Earning Your Online Music Degree or Certificate
(This is the 2nd in a 2-part series about studying music online. This part of the series covers college and university online music degrees and certificates. Part 1 covered learning an instrument and studying music theory online.)
The ubiquity of the internet in our lives has revolutionized how we learn compared to just a few years ago. For centuries, formalized study and learning was characterized mainly by reading books, attending lectures, taking notes, writing papers, and proving newfound knowledge by taking exams. Education was delivered in a classroom, by lecturing Professors, and then students were expected to master and demonstrate their newly gained knowledge and capabilities by completing their assignments out of class. After completing this cycle again and again, finally, a degree was granted.
As a preview, in this article we’ll discuss the following elements of pursuing an online music degree from music colleges:
- Distance learning, e-Learning
- Degree options
- Why you should earn a degree
- Questions to ask yourself
- Micro-credentials/certificate programs
- Majors and minors
- Learning Management Systems
For the most part, not much has changed in the world of higher education. Thousands of hours of reading, listening to Teachers, following instructions, and writing are required to reach the point where one can say they’ve mastered a subject. If you’re a music student, you also need to invest time in practicing your instrument and studying privately with a teacher while completing your formal classroom work.
Becoming an accomplished musician involves dedication, hard work, persistence, and drive, no matter how one goes about it. Earning a music degree requires stamina and endurance; it’s a marathon, not a sprint. Getting a degree is a process which will occupy you for some years while testing your limits and abilities like never before.
Distance Learning, e-Learning
The traditional model of higher education is under duress, partly because of changes in technology, rising costs, and the demands of a rapidly changing industry. Colleges, conservatories, and universities are embracing distance learning (sometimes also called “e-learning”) like never before. Distance learning in some form has been around a long time, in the form of correspondence courses by mail, and more recently, full-on college courses delivered over the web using specially designed software systems.
Nowadays, even brick and mortar classroom offerings usually have a companion course site with work to be completed online, and there are more and more options to study or take complete college courses online. Colleges and students are turning to online programs as a way to make education more affordable and convenient. It was inevitable that online music degrees would eventually gain in popularity and that day has arrived.
Many Options Available for Online Music Degrees
In the previous part of this series, we covered distance music learning using the internet, how to access the most useful resources, and online methodologies used for teaching and learning music. In this article, we will go further and explore the options for earning a music degree online. As online degree programs proliferate, any student considering earning a music degree owes it to themselves to research all options thoroughly. Not all programs are created equal, costs and results can vary widely, and online learning may not be best for everyone.
If you are finding the idea of moving to another city daunting, looking to balance your work and home life with school, and in some cases, save some serious money, an online degree is worth examining more closely. Earning a degree or certificate online might be the only option for some people who must travel or move frequently, such as active military service personnel. Or perhaps you live in a country or city with few options for music study or for earning a degree. Here’s how to figure it all out.
Why Earn Your Degree?
There are many reasons to go to school and earn a music degree, as I have written about previously. These reasons include the love of learning, finishing something you started, getting a strong credential, fulfilling a family dream, or just to prove to yourself you can reach a goal you’ve set for yourself. Using your talent, intelligence, and persistence, and applying yourself through hard work to earn a credential is certainly a cause for celebration, pride, and enjoying a well-deserved sense of achievement and fulfillment. If the skills you acquired, the knowledge you gained, and the credential all help you advance resolutely in the direction of your professional career and personal life ambitions, then it’s certainly worth pursuing. I’ve never met anyone who regretted earning their degree or getting an education.
The decision to attend college or any program of higher learning is an important and meaningful one. If you’ve made that decision, you will embark on an amazing learning adventure that will change your life. But you must proceed with caution because mistakes can be costly. In addition to the money, you will be investing your time, which could have been used to achieve another goal. Earning a degree is a major investment however you look at it.
While there are endless credentials and a huge variety of online music programs out there, for the purpose of this article I will focus on two common credentials: certificates and degrees. We will examine these at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. My goal is to give you a framework for thinking about your own path forward, enlighten you about your options, offer perspectives, and warn you about a few possible pitfalls.
Ask to speak with current enrollees or graduates of the program in order to listen to their views on the usefulness of the credential and the program. Most of them will be happy to share their perspectives. Ask them to be candid with you and tell you the things they like and dislike most about the program. It’s also smart to ask to speak to a Teacher in the program and ask to see a course syllabus to get a more precise understanding of what you will be learning.
Some Crucial Questions to Ask
When considering earning a degree or certificate, we should ask some careful questions first. Here are a few of the most important:
- What skills will I learn and how useful will they be in getting the work I want?
- Who is offering the certificate and how strong is their reputation?
- What is the cost?
- How long will it take?
- Is the credential meaningful to potential employers or will it otherwise prepare me for working in the industry?
- How will a credential help me to advance in my career?
- Are there any negatives to the online learning experience?
We need to carefully consider all these questions and more in order to decide if it is worth investing the time and money. “Opportunity cost” is what else you could have been doing with your time and should also be considered. For example, instead of earning a credential in music, you could be studying accounting, learning to be a chef, or gaining some other highly marketable skills.
You should also consider if you will enjoy studying for the credential. How enthusiastic are you about the idea of spending the time ahead to complete the program? Do you work and study well independently? Do you think you can finish it?
One potential downside of studying online is your direct personal interactions with other students is limited, compared to studying and living on campus. Many people attend top schools because they know the connections they make there will benefit them professionally after college. Some of the newer models combine a portion of the degree program online with on-campus study, so this might be a solution if it can combine the best aspects of both.
Don’t put too much faith in what the school’s marketing materials say. Ask to speak with current enrollees or graduates of the program in order to listen to their views on the usefulness of the credential and the program. Most of them will be happy to share their perspectives. Ask them to be candid with you and tell you the things they like and dislike most about the program. It’s also smart to ask to speak to a Teacher in the program and ask to see a course syllabus to get a more precise understanding of what you will be learning. You could even speak to prospective employers to see if they respect the credential and if it would sway their decision to consider a candidate’s employment application. Asking lots of questions and listening to the answers will help you to understand how a program may or may not be suitable for you.
For those who have already earned a degree or are unable or unwilling to invest the years and dollars to earn one, another option might be to earn one or more certificates. Let’s first examine what that entails.
Certificates and Micro-Credentialing
A certificate is one way to prove to the world that you have acquired a specific competency or set of skills. Compared to earning a degree, it’s easier and cheaper to earn a certificate. Some certificate programs can be completed in a few weeks, while others may take a year or more.
Institutions have far more latitude in how they structure certificate programs than with degrees or diplomas, which tend to be more standardized and rigorous. Because of the shorter time it takes to earn one, certificates are typically focused on one area or subject and are not as broad-based as degrees or diplomas. For this reason, and because they can be earned in a shorter time, certificates are sometimes referred to as micro-credentials. Keep in mind that in most cases certificates in music-related subjects will not be bolstered by any accrediting agency (more on this below).
Online certificate music programs have increased in popularity over the last few years, mainly due to their lower cost and time required to complete. When offered by colleges or universities, a certificate offers a quick, relatively inexpensive and easy way to be associated with a revered institution and to prove your preparedness to prospective employers. Some colleges will award a certificate if you complete a series of core studies in music which could then later also be applied for credit towards a degree.
This is not to say that a certificate is an extremely valuable credential. In the music industry, people don’t want to see a piece of paper that says you can play or compose music, they want to hear your stuff. So it’s as important to consider what you will actually learn by getting a certificate. It’s terrific to be associated with a prestigious school, but make sure you can back up your certification with solid work skills and professionalism.
Online Degrees and Accreditation
Online bachelor of music degrees are now widely available and there are even master’s degrees appearing, though just recently. Since online degrees are a relatively new phenomenon, the choice of majors may be limited in comparison to the physical classroom version of a music degree (more on majors below). The questions about viability and cost we asked previously will also apply here, even more so since a degree demands much greater investment in time and money than a micro-credential. Performing due diligence means investigating the institution thoroughly and making sure their claims hold up.
In addition to asking questions about reputation and the skills and knowledge you will gain, you should also try to gauge the strength of a degree-granting institution’s credibility by examining their accreditation. Almost all degree-granting colleges and universities belong to an association of schools and colleges that is self-regulating; the function of these associations is to ensure that schools adhere to certain standards, that the education they deliver is rigorous, and that there is consistency and uniformity in what their degree means. The accrediting agency is there to make sure each school delivers the education it promises to students, and that the school upholds its own quality standards with integrity.
(Outside of the U.S. this function is almost always carried out by the government via a centralized Ministry of Education. As the U.S. government provides very limited centralized oversight of higher education programs, the idea is that colleges and universities are better served by self-regulation. This principle may be debatable, but America’s system of higher education is still admired, respected, and emulated around the globe. This doesn’t mean that other countries don’t also have excellent educational systems.)
For most (but not all) music colleges, accreditation is through the National Association of Schools of Music (NASM). From the NASM website:
“The major responsibility of the National Association of Schools of Music is the accreditation of education programs in music, including the establishment of curricular standards and guidelines for specific degrees and credentials.”
You can find more information about accreditation and what NASM does on the FAQ section of their website.
If a school offering an online degree is accredited by NASM, that’s a sign that its program should be rigorous and meet important standards as determined the organization. Another gold standard for accreditation is the regional accrediting associations. The following list is not all-inclusive but will give you some idea of what to look for:
- Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE)
- New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC)
- Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU)
- Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS)
- Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC)
Accreditation does not guarantee that a college’s offering is the right program for you, but it is a sign that there are educational standards in place and that their programs are regularly evaluated by the academic community. If you want to dig deeper, you can ask to see a copy of a school’s most recent accreditation report, which details the strong points and describes any areas perceived as needing improvement.
College is also place to discover things about yourself, your professional options, your personal preferences, to learn how to learn, and to prepare yourself for lifelong learning in whichever profession you ultimately choose to pursue your career. So make sure that whatever you choose to study, and however you choose to study it, you are developing your talent, knowledge, and skills to the utmost.
Majors and Minors
As online degree offerings have increased, more majors have become available to advancing students. While not every discipline is now available for online majors and minors, many programs will closely resemble what you would find were you to study at a college or university campus physical location. For example, you can now earn an online bachelor’s degree in:
- Music production
- Music business
- Studio performance
- Songwriting and production
- Interdisciplinary music studies
- Music writing & production
- Music education
- Music composition for film, TV and games
- Electronic music
- Sound design
The major area of study usually comprises about a quarter of all course credits earned for the degree and may also include a minor. Students enter a major in the second or third semester and begin completing the courses in their major concentrate. Students may also be able to choose a minor along with their major. Depending on the major, there may be requirements beyond completing coursework, such as a comprehensive exam, directed study, or a capstone project. Most students are required to assemble a professional portfolio during their course of study to help them apply for opportunities after graduation. A supervised teaching or clinical practicum will be required for music education and music therapy majors, respectively.
Post Graduate Study
More options for earning an advanced music degree online are now just beginning to appear. The most common areas for post-graduate study are music production, music business, and music education. I predict that in the coming few years we will see more options for earning master’s degrees and even doctorates online. It is now possible to earn a doctor of musical arts (DMA) online in music education, but options for earning a terminal music degree online are still extremely rare at this point.
Some of the online advanced degrees offer a hybrid or blended model of learning. This means you might have to visit the campus for a few weeks each term, usually at the beginning of the semester. You may also need to show up in person for auditions, exams, or performance juries. This varies from program to program but seems to be more prevalent at the postgraduate level compared to undergrad.
Methods of Delivery: Learning Management Systems
Instructional software is often referred to as a Learning Management System (LMS) and will be important to consider if you are planning to study online. According to Wikipedia, an LMS is “…a software application for the administration, documentation, tracking, reporting, and delivery of educational courses, training programs, or learning and development programs.” The software, sometimes also called an “e-learning” program, is designed to manage course content, such as video, syllabus, and documents. Additional features such as discussion boards, assignments, quizzes, forums, and online assessments facilitate interaction between students and the teacher. Some of the more popular learning management systems used currently in U.S. higher education are Blackboard, Moodle, and Canvas. Not all schools have the infrastructure to effectively support an LMS and not all teachers can adapt their course content to work well for e-learning. For this reason, it’s worth asking questions about the type of LMS used by any college or university you are considering.
But Do They Work?
Initially, and to some extent still today, there’s been a healthy suspicion of the value and quality of online degrees. Especially in the halls of academia, online degrees are sometimes sneered at as second-rate. Not all online music degrees are as good as the schools offering them want you to believe, but there are undeniably some good ones, and online learning has had enough time to prove its efficacy. Some subjects, such as music production, may lend themselves to online learning formats better than others, e.g. performance. It’s safe to say that web-based learning works well enough and that an online degree can be a believable credential, though it may still be looked down upon in some circles. That will probably change as online education gets better, and the tech tools for teaching and learning improve.
College is also a place to discover things about yourself, your professional options, your personal preferences, to learn how to learn, and to prepare yourself for lifelong learning in whichever profession you ultimately choose to pursue your career. So make sure that whatever you choose to study, and however you choose to study it, you are developing your talent, knowledge, and skills to the utmost. If you are able to study, learn and consistently grow as a musician, your chances of achieving your dreams in music will be far greater. It also takes discipline, tenacity, and stamina to complete any degree program. Earning an online music degree may not be the best choice for everyone, but it is becoming an increasingly popular choice for many, and the trend is likely to continue.
In the music business, people do care about your credentials, but they also want to hear how you sound. Music educators need to be credentialed and certified to teach by their state. There is a place in the world for online degrees and that place is growing for good reasons. The lower cost and convenience of online college study is undeniable. This makes online music degrees an attractive option in a time of increasing costs for education and a struggling global economy.
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