No. 46 • 2021-12-30

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The Arts-Tech Buzzwords of 2021

It’s been another challenging year for humanity (and humanists). While some creative and social activities have returned to being in-person, others still remain distant. Technology has an even greater hold on our daily lives, so “new” advances received a lot of attention throughout the year. Here are my thoughts on some of the most hyped tech terms, particularly as they relate to artists and creatives.

NFTs. Just. The. Worst. I have not been shy about my disdain for NFTs (Non-Fungible Tokens). My fundamental complaint is that NFTs attempt to impose analog, real-world scarcity upon a digital domain where there is none. Digital bits are not scarce… they are just 1s and 0s and are by their nature infinitely copyable, a fact that has powered the digital media revolution. Claiming that some exact digital copies of a work are more privileged than others is just nonsensical. Unfortunately, NFTs are a hype bubble inflated by those self-interested in the success of NFTs.

I firmly believe artists should be paid, but NFTs aren’t the solution. It’s yet another attempt to turn uber-wealthy individuals into suckers. Only a few artists will find such benefactors. I’d advise digital artists to pursue other paths to monetization (crowdfunding and selling other forms of access and patronage for their work) over putting any effort into NFTs. Oh, and they are truly terrible for the environment.

Please note my rant is aimed at NFTs specifically and not all “Crypto” (blockchain-based) efforts. I believe there are legitimate and productive uses of the blockchain that are emerging. There may even be blockchain-derived applications that are useful to artists. But not NFTs. Hard pass.

AI. It’s already here, but not in the way most would have you believe. AI is not impacting us as “sentient machines” as depicted in sci-fi movies. It is far more subtle, but AI (really machine learning, which is lots of data and computation to recognize patterns) is powering the next wave of creativity. Behind the scenes, AI is the engine (“the algorithm”) that recommends and pushes content to you (Netflix shows, TikTok and YouTube videos, music, etc.). This is the kind of AI that will perform single specific tasks well, but it’s still quite limited.

AI, however, is also empowering creators with new tools that haven’t existed before. Photo and video editing apps let you easily adjust scenes to alter or remove elementsAudio tools automatically align music to go complement a video, adjusting length and matching key moments. These are time savers, to be sure, but I’m certain digital creators will find ways to use such capabilities to transform content in ways we haven’t foreseen. These features also lower the barrier to entry for making videos, music, etc., enabling more people to create. We’ll see more more and more AI-enabled art next year, it just won’t be obvious.

VR and the Metaverse. This is tricky, because these are really two different things (although Facebook, I mean Meta, would have you believe otherwise). If we’re talking about an alternate reality that is indistinguishable from our physical reality, we still have a long way to go. But if the Metaverse is an alternate space where people go to express themselves, interact, and transact, we’re already there. In gaming environments, such as Roblox, Minecraft, and other massive online worlds, gamers have created alternate representations of themselves and spend much of their time interacting through their “avatars”. Arguably, even some messaging and social media platforms are primitive “Metaverses”.

But if we’re talking about goggles you put on your face to transport you to another reality, I don’t believe this will become mainstream for some time, if ever. Hard-core gamers may disagree (and there are some truly compelling and immersive games created for VR headsets). For most people, neither the technology (it’s still heavy and uncomfortable) nor the motivation (content) are there yet. And for most artists and performers, I don’t see a compelling use… yet. One may eventually emerge, but I’d hold for a few years, at least.

My apologies to subscribers. Due to other deadlines and a frenetic end of year, I’ve missed several publishing cycles (and once you miss one, it’s too easy to miss another one). The world also changed quite a bit this Fall… We have mostly returned to live performances, which is wonderful, but it means that many have shifted away from a focus on virtual/digital content. As a result, there’s been less for me to comment on the theme of “creating at a distance”. Of course, the recent pandemic surge has made things a bit more perilous at the end of the year, so we’ll see how things go in new year.

I’m not going to stop, but my upcoming schedule probably won’t allow for me to publish bi-weekly, as I have for most of 2021. I still intend to post when I can and when I have something of interest to share, but my publishing schedule will likely be irregular in 2022. Best wishes to all of you for a very Happy New Year!

(Socially) Distant Creations

  • Ave Maria [Kings Return] Another fantastic stairwell performance by this talented a cappella quartet. I’ve shared some of their earlier videos, and I’m happy to see they’ve recently blown up a bit. A great example of how some artists have used video to grow their audiences during the pandemic.
  • All I Want For Christmas… [John C. Worsley] A unique take on the ubiquitous Christmas anthem, with a high degree of 90s nostalgia for us fans of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Be sure to also check out his latest, You’re a Mean One, Mr. Spock.
  • Deck the Hall [The King’s Singers] From this holiday season’s Live From London streaming festival, this time performed before an actual live audience! This is an example of how some performances only work with an audience. Started during the pandemic, Live From London continues to be the premiere outlet for new vocal ensemble performances.
  • Deck the Hall [Chanticleer] I couldn’t resist putting these two videos back-to-back. Another beautiful performance of the holiday classic, but it’s striking to see the two different takes: one performed for a live audience and this one, a video-only production.
  • There’s Something About That Name [Jordan Baize, via NY Times] The morning after a tornado destroyed his house, a Kentucky homeowner took to his piano, still intact under an open sky. An incredibly haunting video that still manages to convey a sense of hope.

What I’m creating…

While it still hasn’t snowed in Philadelphia this season, there’s plenty of it in the Drexel Build, our virtual campus in Minecraft. Special thanks to my students in the Music & Entertainment Technology Lab for the soundtrack.

Happy New Year!

No. 45 • 2021-10-28

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Above: Oct. 27, 2021 at the ExCITe Center: Reba Cherry (client of Better Tomorrows), Randy Debrauwere (Business Relationship Director, Unisys), and Mark Wheeler (City of Philadelphia, Chief Information Officer)

The Digital Divide Should Scare All of Us

It’s the time of year for scary movies and spooky stories, but here’s a frightening trend in the real world: the impact of technology is driving inequity (actually increasing the digital divide). The long-term implications of this on our society (on prosperity, democracy, social justice, privacy, and more) scare the heck out of me. I had the great privilege of writing an opinion piece for the Philadelphia Inquirer on this topic, which was published earlier this week. It’s the first of the “Rebuilding Philly” series, led by Drexel’s Lindy Institute for Urban Innovation, featuring essays by Drexel faculty addressing a range of regional challenges. The thesis of my piece will come as no surprise to regular readers: The digital divide is largely misunderstood; rather than devices and connectivity, our focus should be on training and skills development to achieve digital equity. Below, I’m including a few items that were cut from the piece for length:

The 5 largest tech companies (Alphabet-Google, Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Microsoft) posted more than $160 billionin profits last year. Their combined market cap is now over $9 trillion (the gross domestic product of Japan, the world’s 3rd largest economy, is just over $5 trillion). While they are the most profitable companies in the world, they are some of the least diverse: the employees of these (and most) tech companies are overwhelmingly white and Asian men.

It’s not just them. I work in higher education, the feeder to the tech industry. In 2002, a small fraction of degrees in computing were awarded to Black students (3.6% of bachelors, 1.3% of Masters, and 1.3% of PhDs). As of 2020, it’s essentially unchanged: 4.1% of bachelors, 1.8% of Masters, and 1.8% of PhDs). Getting into college requires a solid K-12 education, and many college-going students greatly benefit from out-of-school resources that some communities take for granted (after school programs, summer camps, internships, etc.). The lack of diversity in tech is a directly related to the absence of similar opportunities for poorer families (disproportionately students of color) and marginalization at every level of training.

Coincidentally, we hosted a digital divide-awareness event at the ExCITe Center yesterday, our first in-person event with external partners since the pandemic. We hosted partners from Digitunity, the city’s Office of Innovation & Technology, the Electronic Access Foundation, and Better Tomorrows to celebrate the generous donation from Unisys of 700 laptops to those in need. It is through broad partnerships like this that Philadelphia can become a model city for Digital Equity, and our efforts at ExCITe are fully aligned with this goal. This year, we continue the Digital Navigator help desk and will expand our efforts with new K-12 programs and connectivity and technical support for the elderly. We are seeking additional resources to further expand our programs. Stay tuned to our ExCITe Center newsletter for the latest on these initiatives.

(Socially) Distant Creations

  • Thriller [Jared Halley] Halloween special… Another virtuoso solo a cappella video performance, this time covering the Michael Jackson classic (the original music video scared the heck out of
  • Digital Inclusion Policy Priorities [National Digital Inclusion Alliance] A great list of specific policy recommendations to ensure a more equitable digital future for our nation.
  • Inventing the iPod: How ‘really big risks’ paid off for Apple [CNet interview with Tony Fadell] Following-up on the theme from my last newsletter, this interview with the creator of the original iPod captures much of the backstory behind the iconic device.
  • No Time To Die [All That Gaz] Honestly, I found the movie disappointing, but this is an interesting version of the theme song (originally by Billie Eilish). It’s a neat vocal arrangement, and extra props for the video, which uses only Animoji!
  • The Marriage of Figaro [Opera Philadelphia] Watching this wonderful staging of Mozart’s comic opera, filmed in 2017, I’m starting to actually think about attending live performances again. Now streaming on the Opera Philadelphia Channel.

What I’m creating…

We’ve started recording the Fall 2021 series of So Where Do We Go From Here?, my podcast with co-host Melinda Our Especially Spooky (Minecraft) Survival Server is now active. It’s the Drexel campus, overrun by zombies, giant spiders, skeletons, and all sorts of creepy crawlers. Use your knowledge of the Drexel buildings to gather the items you need to fight off the mobs and survive… if you can!  Join the Drexel Build Discord to get instructions to join.

No. 44 • 2021-10-13

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Above: My collection of portable music players. From left: Panasonic CD player (1998), original iPod (2001), iPod mini (2003), iPod nano (2005), iPod with Video (2005), iPod touch (2007).

How innovation works

Last week was the 20th anniversary of the introduction of the iPod (Oct. 5, 2001), the iconic portable digital music player. The iPod transformed Apple from a computer company to a consumer tech giant, but I’ll argue that its impact reverberated far beyond one company or industry. The story of the iPod reveals insights into how innovation works (and how it’s misunderstood).

20 years ago, we mostly listened to music on Compact Disc (CD). Many had portable CD players, but Walkman-style cassette tape players were still common. Each was limited to about an hour of music (1 album), and you could only listen to the albums you carried with you. (I used to carry a small “book” of about 10 CDs in my bag, along with my “Discman” player.) A few of us were starting to collect music on our computers, “ripping” the tracks from CDs and storing them as digital files, but this could quickly consume most of your computer’s precious hard drive space.

The first iPod (“1000 songs in your pocket”) was poo-pooed by the nerd class of the time. Here’s an infamous review from an early blogger on tech site Slashdot: “No wireless. Less space than a Nomad. Lame.” (The Nomad was another digital music player at the time that has long since fallen into the dustbin of history). For the tech crowd there was nothing particularly innovative about the iPod… The core technologies (small-ish hard drives, tiny screens, and mp3 files) already existed. Others had introduced similar (even better spec’d) products.

What these early reviews missed was real people’s relationship with music. We love our music, but few were willing to put effort into loading their music onto devices and also deal with a bunch of tiny, fiddly buttons to locate the song we want to hear right now. The iPod focused on usability, the human-side of the problem rather than technical specs. It solved both issues, quickly syncing music files from a computer via a high-speed connector and offering an elegant click-wheel interface that could easily navigate to any of the 1000 songs on your device. 20 years later (yes, mine still works!), although the technology is antiquated, its still a highly intuitive and usable interface.

That’s just the beginning of the story… The success of the iPod fomented the desire for easier access to digital music and other media.

In 2001 you had to buy an entire album ($12-20) just to get 1 track from an artist (and then rip it yourself to an mp3), an untenable situation that caused many to turn to piracy (Napster and its descendants) to get the latest songs. The iTunes Music Store (launched in 2003) offered songs for $0.99, a convenient, inexpensive, and legal way for consumers to purchase just the tracks they wanted for their iPods. Again, this wasn’t radically new technology. It was a digital storefront like many others, but it compelled the record labels to license their content at a reasonable rate, embracing a new model and reshaping the music industry (and creating the template for modern content services).

A few years later, the iPod and iTunes Store were a runaway success, changing our relationship to music (and soon thereafter, video). Moreover, it changed consumer expectations of our devices… More and more people started to wonder why our iPods worked so well when our cell phones felt so clunky? The disconnect grew, until… the iPhone kicked off the smartphone era that still shapes our lives today. The iPhone built upon the strengths of the iPod, content and usability, added wireless communications, and the rest is history. (Think about all of the industries enabled by smartphones: social media, streaming services, ride sharing, etc). All of this was enabled by a music player, an example of how advances in one area reverberate into other disciplines and industries.

After the introduction of the iPhone, the influence of the iPod rapidly faded, but 20 years since its introduction, it offers an important insights into innovation. In general, too much emphasis is placed on capability rather than usability. Yes, the capability (storage, computation, wireless communications, etc.) must exist, but it is useless without a way to wield that capability. Usability is far more than graphics or the design of menus and buttons. It requires a deeper understanding of the needs of real people (not just tech nerds). Steve Jobs famously pronounced that Apple represented the intersection of Technology and the Liberal Arts, and the iPod was truly an embodiment of that. I call it STEAM (integrating STEM and the Arts), but this bridging of capability and usability is still not well-covered in traditional academic training. Given the acceleration of technological capabilities, the demand for making them usable and more accessible will be enormous. I believe the true innovators will continue to be those who find the best ways of bridging that gap.

(Socially) Distant Creations

  • America [The Swingles] A lovely rendition (and beautifully creative video) of Paul Simon’s classic song by this world-renowned a cappella ensemble.
  • Philadelphia Public Orchestra [Curtis Institute & Drexel Westphal College of Media Arts & Design] A unique project to rethink and broaden participation in music making, to form a 50-person ensemble (the ability to read music is not required). Applications open through October 28.
  • Captain Kirk goes to space [Blue Origin] It’s not a joke… 90-year-old William Shatner was on board today’s successful rocket launch from Jeff Bezos’ side hustle hobby. You can watch the archived live stream of the launch and return. Also, who can forget his rendition of Rocket Man?
  • James Bond Theme [Jared Halley] The new James Bond film has finally been released! Here’s a great a cappella rendition of the classic Bond theme.

What I’m creating…

We’ve started recording the Fall 2021 series of So Where Do We Go From Here?, my podcast with co-host Melinda Steffy and guests from Philly’s creative community. Here’s a selfie from our recent session with Sean Kelley, Senior Vice President and Director of Interpretation at Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site. New episodes will drop later this month!

No. 43 • 2021-09-27

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B.PHL Festival 2021

The B.PHL Innovation Festival is back this week (Sept. 29 – Oct. 1)!  This third year of B.PHL is a hybrid event: the full program will be streamed online, but most sessions will be presented before a limited, in-person audience (proof of vaccination required). The program celebrates innovation in all its forms (technology, arts & entertainment, education, social justice, healthcare, and more), and this year features such well-known speakers as CNN’s Don Lemon, Grammy Award-winning artist Eve, and 76ers President Daryl Morey. Registration is free for both virtual and in-person attendance!

I am very excited to host a conversation with renowned tech blogger, podcaster, and Drexel alumnus, John Gruber. He is the creator of the highly influential blog, Daring Fireball, read by millions each month. He is also host of the podcast, The Talk Show and co-host of Dithering (with Ben Thompson). And he’s also the inventor of the ubiquitous Markdownlanguage, used by platforms like Slack, GitHub, and Discord for formatting. This “fireside chat” will cover his career trajectory in Philadelphia, including reflections on the city as a hub for technologists and independent creators. We will discuss his views on the “1000 true fans” approach to building a business and his advice on curating one’s own content and developing an audience. It’s sure to be a fascinating conversation for anyone interested in the future of tech, design, and innovation! Our session is Thursday, September 30, 2:15-3:00pm and (free) pre-registration is required (more on that below).

Some other B.PHL sessions also feature Drexel presenters:

  • Hi! We’re Your Creative and Entrepreneurial Mindsets. Let Us Help Inspire Your Innovation (Sept. 29, 2:15pm): My colleagues Liza Herzog, Dr. Barrie Litzky, and Charles Sacco (Close School of Entrepreneurship) and Dr. Larry Keiser (School of Education) will lead a discussion about the power of creativity in entrepreneurship and help participants identify their own creative and entrepreneurial strengths.
  • Transforming Organizational Culture Through Inclusive Communications Strategies (Oct. 1, 11:30am): Faith Kellermeyer, assistant director of Digital Strategy and Design at Drexel’s College of Computing & Informatics, will co-host a workshop about how organizations can use social media to respond to social change and support antiracist causes.

The festival is packed with great speakers and sessions, so take a look at the full program at BPHLFest.com. To attend sessions, either virtually or in-person, you must sign up on the website for a B.PHL ticket (it’s free!). Important note: To participate in-person at Location215 (990 Spring Garden), you must also pre-register for each session you wish to attend to save your seat (occupancy is highly limited to allow for social distancing). And remember that proof of vaccination will be required at check-in.

Hope to see you there!

New term, new schedule! For Fall 2021, I’m going to try to publish the newsletter on alternating Mondays (there will be some adjustments for holidays).

(Socially) Distant Creations

  • Dear Evan Hansen Medley [Jared Halley, feat. Peter Hollens] Great arrangements and performances of my favorite tunes from the hit Broadway show (and movie, which just premiered).
  • La voix humaine [Opera Philadelphia Channel] A new film of one of opera’s most powerful monodramas, starring acclaimed soprano Patricia Racette. Described by composer Poulenc as “a musical confession,” it’s the story of one woman as she grapples with grief, denial, and anger in the face of unrequited love, all shared through a one-sided telephone call.
  • Re-Opening Party w/ SnackTime & Deborah Bond [World Cafe Live] Yes, live music performance venues are re-opening! (Proof of vaccination required.) Really glad to see this event and upcoming acts on the calendar at our neighbors in University City!
  • Goldeneye [VOCES8 ] In honor of the new Bond film coming out in less than 2 weeks, here’s the theme from one of my favorites in the series. Our friends VOCES8 will also be touring North America in October (see here for dates and locations).

What I’m creating…

I wrote about the Minecraft Drexel Build last week. I am hosting a virtual information session and building tutorial for the project later today (Mon 9/27) at 5pm (on Zoom). All those interested can register here. (The session will be recorded for those who can’t make it.)

No. 42 • 2021-09-14

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Virtual Community Creation

Last week, I wrote about tools and methods learned from a year+ of remote/virtual instruction that I’ll be bringing back into the IRL (“in real life”) classroom. What about the future of online instruction?  Given the uncertainties of the past few weeks, we can all imagine a situation where we’re forced back online and a long-term future where more and more instruction is delivered exclusively online.

As I’ve written previously… Good online instruction is authentic to the medium, leveraging the benefits and limiting the constraints of tools and platforms. Good online platforms enable active participation, group interaction, and community building. For an example of all of these, I say look no further than Minecraft, a platform built around a culture of shared experiences and creativity. We used Minecraft for our middle school Summer STEAM virtual camp, and we designed new activities and worlds specifically within the norms and values of Minecraft. Click here to watch a summary of our camp activities.

As we start the new academic year, we’re kicking off a new ExCITe Center project to expand the Minecraft build of the Drexel campus. This project started with some amazing work in the early days of the pandemic by a handful of Drexel students to digitally re-create much of our University. Most campus buildings have been built, as well as some nearby buildings critical to Drexel students (e.g., Wawa and 7-11 😀).  The students who started the project have since graduated, but we hope to continue their efforts in keeping the Drexel Minecraft server a dynamic, evolving, and accurate virtual representation of the area. For example, only a few building interiors have been created; most remain exterior shells. Drexel Minecraft has already been used for virtual campus tours and events, and it will continue to serve as a showcase for the creativity and imagination of our students.

Most college campus builds have stopped at the borders of their campus. In keeping with our mission to be the most civically engaged University in the nation, we’ll also be connecting Drexel students with our neighbors and community partners to extend the build beyond campus boundaries. Our Summer STEAM program was just a first step in virtual building with neighborhood K-12 students. Later this year, we’ll be partnering with Science Leadership Academy-Middle School to re-create their brand new school building on 36th and Warren Streets as part of our Minecraft campus. We hope to build more sites in Powelton Village, extending to the Dornsife Center, the West Philadelphia Community Center, and beyond.

This effort will help Drexel students learn about the surrounding neighborhoods and establish meaningful relationships with community members. We hope our students will mentor younger students in the building process, working with them to add the structures and landmarks most important to them. I firmly believe engaging in a shared creative process will bring more people together to better understand both the common challenges and the unique opportunities present in West Philly. I can’t begin to predict the new kinds of projects that may emerge from these collaborations, both virtual and, hopefully, IRL as well.

If you’re already a “crafter”, you can join our server in Minecraft (spectator mode) here: mc.excitecenter.org:19132.  If you don’t have Minecraft visit this website, which offers a 3D preview of the world. We will follow-up in the coming weeks with a virtual building tutorial for those who want to participate in the building process. If you’re interested in following this exciting project, please sign up for updates here.

This is Welcome Week for new students, and we invite all new Drexel community members to join us (IRL) at the ExCITe Center this Thursday, Sept. 16 at 1pm to learn more about Drexel Minecraft.

Registration required: sign up via Drexel One or register here.

(Socially) Distant Creations

  • Kyrie [VOCES8] Start your day with this beautifully serene movement from Josef Rheinberger’s Mass in E-flat. I’m simply astounded by the volume of amazing music performances VOCES8 has released throughout the pandemic.
  • Landfill Monitor Restoration [The 8-Bit Guy] I’ve become addicted to this YouTube channel, which is like This Old House, but for technology. I love it. (Yes, I’m weird).
  • The Legend of Zelda [MayTree] Known for lending voice to technology, this Korean a cappella group is back with music and sound effects from another classic video game. Nintendo players, rejoice!
  • Bitcoin Uses More Electricity Than Many Countries. How is That Possible? [NY Times] A few months ago, I wrote about the enormous energy consumption of NFTs. Here’s more data and details about the massive energy consumption of cryptocurrencies (from which NFTs are derived).
  • How Deep Is Your Love? [Kings Return] The 4 guys in a stairwell are back, with an amazing 4-part arrangement and performance of this Bee Gees classic.

What I’m creating…

I have several projects that are in process:

  • I just posted another Applied DSP video. If you’re teaching / learning signal processing, you may want to check out the series.
  • Our podcast, So Where Do We Go From Here?, will return with new episodes later this Fall! In the meantime, listen to our 4 summer interviews with Philly creatives.
  • My lab is working on a new video series on Minecraft, Music, & Coding. The first episode will drop in a few weeks.

No. 41 • 2021-08-27

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Back to the Classroom

Over the past 16 months, all instructors have experienced that teaching online challenges the traditions and assumptions of pedagogy. Not only have we had to learn all sorts of new tools and technologies in order to teach, we’ve had to change mindsets and become accustomed to very different norms and behaviors. But in this strange new medium combining videoconferencing (Zoom), collaboration tools (Slack and Microsoft Teams), and shared documents and storage (Google Drive), some have developed rather ingenious solutions to enable the best learning environment possible, given the constraints.

This Fall, most institutions are heading back into the classroom (hooray!, I think). But should we just go back to our standards and practices from before the pandemic? Or can we take what we’ve learned from a year+ of online classes to improve the in-person experience?  Of course, I believe the latter. I’ve been teaching remotely since April 2020, with varying degrees of success. Here are some methods from my online class experiences that I plan to use the next time I teach in-person, with an emphasis on keeping students active and engaged.

  1. Messaging / chat: For me, the greatest revelation from online teaching has been the difference in student questions and interactivity enabled by text chat. It’s clear that some who have difficulty asking questions or commenting verbally (whether online or in-person) become much more inquisitive and gregarious in a text chat. Last year, I created Microsoft Teams for each class, to enable real-time messaging both during and outside of class time (Zoom chat is similar, but doesn’t work outside the meeting). I believe this could carry over to the physical classroom, particularly for large classes, and I intend to use this in-person, so students can text questions and comments during class. I’d also like to allow anonymous messages (but that’s a little more challenging to implement, at least in Teams). A shared Google Doc is one possibility, but might be difficult to follow live.

  2. A virtual whiteboard, to capture notes and figures for playback later. This is tricky to do over Zoom (best to use multiple devices), and it will also be tricky to setup in a classroom. With a projector, I can display slides, other material, or a whiteboard to the class and use my iPad and Apple Pencil to annotate or just make notes freehand. The key is that it can be recorded and played back in order. (So-called smart boards are supposed to be good at this, but even if your classroom has one, does anyone actually use them in this manner?) I’ll probably record the audio as well, so that students can refer to it later (if you upload the video to YouTube, it will be automatically transcribed so that viewers can search for keywords/moments). There will definitely be some limitations… Thus far, I can’t think of a way to “live code” and also draw on the board at the same time.

  3. Pre-record lecture videos. Lecturing on Zoom is the worst (it’s just really hard to make a video lecture engaging). Even worse, students will often turn to YouTube afterwards for explainer videos on the content you present. Instead, for lecture-style content, I’ve been making high-quality short (10-20 minute) videos for students to view ahead of class that emphasize visuals and clear explanations (see below for an example). It does take an enormous amount of time as well as audio and video production skills on the part of the instructor, but becomes somewhat reusable content for future classes. Then, in class, students can ask questions and do active work to reinforce the concepts, which I intend to continue in person. It’s a similar approach to the “flipped classroom” movement of the previous decade+, but with even more emphasis on the quality of presentation.

  4. Software-based workbooks & activities: Another success in my online teaching has been to use software workbooks so that students in class engage with something active rather than just “follow along”. This requires students to bring their own laptops, but that’s fairly common these days. For my technical classes, I create Google Colaboratory (Colab) notebooks, online projects that provide students with some starter code, but they have to explore and code what’s missing to fully realize a concept. I try to craft activities where the work can be easily visualized and reviewed “at a glance”, via a shared Google Drive folder, and I can project selected examples. Of course, it’s a momentum-killer when technology fails in the classroom (as anyone who’s attended a presentation where most of the time was the presenter trying to connect their laptop to the screen knows). So, I wouldn’t recommend screen switching for in-class “show and tell” presentations. For other subjects, even Google Docs or Slides can be a great way to capture some student work live, even in-person. I have visions of walking around a classroom as students work on these mini-activities… I’ll see if that works out as well in-person as it has online.

Some were already employing these methods before the pandemic, but online teaching really highlighted the potential gains for me. Everything on this list is also an opportunity for educational technology vendors. To be frank, the tools still suck, and it takes a great deal of effort to piece together these solutions. Even if your organization doesn’t have a license for some of these tools (Zoom or Microsoft Teams), other comparable platforms are available for free (Google Meet, Docs, and Drive) and can be used, with effort. But it should be easier.  

Like the past year of online classes, these will all be experiments. But I am far more excited to incorporate the learnings from the past 16 months than to return to the “old ways”, since it means the adaptation and hard work over the past year might actually have been worthwhile for improving our future teaching and learning.

If you have other ideas for online practices that you’ll be bringing into the classroom, please reach out. I’d love to hear more suggestions!

(Socially) Distant Creations

What I’m creating…

As I’ve mentioned previously (and referred to above), I’ve been creating short, high-quality videos for lecture topics in my Applied Digital Signal Processing (DSP) class. I emphasize animated visuals and familiar sound examples to explore the math & engineering concepts behind digital audio and signal processing. It’s been a while, but I just released a new video in this series on the z-Domain and Parametric Filter Design. If you happen to be teaching (or learning) DSP this Fall, you may find these useful!

No. 40 • 2021-08-13

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Conferences… Back in person?

We’re approaching the return of large conferences and festivals, in person. Yes, the Delta variant is causing concerns and we’re all monitoring the return of schools & colleges closely, but I think everyone hopes to return to in-person events (safely) in the coming weeks and months.

B.PHL 2021

I’ve been a planning partner for the B.PHL Innovation Festival since it started in 2019. Last year was all-virtual, but this fall (fingers crossed) the B.PHL program will be hosted at an in-person venue in the city and also available for streaming (and could move to all-virtual, if necessary). The full festival program will be available soon, but I can assure you there will be some fantastic sessions featuring local creatives, innovators, change makers, and celebrities. Free virtual tickets, with access to all sessions, are available until August 15 (and afterwards they increase to $20), so register now!

SXSW 2022

In 2020, SXSW (held annually in Austin, TX) was among the first large-scale events to be cancelled due to COVID-19. This enormous conference & festival plans its in-person return in March 2022, highlighting the most important breakthroughs in education, technology, film, culture, and music. Given the organizers’ belief that “the most unexpected discoveries happen when diverse topics and people come together”, you can see why I’m a fan.

The planning for SXSW 2022 is well underway, and this is the time when anyone can vote on proposed sessions. In the PanelPicker process, public votes weight 30% in the selection criteria. With Drexel colleagues Kareem Edouard and Chris Wright, I had planned to present a session at the cancelled 2020 conference. We’ve revised this proposal for 2022, adding the amazing Prof. Rasheda Likely of Kennesaw State University (and Drexel School of Education PhD alum) to our team. Our session proposal is “Building an Inclusive Maker Community”, and I humbly ask that you read our session description and vote for its inclusion in the program. Voting is open through August 26!

Thank you for considering our SXSW EDU 2022 session proposal. Let us hope all our in-person plans for this academic year can be realized!

(Socially) Distant Creations

  • The TikTok Medley [Penn Masala] Fantastic audio and video production in this medley of international hits, new & old, presented TikTok style by the “World’s First South Asian A Cappella Group”. Great group of students from the other U. across the street!
  • AAPI Representation in American Musical Theater [CollaborAzian] A discussion of AAPI representation on the musical theatre stage, and the future for AAPI theatre artists in the industry as we emerge from the pandemic, while still fighting for racial justice and contending with the rise of anti-Asian hate and violence. Part of a fundraiser for Stop AAPI Hate.
  • Deep River [VOCES8 & Chineke!] From the Live from London 2021 Summer Festival, just a beautiful performance and arrangement of this classic spiritual. The festival continues through the end of August.
  • Anita Baker Medley [Kings Return] Just 4 guys harmonizing in a stairwell… back with another great performance of hits by R&B giant Anita Baker.
  • Dear Evan Hansen in 10 Minutes [Titled Keyboard Studios] Wow. Amazing performers and a cappella arrangements in this abridged version of the hit musical. Just an incredible effort to put this together! (I’m also eagerly awaiting the movie version coming out in September.)

What I’m creating…

We just posted the fourth episode of our podcast, So, Where Do We Go From Here?, featuring an interview with science & technology writer, Michelle Sipics.

Co-host Melinda Steffy and I will be taking a summer break from podcasting, but we’ll be back in September with more guests from Philly’s creative community!

No. 39 • 2021-07-23

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It’s not easy.

A few weeks ago, I asked: After a year of remote learning, what can we take back into the classroom? Here’s another thought on that topic.

As Instructors, we are predisposed to make things appear easy, for a variety of reasons. One is simply as a motivational tactic… we tell students “it’s not hard” (even when it is), to try to avoid early frustration and discouragement. If we make it sound easy, maybe it won’t be as hard for them. But the more common reason is that an experienced teacher has taught the material many times before. As with all things, mastery of the material does make it feel “easy”, even when it’s not. And I think we internalize that feeling and sometimes forget that a topic or concept is not easy at all.

Over the past year, instructors facing teaching online experienced the opposite: the enormous difficulty of creating instructional videos or other digital content. All of us (students and instructors) have access to an incredible amount of high quality learning content on YouTube, and let’s be honest, YouTube is the primary source of learning content for our students. I don’t mean that these videos are misleading, rather that both the amount and the quality reinforces the notion that they are easy to produce. There’s usually a high degree of technical, pedagogical, and video production experience that goes into creating a well-crafted learning video.

It’s also true that it’s never been easier to be a digital content creator. I’m not referring the common reaction to the latest TikTok: “That got a million views? Hmph, anyone could do that!”. But making a good video no longer requires a big studio and lots of expensive equipment… You really can do it with your phone and a laptop. There’s a huge industry of tutorials and how-to videos to show us just how EASY it is to make content: videos, music, apps, etc. So, it’s never been easier, but that doesn’t make it easy. It’s an entirely different skill set from creating a good classroom lecture or in-person activity. And it takes an enormous investment of time and practice to become proficient. Anyone who took on this challenge last year had to learn many new skills.

The forced shift in perspective from the past year could benefit our students (and improve our teaching) as we start preparing for a new academic year, whether in-person (fingers crossed!) or online. Too often, we forget that education is not a simple or automatic process. It’s difficult to teach and learn new material at any level in any circumstance. Lean into your experiences with online and digital content creation to let go of the idea that learning should be easy. It’s not, and sometimes it’s really hard. Instead, let’s embrace the degree of difficulty, emphasizing the challenging but rewarding nature of learning for our students. I believe that’s something truly useful we can take away from the last year. 

(Socially) Distant Creations

  • Why Aren’t You Making Math Videos? [3Blue1Brown] If you’re interested in making great learning videos, here are tips from one of the best (Grant Sanderson). He’s also launching a “Summer of Math Exposition” contest for math learning videos (deadline August 22).
  • Butter [VoicePlay, featuring Deejay Young & Cesar De La Rosa] I dare you to sit still through this a cappella cover of BTS’ mega-hit!
  • Helium Life Jacket [VOCES8 with Elsa Bradley & Calie Hough] A beautiful ambient vocal arrangement and performance of this piece, originally by composer Slow Meadow (Matt Kidd), shot in super widescreen.
  • 007 Theme [MayTree] Like many, I’m eagerly awaiting the new Bond film. Here’s another great rendition by this Korean a cappella group.

What I’m creating…

We just posted the latest episode of our new podcast, So, Where Do We Go From Here?, featuring an interview with Philly hip hop artist, educator, and activist Ellect (Steve Tyson, Jr.).

Check out the music video for the single, “Degrees” and his album, Intellectual Property.

No. 38 • 2021-07-09

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3…2…1… Launching Podcast!

I’m pleased to announce the official launch of So Where Do We Go From Here?, my new podcast with Melinda Steffy! In this series, we talk to members of Philly’s creative community about what they’ve learned during the pandemic and what changes are informing their efforts moving forward. By sharing experiences and ideas for the future, we hope to highlight pathways and opportunities to find creative solutions for the many challenges we still face, individually and collectively.

In our inaugural episode, we speak to the amazing Dr. Natalie Nixon about the year that’s been and how creativity is critical for where we go from here. Natalie is a creativity strategist, global keynote speaker, and author of the award winning The Creativity Leap: Unleash Curiosity, Improvisation and Intuition at Work, and her work has been featured in Forbes and in Fast Company. As president of Figure 8 Thinking, LLC she advises leaders on transformation—by applying wonder and rigor to amplify growth and business value. A hybrid thinker, Natalie consistently applies her background in cultural anthropology and fashion. She began her career in education and as a hat designer. Dr. Nixon was a professor for 16 years and is an early-stage investor at two social impact ventures. She’s valued for her ability to work at the intersection of commercial value and stakeholder equity.

We also posted a bonus episode, our “rehearsal” session with renowned theater director and producer David Bradley. The audio for this episode is a bit uneven (my apologies to David… we were still experimenting and learning the best ways to record the podcast). But it’s another thoughtful conversation about the performing arts during the pandemic and where we go, on stage, from here.

To listen and subscribe to our show, follow the link for your preferred podcast player or visit our podcast home page:

We’re thrilled to share these conversations with our Philly community and beyond, and we hope that others also find them as interesting, informative, and inspiring as we do. Later this month, we’ll be speaking to hip hop artist and educator, Steve Tyson (a.k.a. ELLECT) and Michele Sipics of Accenture Technology Innovation. Look for new episodes every two weeks, and follow us on Twitter or Instagram for updates!

If you have suggestions for potential guests for the show, please drop me a line.

(Socially) Distant Creations

  • Ten Times Virtual Choirs Stole the Show [Stay At Home Choir] A compilation of fantastic virtual choral  performances. Virtual choirs started well before the pandemic, and I fully agree such projects will continue to be impactful in the future, even after constraints on in-person singing are lifted.
  • Tech As Art: Supporting Artists Who Use Technology as a Creative Medium [National Endowment for the Arts] Last issue, I linked to the launch event for this report. Now here’s the full report, along with 10 companion essays from art practitioners. Recommended reading for everyone in the art-technology intersection.
  • Calculus Green [Prof. Robert Ghrist] I’m a big fan of these well-produced and visually stunning video textbooks for U. Penn’s calculus courses.This latest series is for those with some basic calculus who want to go deeper. Speaking from experience, I know these take an insane amount of work to produce!
  • Live from London – Summer 2021 [VOCES8 & Friends] Last summer’s virtual festival was a much-needed infusion of beautiful live vocal music from some of the world’s leading vocal groups. It’s back this summer with even more concerts and ensembles! (Streaming through August, via season pass or purchase individual performances.)
  • Minecraft Theme, a cappella [Maytree] The Korean singing group, known for lending voice to technology, drops another popular video game soundtrack. This one is particularly timely for me (see below).

What I’m creating…

We’ve already completed three weeks of our Young Dragons Summer STEAM camp. Here are some highlight videos from the first two weeks:

What I’m creating… (bonus)

The Apple Distinguished Educators (ADE) 2021 Festival of Learning is next week! This free weeklong virtual conference is hosted by teachers, for teachers.

Many sessions are open to all, including Beyond Virtual Ensembles, my workshop with fellow ADE Ellen Fishman on Wednesday, July 14 at 10am (Eastern):

Over the past year, music educators pursued projects using virtual ensembles to continue instruction and performance. These projects combine individual recorded performances into a group video performance. Though we are all excited to return to in-person music making, we believe there are many lasting benefits to virtual music ensembles, including more individualized instruction and feedback, collaboration with other schools and organizations, and the potential for very large scale works. Virtual projects introduce new opportunities for creativity, beyond live performance, introducing new media skills that may benefit students in their pursuits beyond music.

The process of producing virtual performances, however, remains challenging. We will share our experiences and offer a tutorial of best practices developed over the past year to get your virtual projects to the finish line.

No prior music experience is required. To join us for the session, click here to register. Hope to see you then!

No. 37 • 2021-06-28

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No More Tests

It looks like most schools and colleges will be returning to fully in-person classrooms this Fall. 15 months of remote learning has been, more often than not, frustrating and exhausting, but also illuminating. The key question is will we take any practical learnings from those experiences back into the classroom with us, or will we simply revert to former pre-pandemic norms?  I will try to tackle some of those questions over a series of posts this summer.

Since April 2020, I’ve taught 4 classes remotely, and I’m pleased to report I offered exactly zero tests and quizzes. How do I know if my students learned anything? Rather than 1 or 2 high stakes exams per term, almost all my assignments were projects, large and small. Full disclosure: In recent years, I haven’t typically given many exams and quizzes (though still a few), so I was pre-disposed towards this approach.

It’s not because I’m worried about cheating… In fact, I believe concerns over cheating have been overblown. Organizations’ use of “nanny” software to prevent cheating has done a terrible disservice to learning (e.g., Dartmouth Medical School’s “scandal” where they’ve had to fully retract and apologize for accusations of cheating). Not only do they convey to students a disturbing lack of trust, such systems betray a fundamental lack of understanding of the technology (and promote unrealistic expectations of what’s possible). Furthermore, it’s a classic case of forcing a square peg into a round hole: the online medium (the very nature of which is about open access to information and resources) is simply not well-suited to the traditional “closed book” exam.

Whether in-person or online, exams unfairly advantage some students. Many (through friends, siblings, social groups, etc.) have access to “exam books”, collections of previous tests & problems from the course and professors, while other students (particularly first-gen college students) are unaware these exist. Clearly, those with access to prior examples have a fundamental advantage over those without. It’s impossible to control what’s out there and quite difficult (and time consuming) to come up with entirely new exam questions for the same course material. Thus, exams may not be an assessment of a student’s ability to apply the knowledge they’ve learned, but rather their exposure to similar questions.

I believe asking students to apply and demonstrate their learning through projects offers a better assessment of their understanding of course concepts. There’s no singular “right’ answer, so it’s never a question of rote memorization or “cookie cutter” work. In a well-crafted project assignment, students can demonstrate competency, but also create and express their work in their own ways, emphasizing their own perspectives and interests. Good projects remain relevant year after year, so they don’t need to be changed as often as exam questions. And reviewing prior examples is not detrimental or “cheating”, but actually helpful. Current students can learn from and be inspired by previous years’ projects, and they still have to do the work to create their own successful project.

In my Applied Digital Signal Processing class (for undergraduate seniors), for several years we’ve had a final project to implement an audio compression system (like mp3). This also worked well for this year’s online class. Each time, I give out “prizes” to the best performing systems, following established performance criteria (amount of compression, sound quality, compute time, etc.). Our big change this year was to recast the other assessments (a midterm exam and problem sets) into a series of weekly “labs” (mini-projects) that built more coherently towards the final project. Going online freed us from the prior materials, to reimagine an entirely project-based course. The final project results were similar to previous years and student feedback was (very) positive. I intend to use this framework for future versions of the class, whether online or in person.

First-Year Engineering Design (my Spring 2021 class) focuses on student-proposed design projects, supported by other deliverables (research, design schematics, parts lists, reports, presentations, etc.). This year, rather than final project presentations, which would have been tedious over Zoom, each group created a “Kickstarter”-style video, highlighting the objective, design, and function of their projects. We first had them make a short “project teaser” video midway through the term, to develop experience and obtain feedback. These videos opened the door to all kinds of creativity (both in terms of the projects and their films), but also kept the presentations focused. Our final meeting was a “film festival”, where the entire class watched and judged all of the group videos, with prizes for those receiving the highest ratings. I believe the video presentation format worked really well, and is another aspect I’ll incorporate in future versions of the class, whether in-person or online.

I think one of the greatest challenges in education is understanding how to apply concepts learned in one class more broadly, and I believe well-designed project assignments are one way we can better train our students for the future. In the workforce, how often do you take an exam? Now, how often do you create or participate in a project (a report, a presentation, a design, a program, etc.)? There is a long history to project-based learning, but my online teaching experiences have inspired me to completely eliminate exams and quizzes from my future courses. I understand this may not be the best fit for all classes, but I also believe there are many more classes than not where a project or collection of synthesis activities would be more effective for learning, leading to greater retention, application, and creativity. 

(Socially) Distant Creations

  • Tech As Art: Supporting Artists Who Use Technology as a Creative Medium [National Endowment for the Arts] A virtual event to discuss a new NEA report about the creative ecosystem existing at the intersection of arts and technology, with presentations from prominent arts funders and artist-technologist pairs (tomorrow, Tue 6/29, free registration).
  • Songbird [Stay At Home Choir] The latest from the massive online choir, covering the Fleetwood Mac classic. This one includes over 1400 singers in collaboration with The King’s Singers.
  • Zoom Love Story [Stanford Fleet Street Singers] New video (and Taylor Swift tribute) from my former group. Romance still blooms in college classrooms (or not)… even on Zoom 😉 
  • Piano Piece Based on the Fibonacci Sequence [Peter Bence] A composition (and virtuoso performance) inspired by the mathematical sequence where each entry is the sum of the previous 2 numbers (1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, etc.), by YouTube superstar pianist, Peter Bence.

What I’m creating…

My new podcast with Melinda Steffy will be launching next week! Here are some members of Philly’s creative community, we’ll be interviewing:

  • Natalie Nixon, author & creativity strategist
  • ELLECT (Steve Tyson), artist & hip-hop educator
  • David Bradley, theater director & producer
  • And more!

Check the podcast page next week for info to subscribe!