Developing a critical framework for evaluating new developments in computer technology
and their potential impact in online music teaching
Vicki Swan 2005
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Critical Poster Review
Literature Review
Podcasting - A Future Technology

The purpose this paper is to explore the freedoms and constraints of technology for teaching instrumental music tuition online. Three technologies have been explored; teaching using websites, webcasting and podcasting. The paper is laid out as follows:
  • A poster that presents the technologies discussing the freedom and constraints of each.
  • A critique of the poster and literature review.
  • An exploration of the Podcast technology investigating it’s freedoms and constraints.

Fig. 1 is a poster that showcases three different technologies that have been used for online instrumental tuition. The poster has been built as a website which can be seen by clicking on the picture below.


Fig 1. Poster

Critical Poster Review
The definition of the word poster is:

n 1: a sign posted in a public place as an advertisement; "a poster advertised the coming attractions" [syn: posting, placard, notice, bill, card]” ( website)

The “poster” created for this paper was a webpage. The format of the webpage conformed to the previous definition of a poster whilst allowing for the inclusion of multimedia such as audio and moving images. Furthermore, the webpage allowed for the presentation of the three technologies for teaching under critical review. The traditional poster is a flat piece of paper with drawings and text, but there are may design rules that were of use in creating the freedom and constraint poster. Posters should be:

“brief and direct, designed to attract, not too many visual elements, not too text based, bright and colourful, but not too busy.” (BRAA arts, website)

The poster constructed here attempted to follow some of these guide lines. There was one picture that attracted the eye informing it’s audience that this poster was about playing the Scottish Smallpipes. There were a number of smaller links to click to listen to / watch the multimedia and the colour of the site was bright, but legible.

There are also guidelines for building websites, Flanders (2004) list a whole gamut of faux pas that web designers fall into: too much text, too many flashing gifs, too much javascript, non-supported frames to name etc. The web page constructed for this poster has attempted to conform to the good building design with a simple blue background, a strong heading and only enough text to explain what the site was about. In past versions of the website the text has not been legible, so the text was kept as a strong white colour to contrast the background. This background may be too bold for some designers, but it was simple enough and legible enough to put it’s message across. Neilson (2000) described how long webpages that require much scrolling down detract from web appearance, so an attempt was made to make this poster fit into one window that fits on the screen. It could be that in trying to make this poster fit onto one page detracted from the visuals. On the negative side, a small page makes it easy to misjudge the amount of content present; all the content opens up in small windows ready for consumption with a little note warning the viewer of download time. Shepard (2001) argued that in transferring information from an audio visual state to text can be detrimental to the content:

“Abstracting information from images for conversion into text may be ‘part of the process’ but often results in loss of information or over-simplification.” (Shepard 2001:1)

Another major consideration for website design was the use of plugins. Flanders (2004) stated that plugins should be kept to a minimum, that people do not like to install extra programs unless absolutely necessary. He also goes on to say that unless it is specifically a music website, sound files should not be used. As this poster is discussing online methods of teaching music it conforms to Flanders’ suggestion that audio files were acceptable.

By designing the poster to be viewed as a webpage this ensured that it would work on all fairly up to date platforms (Apple Mac or PC) but software was required to view the movies. Software is an issue with all IT related activities. As it is an internet based poster a link is provided to download any required software. This should suffice but it is possible that older machines may not be able to cope with viewing the movies.

Another bad design fault according to Flanders (2004) is the use of Cascading Style Sheets. This website uses cascading style sheets, which can cause problems in browsers that don’t support them, including a refreshing issue that prevents the style sheet from showing in Firefox. (The browser that was used in designing the site) It would be best to redesign the page so that the style sheet is not used, but due to time constraints this is not possible.

The web page was chosen to represent the styles of online teaching being discussed. Split into three sections each section was represented using as close to the original technology as possible. The website section used a mix of audio and movie, the webcasting used movies and the podcasting only audio. This was to aid the audience feel a sense of what was being discussed.

Using the media to represent each technology was only partially attained; the website section was represented successfully. The webcasting was fairly close to the original research, except that it could not be made to be synchronous or a chat facility produced. The podcasting section did not use the RSS or downloading option, but as in the case of the webcasting the media experience was replicated in a fairly true fashion. The audio was in the style of a podcast, informal unscripted and unedited. It could be debated that as it was unedited and in a sense improvised that it did not follow the formal reflective cycle as described by Gibbs (1988) of

“Description - Feelings - Evaluation - Analysis - Conclusion - Action plan”

As much care as possible was taken over the contents of the video and audio to ensure the integrity of the reflection on the research and technologies. It is possible however that this was not sufficient and that scripting should have taken place. However by scripting the audio it would have lost the informal feel and moved away from the podcast style.

Most people are used to reading, be it in detail or just skimming over the presented facts. By using multimedia it prevents skim reading and the participant must listen to the entire presentation to glean all the information given. For this reason each piece of media was kept short and clearly labelled short manageable chunks used. Using audio and video opened up the poster for people with low literacy, but not with low bandwidth as multimedia files were too large to be downloaded on 56k.

By using the podcast style narration throughout the poster it may come across to it’s audience that it does not subscribe to academic rigour, this is an issue that could be addressed by scripting the audio but this would lose the style of the discussed technologies. Podcasts are traditionally unedited and rough in quality

“Currently many podcasts are known for their ‘scratchy’ or homemade personalities” (Meng 2005)

The language of the poster was consistent with the language of the three technologies, which was in term chosen to reflect the vernacular language of podcasting.

Literature Review
The technologies that are discussed in this paper have all predominantly involved teaching in the audio visual medium. This is due to the fact that it is instrumental music that is being taught. Traditionally there has been a disparity between the written word and aural medium. Most academic text will favour the written discipline because they come from the same cultural paradigm of the written word, but Swanwick (1996) recognised the value of the aural tradition when stating that:

“Without aural performance traditions, most expressive and structural shaping is missing.” (Swanwick, K. 1996:244)

This polemic between playing by ear and playing using written notation can be traced back to the cultural divide of folk music and classical music. The classical musicians assuming that their higher literacy skill in the ability to read music makes their style of music better, whereas the aural tradition of folk music seeming somehow to show illiteracy. Swanwick (1979) tried to show music teachers how they need to alter their perceptions of cultural music;

“It may be that teachers ought not to categorise the cultural background of pupils as in some way inferior, or in deficit, but merely as different.”(Swanwick, K. 1979:104)

There has been little written on the pedagogy of learning processes in traditional music and as such this is an area that needs further study.

Elsewhere in the music environment, research is being undertaken to investigate online music teaching. The Santa Barbara Music Academy has undertaken research into performing synchronously online, putting on concert where two musicians perform a duet from different locations across the internet.

“The virtual duet performance marks a first in the history of music and technology, allowing the musicians to perform in realtime.” (Kuehn 2003)

Ruippo (2003) looked at synchronous communication, phone / video conferencing. His work focused on technological resources replicating the real teaching scenario by trying to mirror the face to face experience. Video conferencing was explored and developed as the preferred model of distance learning.

“These examples demonstrate that Videoconferences seem to suit many kinds of music material.” (Donner 2003)

Bhandopadhyay (2000) took the asynchronous perspective with the learner being forced to be more auto-didactic

“With faculty guidance, the learner must increasingly become self directed, acquiring knowledge and skills through interactive technology-based instruction, videotaped courses, CD ROMs, self-paced learning modules and interactive education.” (Bandopadhyay 2000)

The freedom to teach music on the internet has only become possible as the internet has become faster and more versatile. The evolution of computer based technology has been very swift and is still developing. This speed of development is none more apparent than when looking at literature where an issue of importance in one moment appears to become a thing of the past in the next. Ten years ago Mason (1994) talked of audio graphic systems requiring two phone lines being of great value but unrealistic. Brooks (1997) talked of problems with too much web traffic slowing down the internet and of potential storage devises that hold more than CDroms (ie DVDs). Within six years of Brooks, broadband was available to nearly 80% of the UK population (British Telecom 2004) and DVDs are a standard storage media. This advancement has outstripped all expectations of these writers and the developments are so impacting on the virtual world that much of the earlier research no longer has relevance.

With faster internet, greater storage capacity and new technological revolutions comes more diverse opportunities for all walks of technological life including teaching and learning. As computers became powerful enough to employ multimedia, they allowed the scope for video, audio and community to explode. These developments have opened up freedoms for all sorts of disciplines to embrace technology that would not have seen the technological relevance before. Williams (1998) discussed the fact the

“...multimedia technologies may just prove to have significant and permanent educational value” (Williams 1998:159)

With all these freedoms still come constraints. There is still a significant digital divide with more than 51% if households in the UK still without access to home computing and the internet. (BT 2004) This is due to many factors and poor literacy and poverty are listed amongst the greatest factors.

In the research that was undertaken here there were software and platform issues. The teaching methods made use of specific software (Quicktime, Podcast software etc.) Not all the software worked cross platform and older machines wouldn’t necessarily cope with installation. In addition there were also technical issues brought up both for student and teacher. Ruippo (2002) discovered that there was a problem with the attitude of current instrumental teachers in creating online resources:

“..there is quite natural reluctance to change one’s established teaching habits and to be willing to spend extra time within a busy schedule, to do so.”(Ruippo 2002)

A study in Australia found that it was necessary to:

“Keep technology simple, where ever possible, and avoid the problems caused by students upgrading software and handling different media files.” (Bond 2002:27)

The latest development on the web is that of RSS - real simple syndication. This new technology allows a person to subscribe to a website and have any new items or news downloaded straight into a special program. The freedoms of this include the ability to be automatically notified of updates without having to visit the website itself. (Richardson 2005:1) Originally developed in conjunction with weblogs it now extends to being used by many websites including the BBC in delivering it’s news items. In 2003 this was taken a step further by Dave Weiner and Adam Curry when the enclosure tag1 was developed for RSS. Along with the development of a standalone programme to enable audio files to be played direct from weblog RSS new items podcasting was created. (Curry 2004)

The biggest freedom for podcasting is

“The ability to “time-shift content versus traditional broadcast distribution models expands student teaching and learning opportunities significantly”( Meng 2005:11)

This time-shifting of content is not entirely a new phenomenon as it has been available with asynchronous websites. Indeed the study performed on podcasting here has shown that many participants preferred to visit a website and download content straight from there. Podcasting is a very new technology and many people are looking on it sceptically. However both Virgin Radio (2005) and the BBC have begun to provide podcasts. One BBC podcast (Perry 2004) recently topped 100,000 hits for the Reich Lectures. As Meng in the Missouri White paper suggests

“Podcasting and VODcasting, and their pending derivatives, are not fads. They are very real and practical distribution technologies” (Meng 2005:11)

The salient freedom inherent in podcasting appears to be it’s ability to distribute content via RSS and to utilize non-personal computer technologies such as mp3 players. These opportunities will be discussed in the next section.


Podcasting - A Future Technology
IIntroduction and Background
Podcasting is one of the latest technologies to emerge onto the computing scene and one that has a great deal to offer education. The purpose of this study was to use the action research methodology to investigate the freedoms and constraints of using podcasting to teach instrumental music online. Podcasting is so new that contemporaneous research is few and far between. This research attempts to gain an insight into the freedoms and constraints and ascertain whether it is a viable technology to pursue, or merely a fad.

Podcasting took it’s name from Apple’s iPod, but it is not a requirement to access this technology using one. Podcasting consists of several technologies all linked together to produce a new method of distribution. Dave Weiner described podcasting like this:

“Think how a desktop aggregator works. You subscribe to a set of feeds, and then can easily view the new stuff from all of the feeds together, or each feed separately.

Podcasting works the same way, with one exception. Instead of reading the new content on a computer screen, you listen to the new content on an iPod or iPod-like device.

Think of your iPod as having a set of subscriptions that are checked regularly for updates. Today there are a limited number of programs available this way. The format used is RSS 2.0 with enclosures.” (Weiner 2004)

Podcasts are generally between 10 minutes and and hour in length, the average being about 20 minutes and have a size of roughly 1Mb per minute of audio. As podcasting is still such a new technology the processes required to create and broadcast podcasts are still fairly complicated as there appear to be no integrated programs or services to date. The following sequence was the process used to create the podcasts for this study2.

  1. A weblog was created using the free service
  2. A account was created.
  3. An audio file was recorded using the Apple Mac programmes GarageBand and Amadeus II.
  4. The file was saved as an mp3 and compressed a small amount.
  5. The mp3 was uploaded into personal webspace. (Making a note of it’s url)
  6. A new entry was created in the blog with the start of the entry being an a href html url link to the mp3 file, for example:
    a href="">podcast
    (The tags are incomplete as xml wouldn't work!)
  7. The feed was ‘burned’ using to create an RSS that was podcast enabled.
  8. The RSS feed was advertised to find listeners.

Once a listener discovered the RSS that they wished to subscribe to they needed to add it to a feed aggregator. Once subscribed the feed was checked at regular intervals by the aggregator and then new podcast entries either be played in the software or bounced into the relevant media player and from there straight into an iPod or other portable player for listening to at leisure. Fig. 2 is a representation of the process including suggested programmes (for the Mac OSX system)

fig. 2 The podcasting process

Research Methodology & Ethics

The anti-positivist, naturalistic and qualitative nature of this enquiry perfectly lent itself to the action research methodology. Cohen and Manion (2000) stated that:

“...the social world can only be understood from the standpoint of the individuals who are part of the ongoing action being investigated: and that their model of a person is an autonomous one, not the plastic version favoured by positivist researchers.” (Cohen and Manion 2000:19)

The purpose of the study was to investigate the freedom and constraints of podcasting to teach instrumental music. To complete this study participants were gathered from around the world. Musicians that could already play were targeted so as to gain insight to the learning of tunes without the added dimension of learning to play the instrument itself. After each podcast was created and uploaded, feedback was requested and actions taken dependant on the participants opinions. A Weblog was used to create a RSS feed mechanism and thus all feedback was given as comments under each entry, thereby completing the action research self reflective spiral (Kemmis and McTaggart, 1992:22 cited in Cohen et al 2000:229).

All participants were informed that project was for masters degree research in the entries on the blog. All names have been removed from the data here to protect anonymity.

Data Collection
Eight podcasts were created over a period of three months and distributed from a weblog. The podcasts were advertised in places on the web including:
bellowspipes yahoo newsgroup

Each podcast entry took the form of an mp3 audio file, a jpeg of the music to be taught and a short paragraph of explaining text. Feedback was received in the form of replies to each podcast and any comments acted upon. Each podcast audio file contained verbal explanations of the what was to follow in the podcast, and various versions of a tune to be learnt. The teaching methods used in the podcast altered during the course of the eight podcasts to reflect the feedback from participants. Fig. 3 is a table of the eight podcasts, the content of the audio files and text materials provided and a summary of the feedback received.

Podcast Title

Podcast Form Feedback
To Catch a Cat CD version of flute tune
Tune slowly (2 bars)
  • Too difficult, would be nice to have a version to play along with
The Dusty Pipes Tune with loop backing
Pipe Duet
Tune Slowly (2 bars)
Harmony only with loops
  • Buffering stopped, maybe nice to have a version broken up into smaller files.
  • Good to put onto media player and take away.
  • Chunks too small for easy tune.
Lullaby for the Sleepy Tune with loop backing
Pipe Duet
Tune Slowly (4 bars)
Harmony only with loops
  • RSS working nicely.
  • Would like the dots in D
Tsunami Three part flute
Drums but no other loops
Tune Slowly (2 bars)
Harmony only with drums
  • Longer phrases for slow airs better
  • Drum track not good
Race for Home Pipe duet, flute, bass
No loops
Transposed to D electronically
  • Wonderful arrangement
  • Transposition worked well
  • Going to share with others
Lament for the Lone Piper Pipe duet, flute, bass
No loops
Transposed to D electronically
  • Worked well
  • RSS set up
  • Podcast better than website, flexibility to be away from computer
  • Almost feels like with a real person
  • Maybe video would add to experience.
Pushbike Pipe, flute, bass, guitar
No loops
Transposed to D electronically
  • Feedback on extended chanter notes
The Damson Tree Pipe duet, flute
No loops
Transposed to D electronically
  • RSS better than streaming, better quality and not clipped
fig. 3 Table of feedback

All the podcasts and accompanying materials can be found on the blogger website ad extra resources on the podcast vault.

Podcast No. 1
The first podcast contained a performance version of the tune from a CD followed by the tune played slowly. The manuscript for this tune was included. The feedback for this tune indicated that it was too fast for the participants to learn and that a version to play along with would be beneficial. A flute tune was used to attempt to widen the audience from just pipers to other instruments. Although some colleagues attempted the tune, all other participants were pipers.

Podcast No. 2
As a result of the first podcast feedback a simpler pipe tune was selected. The audio format was set as a pipe duet with a backing created with a program called GarageBand. This program consists of ready made loops and the ability to record more than one live track. Using this programme a duet was recorded with backing track. This was split into the full version and a version without the tune to let people play along. The feedback using this method was on the whole very positive, only one comment that the tune was too easy and didn’t require splitting up into such small chunks. Further suggestions were made regarding the file size. One participant mentioned that their media player kept stalling and that the podcast broken up into smaller chunks might be useful. As a result of this request a website page was built and the podcast split into it’s component parts and uploaded. This was called the podcast vault to represent that this was a storage area for resources. The tune was performed in the key of A and one participant suggested (via e-mail) that it would be nice to include the tunes in the key of D for those pipers who only had pipes in that key.

Podcast No. 3
The third podcast took the same form as the second: a pipe duet track with GarageBand accompaniment followed by a breakdown of the tune into small sections finishing with the accompaniment being played for the participant to play along with. Feedback to this podcast showed that the RSS feed was working nicely. Two versions of the tune were recorded, one in D and one in A so that more pipers were able to play along with the music. This was however quite time consuming to produce.

Podcast No. 4
The fourth podcast was a flute trio. Although participants seemed to enjoy the tune it was discovered pipe tunes were preferred. The accompaniment was in the form of two extra flute parts and a drum rhythm. It was expressed in the feedback that the drum track was not a good idea.

Podcast No. 5
Following the feedback from the previous podcast there was a return to pipe tunes. The accompaniment was made to be an ensemble arrangement: pipe duet, flute and double bass, no loops were used at all. The feedback received on this was the most positive yet. As in the previous podcasts the format was kept to full version, broken down and accompaniment only. Instead of recording a version in A and another version in D a program was used to transpose the pitch and both versions put online. The only drawback to this was that any words spoken at the same time as playing was transposed into a helium enriched sounding voice. The feedback showed that this was acceptable.

Podcast No. 6
Podcast number six had no significant changes and feedback was all positive. The RSS and podcast software was functioning for the participants that chose to use it. The podcasts were found to be better as there was more flexibility to be away from the computer and learn tunes. The friendly unrehearsed style of the of podcast speech was very much like having a live tutor, adding video to this would help even more.

Podcast No. 7 & 8
As with the last podcast there were no significant changes made. The feedback took the form of discussion of extra notes available on bagpipe chanters. Also the benefits of RSS and podcasting over streaming the same content over an internet radio station. The participant felt that podcasting had advantages over internet streaming in that the quality was better and that the file can be taken away on a media player.

Analysis and Evaluation
The focus of this research was to investigate the freedoms and constraints of teaching instrumental music using podcasting. During the eight podcasts created and broadcast the following constraints were identified:

The Constraints
As podcasting is so new it was difficult to set up the first time, many different processes were required, on the mac it required two different programmes to create the podcast audio file. Personal server space was required and then two different online web-based services accessed. If the podcasts were to remain online for any length of time a lot of storage space is required. This can either be expensive for the a podcaster or mean that podcasts need to be removed on a regular basis and participants need to download promptly.

It was also confusing to explain the listening process for new participants. Podcasting involves understanding RSS, the downloading of audio files and accompanying text and using podcast software. Depending upon the podcast software it is possible that a website also needs to be accessed. Some participants were resistant to downloading new software. Further confusion was created as the software is not required to listen to the podcasts as it was possible to download the audio file direct from the website. To access a podcasting it is necessary to have broadband. The files being on average of 15 - 20 Mb preclude those people with only 56k access. e.g. a 20Mb file will take on average 1 minute minute to download on broadband but somewhere in the region of five hours on 56k.

Although a participant suggested that podcast be broken up into smaller parts and placed as an archive it was found to be very time consuming to create and created a site that was prohibitively large without having a personal server.

The Freedoms
The greatest freedom in using podcasting is the ability to download an audio file and place it on a media player and use the file away from the computer. If all the correct software is downloaded and installed the podcasts and accompanying files can be accessed instantly without having to use any extra programmes. The RSS feed automatically checks for updates and downloads files straight to computer. Using podcast software that displays the accompanying blog text there is no need to use a browser. Accompanying files can be linked into the blog entry to help cater for different learning styles. For music teaching this is especially important as most musicians prefer to have both audio and accompanying manuscript.

As the audio file can be downloaded it can then be transferred to a mobile media player and used away from computer. Any accompanying manuscript and text can be printed thus taking away the dependency on computer the computer for the learning process. The computer is used as a method for information and learning distribution. This technology is asynchronous, it can be accessed and used whenever the participant wishes. In the global world of the internet this gives the freedom for musicians around the world to learn despite the difference in time zone.

The feedback mechanism is a inbuilt on a weblog. Comments can be left on the blog for other participants to read and if so wish collaborate and is not a bolt on feature, but a part of the blogging culture.

The Future
Podcasting is still in it’s infancy and as such new software is still constantly under development. There are still bugs and user issues on many of the podcast software RSS feed readers. Some programmes show all the text in the blog entry whilst others do not. Some play audio files without downloading and some do not. This currently causes some confusion amongst people trying to decide which piece of software to use. Once podcasting programmers can create software that integrates all the different processes and podcast-dedicated-blogs are available the process will be made far simpler. There is a lot of scope for teaching music using podcasting, but there is a lot of research that still needs to be conducted in this area. There may be possibilities to incorporate this audio style of learning and delivery into many other aspects of education. This is an area for further research.

The focus of this study was to explore the freedoms and constraints of using podcasting to teach instrumental music online. Although there were many freedoms and many constraints, it was recognised that most of the constraints were surrounding the technology and most of the freedoms were surrounding the music teaching. It appeared that podcasting was a good medium for teaching music, but that the technology is not yet suitably developed to facilitate the process. Using podcasting to teach music is an area that needs more development but this study has shown sufficient promise to warrant more research.


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1 Enclosure Tag - a tag that enables audio attachments to be added to weblog entries and played in podcast software.
2 Note that his is not the only way of creating and broadcasting podcasts.