No. 24 • 2020-12-02

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Ready Player… Meh

Happy December!  Over the long Thanksgiving weekend I was eager to start (and then managed to slog through) reading Ready Player Two. My one word review:

Meh.

This is Ernest Cline’s sequel to his best seller, Ready Player One. For me, the original was a highly entertaining nostalgia trip, combining callbacks to ’80s pop culture (my formative years) with an all-consuming virtual reality world (called the Oasis). I thoroughly enjoyed that book (let’s not talk about the movie), and like another popular VR media touchstone, The Matrix (one of my all-time favorite movies), it probes the questions: If a virtual simulation becomes indistinguishable from the physical world, is there a difference? What does that mean for us as individuals? As a society? As a planet?

(And yes, there are horrible parallels between our current online world and The Matrix / The Oasis, but that’s a topic for another day.)

While not quite the dumpster fire of The Matrix sequels, Ready Player Two similarly retreats from these somewhat interesting philosophical questions and instead falls back to basically the following: Virtual reality is awesome (and might save the planet!).

We’re still very far from a virtual world indistinguishable from our physical reality. Unfortunately, the popular notion of “VR is awesome” has done a disservice to education, particularly in our current state of mostly remote, online learning. It has reinforced the notion that the best (only?) virtual learning experience is to simulate the physical classroom and the conventions and interactions of that setting (one person speaking to many, forcing eye contact with students, dispensing Socratic questions, etc.). I get why most instructors go there… it’s familiar and what we’re used to. But ultimately, it doesn’t make sense.

We’ve learned that the best way to travel through water is by swimming, not by trying to run through it. If our physical medium changes, we don’t expect to do the same things. Carrying over the conventions of in-person teaching into an online setting is like trying to run in a swimming pool: you can kind of do it, but it’s slower and distorted (and there’s a lot of extraneous flailing about).

But what if instructors learned how to properly “swim” in this online medium? And what does “swimming” look like in the medium of remote learning? We are still in the process of figuring that out, and it takes practice and effort and time (I’ll bet you didn’t learn to swim in one day). But rather than starting with “How can we adapt our existing class / curriculum to be offered online” (running in a swimming pool), I believe we must start with “What are alternative pathways to learning the course material?” and then develop content, tools, and practices that are authentic to this online environment.

(This is primarily directed towards higher education, where I have the greatest experience, and perhaps high school. I believe online learning is much different, and in many cases inappropriate for younger students.)

“Swimming” requires an understanding of the conventions of online interaction: text over voice. Video over lecture. And projects over problem sets. Those who’ve already incorporated project-based learning in their instruction have a head start. Let’s face it, our students have to do much of this on their own, so there’s never been a better time for interest-driven projects.

(And I mean actual project-based learning, where students are given agency to develop their own problem/project and create a solution, not where students are given materials and a set of IKEA-style instructions to construct a pre-determined artifact.)

“Swimming” also requires creativity and a willingness to experiment, which is why I’ve been so fascinated with artistic collaborations since the start of the pandemic. I think there are better examples of such creativity and experimentation happening in the arts, at all levels (so many high schools produced virtual musicals this Fall). But that willingness to try something new (and learn from failure) needs to be present for all subjects.  

Sadly, some are talking about this as a “lost” academic year, but it doesn’t have to be. It can be an authentic opportunity for learning and growth, both for instructors and students. While it’s incredibly difficult to get people to see possibilities beyond their own experiences of in-person instruction, that’s exactly what we’re asking of our students; that’s education. In this year of disruption, let’s embrace the fact that we’re on a shared journey. Let’s lean into the distinctions between IRL (“in real life”) and online. If we learn to “swim”, and figure out ways to learn better together online, it won’t be a lost year.

I publish the Creating at a Distance newsletter every two weeks. The next issue will land on December 16.

(Socially) Distant Creations

  • WPA 2.0: Envisioning a New Era of Public Arts Funding [Mural Arts & Carpenters’ Hall] A virtual panel discussion on how FDR’s Works Progress Administration could serve as a model for sustained public investment in our nation’s cultural infrastructure, moderated by Jane Golden (Today, 12/2 at 5:30pm). 
  • Global Ode to Joy [Live with Carnegie Hall] Originally conceived as performances across six continents, this global celebration of Beethoven’s 250th birthday has gone online, inviting artists of all disciplines to share videos that inspire joy. Featuring a performance with the thousands of voices of the Stay at Home Choir (Thursday, 12/3 at 7:30pm).
  • Teaching music over Zoom is hard, but Drexel app makes it easier for Philly high school students [Philadelphia Inquirer] In-depth article about the virtual choir collaboration between local schools and Grammy Award-winners, The Crossing, using my Virtual Chorister app.
  • Live from London – Christmas [VOCES8 and many friends] A holiday sequel to this summer’s fantastic Live from London vocal festival, with 16 concerts featuring a starry line-up from the UK, the US and across Europe. The festival also supports the VOCES8 Foundation’s global message of music education for all (December-January).
  • LightsOn [Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance & Philly Culture United] Express your support for the arts by joining this letter writing campaign to Philadelphia City Council advocating for arts and culture to be included in any comprehensive relief package for the city.
  • A Jazzy Holiday Overture [Drexel Jazz Orchestra and ACE-Lab] This virtual concert features Duke Ellington’s “Nutcracker Suite” in an immersive 3D environment using visual animation by Drexel colleague Nick Jushchyshyn and his students in the Animation, Capture & Effects Lab (Thursday, 12/3 at 7pm).
  • ABBA A Cappella Medley [Jared Halley] Pure ’70s fun. I only recently stumbled upon singer-producer Jared Halley’s many creative works (always 16 tracks of him, a cappella), but I’ll be following now, for sure.

What I’m creating

Messing around with Arduino and 600 individually addressable LEDs for a new home project for the holidays. I’ll be back with an update in two weeks…

ECE-101 Fall 2020 seminar speakers to date

No. 20 • 2020-10-07

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Looking to Others

Next Tuesday (Oct. 13, 4-5pm) is our third Creative Conversation panel, the final scheduled event of our mini-series with Play On Philly. In past discussions, we’ve been joined by leaders of premier arts & education organizations who are actively exploring new ways of performing, learning, and sharing in the era of social distancing. Previous events have focused on artistic innovation and new forms of collaboration during the pandemic.

A common thread throughout these discussions is that there’s much to learn from the response to the pandemic from different sectors. Thus, the theme of our third Conversation is Looking to Others, moderated by Jessica Zweig, program director of Play on Philly.  It will feature another outstanding group of panelists whose efforts span a wide range of organizations and areas: 

Obviously, the pandemic has impacted all sectors, and each community encompasses a range of needs and desires. Some of those will be defined by the objectives of an affinity group, whether it’s the arts, civic engagement, racial and social justice, or combinations thereof. But all efforts are mediated by the traditions of that community (concerts, exhibits, rallies, advocacy campaigns, and protests) as well as the technologies of our time (the Internet, streaming, social media, etc.).

This fully aligns with our transdisciplinary approach to problem solving: that we develop better solutions by understanding and integrating the learnings and practices across different areas. It’s also in keeping with the founding principle of the ExCITe Center: that creativity stems from the re-mixing of ideas and activities from one domain to another. I’m very eager to hear what are panelists will have to say, and I hope you’ll join us for what is sure to be another great conversation!

RSVP here for the Creative Conversation on Tuesday, Oct. 13 at 4pm

With the start of the academic year, it’s challenging to keep up with a weekly schedule. Starting now, I’ll publish every two weeks, so the next newsletter will be Wednesday, October 21.

(Socially) Distant Creations

  • Smile [William P. Ramsey] A beautiful rendition of this classic song by the Founder of the Voices of Soul Concert Chorale, submitted to the #SmileChallenge offered by the Matt Jones Orchestra.
  • Philly Music Teacher Gives Her Students a Voice Amid Virtual Learning [NBC10] Nice profile of Suzanne Spencer, Vocal Music Director at the Arts Academy at Benjamin Rush (School District of Philadelphia), on the opportunities and challenges of teaching music remotely.
  • To the Polls (2020) [Mural Arts] An exhibit featuring six large-scale temporary mural installations at LOVE Park by Philadelphia artists to excite the electorate and explore their reasons for voting.
  • Star Trek: The First Generation (deepfake) [Futuring Machine] An AI-powered mashup, placing the faces of the original Star Trek cast (Shatner, Nimoy, etc.) into scenes from the 2010-era reboot movies. Shows what’s now possible through deep learning/deep fakes, and its both amazing and terrifying.
  • Jump (1984) [Van Halen] With the sad news of Eddie Van Halen’s passing, I felt compelled to include this. Not the best example of Eddie’s talents, but it was such an impactful song in my childhood, and EVH’s solo still manages to steal the scene from David Lee Roth’s strutting. RIP.

What I’m creating

I’m a member of The Tonics, an a cappella group in the Philadelphia region. This year the group is celebrating 30 years of singing and performing together (I’ve been privileged to be a part of the last 8+ years).

Since we can’t sing together during the pandemic, we just created our first virtual a cappella video. We’re using this release to raise awareness and support for the West Philly Promise Neighborhood throughout October, so we hope you’ll take a look!