Your Online Classroom

The price of a four-year degree from a private college or university is sky high; for a lot of budding musicians and engineers, it’s way out of reach.
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 THE PRICE of a four-year degree from a private college or university is sky high; for a lot of budding musicians and engineers, it’s way out of reach. That’s one of the reasons that colleges and universities offer courses online—usually for less or for free.

Some accredited schools, like Full Sail University, even offer full Bachelor’s and Master’s degree programs online. Berklee College of Music’s will begin an online Bachelor of Professional Studies program next year. Students can also earn certification in a single product or discipline, or bolster the skills they already have.

A wealth of online education programs allow a working musician to train on Pro Tools at home. A working studio engineer can learn more about acoustics without walking away from a steady job. A touring engineer can come up to speed on a new console without missing a gig. In other words, online courses open up a world of learning potential for students who need lower-cost education that fits their schedules.

There’s loads of room for debate about the merits and potential of online classes vs. hands-on learning in a classroom or studio, but we mainly put that aside in our conversations with two educators who are on the cutting edge of online education. Individually, their programs are apples and oranges, but together they illustrate the range of opportunities for an online audio education.

Debbie Cavalier is Berklee College of Music’s Vice President of Online Learning and Continuing Education, and CEO of She’s a Berklee College alumna and was a classroom music educator for years before joining Berklee Press, the school’s book-publishing imprint; she became the Dean of Continuing Education at Berklee eight years ago, and helped found Cavalier says the program literally began with a few people sitting down with a blank piece of paper and asking, “How do you teach music online?” Today, is considered the gold standard in tuition-based online education for music and audio students.

Terri Winston is founder and executive director of Women’s Audio Mission (, which provides education and training for women to become engineers. A former professor and director of the Sound Recording Arts Program at City College of San Francisco, Winston developed WAM’s media-rich online tutorials (available at as a low-cost, interactive alternative to conventional textbooks; they were intended simply to supplement class work, and they do. But along the way, students all over the world have embraced SoundChannel as an online curriculum, whether or not they’re enrolled in an audio school. features largely the same courses, faculty, and accreditation as its on-campus program. Please describe the relationship of your online courses to your brick-and-mortar programs.

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Cavalier: We were established as an online continuing education division, to expand the reach of the Berklee College of Music and provide music-education opportunities to a global base of aspiring musicians who can’t, or aren’t in a position to, enroll in a full-time undergraduate program in Boston. If anybody has the opportunity to go to Berklee College of Music full time, that’s the way to go. I did it. However, for people who aren’t able to pursue that path, but still want access to Berklee curricula and Berklee faculty in order to expand their knowledge and enhance their career opportunities, the online school provides a wonderful solution. It’s largely the same courses, same faculty, and it’s accredited by the same accrediting body that accredits the on-campus program: NEASC, the New England Association of Schools and Colleges.

Winston: I had started developing the material for SoundChannel to address the issue of students not really engaging with textbooks, but we released this through Women’s Audio Mission for two reasons. One is, we had such a high demand from non-local members—women who could not take classes in our facility, due to geographic location or child-care issues or their job schedule, or whatever other reason prevented them from taking our classes on-site.

The second reason was that there was a high demand from men wanting to take the classes. We’re a nonprofit, and when you’re granted nonprofit status, it’s for very particular services that you’re going to provide. Our status is tied to our providing training for women in our facility. But men were seeing the success of the program, and they wanted in, and the last thing I ever want to do is deny anyone training. SoundChannel is a way that we can serve both of those populations without conflicting with our nonprofit status. Because it’s online, it’s available to everyone at a really low cost—roughly a quarter or a fifth of the cost of a current textbook.

Other than the convenience of staying home, what can students get online that they don’t get in a classroom?

Cavalier: A flipped classroom model. With Berkleemusic, students work through the lesson content and self-assessment exercises, and have the opportunity to master the material and gain a full understanding of the lesson objectives before embarking on their weekly portfolio-based assignment for the instructor to grade and provide feedback.

They also have the opportunity to study with like-minded musicians from across the globe, making the course experience more rich. Our classes comprise students from all over the world—a 30-percent-international population is in every course section—which means you can’t say, “You have to be online at 5 p.m. Eastern time,” because that might be the middle of the night. So, all of the class meetings are archived. You can review the meeting and what was discussed when it’s convenient. You can also rewind.

This is great for different learning styles because you can learn at your own pace.

It’s also a way that people who are established in their career and ready to give back to education can get involved and teach a class. We have professional managers, engineers, publishers, and musicians who are based in other cities who can teach a course from wherever they live, or from the road.

Winston: Our materials aren’t meant to be an online course, per se. We call them e-textbooks because we’re not trying to replace a class, we’re trying to replace the textbook—to take rich media audio and video, and combine them with the parts of the textbook that work really well, so it becomes something nonlinear that you can easily study. This is a way of breaking things down into small clips that are integrated with narrated text; they can see the text, hear the text, see the video, see animated processes brought to life in a way that they can actually take time and study it. It’s much more effective than watching a “talking head”-style linear video.

Another big use for this is to save time in the classroom. I ask instructors, “How much do you hate teaching people how to wrap cables?” There’s an up-close and personal video in slow motion on how to do this. You can send your students home, tell them to watch a video and come back and show you. That’s one less thing you have to do in the classroom. We also include a testing component in the module, so students can test themselves while they’re learning and make sure they’re actually getting what we’re saying.

There are open courseware offerings out there, such as the free classes MIT offers, or manufacturers’ tutorials. Do you offer any free courses or incorporate those materials into your program?

Cavalier: Ten years ago, we developed, a free online resource where people can download hundreds of music lessons from Berklee. We’ve been wanting to update Berkleeshares and make it more engaging—still have it be free but add community and some interactive components. Instead, we signed on as a partner institution with Coursera [a MOOC: Massively Open Online Course that offers free courseware in a variety of disciplines with community and interaction built in]. It’s been a great partnership for us and has enabled us to expand the reach of free lessons to a larger audience than we were reaching with Berkleeshares.

We announced the Coursera partnership on September 19, and as of December 10 we have more than 100,000 students enrolled in four online courses from all over the world. The courses begin this coming March and April.

Berklee’s various online offerings range from free courses to tuition-based accredited courses, and the cost difference is related to faculty access and class size. On the low end of the spectrum, Berkleeshares and Berkleemusic’s YouTube channel offer free online lessons, but there’s no interaction or community involvement. offers free online courses from Berklee, with very large cohorts of students interacting and assessing each other’s work, but no direct faculty feedback. At the high end of the spectrum, we offer tuition-based online courses and certificate programs with Berkleemusic, where students can expect a small cohort of 20 students or less, high-touch access to the instructor, and feedback from the instructor several times a week for all 12 weeks.

WAM’s SoundChannel online tutorials were designed to replace traditional textbooks. Winston: We have collected all of the online resources that we like and built them into SoundChannel. You can find these things separately for free, but we’ve curated these things in a more meaningful way. For example, when Universal Audio came out with their tape [emulation] plug-ins, they included a cool, informative history of Studer tape machines. So, we tie that in to the module where you learn about tape machines: You get the technical know-how about the tape machine and how it works, and if you want to check out more, the additional videos and resources are accessed directly from the lesson module. Students can go out of the module and look at that and come back to the module to study.

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Another thing we link to is UC Berkeley’s no-cost math and physics lectures. We collect the ones that will be useful. They have an enormous archive, but we show you the course that specifically relates to what you’re studying in audio.

What advice would you give to prospective students who are trying to choose an online course of study?

Cavalier: I think it’s important to do your homework as far as finding out about the institution and who its accrediting body is. Berklee is accredited by NEASC, one of the four regional accrediting bodies known for the highest quality in education. Sometimes online entities pop up and find a fast route to accreditation with other types of creditors. It’s very easy now to put up an online program. Look up the history of the institution and its reputation.

I think somebody also has to really look at how much of a self-starter they are. It’s easy to ignore your course and not log in. It’s easy to fall behind. It takes a motivated individual to be a successful online student.

Winston: Take the time to learn things properly. Often we see students who, because they’re inundated by media and they have access to information online, they want to start somewhere beyond where they ought to start. People will want to get right into mixing records or making beats, but you can’t. You need to learn fundamental things about sound and how it works. That requires you to understand some things about the science of it—the physics of it.

To me, the best approach is actually a hybrid approach where students, if they have any access, still go to a classroom where they will learn workflow and etiquette and people skills. But the reality is that people all over the world have hopped onto SoundChannel because they don’t have access to a classroom. We get email from Manila and China, Brazil and Mexico, saying, “This is so great because I don’t have another way to do this.” That’s what Women’s Audio Mission is about: how to get folks into higher education, and any way we can make that easy and help make someone successful, that’s what we’re going to do.

Barbara Schultz is a regular contributor to Electronic Musician and its sister publication Mix.

The online continuing education division at Berklee College of Music.
Free course materials offered by Berklee College of Music.
A MOOC/aggregated site/platform for open courseware. Partner schools include Berklee College of Music, Stanford, Duke, Rice, Rutgers, and more.
The online extension of Berklee College of Music, offering individual courses and certification programs, and soon offering full Bachelor of Professional Studies programs.
Full Sail University’s online program website.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s open-courseware site.
The low-cost introductory audio course offered by Women’s Audio Mission.
Free video of lectures in physics and other subjects.
YouTube channel offering instructional videos from
YouTube channel offering instructional videos from the Women’s Audio Mission.