Methods of Analyzing Networked Music Collaboration: Tools of Observation for a Distance Learning Research Project


In reports of projects which utilize new educational technology, there is a tendency towards using narrative rather than analytical presentation techniques. A narrative approach tends primarily to account for alleged success, instead of analyzing the actual research process and describing encountered patterns, problems and possible shortcomings.

In spring 1999 the authors made a pilot study on the use of collaboration software in real-time networked music distance learning. It was an attempt to use the Microsoft NetMeeting (NM) conferencing environment as a pedagogical tool for teaching musical arrangement in a distance learning situation (cf. abstract). Matti Ruippo has prepared a full report of the music pedagogical aspects on the pilot study: Net Conferencing in Music Distance Education: Observations on a Pilot Project.

Pilot studies are heuristic and experimental by definition but, after a trial and error period, the work pattern emerges. At this stage the narrative approach should be abandoned and systematic studies – also producing empirical hard data – may begin.

The computers of the music students and their music arrangement teacher Matti Ruippo were in different locations and linked together through an ISDN-based dial-up network. Conferencing included multipoint audio discussion and text based chat, graphics and collaborative use of music applications. Ensemble playing on networked MIDI-synthesizers was enabled by a custom NetMeeting application designed by Donner. The course was documented by utilizing unstructured and qualitative methods.

Towards the end of the pilot study a necessity was felt to observe teacher / student interaction patterns with greater exactitude, to be able to improve the pedagogical quality of the teaching and the usability of the collaboration tools. The most intricate problems were posed when the study group attempted to function as a musical ensemble. Musical excellence rests on proper timing and effective coordination between the players. The solution of such problems may lead to real-world applications in other areas of symbolical interaction.

NetMeeting opens up the networked music classroom to programmatic access. Any custom application - such as the MIDI application - can easily monitor data messaging between students. As Donner earlier demonstrated, some aspects of NetMeeting lend themselves directly to emitting a rich documentation of interactions within the study group. The Chat application produces a rich documentation with member names and message timings (the 2.11 version of NM Chat can actually save its data as data base records with comma separated variables).

The purpose of Donner's and Ruippo's presentation is to describe experiments in documenting multichannel communication and the group dynamics of the project's teaching situations. A short demonstration of the teaching setting will also be offered.

NB Conference participants interested in net conferencing may study the environment at Microsoft’s NetMeeting site, which contains abundant and well-maintained material on the topic. Windows users may freely download the newest version, together with its carefully authored reference material.

— Philip Donner and Matti Ruippo / Sibelius Academy