Five Questions: Debbie Cavalier

The CEO of Berklee Online tells us how distance learning in music has changed
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Seventeen years ago, Debbie Cavalier — a musician, educator, and former music publishing executive — helped found the online school within the famed Berklee College of Music. Today, she serves as the CEO of Berklee Online, which has become the largest online music school in the U.S. and recently added a Master’s Degree program. Electronic Musician asked Cavalier to let us in on programming developments at Berklee, and generally in the world of online learning for music and audio students.


What’s new in online music education that prospective students should know about?

There are so many more options for people interested in studying music online now. Berklee Online offers everything from free courses to full online degree programs. We have hundreds of free music lessons on our YouTube channel, and free Berklee MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) available through Coursera and edX.

Berklee Online also offers instructor-led courses, certificate programs, undergraduate degrees, and graduate degrees in areas including music production, music business, songwriting, music theory, arranging, composition, guitar, keyboard, voice, drums, bass and orchestration.

In the non-credit space, companies like Melodics have developed a subscription-based gamified approach to teaching and learning music — think Duolingo for music — and there are many companies offering subscriptions to instructional videos and online music lessons.

What’s involved in Berklee Online’s new Master’s program?

The Master of Music in Music Production degree provides rigorous training in advanced recording, mixing, and mastering, in addition to focused work on critical areas such as vocal production, audio for visual media, and business sustainability for independent producers. The Master of Arts in Music Business program prepares students to be leaders in the growth and success of the evolving music business with courses in management, marketing, licensing, distribution, touring, and more. Next year, we will add an online Master’s degree in Film Scoring as well.

Are there ways for students to combine traditional classroom education with online courses, to get some benefits of both?

We just happen to be working on that right now. Berklee’s current strategic plan is focused on flexible educational “Pathways” for students across all Berklee enterprises: Berklee Boston, Berklee Online, The Boston Conservatory at Berklee, Berklee Valencia Spain, BerkleeNYC, and more. The Pathways strategy will provide flexible and affordable options for students. Berklee Online’s tuition is 64 percent less than the Boston campus program; so, there would be significant savings for students who opt to study online for just one year of their degree.

For alumni who left Berklee before graduating, Berklee Online provides a Pathway to degree completion. This year, 13 Berklee alumni completed their degree with Berklee Online.

How have you seen online education change in the past several years in the way it’s conducted and the ways it’s perceived?

People laughed at us when we shared our vision for creating an online music college. Online learning was a radical idea in 2001! Acceptance of the online learning modality in general has come a long way.

A recent survey by Aslanian Market Research shows 85 percent of students who have attended both face-to-face and online courses said that online learning is as good or better than attending courses on campus.

From a technology perspective, there is so much more we can do now to support our distance-learning students. Responsive design helps students engage with their online coursework using their smartphone or tablet. Adaptive Learning serves up content unique to a student’s individual needs. Augmented and Virtual Reality provide immersive experiences for deeper learning opportunities. Machine learning can help free instructors up for more meaningful engagement with students. And, simple tools like audio and video give tutors the ability to provide students with in-depth recorded critiques on assignments.

From an innovative curriculum perspective, Berklee Online strives to be nimble, market-driven, and responsive to students’ needs. For example, producing ambisonic audio to support virtual environments is an emerging field and the skills needed are increasingly in demand. Berklee Online is beginning to develop curriculum around this subject. The first examples of ambisonic sound tutorials are on the Berklee Online YouTube channel.

What types of students are the best candidates for online education?

For the most part, Berklee Online serves adult learners who are pursuing their music education while trying to juggle both family and career obligations. A successful online student is someone who is both self-motivated and self-disciplined. Berklee Online students are professionals; they have busy lives yet are finding ways to pursue their dreams in music through online learning.