Saturday, October 11, 2014

So what? I am a rockstar...

My Signals and Systems class is taking this online course: Survey of Music Technology.

Why?  Music is big in Nigeria nowadays, and is a big hit with young people.
On the other hand, the "typical" first Signals course is too abstract, too mathy, for all but a few engineering students to embrace (I was one of those few back in undergrad, the famous Oppenheim textbook was fat but very exciting to me), so in teaching Signals, I usually want two new ingredients -
  • some math review (don't ask, we usually have to review functions like f(x) = sin x) 
  • and some motivation (why are we computing these Fourier integrals? what are some applications?).  
This was THE Signals text, if you remember :)
When I taught Signals last year the math review bit was via Khan academy and additional lectures on integration and complex numbers.  (The previous year, I was also teaching a math class to the same set so I squeezed some of those topics onto their math syllabus. The semester before that, the focus of the class was a little different, and while we could "talk" - history, ethics, tech, we couldn't do math successfully.)
the motivation bit included me sketching graphs of the modulation and demodulation used in radio communication - standard signals stuff, but few 20-year olds in 2014 are thinking that way, really.  Hard to appreciate radio frequency technology as technology unless you're like 50 years old, which is like ancient :)

It IS a different world!  I commented recently on the insight of some of my students which runs counter to the McKinsey/World Bank-type view of internet and mobile penetration.  
While the business technology / technology business communities like to talk about the last mile in telecommunications and how mobile telephony brings the internet to all parts of Africa, i.e. but for the cellphone, most people would not have access to the internet in Africa at all...the all-important internet penetration riding on the back of high mobile penetration...
My students in their test answers showed me a different worldview.  They take the phone as a given, as the base.  Then they write that but for the internet and mobile apps, the phone would be pretty dumb.  The all-important mobile device depending on the internet and apps for utility and competitiveness.  One can't but smile. 

Anyway, digital music programming was a hit the last time I included it in a course at the same college, as a fun way to learn programming concepts.  It was a terrible lot of work, yet they were all smiles.

I can already see that it - a slightly different sound technology course - will be a hit this semester.  What's more, these waves and amplitudes and spectra will REALLY, DEEPLY make sense to, not a few students but practically all of the students who engage in the course. 
Modified screenshot of lesson outline for WEEK ONE of MusicTech on Coursera, offered by Jason A Freeman of GeorgiaTech

 Other advantages of this course within a course idea -
  • it helps me atomize the large class (we'll still meet weekly, in two groups of fifty each, but you add their time spent individually and in smaller groups on other high-quality learning activities, and they're doing 5-10 hours of fun with signals.  I can go home happy), 
  • it gets them to see the world (how do people communicate?  oral and written English, effective slides, multimedia use, and so on.  what are my colleagues like across the world?  how do people conceive of learning?  plagiarism and ethical standards, other large-group etiquette, the evolution of learning, scalable models...)
  • in theory it's less work for me.  yeah, right.  more importantly, it brings in more expert experts than me and better-prepared presentations in some cases.   they're being evaluated at least once weekly, with quizzes and projects, and I don't have to worry about that workload.  
It's just really cool all around.  There are many reasons why a good/great instructor is still important.  I'm sure you know that, otherwise, guess that's another blog post.  (Basically I have to know the audience and research the possible teaching resources.  The I have the pleasure of taking the online classes and discussing with students and adjusting, even aborting, as necessary.  And so on.  Fun stuff.  Value-adding stuff.)

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My other class this semester is very course-within-a-course as well.
I know I owe you a few long-missing blogposts.  Soon.  Minesweeper.  Prime numbers.  X-and-O.  Maybe someday Sudoku. 


  1. Part One of Two:
    To recap, I am using MOOCs as modules in two courses I'm teaching this semester (Oct 2014 - Jan2015).
    In Internet and Web Application Technologies, the students are required to take IHTS and PR4E. We used IHTS in the same way last semester, but coupled with chuck101. But this year I replaced the digital music programming course chuck101 with Python for Everybody in large part because it would drop the student workload (time spent) for this 2-unit course. Everybody loved the chuck101 class last year, loved it, me too, but you understand, it's nice to keep workloads sort of reasonable.
    Anyway, guess what? It's working. How could I have doubted? PR4E, Programming for Everybody, is the gentlest introduction to Python, and modern programming, ever. NOT FOR PROGRAMMERS, I suppose, they'd be bored. I was especially nervous because I'm not taking the course (a little too busy with other things) but I check in with the students weekly, and check in on the course site (so I am half-auditing the course) occasionally. I just confirmed that, not only are the topics in there, but the incidental learning is there too. For example, the automatic grading software for the course had a fault and the solution was crowdsourced on the course discussion site. Apparently, there ARE expert programmers taking the course. I am thrilled that my students get to engage in or at least witness these patterns of working. THIS is reason #969 why they're doing Coursera and not taking lectures in class all day.

  2. Part Two of Two:
    In Signals and Systems, the students are required to take musictech. I'm afraid I'm only half-taking that course as well. It appears that the students find it a little stressful (I understand, trust me, crappy internet, no internet sometimes, everything goes wrong), then the assignments! With the first one I bet many got stuck with aforesaid logistics problems (until you've lived in Nigeria, don't underestimate how a 5-minute transaction can take five days lol) coupled with "African-time" or as my mother calls it, "last-minute-dot-com".
    For the record, the first assignment (around week three) was to use this music editing software called Reaper in some specified way, with some basic sound files provided, some sound you must record yourself, multiple tracks and effects etc, or as my student explained, "we're making beats." Oh OK. :) (They crack me up. Here I was trying to figure out the technical term for their WYSIWYG / GUI-based music editing work and well, they knew exactly what it was.) The second assignment was to "make beats" but with a Python-based programming tool called EarSketch, so basically doing algorithmic music as in chuck101, but not with chucK, with a different TYPE of language. I can see how the programming would be impossible for many of them to do all at once in one day or one week; they haven't a lot of experience with it. They have had programming courses yes, but clearly not effective/intensive enough (another reason why we're doing this :)
    If they'd had weekly assignments, perhaps they'd have got more practice and got in the flow a bit, but then two, three, weeks off and another hill - another assignment - and maybe they get whacked with similar issues (time-management, Murphy's law - what can go wrong will go wrong, multiplied by the infamous "Nigerian factor") again. Brand new software to be downloaded, things to be uploaded, new skills and information to be applied, oh my, the stress.
    So of course I am happy. Hey, they know that they don't "have to" do these assignments so they can learn as much or as little as they can handle right now.
    At least one of them is glad it's over.
    I think they've had FUN.
    What's more, I think the second half of the semester is going to be like toooo easy, now that we've done Signals through Music on the one hand, and the math review on the other hand.
    If I'm still teaching a course like Signals next year, it'll be even more amazing. We could throw in some fine math - inner products and such, I once tried this but in a semester when I had five credits (two courses) with the same cohort of students; hard to do with a fresh (untested) batch of students in 2 hours a week. The concepts (advanced vector analysis, basic functional analysis) are not super-difficult, it just takes time to get their minds prepared, but it's so rewarding, so beautiful, to have these gorgeous theories that tie together our little computations in disparate fields/topics. Hmmm, I'm in love.
    Or if we don't go the advanced maths route, we could throw in some very fine practice, even finer than making digital music - I envision making musical instruments at the very least. Outdoors. Not that I've ever made an instrument. Just that I think play is great. PLAY IS GREAT.


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