Trends and Issues in Higher Ed

May 2, 2016

Finding meaning behind the music

Online tool helps students get creative with final class presentations


Kim Davenport, lecturer in Interdisciplinary Arts & Sciences at UW Tacoma, went online to help students find their creativity.

Last fall, UW Tacoma Lecturer Kim Davenport turned to FOLD, a new web-based open publishing platform, to help her students construct multimedia presentations that allow them to discover their creative voice.

FOLD, as Davenport quickly discovered, boosted the learning of the students in her humanities classes, encouraging them to express their ideas about music in multiple ways.

“It brought out a lot of creativity in my students. And it made them better presenters,’’ says Davenport, a lecturer in Interdisciplinary Arts & Sciences who first asked students to use FOLD for their final presentations last autumn quarter.

“Many of the presentations are very touching, from a student who is contending with life after military service to someone who explored his world of sound by making a potato clarinet,” says Davenport, who also was pleased by the high quality of content students produced, including the original musical pieces they performed for classmates.

Technology offers students new options to apply theories and demonstrate understanding

Students are now required to use FOLD to produce their final assignment in Davenport’s course, Listening Outside the Box: Concert Music in the 21st Century. Before, Davenport asked students to write a two-page paper.

Writing about music is no easy task, says Davenport, even for seasoned musicians. FOLD makes it easier for students—many who have no music experience at all—to design, create, document and perform a new musical work as part of their final class presentation. With FOLD, they can attach videos, song snippets, photos and other multimedia to their words.

“I have been using FOLD for three quarters now, and it has really reinvigorated the final assignment,” Davenport says.

Studying—and emulating—an artist to boost your own creativity

Davenport’s class is centered on the musical philosophies of John Cage, considered one of the most influential composers of the 20th century. Cage pioneered the idea of “indeterminacy” in music—where any part of a musical composition is “indeterminate” if its performance is not precisely specified in the notation, allowing the performer to play at random or within certain guidelines.

This approach also typically features non-standard use of musical instruments or even everyday objects, such as what is seen in the musical Stomp and by the Blue Man Group live musical act. Students learn about Cage, the meaning and philosophy of music, and, finally, are asked to create and perform a new musical work in homage to Cage.

Davenport says Cage’s ideas about music are particularly important—and accessible—for students who are looking at music critically for the first time. His unique ideas and creative approaches, which often push the boundaries of what is traditionally considered music, encourage students to expand their own views about music.

Following in Cage’s footsteps, many of Davenport’s students push the boundaries in their presentations, creating original video to play their scores and using a wide range of media to support their ideas and inspiration.

Students learn how creative inspiration comes from anywhere, from the kitchen to Snapchat

FOLD, developed at the MIT Media Lab’s Center for Civic Media in 2015, lets users link media “cards” to the text of their stories. These cards can include content in just about any digital form, from unique and fresh multimedia content created by the users to videos, photos, maps, tweets, audio and other links that already exist on the internet.

For an example, Davenport sends her students to look at L’instrument de la Terre, created by student Paul Kang, who made a potato clarinet for his final class assignment. Kang talks about his inspiration in his FOLD presentation, which is peppered with video, photos and music.

“I chose to make a potato clarinet to show that you can make music with anything if you have the passion and the dedication like John Cage,” writes Kang, who carved a potato and used clarinet parts to make his instrument.

Another student found his inspiration from social media. “My motivation to do this piece came from my constant Snapchat use,” writes Ariel Advincula. “I realized I posted a lot of snippets of my life on my Snapchat and if I skipped, stopped and replayed the footage in sporadic patterns, I found that even the simplest of sounds can become music.”

I want to empower them to find their own voices by creating music and sharing those experiences with others.”

Students have the option of keeping their projects online, Davenport says, something she encourages so others can enjoy and learn from their work.

“I’m always trying to find ways to make music more engaging for students. Some of my students have no musical skills, and I want to empower them to find their own voices by creating music and sharing those experiences with others.”

Davenport’s suggestions for incorporating FOLD into a class project:

If you’re going to use a new classroom technology, try it out first, see if it fits: Technologies come and go and that’s true for classroom use, Davenport says, so be open to new tools that can help you meet your teaching and learning goals. Davenport learned about FOLD last summer, when she used it to make a submission of her classroom work for a music award. She tried it and saw its potential to help students.

FOLD is relatively new and free for now, but Davenport recommends it because her experience over three quarters has been largely positive—students have reacted well to it and have used it in creative ways to support their work.

However, as easy as it is to use, she says faculty should definitely try out any new classroom technology first before asking students to work with it. “I learned how to use it very quickly, and students should not have any problems at all,’’ she says. “Students live online, so this is easy for them.”

Make it a requirement: At first, using FOLD was not required, but consistency in a classroom is important, she says. Now, students know they will be using FOLD to create and present their final project—worth 30 percent of their grade.

Help students understand how to use the classroom technology and how it fits into their experience of learning about creativity: Davenport spends time with students explaining how they will use the publishing platform. FOLD helps students put different concepts together and to build on them to present their own creative ideas about a particular piece of music.

“I don’t have to spend too much time telling them how to use it. Yet, it is important to make sure that students understand that this is just one tool for a very specific assignment.” FOLD can help them tell the story of their final product, but the creative work comes from them.

“I still expect them to participate in the classroom and engage in discussion with other students in multiple ways,” Davenport says.