ABRSM Goes Digital for 2020

Usually around this time of year I write a report from the annual ABRSM Teacher Conference (for more info you can follow these links to the reports from 2016, 2017, 2018, and my 2018 interview with chief executive Michael Elliott).

This year I wasn’t a media guest at the conference, but in any case ABRSM chose to make their biggest announcements online. And two of those announcements are pretty significant…

This article offers a quick update on ABRSM’s new online booking service for exams, including some details teachers may have missed, as well as taking a look at their new online learning platform, Journeys: Guitar.

Online Booking Service

ABRSM boast of offering 650,000 assessments in more than 90 countries every year, and having seen behind the scenes I can’t hide my huge admiration for the professionalism and efficiency with which they run such a massive operation.

That said, a vocal number of teachers have long been suggesting that in the 21st century it should be possible for teachers to timetable and update exam appointments themselves online. A host of other features have also been requested.

ABRSM have responded with a brand new online entry platform, launching imminently and replacing the existing entry process in the UK in time for the new term in January.

Here’s the basic summary as explained by ABRSM themselves:

  • For practical exams at Public Venues (formerly public centres), you’ll be able to choose your exam date and venue from a list of options, and change appointments online.
  • For practical exams at Private Visits (formerly visits/special visits), booking will be more flexible with a 28-day lead time for all visits, and you’ll be able to use the online timetabling tool to arrange your exam day(s).
  • Practical exam results will arrive within a week of the exam, subject to quality assurance checks, with digital mark forms available online as soon as ABRSM release your results.

This so magnificently and comprehensively answers the complaints of teachers that some have been asking online whether it is really true; perhaps they are dreaming?

And yet the points ABRSM have drawn particular attention to are just the tip of the iceberg. Beneath are some other extensive changes and improvements which I believe teachers will be equally thrilled by.

Again, here are some more of the highlights in ABRSM’s own words:

  • From January 2020 there will be digital mark forms for all practical graded exams and ARSM exams. During the exam, examiners will use an iPad to complete these.
  • The iPad will automatically audio record exams, providing ABRSM with recordings to help with quality assurance, examiner training and enquiries about results.
  • Mark forms will be available online as PDFs which applicants can download, save, forward and print. Comments will appear as type rather than handwriting.
  • Using a candidate’s Contact ID every time you book means that ABRSM will be able to link all their exam bookings and create an accurate exam history for them.

In addition to the applicant/teacher having an account on the new platform, candidates themselves will have the option to set up their own ABRSM account, using which they can go online to:

  • Check exam appointments and venue information.
  • Search for alternative slots and change an appointment at Public Venues.
  • View results, including their digital mark form for practical exams, seven days after ABRSM have released them to the exam applicant.

I particularly like these features because they will reduce the stress for teachers when our students or their parents aren’t happy with the allocated appointment.

As teachers however, it appears that we will need to provide ABRSM with parent/pupil email addresses, so teachers will need to get permissions and update their Privacy Notice to comply with the GDPR regulations.

Another important point that ABRSM make is that,

“You can choose your date and venue, but not the time of your exam. We will email you to confirm the time once the booking period has closed and we’ve finalised the timetables.”

This means that, as at present, exam appointments will be allocated by ABRSM themselves throughout the school day, as well as during the evenings and weekends. Hopefully schools will therefore continue to be as generous as ever in authorising absence from school to take graded exams, as I’ve always found to be the case locally.

Preparing for the new system

I am impressed that ABRSM have not only provided all the improvements that teachers have been asking, but have marshalled their unique expertise to preempt the potential issues which teachers might not have thought of.

That’s not to say that the new system is without its drawbacks, and I still wonder whether all teachers will equally enjoy these changes in practice.

ABRSM themselves warn:

“For the widest choice of dates and venues, you’ll need to book your practical exams as soon as the booking period opens. The earlier you book the more choice you will have. If there are dates you would prefer or would like to avoid, be ready to book early.”

So there’s that.

ABRSM know exactly how complex these bookings can be. At the venue my students attend, there are back-to-back exams for a full six weeks most terms, and however well the new system works the brutal truth is that many won’t be accommodated on the date or at the time of their choice.

Many of us have tended to wait until the last moment to submit exam entries, monitoring as carefully as possible the readiness of each potential entrant. It’s been great having the first few weeks of each term to decide which students are ready for a formal exam.

Realistically, looking at the January dates, it’s now going to be necessary to have a fairly clear idea of this by the end of the preceding term. We will all need to plan ahead more carefully, and for students this may not prove to their advantage.

But to summarise, ABRSM’s new online booking platform seems to tick all the right boxes and looks set to delight the teachers who have been so vocal in asking for these improvements.

We’ll have to see how well it actually performs when it launches in the coming weeks, but assuming all goes smoothly and the platform works as advertised, ABRSM will surely deserve a Distinction for their efforts!

Journeys: Guitar

With their brand new initiative Journeys:Guitar, meanwhile, ABRSM are launching a digital platform that aims to provide a complete learning package for beginner guitarists.

After a free trial for 14 days, Journeys costs £12.99 per month on a subscription, equivalent to £155.88 per year. For that, the programme includes video instruction for the 100 ABRSM-selected songs, which include tracks by Foo Fighters, Adele, Artic Monkeys, Taylor Swift, Ed Sheeran, The Beatles, Fleetwood Mac, Justin Beiber, and many more.

The video lessons are delivered by a team of nine guitarists, all experienced session players and gigging musicians, but only one of whom specifically lists having teaching experience in his short bio on the Journeys site.

There is no mention at present of live teaching, personal interaction or feedback from these or other teachers. Indeed, those using Journeys: Guitar are able to bypass human interaction and live musical communication throughout their learning journey.

And they can complete the whole thing without leaving their designer bedroom or kitchen: their own “little bubble” as ABRSM call it in their promo video:

ABRSM outline how this all works in this further video, explaining the step process involved:

I’m no guitarist, but it’s clear that a lot of thought has gone into this. It’s a slick resource, venturing impressively beyond the static instructional videos on YouTube to create a more immersive experience.

And it’s going to be interesting to see where ABRSM’s Journeys takes them!

Speaking to Pianodao back in November 2018, ABRSM’s Michael Elliott confirmed that after launching with electric guitar, the plan is to add keyboards, drums and voice to the programme, and to build appropriate assessment alongside the online learning.

Keep Music Education Live..?

While big announcements of this kind can generate some excitement, it’s important to note that teachers aren’t mentioned in any of the blurb for Journeys. And here’s the fly in the ointment.

Most musicians and teachers welcome innovative technology that supports live music teaching and can be incorporated into real-life music making experiences, but are inevitably less enthusiastic about approaches which seem to replace live teaching.

Had a publishing corporation developed Journeys, I suspect few would have batted an eyelid. But ABRSM hold a unique place in our affections, and have long been respected as advocates for the music education profession. They have presented their pitch to teachers through training initiatives, consulting with experienced practitioners, and producing top-rate resources to support teachers and learners working together.

With Journeys, they have made a paradigm shift in their approach, appealing directly to beginner students/parents. Comments I’ve seen online and heard in private suggest that many teachers find this disconcerting to say the least, and confusingly off-brand.

There’s also a concern that Journeys might reinforce boundaries and entrench disparate opportunities offered to pop/rock musicians compared to those learning classical music.

Equally though, I wonder whether a two-tier approach which pits affordable digital learning for some against more costly personal tuition for others could inadvertently serve to further marginalise classical music?

I can certainly understand why so many are concerned about ABRSM being seen to promote instrumental learning without a teacher, but only time will tell what impact (if any) Journeys will actually have on live music teaching and the education community.

Concluding Thoughts

It’s been a few years since Michael Elliott arrived at ABRSM, and with these two major developments we can more clearly see the direction that the Board is now heading in.

There are a number of common strands that both these announcements share:

  • Both are driven by technological innovation.
  • Both are significantly informed by marketing research.
  • Both have the potential to significantly alter ABRSM’s relationship with the instrumental teaching and music profession.

Wherever this leads in the medium term, 2020 is certainly shaping up to be an exciting year for the organisation and indeed for its users!

Find out more…

To find out more details of ABRSM’s new online booking service, please explore the pages linked to here.

ABRSM have created a special new website to host Journeys: Guitar here.

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Published by

Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is a pianist, writer and teacher based in Milton Keynes UK, where he runs Keyquest Music - his successful independent music education business, private teaching practice and creative outlet.

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