Going the Distance

College dance programs adapt to online instruction

Pushed by students’ need for flexible course scheduling and pulled by a desire to stretch existing meager resources, university dance departments are increasingly turning to distance education. Research has consistently shown that students generally like online courses better than face-to-face classes, and that they learn more as well. And dance courses are not an exception.

“The students whom we are getting now grew up in front of a computer,” says Barbara Bashaw, director of dance education and teacher certification at Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers. “They are very savvy. They organize their world through screens, and they appreciate seeing a course visually organized through a portal.”

But creating successful online courses is not a waltz to the finish line. The difference between the computer and a traditional classroom requires a significant rethinking about which course materials to include, and about course pacing. And while dance history, dance appreciation and certain dance science courses like anatomy are ideal candidates for an online format, studio classes are not. Yet, a few pioneering dance departments have created hybrid courses, where face-to-face technique classes are augmented with online segments. And some faculties are exploring ways to go even further.

Pros and Cons

Online courses save on facilities costs and attract students who must juggle between college and a job or family, or who live far from campus. “I took a number of online courses for my doctorate at Columbia Teachers College and I was the only dance major,” says Bashaw. “I was pushed by the perspective of people studying different things,” she says. “In online teaching you can have a broader range of students because your reach is further. You are not limited to a certain time of day, certain classroom, certain location. Now people can matriculate from almost anywhere.”

The mechanics of setting up courses are also straightforward. Most universities are already offering online instruction in at least a few subject areas, and they have licensed a “course delivery environment” or “shell” from Blackboard, Inc., or one of its many competitors. Users of these course-delivery systems can easily load course syllabi and lecture materials, including videos, slide shows, web links and documents. They can activate live chat, message boards and class e-mail systems as well. The latest versions can also deliver course materials to mobile “smartphones” and accept phone text messages.

The biggest issue right now is that online classes increase the burden on teachers, who must learn new ways to motivate and communicate with students when only the written word (and emoticons) is available. “It takes a lot longer to write comments than to speak them—especially because we know that students often will go back to reread and think more about what we have written,” says Susan W. Stinson, who coordinates the master of arts in dance education at University of North Carolina Greensboro.

“The real question is what pedagogy is being used to facilitate interaction from student to teacher, student to student and student to teaching materials,” says Priscilla Norton, professor of instructional technology within the College of Education and Human Development at George Mason University in Virginia. The university is an acknowledged leader in teaching faculty how to create and conduct online courses. Students participating in online courses, for instance, tend toward conversation and compromise. They are prone to agree with each other in response to the instructor rather than perform critical analysis, or to engage in what Norton calls “challenge and debate.” They tend to write short comments to meet the requirements rather than in-depth discussion points, and it is up to instructors to draw them out.

A Case Study

Greensboro has been offering an online MA in dance education for years. In fact, the majority of the courses (see www.uncg.edu/dce/distanceMA.html) must be taken online, because the school does not have the resources to offer multiple course sections. The motivation was simple: UNCG saw a large pool of potential students who simply could not afford to suspend their careers for the two years the five-semester MA required. Most students take one course at a time online; they must finish in five years.

“We began phasing in online courses about 10 years ago so that students commuting from a distance did not have to make the drive so frequently,” says Stinson. Each class met twice a month on campus and twice a month online, with everybody having to be online at the same time.

“In 2004, we began offering all of the required dance courses online, except for two taught in three-week summer intensives.” Students “enter” the program with an intensive so they can get to know each other before they have to meet online.

The topics of the intensives have shifted over the years, but they’re oriented toward material that can’t be easily conveyed online like The Dancer’s Body, which explores somatic practices using techniques like Alexander, Feldenkrais and Kinetic Awareness. “Much of the contact time is spent in the studio,” says Stinson, “although students also do research exploring other practices on their own.”

The other intensive that will be taught in 2012 is choreography. “In the past, we have taught the teaching methods course as a summer intensive, but we have decided we can and want to offer it online so that our students can be trying out strategies with their own students. At the same time, we wanted to add a content course in a studio area, and choreography seemed like the greatest need,” says Stinson. Three additional education-technique courses may be taken online or at another institution closer to a student’s home.

The online classes are about the same size as other graduate courses in dance at UNCG—usually 5 to 10 students, “although we have had as many as 14,” says Stinson. “We limit the number of students we admit because the graduate courses are very labor-intensive for faculty.”

Greensboro charges students less for online courses than for face-to-face. In-state students paid $430 in tuition and fees for a three-credit online course this summer, versus $730 on campus. For out-of-state students the cost was $2,023 on campus and only $900 online.

The Student Perspective

Christina Powell of Savannah Arts Academy says she chose UNCG for her master’s because of the online option. “I didn’t have to give up my job to go back to school. That’s always a plus.” She now chairs the dance department of the public visual and performing arts high school.

“I must say, I liked the in-class experience better,” she says, “but UNCG uses various methods in their online classes to make you feel like you are enjoying an in-class experience. We used Skype for lectures, group meetings and other important conversations. All of the instructors were easily accessible, and we were placed in several group projects, which allowed us to work closely with others as if we were in class with them.”

The College of Marin in California, with three full-time faculty members, several part-time instructors, a dance company and a recital show is resource-constrained, says Sandi Weldon, a dance faculty member in the performing arts department. Many students work full-time, are single parents or do not have access to transportation. She says her dance history course, taught last year for the first time, had 50 enrolled, 30 on the waiting list and another 20 or more asking to get in after the wait list was purged. “They love the online course and find it easier than a face-to-face course because of the scheduling,” she says.

“We have a chat room and a discussion board,” says Weldon. “The students communicate their thoughts constantly. They contribute information about their backgrounds and discuss the topics. I think the discussions allow the students to communicate more than in a classroom because of the limited time a class meets face-to-face.”

Bashaw says that in a new Rutgers online undergraduate course, History of Broadway Dance, students are placed into groups of four or five called “forums,” and in each, the instructor can monitor their activity and push them further as necessary. This course was chosen as Rutgers’ first online dance offering “because we have BFA students very interested in that aspect of the dance world.”

Broadway is an hour away by commuter rail. “Traditionally, we have been a modern dance department. We are looking at how we grow what we are and still address the interests of the students looking for all the possible career portals.” The class is open to all Rutgers students as well as dance majors. The aim is to attract 20 to 25 students. The department is also considering augmenting the online material by meeting once a week to “physicalize” some of the techniques introduced in the course material.

What About Technique Class?

Julia Ritter, deputy department chairperson and undergraduate director at Rutgers is exploring the possibilities of teaching pedagogy for technique classes in the future. “Maybe not in the traditional sense, but students could be coached technically on certain things. We’re thinking more of a hybrid type of participation where they have a clear idea of what they are working on.” This type of learning experience could greatly improve a student’s performance. “You can personalize instruction, teaching one student at a time online, where you would not have time to do that in a studio where you have to keep bodies warm.”

While some educators are adamant that an instructor needs to be present to make corrections and motivate dancers, others are more optimistic about improving the online experience for dance technique classes. “Eventually we will look at motion-capture videos of students,” says Bashaw. “If a professor and student are together online, the professor can manipulate the image of the student to make a point. Think of the whole Wii thing, where the game console watches your motion and corrects you.” DT

 

Rachel Ellner is a lifestyle, science and technology writer whose undergraduate degree is in dance.

Photo by Alexander Spassoff, courtesy of The Rock School, Philadelphia, PA

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