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!

No. 32 • 2021-04-09

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Above: one moment from Drexel a cappella group 8 To The Bar’s video submission to the ICCA 2021 competition. 

The Other March Madness

The world of a cappella (singing ensembles without any instruments) is a showcase for the human voice and group collaboration. It’s a unique musical subculture requiring a wide range of skills: vocal arranging, live performance and stage direction, choreography and dance, humor, imagination, and of course, great singing. The genre has a particularly strong presence in higher education, where there are over 1000 collegiate a cappella singing groups. 

I’ve been fortunate to sing with several groups. In college, I was particularly drawn in by the ability to present rich musical performances, without having to carry instruments or set up any gear. This makes it easy to perform anywhere and to tour, visiting other schools and venues. In fact, much of what I know about music directing, graphic design, marketing, and studio recording comes from my collegiate a cappella experiences.

There’s a well-established annual multi-stage competition called the International Championship of Collegiate A Capella (ICCA), as featured in the book and movie Pitch Perfect. (There are also annual high school and pro competitions, too, all organized by Varsity Vocals.) Participating in the event can be an incredible experience, and the live performances are truly astounding and have some of the most enthusiastic audiences ever.

But the 2021 ICCA competition is different: it’s all virtual, with groups submitting a 4-minute video performance. I’ve linked to a few examples in recent weeks, but wanted to highlight the creativity that I see emerging to take the genre to new places. Remember, this isn’t what singing groups normally do… most have just learned to make videos this year.

While some are in the standard “Zoom squares” format, you’ll also find a variety of remote and socially distant collaboration, video effects, and high quality musical production. Things I could’ve only dreamed of in college are now within reach for ambitious college groups (and even high school ensembles). From the competition rules: “all audio and video recording, mixing, and editing must be done by group members”, so it’s all the creative work of students. Similar to how a cappella entered popular culture through movies and TV, I believe some of these ICCA submissions will redefine the virtual ensemble video. I’m certain some of these methods will be incorporated into popular music videos.

The regional quarterfinals took place a few weeks ago in March, and you can watch all 250 of the competitors videos and see the results of those advancing. The semifinals are tomorrow (April 10), and those will be live streamed via the Varsity Vocals YouTube channel. I look forward to seeing what happens next!

(Socially) Distant Creations

  • A Native Hill [The Crossing] The trailer for a new album by the Grammy Award-winning Philadelphia ensemble in collaboration with composer Gavin Bryars, featuring a beautiful water color animation by artist Will Kim.
  • Singing will be a vital, national therapy for this miserable year [ClassicalFM] An interview with composer Gareth Malone about his new piece Locus Iste, his latest project in collaboration with the Stay At Home Choir.
  • SonoBus sound test [Royal Academy of Music Aarhus/Aalborg] For the super nerdy… here is video of a test session with remote participants using SonoBus (which I’ve heard good things about) for real-time music collaboration. It shows that some degree of synchronization is possible… within limits. 
  • How the Skagit Valley Chorale Learned to Sing Again Amid Covid [NY Times Magazine] A long, media-rich feature on how a chorus linked to an early superspreader event has put together a virtual video concert. Loads of great info and insight!
  • Live From London Spring Highlights [VOCES 8, English Chamber Orchestra] I still really miss live ensemble music! Here are some lovely excerpts from an exceptional concert. You can still purchase this and other performances from the Live from London Spring series, through April 30

What I’m creating…

Heading deep into the Wayback Machine for this one… I had the incredible fortune of competing in the very first ICCA finals at Lincoln Center (in 1996) as a member (and music director) of the Stanford Fleet Street Singers. I don’t think there’s any video of our performance, but here’s a track (another ’80s throwback!) from our album, which won several Contemporary A Cappella Recording Awards in 1995, including Best Male Collegiate Album.