Teaching with Technology: Digital Composing

The topic of this month’s Provisions session was Teaching with Technology: Digital Composing.  The three presenters included Sean McCLowry, Assistant Professor of Music Industry, Elizabeth Richards, Visiting Instructor of Communications, and Robert O’Neil, Assistant Professor of Art.

Elizabeth Richards, who teaches classes on cinema, film studies, production, etc., presented the advice that she gives her students as they begin any of her classes “fake it, then break it.”  When students come into her classroom, she is generally presented with two problems: first, that technology is characterized as the bad guy, i.e. “technology and I just don’t get along,” and second, the tendency for students to claim artistic intent and believe that this intent trumps conceptual clarity, i.e. “this is how I wanted it to look.”

As far as the characterization of technology, Richards feels that resorting to the idea that something and someone “just don’t get along” is similarly seen in the cases of math and science, for example, where novices will often struggle.  The instances where students claim artistic intent over conceptual clarity, in her experience, usually involves students above the level of novice who are trying to oppose convention.  As far as Richards is concerned, these are two separate problems with one solution, “fake it, then break it.”  In other words, learn the rules, and then see how you can make them work for you.  Richards’ goal, and goal for her students, is to try to show and guide them towards figuring out ways in which technology can and will work for them.

In regards to the question, “well, how do I fake it?,” Richards explains that her process starts with the basic concept she is trying to teach.  In her presentation, she used the example of “rack focus.”  In a class, Richards would begin by clearly defining the conventions in regards to rack focus, and next provide practical instruction on how to achieve the concept.  In order to guide the students towards discovering how the technology could potentially work for them, she would assign a project or an in class project and sets limitations.  For example, Richards discussed how often, when assigning a project where students are required to convey some emotion through a filmed piece, a restriction she often places on students is that there can be no dialogue, forcing them to see how they can make the medium, and conventions they have learned, work for them as well as for the task.  To check out Richards PowerPoint Presentation, click here: Richards PowerPoint.

Next to present was Rob O’Neil, who, as a photographer and photography teacher, began his presentation by talking about the frequency in which he hears about Instagram, followed by an article recently written about the uproar of those “horrified” by the Instagram picture of Alex Rodriguez that graced the New York Times.

Explaining that photography started in 1839, O’Neil then followed with the statistic that 10% of pictures taken, of the entirety of pictures taken in the history of photography, were taken in 2012.  His question then becomes, “how do you teach a technology everyone knows?”

According to O’Neil, photography has always been about the ease for the populace, citing very early examples of the Kodak camera, including advertisements exclaiming the simplicity of “photography in three steps.”  Teaching photography, when everyone is a photographer, then becomes about focusing on the message, where the medium is secondary to the message.

O’Neil concluded his presentation by describing one of the recent projects he has tasked his students with. Inspired by the film Five Obstructions, in which Lars Von Trier challenges Jørgen Leth to the task of remaking The Perfect Human five times, each time with a different ‘obstruction’ (or obstacle) given by von Trier (Wiki), O’Neil described how he created five obstructions (or parameters) that the students must apply to their own work.

Sean McClowrey discussed The College of Saint Rose’s focus on popular and commercial music, not often or always the case in music programs, and described the program’s efforts to make it as collaborative an effort, on the part of the students, as possible, simulating the real world experience in that realm of the music industry.

McClowrey explained that the program is constantly struggling and striving to find ways to make the classroom a collaborative space, where all students are engaged on one project, and showed off their “super computer” that they have created in an effort to achieve the goal of maximum collaboration.  Their “super computer” has many other expensive instruments wired and connected to it, and the beauty of this machine is that it can share with and be controlled by computers anywhere.  So basically, what happens is that every student, no matter what their role (i.e. producer, composer, song writer, instrument player, etc.) have their laptops running and connected to this super computer at all times in the music composing process, so that any point they can take over the controls and participate in the construction of the composition.

This was a very brief summary of the session, to listen to the entire session via podcast, click here.


Don’t Forget, Provisions Session Next Week on Teaching with Technology: Digital Composing

In preparation for our next Provisions session on Tuesday, November 19th, at 12pm in Standish A/B, here is a look at some innovations in teaching digital composing in regards to music, art, and writing.

Digital Composition – Music

In “Composers and Computers Work in Harmony at Georgia Tech’s Music Center,” Eric Kelderman talks about the Georgia Institute of Technology’s Center for Music Technology, which opened in November of 2008. There, composers, computer programmers, and engineers are collaborating on projects to “change how performers and audiences use technology to make and experience music.”

According to the center’s web site, “the center’s goal is to foster as significant a shift in music composition and performance as happened when the piano replaced the more limited harpsichord in the 18th century… [where] an endeavor of this sort in our time demands an interdisciplinary technological approach, cutting across such fields as engineering, computation, material science, design, and music, all the while keeping a sharp focus on aesthetics.”

Kelderman quotes Lawrence Fritts, associate professor of music composition and theory at the University of Iowa, who points out that electronic music has not thrived in the academic setting, “in part because classically trained performers are required to focus almost exclusively on repertoire from the 18th and 19th centuries,” where professors often “see new music as the refuge for persons who can’t play Beethoven.”  Faculty members and students at Georgia Tech’s center, however, don’t seek to change the attitudes of music faculty members so much as they “seek to lure professional, student, and amateur performers, as well as audience members, with the latest in interactive technology.”

Kelderman writes that instead of creating new compositions with a predetermined set of synthesized sounds, the common format for most electronic music, the center is focusing on technology that responds in real time to performers or audience members. Here are some examples of the work that that center is doing that Kelderman discusses in his article:

  • In one of his Atlanta classrooms, Mr. Weinberg and two students sit down to jam with two robots. One of the mechanical musicians plays drums, and another, complete with a head displayed on an Apple computer screen, plays marimba. Both of the nonhumans listen and respond independently using statistical modeling to determine tempos, rhythms, and, in the case of the marimba, key signatures and harmonies.
  • Even if you don’t play any instrument, you can download the ZooZBeat software that Mr. Weinberg and some students have developed for the iPhone. The program allows cellphone users to create music using a preset group of instruments and determine rhythms and pitches by shaking or tilting the phone. Users can also record other sounds, like their voices, to add to the mix, and can share the music making with others.
  • Others at Georgia Tech are developing technologies that could change the way musicians learn. Kevin Huang, studying for a master’s degree in computer science, has created a prototype glove outfitted with standard cellphone buzzers that can be programmed to signal, with vibrations, which fingers to use while playing a piano piece.
  • Jason Freeman, assistant professor of music, is developing ways to engage people who may not be attending concerts because they’re bored by sitting quietly in their seats. For one installation piece, called Flock, audience members put on baseball caps with small battery-operated lights on top as they enter the performance hall. A camera tracks their movements and a computer generates sounds that are broadcast into the space. Mr. Freeman calls the piece a cross between “a game, a dance, a club, and a concert.”

The important thing that Kelderman notes is the commercial possibilities of the center’s projects, which is “an almost unheard-of attitude at most music schools.”

Digital Composition – Writing

Digital Is: Interdisciplinary Writing Resources,” by Chad Sansing, discusses what he calls “one of the most exciting initiatives” of the National Writing Project (NWP): Digital Is, “a collection of resources, reflections, and stories about what it means to teach writing in our digital, interconnected world.”

According to Sansing, Digital Is simultaneously “facilitates and archives the work of educators who are expanding our notion of composition” in both public schools and for teaching digital rhetoric and composition at the college and university level. Sansing also points out that users (teachers or students) can find “curated collections, as well as individual resources, on topics ranging from crafting new texts to using digital tools for change to curating our online identities.”

The goal of the NWP is to facilitate teacher inquiry projects in writing instruction so that “the knowledge, expertise, and leadership of our nation’s educators” is focused “on sustained efforts to improve writing and learning for all learners.”  Sansing comments that regardless of discipline, readers should delve into both the NWP and Digital Is, where you can find a “vibrant community of practitioners helping students to find their voices across media for authentic purposes and audiences.”

Another interesting project is Digital Writing Month (DigiWriMo), and in “10 Reasons You Should Do Digital Writing Month,” the Hybrid Pedagogy team discusses what the project is and why you should participate.  According to the team, this “MOOCish, course-like thing asks participants to write 50,000 words during the 30 days of November,” and “promises to be a wild exploration of how learning and writing happen online,” bringing together teachers and students  of all levels.

Here are the top 10 reasons why the Hybrid Pedagogy team feels you absolutely, without a doubt, should participate in the event:

  • Because no one has yet tapped the full potential of digital writing, and this is your chance to discover a vast wellspring of virtual creativity.
  • You’re uncertain you’ll succeed.
  • Someone out there hasn’t already said what you want to say.
  • This whole thing seems undignified, not something in which serious academics should participate.
  • You love to write.
  • There’s an audience that wants to hear what you have to say.
  • The free market of ideas depends on fierce competition… and also collaboration.
  • The computer has you in its clutches.
  • Because friends don’t let friends write alone.
  • Digital writing is never finished.

Digital Composition – Art

Where High Tech Meets High Concept,” by Peter Monaghan, looks into the way a digital-arts center at the U. of Washington is exploring the aesthetics of technology.  In his article, Monaghan describes the high-tech qualities typical of the art that Mr. Brixey and his colleagues produce, teach, and study at the University of Washington’s Center for Digital Arts and Experimental Media.

Paraphrasing Mr. Brixley, Monaghan writes that “with the advent of new technologies — ones based on computers and the Internet, and many others that draw from fields of scientific discovery and insight — new dimensions are opening up that lend themselves to representation beyond two- or even three-dimensional art.”

The center Mr. Brixley leads goes by the abbreviation DXArts, and is arguably the most innovative workshop of its kind: “It engages in experimental arts that include digital media, computer animation, computer music, and sound art, and many novel combinations of those already esoteric fields. It also deals in the artistic uses and implications of “telematics” — the blending of communications devices — and “mechatronics” — the intersections of mechanical, electronic, and software engineering, applied to the design of automatons and other hybrid systems.”

Apparently, the center is the only one in the country that offers a doctoral program in digital and experimental art, offering a challenging, five-year undergraduate major with prerequisites in such subjects as art and music history, physics, algebra, and computer programming. Having completed those, “each year about 125 undergraduates proceed to the center’s own pre-major classes in the history of digital and other experimental arts.”  At this point, Monaghan notes that students are able to qualify for 18 majors, including engineering, mathematics, and the comparative history of ideas, and where about 35 students each year then go on to the second of the center’s own prerequisite courses, a “digital-arts boot camp” that teaches hands-on lessons in how to use a wide range of equipment and computer programs.

Click here to view a list of 2013’s technology innovators, as submitted by readers, to browse through many other innovations of technology in teaching.

Don’t forget to come by next Tuesday to listen to our three presenters on the topic of Teaching with Technology: Digital Composing: Sean McCLowry, Assistant Professor of Music Industry, Elizabeth Richards, Visiting Instructor of Communications, and Robert O’Neil, Assistant Professor of Art.