Monday, September 01, 2008

Getting Smart with SmartMusic

SmartMusic is a music rehearsal tool. It is one of the best examples of the use of computers for education, illustrating some major advantages of computers for education which are:

• Provide graduated exercises according to level of ability.
• Evaluate the student and provide very specific feedback about the student's performance.
• Assist the student by providing some form of active coaching.
• Plot a direction for student growth and improvement.

SmartMusic "listens" to the student's performance via a microphone connected from the instrument to your computer. The piece's musical notation is displayed on the screen as you play. Then, at the end of the piece, SmartMusic displays note-by-note feedback about whether the note was at pitch and whether it was played on tempo. Furthermore, SmartMusic will accompany the student and, like a good human accompanist, will modify its own playing to adjust for the speed at which the student is playing.

SmartMusic contains exercises with feedback for almost any level of play for classical music, popular tunes, and even jazz. It supports over 30 musical instruments, including voice.

SmartMusic is activated as a subscription service but the software is downloaded to your computer, so constant Internet access is not required to play. The Internet is used to verify the subscription, though, and SmartMusic automatically downloads any sheet music you have requested.

Although an excellent program, SmartMusic does lack a tutorial feature. It assumes, I suppose, that the student is receiving theoretical and basic instruction from a human instructor. This is not the best assumption to make particularly since theory can sometimes be ignored in lieu of practice time. A future tutorial feature, would, I think, be welcome both by institutional students as well as lifelong learners such as myself.

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Thursday, August 07, 2008

Pandora Radio in music education

Every so often I find something that is just absolutely remarkable. My current find is Pandora Radio. This is more than just another online radio. Pandora Radio finds music that you like according to the characteristics of music that you listen to. It learns your preferences and it delivers music based on a complex musical DNA.

The developers of Pandora Radio (Music Genome Project®) have analyzed thousands of songs and rated them on up to 500 different attributes. This genome defines the specific characteristics of the music. In Pandora Radio you create your own "stations." The station may be the name of an artist, a musical genre, an album, a composer, etc. The station will play that artist and other artists whose music has similar characteristics. The result is an uncannily accurate and custom radio station. This is what Artificial Intelligence was meant to be. It is a great way to discover new music (There are convenient links to online stores where you can buy the music. I use Pandora Radio on an iPhone which links to iTunes, of course).

Educators can use Pandora Radio by having students listen to different music and try to determine what characteristics certain songs have in common. I do not know if the people who run the Music Genome Project® would share the characteristics that they use, but perhaps they would be willing to share just enough for educational purposes. Learn more about the Music Genome Project® in WikiPedia.

Next, I have another music project to talk about.


Monday, December 24, 2007

Review of the XO computer

I have, at one time or another, owned every computer model ever made - from the TRS-80 and Commodore PET computers, to computers that run DOS and/or Windows, to the Apple e-mate and the Macintosh. As an educational technologist, if it had educational potential I tried it. So it is with great enthusiasm that I am reviewing the XO computer from One Laptop per Child (OLPC).

In the next few paragraphs I will make my case for why this is the most evolved platform ever produced for education. 

I won't bore you with all of the hardware specs. You can get those on the XO Web site. What is important to note is that from a usability point of view this is an immensely functional computer. It boots up rapidly (faster than Windows or a Mac) and it switches neatly between Activities (in the XO world, programs are called Activities). It multi-tasks, so you can have multiple programs running simultaneously. I pushed it to the limit with about 6 applications running at the same time. Generally I can imagine a child running 4 or 5 at a time - chat, the browser, a word processor, and a music program, for example. The speed of any application was more than adequate. It did not even test the patience of my frenzied adult friends!

Greatest hardware benefit: At 1200 x 900 pixel resolution and 200 dots per inch the screen resolution rivals that of my Macintosh laptop and even beats the iPhone (just to put it into perspective). So even though the screen is only 7 inches measured diagonally it holds a good deal of information and is easy to read.

A hardware weakness: The main weakness is the keyboard. It is covered by a waterproof sheath which makes it impervious to spills. This is nice except that it makes it less responsive than traditional keys. This really only affects typing activities - not drawing, programming, etc. and I believe that its benefits outweigh the disadvantages. In a future version of the XO I would like to see the keyboard eliminated and replaced by a touch screen similar to the iPhone. Now getting that down to $100.00 will be a challenge! Another solution to keyboard responsiveness would be if somehow the sensitivity of the keyboard could be adjusted via software. If the keyboard had a lighter touch I imagine that typing speed would improve considerably.

The user interface: Finally someone has moved us away from the desktop interface! The desktop metaphor, invented by Xerox and adopted by Apple and by Microsoft, has been useful because it allowed people to understand computers when computers were very new. Nevertheless this metaphor has major flaws. One such flaw is that the concept of embedded folders still eludes many users. In real life people simply do not place folders within folders! The XO has eliminated the idea of folders and/or of directories.

The XO re-invents the human-computer interface. All computer programs are called Activities. Activities and data are not separated so when you open a document the application automatically loads. When you stop the document, your work is automatically saved and the application that runs it quits. In the meantime, the Journal records every thing you do so you can return to any document at any time by simply clicking on the line item that represents what it is that you were doing.

Your main interface to the XO is the Home page which shows your custom avatar, currently operating Activities, battery life, and the network you are connected to. At the bottom of the screen an Activities bar shows all the Activities that are available to you. It is ultimately simple and understandable. There are no application folders or files to worry about. If you want to find a document, you just go to the Journal and search for an Activity by typing its name, a portion of its name, or a keyword that you yourself entered. It is as easy as searching in Google.

Activities: The XO is student-centered. It focuses on things that children will want to do, thus all applications or documents are just called Activities. The user finds an Activity and runs it. All Activities are designed with some form of collaboration in mind. Children can, with a simple click, write and edit a document together, share Internet bookmarks, chat, and much more. Activities are designed to allow students to participate in the creation process. The XO includes powerful tools for users to create their own simulations and programs taking learning to a whole new level of creative thinking and problem solving.

Software weaknesses: A great computer begets greater usage which begets the need for more memory and better search tools. I can see the need for a way to globally eliminate un-needed Activities. There are still a number of rough edges in the software. For example, there is no system-wide control panel, unless you use the built-in Linux control panel, and some applications have un-expectantly quit on me. On the other hand the system itself has never crashed and I haven't lost anything. This is an amazing computer in a small package!

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Thursday, November 29, 2007

The XO Computer or Classmates PC?

What is the difference between the XO computer and other computers, particularly its chief rival, the Classmates PC? It comes down to software and to the model of education that you aspire to.

Here are some key educational features of the XO computer:
  • The XO has a complete collaborative environment. This means that in any application students can work together to write poetry, to edit a document, or to design a presentation. They can do this over the Internet or over the built-in mesh network. This is a superior project-oriented model of education compared to the inferior didactic model that is still in use in most schools and that the other computers do not attempt to change.
  • The XO represents freedom from hegemony. The XO is built on open standards. It is not an attempt to push any particular OS on the world. While Windows will, apparently, be available as an add-on flash memory module for the XO in 2008, the XO is still mainly about learning, not about indoctrinating students in office software.
  • The XO is an ideas laboratory! This is the most important element of the XO. The XO has eToys and LOGO built in. eToys and LOGO are powerful computer languages that students can use to experiment with ideas and to discover concepts rather than having concepts spoon fed to them. A knowledgeable teacher can guide a student to discover concepts in mathematics, science, language, social studies, and more. Yet, this is the crux of it - how many teachers are there who can operate in this more creative, project-oriented mode? It requires training, time, and resources. I suspect that more international teachers will have these resources than teachers in the United States.
  • The XO is internationally-sensitive. Networking on the XO works even without the Internet. Battery life is 6 to 24 hours, not just the 4 hours of the Classmates PC. The XO will operate in full sunlight. It has a high-res screen suitable for reading. It is water and dust resistant. These are all features that very few computers can compete with at any price.
The XO computer is an educational computer that empowers the child. The Classmates PC is a cheap Windows machine with Office that puts power in the hands of the teacher (without adding anything to the educational equation).

It is a shame that Intel decided to compete with the XO computer because in doing so they diluted the true revolutionary value of the XO. Teachers the world over need to see and understand how truly different the educational model that the XO espouses is from the rest of the world. It is a model championed by Alan Kay, Seymour Papert, and Nicholas Negroponte - powerhouses in educational thought. That Intel has now partnered with OLPC is good news. Hopefully this will lead to a better XO computer, at a true $100.00.

Now, if only Apple entered the fray! Any thoughts?

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Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Learning and XO - a.k.a. the $100 computer

Steve Jobs of Apple, Inc. was once quoted as saying, “We think basically you watch television to turn your brain off, and you work on your computer when you want to turn your brain on.” Unlike pre-Internet media consumers, today’s generation of media consumers are also publishers. They are blogging, producing their own videos and podcasting. They are chatting about the TV they watch, while watching them. It is a far cry from a world that flopped itself on a couch to be mesmerized by the evening’s lineup of electrons.

Yet this is still not as engaging as writing a computer program. Whether the program is a game, a simulation, or a tool, the programmer needs to understand the world that is being modeled. For example, if you want to write a game where a cannonball is shot out of a cannon, you have to understand quite a bit about gravity and momentum. Programming is much more engaging and rewarding than just shooting the aliens. I have expanded on this theme in my article Learning by Interactive Programming (L.I.P.).

What does this have to do with the XO - a.k.a. the $100 computer? XO comes with a number of very advanced programming environments. The most exciting of these for education are Squeak (a version of SmallTalk), eToys (built in Squeak), and LOGO, of turtle-graphics fame. These languages are student and teacher-friendly. Given what I regard as the inevitable success of the XO, this is exciting news.

It will mean millions of students potentially learning how to turn their brains on! In future postings I hope to explore for you how these languages work and how they can be used educationally.

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Friday, April 20, 2007

Playing To Learn

What is play? It is an activity that does not have real life consequences. Play is often regarded as being just for amusement but in reality play is a simulation of life, except that it does not hold the dire consequences of life. For example, a shooting game does not kill real people. A financial game does not lose real money.

This is not to say that playing is not important. In fact, it is essential for learning. Play is a safe place to try out new skills and to explore new ideas. It is how animals learn how to hunt without getting eaten in the process, and it is how children develop ways in which to interact with their peers through role play.

The careful selection of games is important to teach people new skills. Parents and teachers should consider games carefully as a way to develop skills. Business trainers should consider games as the means to develop business skills and as a way to brainstorm for new ideas.

In order for play to work, particularly with adults, the atmosphere must be one of acceptance. The user must feel free to allow his or her imagination to roam free and to be immersed in the game. Judgement must be suspended because, as important it is for the game player to be free of physical consequences, the user must also be free of limiting peer pressure. In such an environment, games can truly be vehicles for learning new skills and as catalysts for new ideas.

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Friday, March 30, 2007

Differentiated Learning

The question of how we can improve our schools is a perennial one.

Some statistics seem to indicate that the Unites States' educational system needs a major overhaul. In a recent interview, Representative Bart Gordon (Tennessee 6th District), Chairman of the House Committee on Science and Technology, was quoted as saying that 50% of U.S. high school seniors are not proficient in math. He states that U.S. students score near the bottom of all countries in math and science scores. Only Cyprus and South Africa scored worst. His hypothesis for why U.S. schools score so low is that teachers in the U.S. are not sufficiently proficient in math and science. He says that only 50% of math teachers have a major in, or are certified, to teach math, and that 92% of science teachers in K-12 have neither a certification nor a major degree in science. If these statistics are to be believed, then a solution would be to increase the level of instructional expertise, either by training more teachers, or by somehow attracting professional mathematicians or scientists to teach. Bringing in additional expertise might be a solution.

On the other hand, do the scores take into account the great cultural, ethnic, and economic diversity that exists in the U.S.? No other country in the world, not even Russia or China, can claim to have as much diversity and thus, as many challenges, to their educational system. Most every public school in the country has poor and rich children; has children from supportive and abusive families; has children from English literate families or English illiterate ones. This is what this country has to contend with. How can one deal with such diversity? Having more individualized education would be the answer.

The key word in United States education today is differentiated learning: providing education that takes into account the different learning needs and styles of a diverse population. Whether the problem is low expertise in teaching personnel or the need to have individualized instruction for a diverse student population, how can society pay for such custom instruction?

The technology exists today to develop virtual experts that are pros at differentiated learning. Although an initial development investment would be required, once developed, such virtual experts would exist indefinitely, requiring only a maintenance cost. I have developed working versions of these virtual experts. Ironically, my biggest customer so far has been China. Will any group in the U.S. have the patience and futuristic foresight to invest in developing more mature versions of this technology?

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Sunday, February 18, 2007

Time Shifting

A defining trend in today’s electronic world is time shifting - the ability to receive content at the time of one’s own choosing. For decades we have been locked into other people’s schedules. Live performances, radio shows, TV shows, and movies, all occurred at prescribed times.

The time-shifting trend caught the media’s attention with TiVo, but now with high-bandwidth Internet we are on the verge of being unshackled from broadcast schedules. We can receive news, listen to music, or watch video whenever we want.

In education, time-shifting is in its infancy. For the most part, online courses are still tied to schedules and the structure of a school and professor. A completely time-shifted educational experience has yet to emerge yet time-shifting is valuable in order to provide an individualized experience to learning.

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Sunday, February 04, 2007

The Elements of Interface Design

Good human-computer interface design has been researched by psychologists since the start of personal computing. The Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) has been a source of much of this research - not to mention innovations such as Ethernet, the laser printer, and the graphical user interface that predated the Macintosh and Windows.

The Internet has, for the most part, adopted a scrolling page metaphor for presenting information. In other words, the page scrolls down, from top to bottom, until you come to some logical end. Then there are links to other pages.

This model has been prevalent until recently when Internet content has begun to include multimedia such as audio, text, and video. It is simply not acceptable to have to scroll down to see a video. So screen design is evolving to a size that is more likely to fit common screen sizes, thus ensuring that important text and video are visible on one screen without requiring to scroll. Examples of such screens include Google Video and YouTube.

What are the basic elements of good Internet screens design? Here is a summary of the basic elements.

1) Use less text. Present only one thought or concept per screen.

2) Consistency. The navigation should be consistent for all pages.

3) Simplicity. Put upfront the most essential elements. Subcategories should be available in sub-menus.

4) Clustered layout. Ensure that groups of related content are together in a layout that does not require scrolling or searching. For example, any text, video or image that is related to a concept or thought (an article, for example), should fit on a screen without scrolling.

If you have any thoughts to share on interface design, please do comment on them here.


Wednesday, January 17, 2007

How to improve the No Child Left Behind Act

Recently, President Bush declared that the No Child Left Behind Act has been successful at improving test scores across the country. The Act is up for renewal. Should it be renewed?

Perhaps the No Child Left Behind Act works like a placebo. Any placebo is likely to have a positive effect. The question is whether the positive effect is significantly better than what would have occurred without it, or with an alternative. That is the subject for some future research but we can form some hypothesi. For example, are improved scores the result of a greater focus on teaching towards the successful completion of the tests? Or, could it be the result of a common measuring system, the result of standardizing what is taught across the country?

Whether we believe these test results, or not, there are good reasons why teachers across the country disagree with the Act. It is because teachers recognize that learning is a complex activity that cannot be adequately tested for in a few short hours. Educators agree that testing is necessary. It is how to adequately test that is the issue. How can we reconcile the need for testing and the need for a rich educational experience?

In my GE.E.K. model of teaching, testing would be incorporated into students' daily activities. Every concept needs to be tested for to ensure that students achieve mastery of a concept before moving on to new concepts. At appropriate times students should be tested on clusters of concepts to determine if they understand the relationship between concepts. An ongoing teaching-testing-feedback loop enhances the learning process and eliminates the need for "big brother" style testing.

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