Technology + instruction delivers winning program

acoustic guitar and iPad

Slippery Rock University music education majors are using iPads to provide virtual instruction to students in the Karns City School District.

SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. - Ask a group of middle or high school-aged students who John Madden is and you're likely to get a lot of blank stares.

But without the NFL Hall of Fame coach turned color commentator, a group of music students from the Karns City School District may never have gotten the opportunity to hone their skills.

Not only did Madden add unique insight to NFL game broadcasts, but he famously used a telestrator to breakdown on-field plays. For the uninitiated, a telestrator is a device that allows its operator to draw a freehand sketch over a moving or still video image. Also known as a video marker, it is often used in sports and weather broadcasts to diagram and analyze sports plays or incoming weather patterns.

Madden's use of the device not only boosted its popularity, but hastened its eventual availability to the general public via smart phone and tablet apps.

Katherine Melago

   MELAGO

That's where roughly two-dozen 7th through 12th grade students from KCSD come in. The budding musicians are receiving guidance and direction on their instrumental abilities via such devices from Slippery Rock University students in Kathleen Melago's woodwind methods and instrumental methods courses.

"What we're using is basically just like what you'd see on a game broadcast," said Melago, SRU associate professor of music. "It's called 'Coach's Eye' and allows the KCSD students to record video excerpts of (musical) pieces they are working on, send them to their SRU counterparts who critique and comment on a variety of things; and can show, by drawing, important details such as proper hand positioning and finger placement."

The tutorial endeavor, which will enter its fourth semester of operation in spring 2017, provides SRU students with an online teaching opportunity they may not otherwise have had.

"I will always believe that music is best taught or critiqued in person, and my students are afforded that through field experiences throughout the semester," said Melago. "But online teaching is becoming such a large part of our educational process that I really wanted to find a way to expose our students to that before they graduated and allow them that experience. Taking part in a partnership like this provides one more opportunity for them to not only teach, but to practice their coaching skills without the confines of time."

"Being able to participate in this partnership was a wonderful experience," said Katie Steele, a senior music education major from Grove City. "As a future professional, it has given me experience teaching lessons in a unique format and proven to me that students are willing to do more work if they are passionate about it. Helping younger musicians is always inspiring, as it is wonderful getting to see them grow and become more involved in their studies and more interested in the music.

"For myself, the biggest takeaway was that if there is someone willing to do extra work, then as a teacher, you need to do everything you can to help them achieve more. Even if it means teaching lessons through video responses, if it is helping a student, then it is time well spent."

The venture sprang from a discussion between Melago and Randy Nichols, SRU professor of physical and health education when discussing online opportunities in the latter's area of expertise.

"We both agreed, while teaching in person is always the best scenario, there are situations where online instruction may be the only option due to illness, injury, homeschooling or they simple need extra help.

"The other thing that came up is differentiating instruction with students. Sometimes you'll have a student who's really advanced or is maybe working on something that everyone else isn't. For example, maybe a student is playing in their church band, or has an honors band solo or even preparing to go for a college audition - it could be any number of things where that doesn't really fit in with what everyone else is doing in the classroom and they would benefit from what an online tutorial could provide.

"It's about providing an option that might be the best or only one available, so why not explore it?"

Melago's search for a willing partner school didn't take long at all. She had to look no further than Amanda Pivirotto, a former student and 2012 SRU graduate with a bachelor's degree in music education. Pivirotto now serves as the band director for Karns City High School.

"I reached out to (Melago) for suggestions on how to provide additional instruction for some of my students who can't afford private lessons," said Pivirotto. "She approached me with the idea of using iPads to provide virtual instruction and I thought how great it would be to have SRU students willing to provide that for my students. We're able to combine instruction and technology for both groups and it has really worked well.

"When I first told the students about the opportunity, most were ecstatic for the chance ... some were hesitant about being recorded and such, but as it has progressed and they've seen what the instruction has done for their performance and watched themselves progress as musicians ... the excitement is visible and they can't wait to tell their friends what they did, what they've learned and what being involved in the program is all about."

In fact, the partnership has become such a hit that what originally began as one-on-one instruction has blossomed into two KCSD students - 16 in all - to every one SRU student.

"The response has been incredible on both ends," Melago said. "Our students gain valuable teaching experience, and then when they eventually walk in to a job interview, they can say, 'Yes, I'm comfortable teaching online and here are some specific examples...'

"It's not that we're necessarily trying to prepare students to be online teachers; rather we're trying to prepare them to know how to have at least one additional tool with which to teach a student who, for whatever reason, can't come to class or choir or orchestra or whatever it is, and that they would still be able to help that student."

Josh Bonnici, a music education major from Cranberry Township echoed Melago's sentiment.

"I was able to take away more teaching experience, and throughout this partnership, I noticed my teaching improving as each lesson occurred throughout the semester," he said. "It means the world to me to help students improve themselves ... their musicianship ... and learn to use a new piece of technology as I have."

MEDIA CONTACT: Robb King | 724.738.2199 | robert.king@sru.edu