanding of possibilities, not just sonic ones but also career opportunities too. I’ve known many a wannabe record producer get into maths and acoustics to go on to running flourishing acoustics businesses.

But it’s not just the engineering subjects that can be taught online, as we all know a considerable amount of producers use their own DAW these days rammed full of plug-ins, in fact it is the normal. These types of concepts and work-flows are very much suited to online learning, it’s all about the workstation and software. I wouldn’t want the reader to think that music is just software, as it clearly is not, but much of it is created with a mouse. I know producers who take their own DAW rigs with them from venue to venue, talk about the mobility of the recording industry, where as it was once a portable mic box now it is a full blown DAW rig in the back of the car, or sometimes a laptop!

What has not changed is the need for a great sounding room, and whilst we can’t offer that directly online, we can of course provide samples of good sounding rooms and impulse responses of them, and understanding the theory of it is half the battle. Of course SAE Institute can also offer 50 campuses in 21 countries around the world should a student want to come and experience the “bells and whistles” in the flesh so to speak. By the way SAE Oxford, which is SAEOnLine’s H.Q. and also where the Tonmeister Masters course is run, has some sublime sounding rooms. They have this Steinway grand in one of the rooms and I melt every time I play some tunes on that one I tell you, It’s a proper royal grand scale sonic experience!

What can students gain from online classes that they can’t get in regular classes? Obviously, access and convenience are key, especially when it comes to busy working adults or students outside recording centers. What are some other key benefits? For example, teachers have told me that students are on a more level playing field, as far as participation goes. On the other hand, which benefits inherent in traditional face-to-face learning environments are difficult to replicate in online courses?

This question is a good question to ask, and I’ll tell you a story to help reinforce the argument. Back in the 90s I used to teach a particular sound engineering course, one day a week part time, to adult students from various disparate backgrounds. These students had access to a Fostex G24 track analogue tape machine, an Allen & Heath desk, three live rooms of considerable size, huge rack of outboard equipment and enough microphones to fill a chest, they had all the resources they could have imagined. The course was all about preparing for an exam at the end of the year, so we would set up practical situations with complex monitor mixes, various odd instruments to record, badly tuned drums, singers that needed multiple takes, proper real-world difficulties to overcome. Whilst the practical sessions were always reasonably lively there was always the problem that students didn’t fully understand why something was happening, the theory was missing, they couldn’t explain what they we doing, they didn’t understand comb filtering for example. This particular course used to achieve around a 60% pass rate only at best! I took this course syllabus and ported it to be an online course, and created an environment that connected multiple students around the world into the same collaborative space. We balanced theoretical activities with practical activities and you know what, I ran that course for 4 years with a 100% pass rate!

So what is different with online then? I think a few things come in to play here:

  1. Generally students who opt for online are usually more determined and decided on studying, it is not something they simply fall into. This has big implications for motivation.
  2. Studying online by its nature means students are and must be proactive and actively seek out their study path. Offline students can be very guilty of simply expecting to sit in a lecture hall and be lectured to, which let’s be honest is a pretty uninspiring way to learn, and proven to be not so effective.
  3. In terms of participation the online Learning Advisors are much like guides, guiding the student through their material, there is actually far more communication between student and learner than offline, not less. This dialogue is also often open with the group, so yes, there is more of a level playing field, students are at the center of their learning NOT the teachers. Because you have the group work, tasks, activities, forums quizzes, lessons etc, all in one learning portal it is efficient and easy for a student to compare and explore all activity, this is virtually impossible with an offline model.
  4. With offline courses a lot of the learning can take place in the corridors near the water cooler, in the bar, it is the social interaction with peers that really can help cement new knowledge and concepts into the student. This is where face-to-face courses pay big dividends (if social spaces are encouraged), but it is also what MUST be considered with online learning, these aspects must be replicated in some way to avoid feelings of student isolation. At SAEOnLine this is a fundamental part of the system, SAEOnLine wants students to chill-out and relax virtually together as well as engage with their studies.

How have advances in technology contributed to the evolution of distance learning?

Technology has changed distance learning significantly, if we think of different generations of distance learning technology, from print through to TV, telephone and then in more recent years networked computers we can see that the model has shifted from one of broadcasting, or rather one-way to two-way, or multi-directional, especially if we consider that all participants in a group can interact on various levels both synchronously and asynchronously. This is a monumental shift from the original models of distance learning where books were sent to people living in the most remote places.

What would you say are the biggest challenges teachers face in an online learning environment?

Traditional teachers, and when I say traditional I mean face-to-face teachers with little online course development or moderation experience, can find the transition to a full online mode pretty tough. You have to remember that online instruction is very much about creating compelling virtual experiences which afford high degrees of student engagement, you have to be tech savvy and a skilled communication moderator, you have to get the students engaging with each other. In the virtual world there is generally very little opportunity to use body language, gesticulation or even facial expression, sure you can have a talking head or a video of a lecture, but it’s not always a strong emotive connection. Body language can be a significant part of a traditional teachers tool-box therefore online instructors have to develop alternative skills which facilitate student participation.

What should potential students look for when choosing a distance learning program?

Top tip: Do not get fooled by the glossy marketing.

You know this is a very good question because just the term “distance learning” can be misused and applied to very poor products wrapped up in pretty packaging. One of the problems I have witnessed is that some second rate providers simply upload materials and make them available online, such as text and the odd video, essentially just a collection of resources, and this does NOT constitute distance learning, in the true sense of the term. In fact it is an utter myth that online or distance learning is simply a bunch of resources made available online, it is not. What is essential is carefully crafted pedagogical systems where a relationship forms between the student and her peers and Learning Advisor. If potential students find that the courses are without appropriate advisor moderation and guidance my advice is to stay well clear of them, as you will not be getting an valuable educational “experience”. It is in the interaction or “social learning” where the real learning takes place.

Is there anything I haven’t mentioned that you’d like to add?

No, thanks for the interview, that was enjoyable.