Maximizing Student Outcomes During a Period of Disruption: Insights from a Music Technologist

  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.18177/sym.2020.60.fr.11501

Many of us are grappling with how to improve our remote teaching effectiveness while developing new ways to engage and work musically with students when we do not share the same physical space. Numerous technical options are available for support, each offering complications and limitations. As a music technology faculty member in higher education for the past twenty years, I, too, find myself tested by the exigencies of online learning. But I also have some perspectives to share that may be helpful.

As educators facing disruption and change, one of our most important responsibilities is to cultivate supportive and caring classroom environments. Learning in creative fields can be intense in normal times, but it is more important than ever that we welcome students into online workspaces that are emotionally supportive and safe for personal growth. Sean Michael Morris, founder of the Digital Pedagogy Lab at the University of Colorado at Denver, recommends we emphasize connectedness over mere connectivity. (Morris 2020) We can also frame our classrooms—in person or digital—as communities of co-learners, where we identify as “master learners” rather than “master knowers.” (Richardson 2015, 5) This involves modeling the process of learning itself and situating ourselves as co-learners alongside students. We have expertise to share, but we cannot know everything. (Fishburn 2020) Purposefully attending to our own learning processes can benefit our students. When things do not go as expected during lessons, describe your problem-solving steps to your students while working through them. Your professional experiences have given you procedural resources with which to troubleshoot issues as they occur, but also be willing to admit when you could use students’ help!

Individuals rarely have expertise in all available technical tools for a particular usage scenario. Additionally, tools constantly evolve, requiring continuous professional development. To address this problem, utilize the economies of scale provided by your classroom. When deciding whether to adopt a particular video conferencing tool (i.e., Zoom, Google Meet, Webex, GoToMeeting, Adobe Connect, or Discord), assign student teams to investigate the strengths and weaknesses of each and report back findings in a tutorial format from within the platform being reviewed. Poll students to establish consensus and mutual investment in the selection.

Cultivating a community of co-learners encourages decentralized processes, distributes expertise throughout the social environment, empowers community members to take an active role in their development, and provides a context for shared meaning and empathy. The Connected Learning Lab at UC Irvine promotes a model of co-learning based on cooperation and collaboration to prepare students for dynamic social change. As Howard Rheingold states:

When I understood that my fear of revealing what I didn’t know about teaching was subtly conveying a fear of trial-and-error learning, I started pushing my experiments with social media in the classroom to the point where something would go wrong, thus affording me an opportunity to debug my errors aloud. I was no longer just teaching. I was demonstrating that I was engaged in learning. Likewise, asking my students to comment on the effectiveness of my curricular experiments, then adjusting the curriculum to try to be more effective, modeled a willingness to reflect, re-examine, and adjust my thinking. (Rheingold 2018)

With ever-greater access to data and information, the need to master information is less important than resourcefulness. As Liz Wiseman notes, “When there is too much to know, the only viable strategy is to know where and how to find information you need when you need it.” (Wiseman 2014, 8) Educators navigate perpetual learning curves throughout our careers; we must help students develop methods to address the challenges of their lifelong learning curves.

Adopting digital technologies can facilitate rigorous instruction in music and enhance co-construction and collaboration within the classroom. Indeed, technical skills are not add-ons; they are critical core competencies for music education. The National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) identified eight career readiness competencies. One competency, Digital Technology, is defined this way: “Leverage existing digital technologies ethically and efficiently to solve problems, complete tasks, and accomplish goals. The individual demonstrates effective adaptability to new and emerging technologies.” (NACE 2020) Educators must adopt new platforms and modes of instruction, but students must become partners in that process. This requires that teachers and students give each other permission to learn new things and approach our work together in new ways, whether experimenting with Zoom or a wider array of options, including MusicFirst, SmartMusic, Artusi, and Ableton.

The side-by-side split-screen video projects that emerged in spring 2020 added much to commencement ceremonies and ensemble instruction. Students can learn important musical skills in the process of recording these videos, especially deep listening and precise timing alignment. However, the recording process embeds elements that conflict with common musical values; multitrack recordings require exact superimposition of lines that is inflexible and possibly inexpressive. Nonetheless, these videos assist in developing critical technical core competencies. For me as an educator, the larger problem with this approach to video production is that the substantial editing task is usually shouldered by a few individuals. In light of major adjustments that will be made for fall semester ensemble experiences—and rather than shoehorning music technology skills into already overloaded curricula—faculty could embed video and audio editing modules into ensemble courses. This win-win strategy would strike a balance between tradition and technology, avoid heaping editing responsibilities on one expert by utilizing a shared expertise model, and ensure that post-pandemic musicians are trained in editing, producing, and promoting their own videos to enable remote performances, publicize musical content, and build audiences.

Beyond recording previous performance modalities, what new models could we embrace? Marin Alsop noted during a recent online panel discussion hosted by the Peabody Institute of The Johns Hopkins University:

These defining moments are moments of opportunity. What we were doing is no longer possible. Instead of trying to simulate what we were doing as a shadow of what it once was, we should think about how to transform and evolve and deal with many of the issues that have afflicted our industry for many years but which we have not had the bandwidth or time to deal with. (Alsop 2020)

Alsop mentioned collaborating with Thomas Dolby, director of Peabody’s Music for New Media Bachelor of Music program, on a virtual reality project to develop teaching tools for student conductors. Dolby’s innovations in conductor training systems are likely to break new ground rather than reinforce old models.

To meet Alsop’s challenge, we must abandon false distinctions and biases regarding naturalness and artificiality. In the traditional conception, performance practices that use the resonances of naturally occurring materials (wood and metal) are more pleasing and expressive, whereas electronic sounds and digital software are artificial and harsh. We must embrace both approaches to sound production. Fear of technology has prevented us in music education from growing. We need to get past this, take ownership of technology, and apply it toward high-quality outcomes.

As an example of a technology-mediated musical interaction that meets performance and aesthetic standards, consider this video performance of Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming by Michael Praetorius, performed by TCNJ undergraduate students Dan Malloy, Rebecca Roberts, Kyle Sheehan, and Jonathan Wang. To realize this twelve-voice hymn with a human quartet, these college students (two music majors, one math major, and one mechanical engineering major) wrote their own vocal synthesis software in the Max/MSP environment and used a MakeyMakey kit to control eight synthetic voices using actual roses as sensors. The beauty of this performance lies in the simplicity of the interface, concealing the complexity underneath.

During this moment of rapid change and disruption in higher education, we must embrace new technologies, cultivate communities of co-learners, develop aesthetic philosophies that emphasize high-quality digital outcomes, and find new ways to connect with remote students and audiences. Doing so will maximize learning outcomes and enhance students’ preparedness for the future.


References

Alsop, Marin. 2020. “Chamber Music and Instrumental Ensembles in a Remote Learning Environment.” Webinar Panel Discussion hosted by the Johns Hopkins Peabody Institute, July 21, 2020. https://peabody.jhu.edu/event/chamber-music-remote/.

Fishburn, Josh. 2020. Personal communication, March 20, 2020.

Morris, Sean Michael. 2020. “Fostering Care and Community at a Distance,” May 28, 2020. https://www.seanmichaelmorris.com/fostering-care-and-community-at-a-distance/

National Association of Colleges and Employers. 2020. “Career Readiness Defined.” Accessed July 30, 2020. https://www.naceweb.org/career-readiness/competencies/career-readiness-defined.

Rheingold, Howard. 2018. “Co-Learning: Modeling Cooperative-Collaborative Learning.” January 29, 2018. https://clalliance.org/blog/co-learning-modeling-cooperative-collaborative-learning/

Richardson, W. 2015. From Master Teacher to Master Learner. Solution Tree Press.

Wiseman, L. 2014. Rookie Smarts: Why Learning Beats Knowing in the New Game of Work. Harper Business.

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Last modified on Thursday, 08/10/2020

Teresa Marrin Nakra

Teresa Marrin Nakra serves as Associate Professor of Music & Interactive Multimedia at The College of New Jersey, where she coordinates Music Technology activities. Recognized as an expert in technologies for learning and performing music, she has collaborated with the Boston Pops and Boston Symphony Orchestras and built interactive conducting systems for museums and concert halls.

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