All about the form(at)

Being a music teacher is the most incredible, creative fun

Children performing my Children's opera, KiravanuI’m spoilt for choice, and spoilt by choice. I have everything I need, and not quite what I want. I can have it all but I really need much less.

OK, so I sound like a petulant teenager. I’m not, I promise. Actually I’m an excited, inspired, passionate teacher who loves to create. I fell into teaching because as a ‘classical’ composer there aren’t many jobs around and composer-in-residence at a school with one of the most innovative music programs in the world seemed like a good way to pay the rent and support the family.

Then I discovered how completely wonderful teaching is. On nearly every level (well, yes, apart from all the paperwork and dealing with the fallout from when you get the paperwork wrong), be it interacting with young, uninhibited and open minds, or reopening defensive, self-concious adolescent ones. Be it passing on (often more by enthusiasm than any great wisdom or pedagogical innovation) some of the magic that is in music or finding out something I didn’t know from someone a third of my age. Brilliant.

Thanks to technology

And do you know what? Technology has made teaching just as creative as composing. I mean it. Really. I love spending a week in my studio working on a new piece of repertoire, but I also love preparing lessons. Because every lesson I publish my ideas as teacher to the learning management system (LMS). The students publish their own thoughts and reflections on what they’ve learned to their blogs. I don’t use the LMS as a textbook, although sometimes it does have that function when students haven’t listened to spoken instructions, but instead as a scaffold over which I will ‘perform’ in the classroom (and ask my students – yes, it’s a performance).

Every lesson in music involves my own research, revision and practice. I do sometimes use the same material but rarely, and when I do, I adapt it and make it better, like Bach and one of those cheeky themes you find in 3 or 4 different works. I might grab some source HTML off one page of the LMS, paste it to a new page for a different class, and repurpose the task. Or take the original structure and screen capture some new tutorials on how to make a drum beat in the X style that is current.

Heck, you know what I do, because I publish bits of it here on my website. It’s so fun for me, it’s so creative, and the students get to be creative back, like we playing a piece of music together even though we might be doing some musicological study or each writing our own solo over a given ground bass. (Yes, I get to write the ground bass, too)

Form and format

So, what is it I don’t have that I want? Or I have too much of? Formats. Or is it form? Perhaps both. I just want the perfect form for sharing this stuff. At the moment I can put it everywhere in any form and nowhere in any one form. Is this not getting clearer? I’m sorry, I’ll explain further.

Mobile devicesThe information I share with my students is a combination of four formats. It’s text, it’s image, it’s audio and it’s video. I’d love to be making animated games and lessons too, but hey, I’m trying to finish my PhD before I’m 50. There are nearly limitless ways you can share text, image, audio and video. In fact you’re reading in one such format now – whether you’re reading this in a web browser on your laptop, desktop or a mobile device it’s likely that it can also support any images, audio and video I want to share with you. In fact WordPress are even nice enough to reformat this page nicely if they detect you’re using a mobile device, so the format fits. There are also a gazillion other ways on the Web2.0 that I can publish these formats, be they blogs, wikis, whatever… all will use some HTML and possibly some other whizzy web-plugins to do that.

I’ll tell you why that’s not enough in a minute. The main point for now is that the information is in those 4 formats and I want it to be readable on any digital device, in one form. Good.

Higher demands

The next demands I have with my content are numerous. And they move past the content itself and the delivery medium into how I create them and how they are received. As well as publishing my text, images, audio and video, I want to be able to do it very quickly and for it to look absolutely beautiful. This means templates, and really good ones.

Then, to completely contradict myself, when I need total control over the layout, because it’s important and I’m prepared to spend time on it, I need that too. It needs to be robust and technical.

Layout is also important outside digital media. Believe it or not, there is a time when it’s best printed out and stuck in a scrapbook or given as a worksheet to fill in with analogue media (pens, pencils). But while it’s got to look good printed, it also has to be entirely viewable online, on any of the devices mentioned above, and if a student needs to take it with them it needs to be downloadable and useable offline (because, whatever the researchers tell you, the internet is not ubiquitous, even in rich inner-city student lives).

We’re getting closer now. I create all sorts of useful things for my students, and they’re made in a combination of text, image, audio and video. It’s incredibly easy to make but also very customisable and powerful; it looks beautiful on any kind of screen or printed to paper, and can be accessed online but also stored and accessed again offline locally. Piece of cake, right?

Ten years of nearly getting there

Old browserIn just short of ten years teaching in a 1 to 1 school (yes, 1 to 1 for ten years, and wirelessly networked for that time too) I’ve nearly got there many times. We started with HTML. We were writing in code or using Dreamweaver, although you wouldn’t describe either of those as quick and easy. But once you’d developed some skills they were tolerable. What was horrible was the way your content looked so different from one browser to the next, and usually unrecognisable if you printed it. Yes, the advent of standardisation and CSS has helped much of this in recent years, so we’ll come back to HTML below: I’m just telling you why I abandoned it as the be all and end all publishing form first.

Next I went to PDF. PDF was, and still is in many ways, very cool. It looks exactly the same on many platforms, and has good mobile device support. You can put links between pages in a PDF document so it is navigable like a website as long as the PDF reader in question supports links. Text – check. Images – check. Audio – check, although it doesn’t seem to be as easily embeddable in the CS4 version I have of Acrobat Pro as it did in Acrobat 4 and 5. Video – hmmm – embedding video in PDF still seems to be a challenge, in that it wants to have separate video files, so sharing becomes a bit of a mess. Worse than that, doing these funky things in PDF now assaults you with a series of paranoid questions “Are you sure you want to play this media?”, “This document is trying to put itself into full screen mode and if you let it who knows what will happen”… Yuck! But – PDF is the king when it comes to printing, digital paper as it is. I had a lot of fun with PDF, and you can still see a big linked PDF which was part of my masters on David Ahern on the website. Local saving should be possible on all devices, too, so PDF is still not off the table, and any PDF pros reading this may be able to correct me on the problems I’ve had – but then I wonder how embedded media will be handled on each platform, if at all. And the publishing process can be a pain if you want to revise the original document after you’ve added extra elements in Acrobat…

Quicktime is another one we’ve played around with. Quicktime files don’t just have to be movies, they can have buttons and they can be podcasts with slides and all sorts. That’s pretty exciting when you consider how easy it is to build them with a program like Keynote or Pages. But you can’t print Quicktime movies, and some funny things seem to happen to some of the formats when they get shared around different platforms.

Flash (Gordon)Flash. This will be the year I learn Flash. Honestly. I’ve got a book and everything. If I manage to get my head around Actionscript, I think Flash could do much of what I want it to do (I’m told you can even print or export pretty good images), but the chances of getting my head around it seems unlikely, being a programming language as it is. You can’t easily save Flash locally, either (well OK yes you can, but you’d need two downloads), so running it offline is going to be a pain, especially on mobile devices.  In addition, without entering the current Apple vs Adobe argument and the rights and wrongs of all that, it’s not supported across all platforms and its performance is at least questionable, so it’s arguable that it’s not worth a huge investment of time yet – we may know the answer to that one in another 6 or 12 months.

Podcasting is not a form per se but a good way of delivering the text, image, audio and video formats all together in one place. I can create a podcast and podcast any mix of these kind of files under the one heading. It’s not beautiful but with a bit of structure – a PDF first to explain how it all fits together, and the following files in a sensible order – it’s a good way of delivering files which will naturally then be stored locally (and updated automatically) on any device. Close to iTunesU. Except, it turns out, that not all software on all devices will sync everything through a podcast. In my Apple-centric life I find that while iTunes is happy to receive a PDF in a podcast it will not sync to my iPhone. I would imagine other operating systems may well have similar quirks. Either way, it’s there, but not quite there.

Back to HTML

And so I end up back where I started with HTML, which is of course what our LMS is. HTML today is bloody brilliant. Yes you can now print HTML and it will look pretty good. Yes there are dozens of really great WYSIWIG HTML editors with beautiful templates and plenty of power behind the scenes if you want to customise. Yes there are a whole load of ways I can deliver video and audio in HTML and the most popular ones (eg MP3 and YouTube embedded) are supported by every mobile device I know.

So why on earth did I start this rant, when HTML does everything I want? Well, it’s the offline thing, you see. Yes, I know that there are programs that will download a site for you to view offline, and some browsers do an OK job on that too. Some will even cache the folder structure deep enough to make it really useful – though whether they cache flash movies and all linked resources I don’t know. But there doesn’t – so far – seem to be a mobile browser that does it, or a way to send folders of files linked by HTML through to mobile devices for offline browsing easily. And it’s important – students can’t afford to download 20Mb of video on a 3G connection. Cityrail doesn’t have wireless and I don’t think it’s coming. So I need some kind of container that bundles a site and all its media together and delivers it for offline viewing.

Or I need a completely new … thing …

Back to the future?

Future, manAt our school we’re blessed with having a number of in-house developers building said LMS as well as working on things like a virtual learning space in Second Life, the school database and world domination. Every now and then they let the sunlight in on their office and I pop by – last week, having a look at an imported iPad, they asked what we wanted. I told them pretty much what I’ve written above, the MLC-mega app, that would allow me to publish my wonderful content to anything and everything, online and offline, quickly and easily and beautifully. Their answer – that I should become a developer. Yes, OK…

But isn’t this designable? I mean, I’m not saying our guys have time to do it (in fact I’m sure they don’t), but surely someone does out there. And I bet it’s not just educators looking for this magic combination. It could be simply a way of handing HTML and a number of media files within HTML, both offline and online. Or it could be a proprietary format, with an authoring program that would need to support Windows, Mac and Linux, and reading programs that cover… well, everything. They’d have to think hard about how to deliver content to closed systems with no file structure (eg iPhone, iPad), but from what I’ve seen already of viewing apps like iDisk and Dropbox this isn’t too hard – you download within the app and then it’s local for future viewing.

Would it really be that hard to build the thing that I need, the everything and the onething?

Or perhaps it already exists and I just don’t know it. If you do, please share in the comments below…

6 thoughts on “All about the form(at)”

  1. I don’t know why you’re bothering learning flash. HTML5 will make sure of it’s demise.

    1. Hi Dan,

      Well, that’s what Steve Jobs would have us believe! And certainly, if the future of HTML is that it will support media, animation and the kind of stuff you can do with Actionscript then yes, he’s right. But the developers who I’ve spoken to say it applies to media playback but won’t really be there for animation for around 5 years.

      Everyone’s guessing, I suppose. That’s half the fun!

      Back to my Literacies for Learning essay 😉


      Sent from my iPad

      1. I was doing a bit of reading on the Flash vs HTML5 debate last week and found this site created all in HTML5 as a proof of concept.

        From what I’ve read, it seems that while HTML5 is still far from being ratified, the process will be much faster as more developers jump on board. I found a great article that explained this point but, of course, I didn’t bookmark it and now I can’t find it. Oh, hang on, I was using Firefox.

        Nup, I can’t remember what it was called but here are some sites of interest I found.

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