Constructing a Learning Environment for Music Education Online Pilots

This is the manuscript of a paper presented at the international MOVE-symposium 'Music Education Online — Learning Environments', 04.-05.04.2003 in Kuopio. The author presented a number of demonstrations, which are being briefly summarized in the bracketed action points of the manuscript.

The paper contains a reference to a RealPix animation. A free RealPlayer can be downloaded at the RealNetworks site.

The objective of this symposium is to assess our experience of learning environments; their essence and use value in online music education. I'll approach the issues from a researcher's and software developer's perspective.

My contribution stems from work with the structures of piloting real-time music education that the Music Education Online (MOVE) project has established in Kuhmo and Kuopio. In particular, I would like to review some ideas that have emerged while establishing a media service for teachers' training classes in preparation of educational web and netcasting material.

The purpose of the presentation is to give you some insight into the practical details of our work by demonstrating the learning environment, some services and tools. I would also like to hear your views on some of the concepts, which have emerged while developing this framework.

Problems encountered in MOVE's media training

You should know by now, that Matti Ruippo — my counterpart who is based here in Kuopio — is busy piloting information and communication technologies (ICT) training for music teachers and students. Some of the courses in the program are focusing on music content production in web publications and netcasting. There I am playing the role of a researcher and developer, while Matti's key angle is music pedagogy.

As he was performing this work in various educational institutions, it became more and more evident to Matti that establishing the training environment became a major task in performing the actual job. Although music schools and universities might have facilities for web publishing and sometimes even for netcasting, it seems that we are most of the time facing time-consuming computer administration oriented tasks such as:

I have a feeling that when computer administrators have been confronted with our demands, they are becoming increasingly skillful in handling these problems. However, it has become obvious that we would need an independent support service to avoid these obstacles, that is to enable pedagogical action here and now. - a learning environment for MOVE pilots

The Music Education Online media server is an aid in piloting music education services for our Finnish Virtual University content project.

My colleague Matti Ruippo has sometimes relied on a trivial but most usable definition of the concept of a Learning Environment (LE). For him a LE is a set of those tools and services which might be helpful in the learning process.

The ability to create abstract tools, aids for learning is definitely one of the bonuses of operating in a computer supported learning environment. Web Applications can dramatically change our ability to communicate and learn.

I'll present for you one example of such a service, which was implemented through only a few hours of work. The task involved programming skills which I could teach without difficulty to anybody attending this symposium.

The virtual university chat service

A chat service is often mentioned as one of the key elements in a learning environment. This has been a stimulating development task, which I have approached from various directions. This time the discussion board was designed as a combination of RealNetworks netcasting and a web application.

Let's have look at this service which is actually in operation during this symposium. When you activate the link to the live netcast of this session, the RealOne Player presents a combination of RealMedia video and a RealText chat board. Windows players will contain a secondary Media Browser window which allows input to the text stream. Start by defining your user name and jot down a few chat lines. Then submit the form and you will be part of the RealText Chat.

Screen capture of RealPlayer with chat output and input form

For a full expose of this on-going development task, I refer to the article on my home page, which you — at least for the time being — can find on the Sibelius Academy media server.

The point I wanted to make here is, that a learning environment should be viewed as a wide concept - a facility which enables us to innovate and construct new services, a bottom up design process, which can realize the kind of a quantum leaps which are expected from the efforts invested in construction of the information society.

Teachers as producers of on-demand netcasting material

Let's now go back to the more specific needs presented by Matti Ruippo and the piloting efforts of the Music Education Online project. We are again going to focus on the program of training music teachers to become producers of netcasted learning material. In this context I will have to assume a different angle: We are moving from and open-ended LE towards a highly functional production platform, which should be tightly designed to smoothly handle all the phases of the content production process.

The system under development is based on the assumption that a functional learning environment can be constructed from standard pieces of existing operational systems, some scripts cementing the pieces together and a few authoring utilities. The following exposé proceeds from the user towards the publishing platform on the server:

I'll try and quickly demonstrate a few examples which illuminate the process outlined. So let's start with some educational music content creation.

Content creation

Although we are attending a music symposium, I find it convenient to present an example from the visual aspect of our meeting. Some of you might have noticed that I took some photographs with one of those digital cameras, which now have become affordable to the extent that any music school or university department should have the funds to purchase one.

PowerPoint is one of the content creation tools I mentioned earlier. We will now transfer the symposium pictures into a PowerPoint document. This might be convenient if you would for instance like to add some comments to the netcasting show under production.

Authoring of multimedia content

An authoring tool is defined by B. Hall as "a software application, used by non-programmers, that utilizes a metaphor (book, or flow chart) to create on-line courses". In my view authoring tools are content production tools that are especially developed for processing and integration of educational content.

The RealPix Author is one of the utilities which I designed to facilitate netcasting as a teaching aid.

MOVE coordinator summarizes symposium discussion

Publishing on the net

We just saw a RealPix show of the symposium slides. The presentation was played locally on this machine, which made it resemble something that we could have directly produced with PowerPoint. So in a sense netcasting didn't really amplify the situation.

To enable on-demand access to the material on the web, we would have to publish the slideshow. Some Web design tools - at least FrontPage and Visual Interdev, which I would prefer - offer sophisticated ways of maintaining web content. After uploading the content, the author gets a working copy of the material. During editing of the working copy the original is being locked to prevent simultaneous changes. At the end of the process the document is again safely checked in on the media server.

I'll describe a very simple method which has been piloted with some success at our courses. We would rather use a web page as a boot-strap to the RealPix presentation.

This is the manuscript of my paper which is written and stored as a NotePad text document.

Now I'll demonstrate the publishing mechanism.

Classroom management

Setting up this study environment is a trivial task of NT Server management. I don't want to waste your time by going into the details of this aspect, because we are still carrying out this task manually. This process will soon end up in a script, which will be accessible to anybody who wants to use the server for music education online piloting purposes.

Synthesis and conclusions

So those were the practical aspects of my work that I wanted to present in order to give a base for my discussion of our symposium's theme. I started by showing how a learning environment can be constructed by adding some enabling services — help that we need to make MOVE work in a more efficient way. We were dealing with a chat service, but it could have been a spelling checker, a Dublin Core documentation utility, a student management system etc.

Secondly, we spent quite some time on looking into a set of tools and mechanisms tuned to become a platform for the production of material for on-demand netcast of educational study material.

Drawing from this experience I would like to suggest that it can be helpful to distinguish between learning environments and training platforms. In this model:

The production of ICT-based learning environment involves problem solving and innovation. This calls for an open-ended and modular bottom-up design, which gives the flexibility needed for creative innovation. At least at the implicit level, this would question the rational behind and validity of many of the commercial learning environments (but certainly not the one described during our session yesterday). I think that the desired open-ended nature of the services can be achieved through web applications and use of standard operational systems.

On the other hand, I would also emphasize that we need carefully designed learning platforms for the training tasks we have set. Here, enough understanding of the subject matter would in my view be the crucial factor. Engineers can design solutions to many of the problems that educators formulate, but the music educators are the ones to define the problems. This would favor a dialectical approach in developing learning environments, rather than one which separates technology from substance.

Teachers, environment and platform designers must work closely together.

— Philip Donner