Learning to Play Guitar in the Digital Age

Why technology makes the professor more important.

August 28, 2019

A month ago, Josh and I were in New York for a small symposium on online programs. It was a good conversation, and it helped solidify a few thoughts on where things are moving with OPMs.

During some downtime, I forced Josh to head to one of the last remaining guitar stores in NYC, Rudy’s Music in SoHo. It’s worth a visit if you’re ever in NYC and have any sort of interest in guitars.

I’ve played guitar (badly) for about 30 years. You’d think 30 years would be enough time to get reasonably good at something, but my time spent practicing and learning new things on a guitar has ebbed and flowed over the years. There are periods of time -- years, even -- when I fail to pick it up at all. And there are other times when it is always in front of me.

Why bring up guitars in a column on digital learning? Learning to play the guitar has parallels to some of the challenges and opportunities facing higher education.

About 20 years ago, I picked up the guitar after a somewhat long hiatus (thanks, grad school). Something interesting had happened during that time -- the internet came into public view, and our access to information grew exponentially.

For someone always learning how to play guitar (lifelong learning, anyone?), the internet brought a wealth of information.

Music was available in digital form and could be slowed down without changing pitch, unlike on cassette tapes, the medium of choice when I started playing. For folks just learning, it was also now possible to find transcriptions of songs online. They both made it that much easier to range widely in what one was interested in learning how to play.

It’s worth noting that this access actually started to change how people played, not just what they played. For example, even novice guitarists started to realize that a lot of their favorite songs were in nonstandard tunings. This meant they could change their guitar’s tuning and match the song more precisely.

YouTube was just starting up as well, and it became possible to find video lessons from great instructors and even a few well-known players online. Not only could you learn from the best, but you could watch your favorite guitarists play and see how they did it.

The internet and all the media tools that came along in the second wave made it easier to learn on your own. But in doing so, it’s not difficult to see something was missing.

When started playing guitar at 16, I had a great guitar teacher. I also had a best friend who played guitar and was a good deal better than me. I could pick his brain on what to do and what not to do. Learning to play was always a personal thing, but it helped to have other people to learn from and with.

Access to a lot of information doesn’t provide the same interactive engagement a good teacher does. Of course, the interwebs came up with a solution for that.

Today, not only can you watch videos, but you can have virtual lessons with great instructors all over the world.

Sound a little like where higher education has been going? Well, it gets more interesting.

The best online guitar instructors -- the YouTube stars -- realized at some point that they can make more money teaching general lessons to large numbers of people than they can with one-on-one lessons. A better business model changed how they taught.

Some will still provide feedback on videos of your playing, but there is less or no synchronous back-and-forth. It’s all asynchronous. Not too dissimilar to how most MOOCs and many online courses are run.

This is great for the few exceptionally videogenic teachers -- not so great for the learners.

Learning guitar is still done best with a good teacher (whether face-to-face or online). At least until you’ve learned how to learn yourself.

We think that’s the case for much of what happens in higher education as well. If our goal is to teach students how to learn, the importance of a good teacher cannot be overstated. And as I watch my son learn to play guitar at the age of 14, I’m reminded just how much (and how little) technology has changed how we learn.

As popular music changes, guitar playing is on the decline even as prices for guitars continue to rise. Almost all the small local guitar stores have gone out of business, leaving a handful of big online stores and big box stores still (barely) in business.

Perhaps there is an analogy for higher education in there somewhere, but we hope it’s not that the shifting attention toward job preparation makes us lose sight of what is important about higher education.


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