Distance Learning, Music and Collaboration Software


The paper describes a research and development effort aimed at constructing a distance learning environment for music. This is made possible by current collaboration software architectures which improve the quality of computer-based multi-channeled communication.

Matti Ruippo is pursuing a series of experiments in computer-aided music distance learning. In this study he investigates how Microsoft NetMeeting — the leading collaboration package on the software market — can be utilized to bring course members closer together. Music has been considered a topic which is less suited to distance learning. Ruippo attempts to demonstrate that multimedia data conferencing gives advantages over alternative distance learning strategies such as telephone or video conferencing.

Computer-aided real-time collaboration relies on two umbrella protocols, further detailed in a series of communication standards: T.120 includes component standards for generic conference control, multipoint communication services, flow of binary data and file transfer (as well as still image transfer), guidelines for the creation of generic application protocols and support for application sharing. H.323 sets forth a specification for multimedia communication over networks. It includes protocols for video, audio and data conferencing.

Microsoft NetMeeting (NM) is essentially a real-time data conferencing platform combined with a collaboration-enabled application suite. The platform implements most of the elements of the T.120 multimedia conferencing standard. It also provides support for H.323-based video conferencing and full-duplex audio. Multipoint audio and video connections are not directly available, but they can be achieved through the use of conference servers.

The application suite includes vital tools needed in music learning collaboration: The manager is a node controller program, which manages establishment of the networked classroom through the creation of an NM hosted meeting. Conferences are usually convened through an Internet Locator Server (ILS). The server platform allows exchange of an extensible set of studygroup member attribute information. The manager application also supports application sharing control and it includes tools for file transfer and audio control, useful features in music distance learning.

Applications include Chat and Whiteboard (non-standard for NM 2.1), both characterized by a similar 'look and feel' and limited shared clipboard functionality. The Chat application is particularly useful in trouble-shooting and in allowing student comments during an on-going music lesson. Musical notation, diagrams and text content can be quickly loaded with the multipage Whiteboard.

NetMeeting is only one of a wide range of collaboration products, but it excels in providing a solid platform for workgroup-oriented software development, doing so at a high level of abstraction. Although the application suite gives answers to many educational challenges, music collaboration has so far received little attention. At the end of 1998 Philip Donner developed a utility which makes NM an adequate music learning environment, including full compatibility with the MS conferencing platform.

Most collaboration-enabled computers have sound capability. Therefore they usually also include a MIDI-controlled synthesizer, which is especially well suited to the transmission demands of networked communication. MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) is a vector-oriented music protocol, which offers superior throughput compared to other bandwidth-consuming collaboration tools, such as video conferencing.

The music distance learning situation was supported by telephone, e-mail and a collection of music sound examples distributed on a CD-R. Text material, notational exercises, MIDI files and compressed MP3 audio files for the weekly sessions were also delivered beforehand via Internet.

Here are some of the findings:

Philip Donner and Matti Ruippo / Sibelius Academy