The Challenges and Benefits of Online Delivery
By Esther Heinrichs and Isabel Bedford
What has online delivery looked like over the past year?
Before lockdown in March last year, we were offering two weekly groups during term time to children under the age of 5 and their families at the Radstock Children’s Centre and the Radstock Library. When we first went into lockdown, we were able to transition to online provision quickly offering weekly online one-to-one sessions to families we felt might be some of the most affected and who might be able to benefit from the offer. We continued with this format for the summer term and then introduced one weekly group in August for our summer provision. This was a good way of getting used to the online group format before the start of the autumn term. That autumn (September 2020), we started to offer both our groups again and continued providing one-to-one sessions alongside.
Through moving to online delivery, we have been able to deliver consistent sessions during a time when it simply hasn’t been possible to offer face-to-face sessions. We have found that some families actually find it easier to access sessions online – they don’t have to worry about getting out of the house to get to the sessions. For families with young children, where life is challenging enough, online delivery can make sessions more accessible. Online sessions are perhaps less effortful, less time onerous, and less expensive, as there are no travel costs.
Online delivery has increased our reach – we have been able to include a wider pool of families. For example, we had two sisters and their children attend – one of them based in Bristol and the other in Scotland – and it allowed them to spend time together every week and be part of a wider group.
There are advantages to making music in our home spaces. Families are encouraged to use props and instruments that they have at the house, which can make the music-making more relevant, and it might carry more creative potential. We have also found that online sessions make the transfer from music making in sessions to music making in daily life more immediate.
We have found that online sessions have made some families feel more comfortable participating. Being muted is a necessary part of online delivery due to the latency issues; for some families, being muted is a positive, as they can feel more confident to sing freely without any sense of embarrassment. Technology also offers new creative possibilities for music leaders, such as utilizing backdrops in sessions or screen sharing.
Unavoidable technical issues have been a challenge at times, which risk creating an inconsistent and dissatisfying experience for families. We have found that connectivity can be an issue for both music leaders and participants. Other technical issues include audio and visual delays or problems. Sadly, some families were excluded from online sessions completely due to a lack of technology.
We’re aware that online sessions don’t provide the same social opportunities around the sessions as face-to-face sessions. There is not as much spontaneous interaction and less space around the sessions for the adults to talk and the children to free play. For some families, a lack of separation between home and activities that would normally take place elsewhere is an added challenge – especially if home life is difficult.
Naturally, there is not as much movement in the sessions as everybody is generally more focused on the screen. We found that some children don’t respond well to online delivery. Online delivery might be more difficult for children who benefit from a more sensory approach or immediate feedback.
Online delivery can feel more tiring as the music leaders are working harder to read what’s happening for each family. Sometimes children go off-screen and we don’t know what’s going on. It’s tiring to interact with the screen and to work with latency issues. Also, we can’t do music in real-time – music leaders can’t lead songs together and we can’t have a musical experience where we are all hearing each other and responding in the moment.
We have found that it is harder to be spontaneous online, and the risk is that the sessions become more heavily led and structured and there isn’t space for true free play.
How we have responded
We have had to think very carefully about how to make activities as child-led as possible, for example using flexible songs where a child can unmute and share ideas, encouraging every child to make a contribution, so that they can be seen, heard, and acknowledged. We respond to movements we notice the children doing and we encourage children to move during the sessions in whatever way they want to – giving them the opportunity to move around the whole room without feeling the pressure to stay in front of the screen. We have built-in opportunities in the session where all families can unmute at the same time and the children can share their voices together, to support a shared experience.
A central focus for us has been to give even more consideration around how to enable the musical experience between the caregiver and the child in their home space. We guide the parents and make different suggestions for how people can join in, so parents can choose what is most appropriate for their child. We try to create a range of activities in the sessions that involve sound, sensory experience, movement, and parent and child interaction in order to create opportunity for in-the-moment musical interaction.
We’ve thought about how we can utilise technology in a positive way – where we can make the most of muting and unmuting, turning cameras on and off, sharing digital content such as videos and images, using different backdrops and ways to change them quickly and adapted our props to include 2D puppets which are easier to see on screen. We have delivered special sessions where we have been able to create a sense of a journey through using different backdrops, costumes and puppets, thus creating a rich experience for the participants.
Online delivery encourages us to be clearer in our instructions and explanations, wanting to ensure that we are creating a holding space and taking the families along with us. It has made us think carefully about how to make the most of having two music leaders in this format and how we can best collaborate to create a varied, creative and seamless experience for families. We interact between us as well as with the families on screen to create interest and narrative. We have also developed clear cues of handing over leadership between us.
This year has taught us that online delivery is effective and that a more blended approach moving forward could benefit those families who have responded favorably to the online format. The benefits of face to face music making are of course huge, and we are looking forward to being able to offer in-person groups again, while at the same time holding the awareness that online sessions can be a more viable and beneficial option for some participants. If digital delivery remains part of our format moving forwards, we would need to make sure that nobody is excluded on account of digital poverty, and this should be a consideration for the planning of future online projects.