Venturing into the World of Distributed Learning

by Cristle Collins Judd

Last fall, the SAS Dean's office announced a new initiative: a venture fund to promote distributed learning at Penn. This spring, plans are underway to transform eight or more traditionally structured courses into distributed learning courses. It is time to ask: What is "distributed learning" and why should we be interested in it?

Distributed learning can take many forms as an extension of the residential college experience. Rather than try to cover them all, let me talk about my own experience with distributed learning. This experience stems from my search for solutions to a series of pedagogical problems in Music 25, a course that offers a broad-based introduction to music theory and musicianship.

Individualized Instruction

Over the last five years, Music 25 has been gradually transformed both in terms of content and delivery. The first stage in that transformation was the development of an undergraduate music computer lab. Funded by SAS Computing and Pew funds, the lab provides a unique teaching and learning space on the campus. The introduction of individualized computer-assisted instruction in musicianship was an essential component in a revision of our music theory curriculum. Students now take the facility for granted as a meeting place, as a practice space, as a place to do homework and classwork; graduate students now assume computer-assisted-instruction as a regular part of undergraduate instruction and are better placed on the market; course web pages that incorporate audio files have become a more regular part of departmental instruction across the board; and the room also functions as an innovative teaching space.

Interactive, Self-Paced Learning

Teaching music theory within a liberal arts curriculum poses a special set of challenges. Not least of these is the technical obstacle of the specialized vocabulary and skills, linking notational representation with aural realization. Once basic individualized instruction in musicianship was in place, we needed a way to help students hone their aural and analytical skills. Multi-media web resources offered the possibility of self-paced interaction with audio, visual, and temporal domains of music study. Over the last three years, we have created an extensive series of web pages, each of which includes a musical score, annotations, and commentary cued to audio via Real Audio or MP3, with supplemental digital examples to illustrate specific points. Interactive pages allow students to explore at their own pace various concepts introduced in class in new ways through recomposition and experimentation. This solution offers a way to guide students through material in a non-linear fashion that is nearly impossible with the traditional printed textbook, connecting and separating audio and visual representations, in and out of real time. One of the greatest benefits of these pages has been not just the enrichment they provide to lectures, but the ability to move students away from a "binge and purge" approach to classes and exams and toward a regular and on-going engagement with the course content. While these pages represent a model of the multi-media textbook of the future, they remain essentially individualized in their interactivity and the feedback they provide to students.

Student-Teacher Ratios and Student-Faculty Interaction

Traditionally, music theory courses have been taught as small classes. For instructors, these courses tend to be labor intensive, as they involve short composition exercises and short essays about music for almost every class meeting. As students master the syntax of tonal music both analytically and compositionally, regular feedback is essential. In a class of 10-15 students, it is easy enough to send students to blackboards in groups of five to work short exercises and for each student to be at the board at least once a week. They benefit not only from the instant response of both their peers and the instructor, but also from the ability to compare various solutions and comment on the merits of each. This feedback is in addition to the critiques of graded assignments returned on a weekly basis. There are pedagogical similarities with introductory language instruction in terms of the acquisition of rudimentary skills and mathematics instruction in a "problem sets" approach.

Yet it is almost impossible to focus on student work in the larger classes that we actually teach. While students still see graded work at almost every class meeting, they lose the response to their work in progress and the chance to see in process how other solutions work and the implications of certain compositional choices. At best, they get such a response individually during hectic office hours or individual appointments.

To redress this problem, we are now working on a project through the venture fund to create a real-time multi-user interactive environment for small group recitations for Music 25. These synchronous virtual recitations will be complemented with asynchronous tutorials, preparatory materials, and discussion groups linked to the recitations. At times the work will proceed as a corporate project (with a drag and drop music notation interface), at other times as a sequential viewing/hearing of student work. These virtual meetings offer the possibility of complementing class time with smaller group sessions of students working on similar problems while giving the students from various sections of the class an opportunity to interact with each other and a member of the faculty. Time-consuming, static, repetitive, after-the-fact marking of individual exercises is replaced with more direct contact with students as they are engaged in the process of learning.

Such an interface poses one of the greater challenges for a distributed learning format in a humanities course: the symbiotic relationship of musical notation and simultaneous aural realization pushes far beyond traditional chat room capabilities. As a pilot, this project will offer a framework for other courses in which instruction is founded in non-discursive media that desire audio-visual integration.

Embarking on the Venture

In each of my encounters with what might be termed "distributed learning" outlined here--individualized instruction in the music computer lab, the development of self-paced learning tools on the web, and now experimentation with on-line recitations--I was motivated by specific pedagogical concerns and goals: gearing instruction to the needs and diverse backgrounds of individual students; extending class discussion beyond the physical and temporal boundaries of the classroom; creating a more interactive learning environment; and increasing student-faculty interaction in the face of changing student-teacher ratios. These pedagogical goals dictated a search for a variety of ways of fulfilling them and new technologies have offered possibilities that were unimaginable a few years ago.

Does this all add up to more work for the faculty member teaching such a class? Yes--and no. The initial preparation of materials may well require more timely organization than a traditional lecture or seminar course--there is certainly less room for a fudge factor and I find myself constantly evaluating my pedagogical goals as I prepare such materials. In turn that preparation directs responsibility back to the students as the semester progresses. The technical obstacles can also seem formidable, but the learning curve is often far less steep than it at first appears and the venture fund provides technical support. Certainly I started down this road as one with minimal computer skills (they have improved!).

Will such interactive virtual work replace or lessen the amount of live music-making in which these students are involved? Highly unlikely. Will it enhance their experience of making and listening to music? I believe so. Will it enrich their experience of Music 25, one of the first music classes they may take at Penn? Undoubtedly.

Dr. Judd is Assistant Professor of Music Theory and a member of the SAS Distributed Learning Committee.

The site for Music 25 is

Her essay continues the Talk About Teaching Series into its sixth year as the joint creation of the College of Arts and Sciences and the Lindback Society for Distinguished Teaching.

Almanac, Vol. 46, No. 26, March 28, 2000

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