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. 22 • 2020-11-04

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We can do this better

Another sleepless election night and incredibly close race. You’d think that 230+ years into our democracy, the fundamental process of voting would be reliable, robust, and routine. But as recent elections have demonstrated, for many the process of voting is not routine, nor is it easy. Elections are perhaps the single greatest collaborative act, and anything involving 130M+ people is going to have a great deal of complexity. Given the increasingly high stakes and close margins, how can we ensure that future elections are not as susceptible to misinformation, confusion, and disenfranchisement?

I made the decision to cast a vote in person on Election Day. Actually, I requested and received a mail-in ballot for both the Pennsylvania primary and general elections. I believe in mail-in balloting… as states like Oregon and Washington have demonstrated it is normally reliable, secure, and robust to interference. But over the past few months we’ve seen outrageous efforts to disrupt a straightforward process: crippling the US Postal Service to increase uncertainty of delivery, monitoring of drop boxes to intimidate those trying to avoid those delivery uncertainties, and legal efforts to block any pre-processing of mail-in ballots to delay the count (to delegitimize those votes). This is what ultimately persuaded me to cast an in-person ballot using an electronic voting machine (with printed verification), after voiding my mail-in ballot. I wanted to make certain that my vote would be counted as quickly as possible on Election Day. (Voting early in Pennsylvania was equivalent to mail-in voting, meaning those votes would be counted more slowly.) And as we’re seeing now, the morning after, the in-person tabulated vote is showing a vastly different picture of our state (with Trump far ahead) than the close outcome likely after a full count of all mail-in/early votes. Unfortunately, this has already opened the door to ridiculous claims of impropriety, playing upon people’s impatience and fear. (And yes, it is very concerning how close this election is, but that’s a topic for another time.)

So why is this so difficult?  Well it’s a complicated problem, with countless variations and nuances on an enormous scale.  One would think that technology could help in this situation, and it does (mostly behind the scenes in the tabulation of results and the rapid aggregation of counts across districts, counties, and states). But if our bank accounts, credit cards, and Amazon purchases can live on our devices and “in the cloud”, shouldn’t we be able to vote that way? There are very good reasons we don’t (current technology would make elections even more susceptible to hacking overall), but the widespread perception is that voting should be easier. And within some people these difficulties kindle misplaced suspicions, misguided assertions of fraud, and ridiculous vote-stealing conspiracy theories.

The reason it’s so easy for us to interact, transact, and just act out much of our lives online is that there have been massive investments by tech companies in developing and refining that infrastructure. We see something we like, provide a quick authentication with our fingerprints or faces, and we make payment and receive our goods, sometimes even on the same day. Much effort has been made into making the User Experience (UX) as smooth and painless as possible that it also makes us feel that everything should be so easy. 

A substantial amount of industry resources go towards recruiting top technical talent graduating from Colleges and Universities. Yes, many of the world’s greatest young minds devote their talents towards making it easier for us to shop. Why aren’t we putting the same amount of investment into advancing the voting process, efficient tabulation, and election security?  It would seem to be the ultimate UX problem, one that the very future of our society depends upon solving.  Well, if you’re a good computer scientist or UX designer you’re not going to make Google or Facebook money by working on voting infrastructure. But that’s what’s needed… the very best UX designers, coders, and cybersecurity experts working to advance the most integral process of our democracy. 

We need a way, beyond individual altruism, to incentivize the country’s brightest minds to work on this. There are longstanding models like the Peace Corps, Teach for America, the armed forces, and AmeriCorps, that subsidize education for a commitment to service. I propose a DemocracyCorps, dedicated to ensuring that everyone can vote and that every vote counts. Graduates would commit to 2 years of working towards improving the electoral process (making technical improvements, combined with voter engagement and expansion efforts). Given the exceedingly high (and rising) costs of higher education, it would create lucrative career pathways for a broader and more diverse representation of students (especially in fields like computing). Tech companies could (and should) also offer 1-year sabbaticals to current employees to work on election systems (it’s really the least they could do given the social media-fueled mess of the last few elections). An additional incentive would be the chance to work with (and recruit from) DemocracyCorps graduates.

So here we once again, sleep-deprived and anxious, awaiting the results of a far-too-close election. While there’s no perfect system for voting, at the least we should be trying harder to improve the process. Much effort is put into making our devices into essentially addictive slot machines. Let’s turn that energy towards something much more important: making our elections truly reliable, robust, and routine.

I’ve shifted the newsletter to a bi-weekly schedule,
a pace that I hope is sustainable for the long term.
My next newsletter will be posted on November 18.

(Socially) Distant Creations

  • Philadelphia Lullaby Project [World Cafe Live] Beautiful new lullabies written by Philadelphia-area parents and caregivers with songwriters/teaching artists from the area. Created in partnership with Carnegie Hall’s Weill Music Institute.
  • Decrypted By Us: A community by and for students from groups underrepresented in Computer Science. They make videos that represent and speak to underrepresented CS students to encourage them to pursue their interests and goals. 
  • Beyond the Sea [VOCES8 Scholars] A virtual collaboration of UK and US singers participating in VOCES8’s training program. Missed this a few months ago when it premiered, but it’s a great arrangement of Bobby Darin’s classic. 
  • 17 Players in Five States, Composing Over the Internet [NY Times] A peek behind the scenes of the modern music ensemble Alarm Will Sound’s process of working with composer Tyshawn Sorey to record his Autoschediasms.
  • E.T. Theme [Samara Ginsburg] The latest of her virtual collaborative cello performances… I think we could all use a little nostalgia and inspiration today.
  • Dear Theodosia [Hamilton cast members] Another virtual performance from the musical, featuring those Burrs and Hamiltons from the different productions. They’ve covered much of the show in virtual performances… I look forward to the virtual rendition of Farmer Refuted 😉
  • Pachelbel’s Chicken [YouTube] This is a few years old, but it’s just that kind of day…

What I’m creating

I don’t intend to always focus this section on Virtual Chorister app announcements, but I do have a big update for iPad in the works… The next version will allow you to load and view a musical score alongside following and recording videos. The new version will be available in the App Store within a week. 

Virtual Chorister for iPad with score view… Coming soon!

No. 21 • 2020-10-21

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Independent Creatives

In media and technology there are a small number of dominant players, huge companies with vast resources that define much of our world in terms of what we see, hear, and use. In fact, tech has become media: not just social media (Facebook, Twitter, etc.), but they are now the gatekeepers for music (Apple and Spotify), video (YouTube, Netflix, and Amazon), and games (Sony and Microsoft). It takes enormous investment to create the infrastructure for such platforms, and big tech has gotten very good at leveraging computing at the scale needed to serve billions of people.

But we know that such dominance also leaves big gaps… spaces for individuals and small groups to create and make content that may not premiere on Disney+, but enrich the ecosystem. Independent works are absolutely necessary to inject different and diverse ideas into the media and tech landscape. But this requires a different kind of technology… the kind that disintermediates, enabling even individuals to create very high quality work, connect with and market to supporters, and easily publish their work to a worldwide audience. I contend there’s never been a better time to be an independent creative, but it requires a knowledge of this specific kind of tech: how to create, share, and scale the reach of your work.

Remember, creativity is just connecting things, and Philly is a fantastic city in which our highly diverse arts, media, tech, and civic communities can interconnect. This afternoon, as part of the program for Amplify Philly @ Home No. 4, I’ll be hosting a conversation about independent creatives in media and tech in Philadelphia with two very special guests:

  • Dr. Frank Lee is Founding Director of the Entrepreneurial Game Studio, co-founder of Drexel’s highly ranked game design program, and an ExCITe Center colleague. He’s the creator of Skyscraper Tetris (on the Cira Centre), which earned him a Guiness World Record for the largest architectural video game display in history. He’s been named by Polygon as one of the 50 most admirable people in gaming as well as one of Philadelphia Magazine’s Top Innovators.
  • Dave Silver is the co-founder of REC Phillythe space for creatives in Philadelphia. Located in a beautiful new space in the renovated Fashion District mall, they provide resources that help members to design, create, record and produce work, get booked for live shows, network with other creatives, and receive industry services. Dave has also co-organized Amplify Philly, highlighting Philadelphia’s music and startup communities annually at SXSW.

RSVP here and tune in at 2pm for what’s sure to be a great discussion!

Click here to watch Amplify Philly live!

Note: I’ve shifted the newsletter to a bi-weekly schedule.
I hope that’s a pace that is sustainable for the long term. 

(Socially) Distant Creations

  • The Opera Philadelphia Channel: I’ve written about this before, but this new streaming service is now live! This month the channel kicks off with a newly created recital program, Lawrence Brownlee & Friends, and a 2015 filmed performance of La traviata at the Academy of Music, which was fantastic!
  • ‘Little Shop,’ Big Relief [NYTimes] How the Weathervane Theater (NH) put on a safe performance of the musical, Little Shop of Horrors, for a live audience.
  • The Room Where It Happens [Hamilton] Another collaborative music video from the original cast of Hamilton to help get out the vote, featuring Philly’s own Leslie Odom, Jr. Bonus content: Another Hamilton co-video of The Schuyler Sisters, with cast members from the multiple productions! These pandemic performance videos now cover a significant portion of the musical!
  • The Love [Black Eyed Peas & Jennifer Hudson] An updated remix of their 2003 classic, Where is the Love?, for the current moment. I still have a soft spot for this song.

What I’m creating

Virtual Chorister for Android is now available on the Google Play Store! Let’s call this a preview version… There are many different Android devices, and I’ve only been able to test it on a small number. It’s also my first Android app, and I’m sure there are many kinks still to be ironed out!

Android users, please give it a try, and send feedback if you encounter any issues.

A circular Virtual Chorister icon for Android!

No. 19 • 2020-09-30

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Virtual Concert Halls & Classrooms

What do virtual music & arts collaborations have to do with education?  My experiences as a musical performer have greatly influenced my teaching, but I believe the relationship extends much further than individual training… there are deep similarities in objectives and methods:

  • In the performing arts, we try to craft an experience worthy of an audience’s time and attention.  It’s the same goal for class instructors.
  • Throughout history, artists have integrated new technologies and tools to inform, challenge, and yes, entertain. Again, the same could be said for teaching.
  • In the arts, we must connect with our audiences at some level… to get them to care. This is also crucial for learning.

I contend this alignment has always existed, certainly well before COVID, but now I’ll go even further: our explorations for virtual arts collaborations will not only influence, but inevitably shape the way we teach and learn in the future, both online and in person. 

Working remotely with musicians has brought into focus both the challenges and possibilities of virtual collaboration. While many want to participate in virtual ensembles, a significant number are hesitant due to both technical and artistic challenges. We’ve needed time to build some familiarity with new processes and eventually create new tools (like the Virtual Chorister app) to make participation easier and more accessible.

But through inspiring large-scale projects, like those of the Stay at Home Choir (pictured above), I am convinced that these kinds of collaborations will continue to have an impact, even in a post-COVID world (whenever that comes).

In the virtual classroom, I am teaching a seminar for first-year undergraduates (over 100 students in the class). In person, I would never be able to have each student introduce themselves individually (that would take weeks). Online, I asked my students to fill in a shared spreadsheet with their hometown, nickname, and what they find most inspiring about engineering. It was fascinating to watch responses appear in real-time, with some contributions building upon others. It turns out even Google has its limits, and having 100+ students edit the same document simultaneously was too much, and some students were locked out. Oh well, live and learn… we’ll have to build a better tool for that!

These explorations all start in unfamiliar territory, but offer opportunities to experiment and learn together. To me, the links between arts and education have never been stronger or more clear: Good instructors are artists. They are creators of media. They are developers. And they are the ones who will create the future of learning. Eventually, we will return to stages, auditoriums, and classrooms, but those artists and teachers who have been experimenting all along will have even greater insight into crafting worthy experiences, integrating new technologies, and getting audiences to care. 

Thanks to all who joined the second of our Creative Conversations yesterday! Register here for our the final event of our mini-series on October 13.

(Socially) Distant Creations

  • Lift Every Voice and Sing [105 Voices of History National HBCU Concert Choir] A stirring performance of Roland Carter’s arrangement by conductors and singers representing the nation’s Historically Black Colleges & Universities.
  • PHLConnectEd and the Digital Navigator Program [Technology Learning Collaborative] A webinar about current efforts in Philadelphia to address digital equity issues, part of National Digital Inclusion Week (Oct. 7).
  • Parallax Podcast: The latest episode features urbanist and Drexel colleague, Alan Greenberger, Distinguished Fellow at Drexel’s Lindy Institute for Urban Innovation and Dept. Head of Architecture and Interior Design.
  • Air on a G String [The Swingles] Ward Swingle’s classic arrangement of J.S. Bach’s well-known work. Catch their full performance at the Live from London online festival of vocal music (available for streaming through Oct. 31)!

What I’m creating

My Virtual Chorister app is almost at 7000 downloads!

The most frequent by far, has been for an Android version. Today, I’m announcing that I am officially working on it…  I hope to have more news in the next few weeks!

No. 17 • 2020-09-09

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Back to School

The 2020 B.PHL Innovation Festival is next week, Sept. 15-17.  Given the pandemic, this second year of B.PHL is entirely online and registration is free(!).  The program celebrates innovation in all its forms (technology, arts & entertainment, education, social justice, healthcare, and more) and features local leaders as well as global celebrities, like Pitbull, Nick Offerman, and Issa Rae.

Several events feature Drexel presenters:

  • A Night at the Museum(s), featuring Scott Cooper, CEO of the Academy of Natural Sciences with Clay Catongo, Penn Museum.
  • By Law, By Love – features Angel Hogan, department manager in the LeBow College of Business and current Drexel MFA student, presenting her short documentary about a boy’s quest to find his family after growing up in foster care (part of the B. PHL Film Fest).
  • Put Down Your Pencils: The 2020 Class(zoom), a conversation with Drexel President John Fry and U. Penn Provost Wendell Pritchett.

I am co-hosting an event with Jessica Zweig, Program Director of Play On Philly, to kick off our new panel mini-series, Creative Conversations for a Changing World. These discussions will focus on how arts and education organizations are innovating through the pandemic with organizational leaders from some of Philadelphia’s premier institutions. We’ll hear from those who are thinking in and out of the box about new ways of performing, learning, and sharing in the era of social distancing. Our kickoff event features an All-Star panel:

Our panel is Tuesday. September 15, 4pm (B.PHL festival registration is required, but it’s free!)  Of course, anyone can tune in… you don’t have to be in Philly. Please share the event info with anyone who’s interested, and also be sure to check out the rest of the B.PHL program for other great sessions. I hope to “see” you Tuesday at 4pm!

Also, pre-register below for our future series events below.  Mark your calendars!

(Socially) Distant Creations

  • The Global Armed Man [Stay at Home Choir] 5000 singers from 74 countries contributed to this musical celebration of the 20th anniversary of the premiere Sir Karl Jenkins’ The Armed Man: A Mass for Peace. The virtual mashup combines live concert footage from 2018 with at home recordings of thousands of singers.
  • Virtual POP [Play On Philly] Registration is open for the incredible local youth music instruction program’s 10th Anniversary year. Instruction begins virtually on Oct. 5.
  • Online Art History Classes [Barnes Foundation] An impressive collection of topics, each consisting of 4 weekly sessions this Fall.
  • Virtual Gallery [Rittenhouse Square Fine Art Show] Featuring works from 101 artists from the US and Canada (Sept. 10-13).
  • Philadelphia Fringe Festival 2020 [Fringe Arts] Another reminder of the amazing all-virtual Fringe lineup this year (Sept. 10-Oct. 4).
  • Time Flies [Apple] The company’s next round of products will be announced in a virtual event (Sept. 15 at 1pm ET). Expect a new Apple Watch and new iPads.

What I’m creating

Virtual Chorister, my iOS app to help musicians participate in virtual collaboration projects has surpassed 2000 downloads! And don’t let the name fool you… it’s for instrumentalists, too! The latest update lets you also load guide videos from cloud services (Dropbox, Google Drive, iCloud Drive, etc.) and adds support for Bluetooth headphones. An update coming soon will add other requested features.

Another frequent request is for an Android version. Unfortunately, that’s an entirely different development process that I don’t have experience with (essentially writing an entirely new app), but I’m thinking about it…