Debbie Cavalier: From Student to CEO

BACKGROUND: Having graduated from Berklee College of Music in ‘87, Debbie Cavalier became the prestigious school’s Dean of Continuing Education ten years ago. As part of the group that founded the institution’s online wing, the newly named CEO has been a critical component in the design of their digital version. Cavalier is also a working musician, fronting the lauded children’s group Debbie and Friends, one of whose songs appeared on the 20ll Grammy winner for Best Children’s Album.

Educating Young and Old:

I majored in music education and taught for many years in public schools. As I taught, I found my way into music education and publishing. A lot of the methods I was using and chord arrangements I was writing I was able to get published. I eventually left teaching to be a full-time music education publisher with Warner Bros. So I went from being a music educator to being a music education publisher and then, in the late ‘90s, I came back to Berklee to run Berklee Press. A couple years into that, I became the Dean of Continuing Education, which included the Online school.

Long Distance Learning:

Berklee has a long history in continuing and distance education. In the ‘60s and ‘70s, there was a distance learning course through the mail. You’d get 25 lessons, fill out your time and mail it back. So becoming an Online distance learning leader was just part of Berklee’s DNA. Berklee’s really good about looking ahead and thinking about where we want to be, so [the online school] was part of the strategic vision for the college. This year alone, we’ll teach 12,000 students from 150 countries in our online school. For the past eight years, we’ve won the Best Online Course award from the Computing Ed Association across all disciplines.

From Ashes, Something Big:

We started in 2001. That was around the dot com bubble burst, so there were a lot of talented people looking for employment in a more secure working environment. There were people available, really talented people, who are still with us today. A lot of people didn’t believe you could teach music online, but we were able to prove we could. We started with just a couple of course in the first year and they were wildly successful. Now, we’ve got a catalog of about 125 courses and we’ll be offering online degrees in 2014.

The Teach Act:

The sky was the limit as far as what we could do, unlike book publishing where you can’t use copyrights without licenses and restrictions. Right when we launched the online school, congress passed something called the Teach Act, which enables accredited, online, password protected educational institutions to use copyrights in the way you would in a classroom, so we could teach music in a way that we would in a classroom. There were no restrictions.

A Learning Community:

Our students are primarily adult learners between 25 and 45. They’re passionate about music. A lot of them dreamed of going to Berklee and never had the opportunity. Our faculty can’t believe how much they interact with the students, how much the students progress, how close they feel to the students and the students feel to each other. A real community forms with these courses. It’s a powerful, life-changing experience for a lot of people. For the 12-week experience, they’re working with each other on a daily basis, critiquing each other and many of them go on to collaborate after the courses end.

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