The World Through Music

Recently I was invited to join Dr. Robin Armstrong’s World Music Survey FYS class as they gathered to view each other’s video presentations. Yes, you read that correctly. I visited a music class to watch their video presentations or, as it has been dubbed, the “First Annual World Music Survey Film Festival.” The goal of the project was to encourage each student to engage with a piece of music on a deeper level than they might otherwise experience. To that end the students were required to participate in a series of assignments, leading up to the video presentation.

The video project itself required that the students search out a song about a social issue by an artist or group outside of the United States. Having a measure of sympathy for the song’s cause and an appreciation for the style of the music would go a long way toward keeping the project interesting since the students would be spending a great deal of time getting to know everything about this song.

They would,

  • Research the country, artist and social issues of the song.
  • Describe the music of the song in great detail.
  • Create a storyboard for the video.
  • Shoot video and locate still shots and/or other video related to the song’s message.
  • Edit the visual media collected and sync it with the music.

Robin: I staged this project in small steps.  After submitting their choice as a small, low-stakes assignment, the students used this project as the focus of their FYS library introduction, after which they turned in an annotated bibliography. As we worked in class on listening skills and musical description through non-project related course content, they turned in a richly detailed description of the song in a time-line format.  The fit between non-project course content and project assignments was especially tight.

Flip Camcorder

To facilitate the technological aspects of the assignment, I met with the class in early October for an Intro to iMovie workshop. The students were not limited to using iMovie, but the workshop introduced the basic skills they would need to pull the project together regardless of the editing software they chose to use. The students also received Flip camcorders from the InTech loaner pool. With these tools, their storyboards and research in hand, the next required ingredient was their imagination. This would be the catalyst for blending all the parts together. Completed projects would then be uploaded to a private course on the McDaniel iTunes U site (see note below).

So what social issues did I see portrayed through their choice of songs? Nothing startlingly new, as you might imagine. But I did experience them from a fresh perspective. The music by itself carried its own message and mood since, to paraphrase Robin, it’s doing its job. Here though, the message was reshaped by the addition of the visual components. I saw footage of the twin towers, and was shocked all over again. I gazed with deep sadness at old images of the skeletal bodies of men liberated from Nazi concentration camps and new images of the skeletal bodies of children experiencing a world shaped by famine. How can I describe the awfulness of looking into the expressive face of a young man at the threshold of life, who is held back by a belt of explosives? And, yet, I was also buoyed by portrayals of hope, as well as, pleas for peace and tolerance embedded in the lyrics of Marley, Kidjo, Perret and others. I watched appreciatively the clever enactments staged by the students themselves.

I’m not ashamed to say that I teared up more than once. Is this evidence, then, that the the goal of the project, that of deeper student engagement, was met? Maybe not, but I can tell you that I was most definitely engaged while watching the videos. No (yawn) powerpoints here. Did I see imaginative thinking? Oh, yes. Was every video perfectly executed and expertly edited? No. The technological tools for the project were deliberately kept simple, because the technology itself was not the point. The point was to draw on a more holistic process in order to first take in the message of the song and then share that interpretation with the rest of the class.  Are the students more likely to remember their study of this piece of music, the shaping of ideas and the decision-making that went into how they elected to interpret their chosen song than if they had just done another paper or another powerpoint? I’d like to think so.

Robin: After the “First Annual World Music Survey Film Festival” I asked the students directly what they learned from this project and if they learned things from the vehicle of creating a film that they would not have from writing a report. To the first question, some mentioned different aspects of the staged research process and/or time management, and some discussed the topic of the song. To the latter question, all students answered yes, focusing on different parts of the learning process. Some mentioned musical depth, which was my initial goal.  Some mentioned an area that had never occurred to me: pictures.  Because they made films, they looked through many pictures as part of the creative process, and they learned much through these pictures that supplemented their text-oriented research.  Most agreed that searching through the pictures impacted them more strongly then text research alone would have.

When I asked the students if I should assign this project again next year, they all said yes.  When I asked them if they thought making the movie provided them with a more interesting learning experience than a written report would have, they all said yes.  Not coincidentally, several students who had turned in very little of the written assignments during the semester all turned films; I had a much higher on-time rate as well. The  highest grade among the films themselves  went to a student who’s midterm grade was well below the median.  While I am still assessing this vehicle for my original set of goals, what I learned in watching the films and discussing  it with my class is that this project benefited my students in ways that had not occurred to me; I love it when I learn at least as much as my students from their work.

The morning of the film festival was cold and blustery, with bouts of rain topping off the puddles dotted across every walkway on campus. I had a list of tasks to attend to and had almost convinced myself that it wouldn’t be a big deal if I missed the presentations. A niggling sense of duty won the argument and I have to say, I’m very glad it did.


Note: The final projects are not publicly available because of copyright considerations.


The Conceptual Classroom

As we’re all still pondering ways to adapt, embrace, make peace with or otherwise incorporate technology into courses,  much is being written about the tech-savvy younger generation coming up. Notice I didn’t say “technology into the classroom.” Teaching and learning spills beyond the classroom walls even for the most casual user of Blackboard, and courses have carried the expectation of work done outside the classroom since before the advent of the LMS.

A recent article “A Is for App: How Smartphones, Handheld Computers Sparked an Education Revolution” by Anya Kamenetz in Fast Company magazine cites several examples of this youngest generation using iPhones and other mobile devices with a degree of comfort and familiarity that seem almost uncanny.  As the article points out, however, they’re naturals or, digital natives, a term used by Marc Prensky in his article “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants” (2001). These children (overly staged photos aside) have never known a world without cell phones and iPods and laptops. Even if their parents or the children themselves don’t own one (who doesn’t have at least a cell phone these days?), then there are other people around them that do. This is the case in developing countries as well, albeit to a far lesser extent.

Mobile phones have transformed communications, especially in the developing world, more swiftly than anyone could have imagined. The prospect of doing the same for education—putting best-of-breed learning software in kids’ hands anytime, anywhere—is tantalizing.

The article strongly emphasizes the educational value of mobile devices and spends a lot of paragraphs talking about the success of the TeacherMate, created by a former lawyer from Illinois named Seth Weinberger. The TeacherMate was primarily used in a relatively small group of Chicago schools but, thanks to the backing of a few big names including the JPMorgan Chase Foundation, they were distributed across 14 states by Fall 2009. Despite the success of the device (or maybe because of it), Weinberger can see a day when its software is ported to other things like iPods and Android devices.

With all the discussion about TeacherMate and other programs (Ex.: Pocket School and OLE Nepal) it’s easy to lose focus of the underlying theme of the article. That theme states unequivocally that a lot of learning happens outside of classroom walls and that children are very good at teaching themselves. Technology, particularly technology with internet access, ups the ante. Sugata Mitra’s “Hole in the Wall” experiments proved this more than once. In his TED talk about the experiments Mitra noted, “Children in groups can self-instruct themselves to use computers and the internet.” The act of planting a lone, unattended computer kiosk in poor and isolated areas surprised even those participating in the experiments by demonstrating that collaborative and student-directed learning could (and did, repeatedly) evolve on their own.

[ted id=175]

So, what does it all mean for the future of higher ed? What does it mean for McDaniel College and other small campuses like it? I look out my window as I type this to see a young woman sitting in the grass with a laptop. It’s not unusual to walk into the Maggie lab and see half the students with earbuds dangling past their chins. The other half are texting on their phones even as they type and click on the iMacs in front of them. This is now. What will it be like when the digital natives like the ones referenced in Ms. Kamenetz’s article get here? What kind of learning environment will they be expecting? Even as we move ahead with expanding wireless coverage, revamping lab spaces and classroom tech, I realize those are only a piece of the whole. It’s not so much the physical environment, but the cultural mindset that goes with living the technology, as well as, the flexibility of the instructor/student relationship that matter. Will Richardson, contributing author to the book 21st Century Skills: Rethinking How Students Learn puts it this way:

In this global community, we are at once all teachers and learners—changing roles as required, contributing, collaborating, and maybe even working together to re-create the world, regardless of where we are at any given moment.

Fascinating stuff. I look forward to seeing how we here at McDaniel evolve to meet the challenges ahead. 21st century learners? We welcome you.

Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.
William Butler Yeats

Onward State Revisited

In my last post I highlighted the Chronicle interview with the student creators of the Onward State blog (Penn State University). Now, Greg Ferenstein at has expanded the story in The Future Newsroom: Lean, Open and Social Media-Savvy . Ferenstein digs deeper into the disparities between the student-run blog and the established campus paper, labeling it “a fascinating mirror of the strife between old and new media.”

In his article he describes the social media entrenched methodologies (e.g. Google Wave and Twitter) that have, so far, garnered success for Onward State and juxtaposes that against the more traditional approaches favored by The Daily Collegian. It’s a fascinating back-and-forth that segues easily into comparisons between the situation at PSU and the general state of affairs in corporate newsrooms. Ferenstein gives us more to mull over with a reference to the blog post It ain’t over by Jeff Jarvis (City University of New York’s Graduate School of Journalism), that starts out citing statistics about the loss of advertising revenue in the newspaper business and ends with the idea that the industry needs a complete restructuring if it is to survive.

Both Ferenstein and Jarvis offer a good read and lots to think about on a couple of fronts, not the least of which is the example for social media used well.

Read more by Jeff Jarvis at BuzzMachine.