Net Conferencing in Music Distance Education:

Observations on a Pilot Project.

Matti Ruippo, Sibelius Academy/Department of Music Education


Table of Contents

1. Distance learning course based on net conferencing

1.1. Studying on the course

2. Findings from the course

2.1. Telephone

2.2. E-mail

2.3. Internet

3. Microsoft's collaboration software NetMeeting

3.1. Properties

3.2. Experiences from using NM - software training

3.3. Connection

3.4. Problems with connection

3.5. Findings of using audio in net

3.6. Chat, helps when audio fails

3.7. Whiteboard

3.8. File sharing and Collaboration

4. MIDICombo, collaborative musicianship

5. Summary: Problems and achievements


This article presents a project that has been an essential part of my research "Music distance education - a research of the pedagogy of music distance education and the technical solutions in the net conferencing environment". The aim of this project is to learn by experience how computer technology can be used in various distance education situations. The research concentrates on developing music distance education based on net conferencing technology. However, practically all the different distance education techniques are used in this research. Their potential, qualities and suitability are evaluated in proportion to that fact how they can support net conferencing. The other goal is to do research work on music distance learning pedagogy. How to adapt existing distance learning practice, and when one has to depart from this practice because of the difference of the subject.

For the purposes of the research work I have kept a diary and sent questionnaires to the students of this project's course. Because the questionnaire part is at present still being completed, the main part of this article is based on the diary.

1. Distance learning course based on net conferencing.

The computer and music arrangement course was held for the third time from the end of January till mid-May (29.1.-11.5.1999) at the open university of the Sibelius Academy. The courses carried out earlier have provided the experience for organizing distance courses and this course was mainly based on the earlier ones. The difference between the earlier ones were the weekly distance lessons which were held - not by teleconferencing, but - by utilising the net conferencing technique. Technical assistance was received from Philip Donner, research-worker of the Sibelius Academy, and Helsinki Telephone Corporation's research center.

There were three face-to-face weekend sessions - at the beginning, in the middle and at the end of the course. Each week there was a net conferencing session with the teacher for studying new material and giving the exercises for the following week. On the home pages of the course was material for self-study. There was also information about the teachers, examples, exercises, answers and the students own material. Also, one course member created a page for conversation. Audio examples were initially MIDI- and MP3 -files, but later on students got examples on a sample CD.

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1.1. Studying on the course

On the course there were thirteen participants from all over Finland, musicians and music teachers who wanted to develop their knowledge and skills in music arrangement. A knowledge of basic harmony and chord symbols was a requirement for participation on the course.

From the technical viewpoint participants had to know the basics of computer technology and they had to master music application software. Study materials, exercises and output were made using notation and sequencer software. Each student worked with his own music software, no technical support was arranged. Any possible problems were of coursed solved together. For this reason the teacher had to have an extensive collection of music software, he had to know the main features, file formats, versions, compatibilities and their conversions. Macintosh is in common use among music professionals, which means that platform compatibilities was important to know. For the course it was essential to allow different applications and platforms, because the choice of them is wide and one can not assume - unlike with text - that everyone uses the same program.

Studies were divided into (1) face-to-face learning, (2) asynchronous studying with Internet and E-mail and (3) synchronous net conferencing. An ordinary modem connection is capable enough for handling Internet and E-mail, and it was also possible to do and send the exercises using the Macintosh-platform, but the technical requirement for net conferencing was a minimum of an ISDN-based connection and a PC either at home or at work. The software we used in net conferencing, MS NetMeeting, works only in Windows, in addition to this decent audio transfer requires a transmission rate of at least 64 kB.

Within the previous courses the weekly lessons were held using teleconferencing. Now we used NM for the ISDN-transmitted connection to the videoserver in Helsinki. Using this protocol we could organize a multipoint audio connection instead of the original two-point audio connection. With NM we could also use its collaboration tools. Philip Donner made a NM-tool MIDICombo for playing together. With the aid of this, the teacher could send MIDI to students and we could even play together with synthesizers over the net. MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) is an established and compact standard to send and receive note data from one synthesizer to another or to a computer's music software.

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2. Findings from the course

The following findings from the course are based on my diaries and the questionnaires from the students. While the course has just ended (deadline for the final work is 4.6.1999), the questionnaire part is still in process. The aim is to gather data using several questionnaires so that the later ones will test the evolution model which will be constructed based on the findings and the first questionnaires. Seven answers from the first questionnaire have now been received and five from the second one (N=13). One student discontinued the course, because he found the course too demanding and one withdrew because of his busy timetable. It is to be expected that there will be eleven answer to all these questionnaires. The findings have been divided according to the technique that was used - telephone, E-mail, Internet and NetMeeting.

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2.1. Telephone

Although the telephone was not an essential medium during this course, it was essential during the previous courses and therefore here are some findings. Telephone as a medium in music studies might seem to be very awkward, but - as with other equipment - it proved to be very useful in a particular area, in this research for music theory. Teleteaching demands more preparation from the teacher, on the other hand this is always so when comparing distance learning with face-to-face lesson. Teleconferencing is comparatively expensive to use, if one has to use a commercial telephone company's service. The technology is reliable and there is normally no extra cost for the establishing the system. During this course two sessions were held by teleconferencing because the other teacher had not became familiar with the technology.

There is a need to restrict the time used for teleconferencing because of the costs. That makes the presentation of the study materials more concentrated. A few minutes over the time allocated is already problematic for the budget. Besides, the beginning of a session was delayed several times when students came late. So the time spent for the actual studies was quite scarse. This was originally one reason for using net conferencing. The organizer is no longer responsible for the connection costs because the local calls that are used in net conferencing are not expensive. Another way around the costs is to use the digital telephone switchboard of the Sibelius Academy to arrange the teleconference.

When teaching within teleconferencing it is problematic for teacher to assess how well the students can follow. Lecturing is not the best method, students have to participate by doing small exercises every now and then. Six students seemed to be a suitable size for a study group. The course started with a face-to-face weekend, which was a great benefit for those distance sessions. The students knew each other and communication was natural. Actually there was no feeling of psychological distance.

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2.2. E-mail

E-mail is, of course, used for sending messages, but also sending exercises and answers as attachments was one part of studies. Students were already familiar with using e-mail, we tested attachment transfer before the course with different types of files (MIDI-, sequencer-, notation-,text- and bitmap-files). Only bitmap-files were unfamiliar to some of the students. There were only a few problems with transferring due to software incompatibility, which we still had to keep in mind when sending and receiving files.

According to the weekly schedule, students sent their exercises two days before the next distance session, in order that I could check them and put them into our home pages before the next session. During the session it was then easy to refer the material from the home page. In practice this varied a lot and normally only the minority sent their exercises in time. I suppose that the weekly routine did not become established in the beginning due to the technical problems of net conferences, and later this was no longer possible to fix.

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2.3. Internet

The Net provides an excellent way for fast and flexible delivery of study materials. This course used the Internet for publishing examples, exercises and answers. When the teacher publishes, for example, a note page, MIDI- or audio-file, students can familiarise themselves with them irrespective of which software they use.

One part of the study material (reharmonising) was intended for independent study with another student. For this purpose I prepared material for self-study on the Internet. The student could of course get feedback from the teacher if needed. This part of the studies was a slight failure, students did not do the exercises, and so the subjects of the topic were moved to synchronous teaching. Work groups were formed during the first weekend and also collaboration was practiced then. However these groups hardly functioned at all, and finally only a few students did the exercises on their own. The value of the topic was clear to them.

At time being, I know from the questionnaire that: (1) The work groups did not get to know each other well enough. "The starting threshold is very high when you do not know each other." (2) The work groups were not using the same software, although that was the intention when forming the groups, exchanging the files was difficult. (3) The students needed more precise instruction of what to do and when. (4) The students were too busy to do collaboration.

They also had their own home pages. I would like to present a few findings from them. Students visited them quite often. Some of them studied all the material, some of them only browsed. The structure needs a more distinct profile: "what is under this button?" Some of the pages of notes cut off in the middle of the system when printing. There was also a chat board. Four students wrote there every now and then. This kind of forum is quite new but I would view this as a way to activate students to participate in studies. Self-study, for example, might benefit from this kind of activation.

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3. Microsoft's collaboration software NetMeeting

TheThe most essential part of the project was to test the suitability of net conferencing for music distance education. In net conferencing we used MS NetMeeting (NM), which a free application working with Windows and Internet Explorer 4.0. In addition to easy availability, NM is stable. It is also a well documented software platform, which meant that Philip Donner was able to write MIDICombo software for music needs. NM is explained here quite thoroughly because of its important role in this project.

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3.1. Properties

After opening NetMeeting Manager one can contact the partner either via the IP or with a direct call. An audio connection - and if a videocamera is obtainable - a video connection, are opened automatically when communication has been established. Session members can also use together text based Chat or graphic based Whiteboard for communication. With File sharing a participant can open a certain application from his computer and show it to others; in Collaboration-mode members can use the application together.

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3.2. Experiences from using NM - software training

Before the course one intention was to practise NM with the coming students. For technical reasons we could not achieve this objective and so only six students had a single experience of the application.

During the first weekend there were two lessons, four hours in total, of NetMeeting user training. This proved to be too little. Using NM is not very difficult and there are not many new tools to operate with. The study group was too large, and as the idea of the application - collaboration over the net - was unknown to one part of the group, it was difficult to achieve efficient studying.

A few students got their ISDN-connections during February and its basic use was practised with them. Since there were connection problems during the first sessions, NM small group practise sessions were also held in February.

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3.3. Connection

NM does not support multipoint audio itself, but we could make use of a videoserver from Helsinki Telephone Corporation. With that server we could communicate utilizing multipoint audio. Three weekly sessions were impossible to organize as a multipoint meeting. Those sessions were divided into several two-point sessions, which went fine. There were several reasons for connection problems. With two students those problem were so difficult to solve that they had to leave out their weekly sessions. The details of the connection problems that appeared and their solutions are collected below. The telephone company gave several different opinions in the beginning on how to solve those problems which also confused matters.

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3.4. Problems with connection

a) No successful connection during the course

One student could not take part in the multipoint sessions, because the audio quality through his computer at home was worthless. Distance lessons were finally held as two-point sessions, which worked fine. The telephone company referred to one computer of theirs with an unresolved problem, so at this moment we do not know the reason. Another student had no PC at home and he had to visit his friend's home. For some reason their audio connection did not work at all with the server we used, although it worked well normally. There were no possibilities to examine that computer. The computer at his work place was behind a fire-wall and NM could not be used.

b) Problems with multipoint audio

Three sessions with multipoint audio failed and were held as two-point mini sessions. The final connection instructions were not the same as those given by the telephone company at first. Several changes were made regarding the number to call and how the final connection should be established. The instructions also vary according to the region being contacted and the method of connection. Final instructions were received for the third session.

From the Helsinki area one could call directly to the server, not via the Internet, and so the transmission of audio was much better. Unfortunately students did not always remember to contact this way. Students outside the Helsinki area contacted via the Internet, which caused problems for audio depending on the loading of the Internet. (Some students outside Helsinki had direct access to the Internet, and it seemed that they could not contact the server at all. The Telephone company decided to open their server so that connections were possible.) The third multipoint session was successful, the fourth one was held from my home (outside Helsinki). I had to make contact via the Internet and the audio quality was again poor. To make sure that the connection of the teacher was the best possible, I conducted the remaining sessions from the Sibelius Academy, Helsinki.

When the problems of multipoint audio were at last over, the sessions were fairly successful. Two students could not take part in the last two sessions because of a muted audio channel, this problem is still unresolved.

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3.5. Findings of using audio in net

There is a lot of work to be done with audio quality. Disturbance cut the lesson off every now and then and made following the lesson burdensome. A large part of a session was used, especially during the first sessions, to solve audio problems. The teachers connection had to be the best possible, which means a direct line to the server. Unfortunately there were no direct ISDN-connections in use at the Sibelius Academy.

The teacher had to choose either to talk or to use NM tools. Updating the graphic may cause problems with audio. If a student made contact with a direct call to the server, the audio normally worked very well. Also, connections from long distance quite often worked well. A large part of the teaching was speaking. However there is a collection of tools that can help to illustrate the subject and make collaboration possible.

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3.6. Chat, helps when audio fails

This text-based message tool was very handy when solving audio problems. One can write in the message field of Chat and then publish it. Writing in Chat was useful to do in short portions so that the others know that something is going on. Chat was also useful as an aid in some corner of the screen. A student could bring up a question or a comment without disturbing the audio. Also an unfamiliar word could be written there. The teacher can ask everyone a yes/no -question to get fast answers.

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3.7. Whiteboard

The teacher (or any student) can open a mutual graphic screen and everyone can edit its content with their text and drawing tools. One can grab a screen from another program and put it there easily. Those pictures can be saved in advance for the lesson. Whiteboard proved to be a very handy tool when presenting things as on a board or with overhead projector. The advantage is that students can work on Whiteboard at the same time together, for instance to add chord symbols to different bars. One drawback is that there is no way to restrict what is being done. A student can accidentally delete the whole Whiteboard, this happened only a few times. The teacher can of course lock the contents, but that also stops collaboration.

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3.8. File sharing and Collaboration

Whiteboard makes it possible to use graphics, but it is impossible, for example, to edit a musical page. With NM the teacher can open an application in his computer and show it in File sharing mode to everyone. In Collaboration mode members of a session can use the application in turns. This application was often a Notation software, but also a browser was used. With a browser I opened the home page of this course and picked up examples to clarify the problem. This tool gave a new dimension to the work. The abundant wealth of Internet information was always close at hand. This gave opportunities to deviate from the plan of the lesson.

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4. MIDICombo, collaborative musicianship

A new tool was needed in order to introduce music sound into the distance learning situation. Philip Donner wrote an application, which sent MIDI messages over a NetMeeting data channel. MIDI is a protocol which communicates note control information from one synthesizer to another. These control codes describe the actions of playing musical instruments in a very compact way. It gives a similar bit budget advantage in networking as vector images do compared with bitmaps. As bandwidth congestion is one of the central issues of multimedia conferencing, MIDI is an attractive mode of expression.

Due to problems encountered in multipoint audio communication, collaborative use of the MIDICombo application was postponed time after time. When the application was finally used, it became evident that this was a killer application for music distance learning. The usage value was immediately evident when the teacher formed his first networked tutorial ensemble.

The application is designed to mimic the behavior of the members of the NetMeeting application suite. When a conference member runs the application, it starts up in the machines of all of the other meeting participants. The caption bar indicates collective usage of the application and a conference end is accompanied by closing collaborative use of the program.

The MIDI devices may be configurated from MIDICombo, including individual selection of musical instrument or a set of percussion sounds. The program may be controlled from a synthesizer instrument as well as from the animated keyboard on the computer monitor. The application also includes MIDI features of pedagogical interest. MIDI messages may be monitored in three modes: a) as MIDI codes produced by the user's instrument, b) as NetMeeting conferencing data keyed to time and conference member, c) as an animation depicting local and remote players.

While acting as teacher I could play illustrative excerpts on the synthesizer. The students were able to listen to the music without any of the problems experienced in the digital audio transmission. The quality of the sound was solely determined by the level of the student's sound card. During collective playing synchronization was amplified by a built-in metronome. One of the members played the melody on a synthesized cembalo, another played harmony on a marimba, accompanied by a third student playing bass - each one in his individual home area in Finland.

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5. Summary: Problems and achievements

The project achieved the goal of producing a cost-effective computer-based distance learning environment. However, technical problems were more numerous than expected. The most important reason behind this fact was the lack of experience with the new technology. This is naturally the case with any pioneering educational project: Most of the problems cannot be foreseen and they appear only when the pilot work is already underway. On the other hand, the students were also forgiving and understood easily that an experimental teaching environment was bound to produce technical difficulties.

The environment was at its best in dialogues: Audio functioned without problems and the collaboration software produced many alternative paths of action. As the course progressed the quality of multipoint communication improved and the students could experience the excitement of innovative work methods. MIDICombo, the new NetMeeting MIDI custom application brought a new thrilling element into the musical communication environment.

Although the objectives of the project were achieved, the amount of effort put into the pilot course was still disproportionately high. In addition to normal preparatory work, the uncertainty of multi-point audio communication produced an additional element of stress. While teleconferencing has an extra burden of being expensive, Internet-based conferencing gives the freedom for solving problems without time constraints.

Unexpected delays severely decreased the intensity of the teaching situation. Here a problem, which was also prevalent in teleconferencing, must be noted - arrivals at the networked classroom were often quite irregular. As described earlier, similar problems were encountered as a result of wrong logon procedures and audio breakdowns, which led to interruptions. In such cases, it was rather difficult to decide whether teaching should continue or if there was a need to recapitulate the main points to the latecomer or outsider. Reluctance to sum up new content often produced setbacks later on, during the session.

NetMeeting was very useful in adding new channels of multimedia communication. Graphical presentations of the teaching substance and collective problem solving produce new conditions in support of the learning process. It is also easier for the teacher to observe learning progress in NM than in teleconferenced teaching. A greater freedom in the use of the teaching material is also achieved, as the teacher may quite instantly retrieve additional information and examples, whenever needed. Improvisation has now definitely found its way into teaching through the Internet.

The face-to-face period in the beginning of the course was important in creating a feeling of togetherness. It gave an advantage in the distance learning situation, where the students quickly felt free to participate. Workgroups within the class did not work out as expected. The collective effort of translating study material into Finnish was also slow. These are, however, problems which can be partially traced back to the lack of group work experience of older students compared to that of the current generation of school children.

Net conferencing opens up numerous new alternatives in distance learning and it increases regional democracy. In order to fullfill its promises the new technology must be accompanied by still better network performance. It is, however, obvious that distance learning presents numerous stimulating challenges to an increasingly sophisticated area of computer science.

It is time to test the real usage value of the machines.

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Date last modified: 31.5.1999
URL: http://personal.piramk.fi/matti.ruippo/