Transforming Rich OER Into Instructional Music Will Take More Than a Kazoo

OER sometimes looks like millions of random musical notes at its most granular level. They can be organized in many different ways by different practitioners to create entirely different songs…and at times, some projects choose to do a bit of assembly and organize the notes into certain kinds of songs or sheets of pre-constructed music to lend more structure and focus. I find this diverse ecology of growing, available, unstructured to fully-structured OER incredibly valuable to an education system starting to finally legitimize its practitioners as important curators of curriculum and not just distributors of selected textbooks, worksheets, and test prep. activities.

It is absolutely wonderful to observe skilled educators taking seemingly disparate resources and through a deep understanding of their learners’ needs and a sense of how to blend traditional materials with new content, create a tapestry of harmonious learning activities and experiences. I marvel at how they weave in moments of reflection, connect to prior knowledge, and push for extended application through use, inspection, and analyses of resources sometimes designed for learning, oftentimes not.


I liken highly-effective teachers to talented musicians. There is a place for the notes, and the sheet music…but in the end, the actual music is a product of the musician’s interpretation. And most musicians use any number of instruments by which to organize those notes into melody. The instrument is what they use to sequence, and deliver the notes as interpreted by their own intonation and emphasis, moving quickly through some sections, while lingering with long and focused intent on others.

Consider this selection by Miles Davis entitled So What.

With some focus and effort, we are doing a better job in Ed Tech of getting more notes, more scores, and more sheet music accessible to more educators. And this was and is a big, initial piece of work that needs to be continued as more and more education-funded resource development initiatives embrace the value of sharing the derivatives of their work, more teacher teams are given the opportunity to author materials, and the growing efforts of Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums (GLAM) result in shared, rich, digital repositories released for formal and informal learning use. As innovation goes however, crossing one threshold often brings the innovators to the next series of big challenges. One such emerging challenge is providing the right instruments by which teachers are asked to organize new resources into instructional music for their learners. To date, by and large, the digital learning industry has provided educators the equivalent of a Kazoo. Imagine that piece above with Miles Davis lips pursed around a Kazoo. We know that it can certainly produce a sound and even given notes. But given the limited sophistication of this instrument, there is no way it will adequately reflect the complexity and layers of music capable of any musician, let alone our most talented artists.


This week I received 3 separate announcements about projects that have done an incredible job integrating diverse resource repositories and now want to showcase some of their new instruments for “creating instruction” or “blended curriculum”. These are all projects in the national spotlight and have significant funding and traction. In addition to sharing extensive OER repositories, they’ve all adopted variations on the “content playlist” solutions that’s been so popular with eLearning designers since iTunesU and Gooru Learning created some initial approaches to this archetype borrowed heavily from common media playlists underpinning iTunes and YouTube. But as Victoria University’s then Vice Chancellor Lindsay Tanner cautioned about the state of eLearning in 2011 when addressing fellow university leaders across Australia,

While we’ve made great progress in eLearning, there’s been an awful lot about ‘e’ and not much about ‘learning’. Plenty of tech, very little ped(agogy)…we need to do better.

Have we done better in the last 5 years since 2011?

Researcher Stephen Downes, through years of contributions to this field, refers regularly to a transition from static technology – which allows central agencies to document, store, and organize learning content – to haptic technology meant to support collaborative, interactive, and creative learning experiences.  Just this last year, no less than 11 entire state platforms have either been introduced or gone through massive redesigns along with digital curriculum collection and sharing systems created by SBAC and PARCC at the cost of tens of millions of dollars per project. Some have integrated playlist-like resource organizers, but most still move educators through a series of grade level or standards browsing manipulations only to deliver them to a static series of pdf-based lesson plans.  Regardless, teachers need a way to create relationships between seemingly disparate resources for their learners much like a musician blends notes and alters pacing. Teachers can not readily inject connective annotations, direct a learner’s focus to specific elements of a resource to help scaffold from micro to macro concepts, draw up parallels relating to contemporary issues, engage in constructivist activities while embedding social, reflective exercises to help the learner monitor personal progress and relate to how others are experiencing the information and formulating responses. That would be music. But sadly, we seem to still be handing out kazoos, and what they produce is vaguely recognizable as such.


We have been working on prototyping some new instruments. The Smithsonian Center for Learning and Digital Access invited us to assist in some new research on this topic as an extension of their 2-year Carnegie research project. As such, we are engaged in a deep examination of existing literature on digital learning environments and tools with a particular focus on what works for kids. We are also extending our analysis to compare popular online learning systems with everyday social media tools that seem to intrigue youth-users in creating content, looking up information, and generally engaging their peers beyond mitigated learning exchanges. So if you happen to get an invite from one of us to join Kik, Instagram, Snapchat, or Whisper, now you’ll know why. We hope to distill this research down to some common principles and features and then vet it with in-class observations and student interviews across diverse communities and school sites. Stay tuned…an until then, enjoy a sweet kazoo version of Michael Jackson’s Billy Jean.

By | 2022-03-14T11:25:18+00:00 April 13th, 2016|