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Music professor assigns TikTok homework to teach in remote learning environment

By Julia Duggan
Staff Writer

TikTok is known for being a social media platform. However, one professor at the College is turning TikTok into a platform for learning.

Nicholson teaches the College remotely from New Mexico (Photo courtesy of Dr. George Nicholson).

“I needed to find a way of allowing the students to do an assignment that was a little bit more organic to the work they did in class and the process that they did at home,” said Dr. George Nicholson, professor of the strings course at the College. “I just started learning about TikTok and I realized that it’s a really artistic social media.”

From there, Nicholson began assigning TikTok homework assignments to his students. Nicolson’s strings course is designed for music education music majors to learn how to play all the string instruments found in an orchestra.

“I think (the students) liked it,” Nicholson said. “The most interesting thing to me that resulted in this was the amount of difference that I got from the assignments and I love that. I love when I give an assignment and I see totally different things.”

Nicholson explained that, even though his students do not all have the same instrument, the variety he receives from his students turning in the Tik Tok assignments impresses him.

“I’ll see some students that’ll give more of a diary almost and (narration) and just take the time to reflect,” Nicholson said. “Other students will play and talk through their playing process. There were students that will make some artistic creative process, that just is a work of art on its own, which is really exciting and they’re all equally valid.”

With having TikToks for homework, the students in the strings class appear more engaged.

“(The students) tend to like the assignments,” Nicholson said. “They feel like it’s a way to speak back to themselves, to me and to each other and also learn from each other. I like that they come and comment on each other’s TikToks even though that’s not part of the assignment. I see that they are starting to do that which is exciting.”

The students agree. When asked, most admitted that they were surprised and a little bit skeptical at the use of TikTok in a classroom setting. However, as they saw it in practice, they began to realize how helpful and beneficial it is. 

“I was definitely surprised by the assignment at first since TikTok is such a contemporary medium. I didn’t think many college professors knew much about it!” said Ryan Haupt, a junior music education major.

As the semester progressed the students in the string class admit they have become quite comfortable with using TikTok.

“Now as more time has passed, I actually do believe that this style of assignment might be a good teaching method,” said Kat Vilardi, a junior music education major and music tech minor. “It allows students to be creative and comfortable in their own right to make videos, expressing what they feel they have learned over the week. Especially with this class being online, with a teacher in a different state it has been beneficial to do something fun but educational so our teacher and our peers can learn about us and our personalities.”

(Photo courtesy of Dr. George Nicholson).

Currently, Nicholson teaches both at the College and at the University of New Mexico. Since Nicholson lives in New Mexico, he teaches the strings class remotely for the College and has to be cautious of the time zone differences. The biggest thing that has helped Nicholson with keeping track of everything is labeling all the events in a calendar with the specific time zone next to the event.

The main challenge with teaching online for music-related classes is the lack of working together and responding to what the other students are creating in the class.

“What I’ve realized is that the issue in making music together is the time aspect of it,” Nicholson explains. “Not the pitch aspect of it, not the musicality, but it’s the beat, so if you take away the beat students could actually make music together.”

What Nicholson is referring to when he says the beat is the consistent driving force that musicians use so their parts can line up together and create music. With musicians not being in person, it is hard for a group of them to define the beat for a specific piece of music and then have their parts line up correctly. 

Nicholson’s thinking is that if one picks music that does not rely on a beat, then it becomes much easier to create using an online format. This has driven Nicholson to include more experimental and abstract music in his teaching, including the use of soundscapes and TikToks. Even in teaching in an online format, Nicholson welcomes the challenge and appreciates having to look at music in a different way.

“It’s allowed me to think about ways to make music with each other in a different way,” Nicholson said. “The ways that we have barriers and how (we) decide to take things away, like if we take the beat away. If we find out what the problem is and we take that away, we could still actually make music; it’s not about cutting the whole thing out.”

Jacob Ford, a junior music education major, agrees that using TikTok is an effective teaching method.

 “It is exactly what every homework assignment should be, simple instructions, easy to achieve, and does not turn into a burden on the students while still applying the skills we learned in class and demonstrating an understanding of the knowledge,” Ford said.

The students in the strings class have expressed how much they have learned by using TikTok.

“More than anything I believe that these TikToks have allowed me to learn more about potential future teaching skills rather than just learning string instruments,” Vilardi said.

Students have also expressed how much they enjoyed the class.

“Learning strings pedagogy with Dr. Nicholson this semester has been an incredibly memorable and enjoyable experience, and I am certain that my classmates feel the same way,” said Nick Napier, a junior music education major. “His methods of teaching are inclusive, comprehensive, and intriguing, and attending his class (regardless of it being remote) is always something I look forward to!”

In looking overall at the semester, Nicholson expressed his excitement in teaching students from the music department.

“I’ve been so constantly impressed with the students at TCNJ in particular,” Nicholson said. “I’ve been working with them and they are agile, excited, and still hungry to learn. “I think that’s what’s been amazing is that we see perseverance and we see creativity from the students so, it’s been a joy.”

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