4 things I learned about using education technology from a blues harp

Look. I’m not the sort of person who likes to blow his own trumpet, but one thing I do know is that I play a mean blues harmonica. I know that is because musicians keep telling me, and who am I to argue with experts? I also get asked to join musical ensembles (five at the last count), so people seem to mean what they say: it’s not just empty flattery.The A Minor Harp

So imagine how disappointed I was recently when I bought a new blues harmonica and, upon trying it out, decided that it was feeble, tinny, and completely lacking in that angst with which blues is associated.

You might wonder why I didn’t assume it was my fault; was this not just another case of a poor workman blaming his tools? Well, no, because I am usually pretty adept at taking a pleasant, upbeat melody and transforming it into something that will have you crying into your coffee. Believe me, that is some skill.

The day after I bought this instrument I joined up with some other musicians: guitars, bass, keyboard, drums; even a slide guitar. And I played through a microphone and amplifier. The difference was magical. The key, A minor, was just right, and, as I had forgotten the day before, playing through a microphone not only changes the volume of the instrument, but the way it sounds too. No doubt that is partly due to the fact that you have to breathe and play differently to when you’re playing unplugged.

The worst, but also the most exhilarating, part of the experience was when the group leader shouted out “Harmonica solo”. This happened more often than I might have wished, largely because I had never played an A minor harp (as we blues heads call a harmonica) before, and cannot read music. Amazingly (to me), it all worked beautifully.

So how does this all relate to using educational technology? It seems to me that there are 4 parallels between my experience with the A minor harmonica and what happens in a computing lesson:

You need the right environment

Trying out my new blues harmonica while sitting in the car was hardly likely to yield exemplary results. The acoustics were wrong, the atmosphere was non-existent and there were no supportive others (it’s embarrassing to be playing away on a harmonica when people are passing by, unless you’re an incorrigible extrovert).

It’s the same with education technology. You can’t truly gauge what a new piece of kit can do if you try it out in a showroom or an exhibition. It needs to be right there in your classroom, working with your wi-fi system, with your kids, your lessons, your support structure — whether that is a teaching assistant, other pupils or some other other arrangement. For this reason I should highly recommend asking for an evaluation model of any piece of kit you are thinking of buying, especially if it is going to cost some serious money. Borrowing a tablet computer, say, or a 3D printer for two weeks can really help in the buying decision.

Either that or, as I have advocated previously (please see N is for … New Technology: 5 Reasons You Should Buy It), ask your boss to set up an innovation fund so that you (and others perhaps) can purchase bits of kit to try out, with no blame attached if they turn out to be not useful. Far better to “waste” £500 on a single item than £20,000 on a complete set.

Things work better together

Playing a harmonica on its own can be OK — for about five minutes. Add a guitar to it and things start to become much more interesting: ask any fan of Bob Dylan or Neil Young. Add several other instruments and then you can really start rockin’.

It’s the same with education technology. You can do much more with a piece of kit that is connected to other equipment, which is another reason that looking at something in isolation at an exhibition can never give you a proper insight into what might be achieved.

Context is all

Playing the harmonica on my own in the car only gave me a very rough idea of what it really sounded like and what it could be made to do. But the right context, that is, playing a particular song, is what really enables you to explore the possibilities — and the limitations — of the instrument.

In the same way, playing around with an application or a piece of kit can give you only a vague idea of what it can do. You need a context, a proper piece of work, such as a problem to be solved, in order to get the most out of it.

Risk-taking is to be encouraged

If you’re playing with a bunch of people and someone shouts out “Solo!”, you have a choice. You can either stop and mumble “Sorry, I’m not quite…., I don’t think…., perhaps we should…” — or you can throw caution to the winds, trust your instinct and enjoy the moment.

There’s a lesson for teachers here. If a pupil has written a brilliant program, or created a wonderful PowerPoint, then don’t leave it there. Yes, praise them, and say what you think is good about what they’ve done. But then say, “OK, I would like you to do X”, where “X” is a biggish thing. Maybe even an impossible thing: how will you know unless you try?

Does it matter if you can’t do “X” yourself? If you have established your credentials as an expert in the subject, and established a classroom ethos of discovery, risk-taking and acknowledgement of the fact that no one person can know everything, I don’t think it does. Indeed, your not knowing can add to the excitement of the lesson, and the thrill that pupils enjoy from discovering something even the teacher didn’t know.

One of the best lessons of my teaching career was when a couple of boys asked me how they automate some quite complicated procedure in a spreadsheet. I told them I hadn’t a clue — and the three of us promptly got down to the job of finding out. We got there in the end, using a combination of Visual Basic for Applications (VBA), functions and a few nifty formulas. The interesting thing for me is that none of the pupils in the class batted an eyelid when their teacher said “I haven’t a clue”.

Please note: I had already established the conditions for this: my expertise and the classroom ethos described above. I am absolutely not advocating taking the view that it’s OK to know little or nothing on the dubious grounds that you are there as a ‘facilitator’ and that the kids can teach themselves and each other. Since when did someone who knows nothing succeed in teaching someone else anything?

If you think about it, my response of “I don’t have a clue” was not completely correct. I didn’t know how to solve that particular problem, but I did know that there was probably a way of doing so using VBA, and I also knew of a few excellent websites in which Excel experts had devised some amazing formulae that we could borrow or adapt. And I also had several books on VBA and advanced Excel adorning the shelves of my classroom, which I encouraged the pupils (and myself) to us whenever they needed to.

Conclusion

When John Donne declared that “no man is an island” he might just as well have been talking about educational technology equipment and applications.

And harmonicas!

Postscript

Did you know that blues songs have a structure? That means you can automate the creation of blues songs! Read the following article to find out more, and for details of a challenge.

Blues songs and Computing

Like many other musical genres, blues music has certain conventions, in respect of subject matter, chord sequences and structure. This means that it lends itself to some degree of automation — well, conceptually at least.

For example, blues songs often involve one or more of the following (and frequently all of them):

  • No job
  • no money
  • no luck
  • partner leaving (usually on a train departing at midnight for some reason) or (especially when the singer is female) telling your partner to pack their bags and leave
  • unwelcome police interest
  • … well, you get the picture.

This means that you could relatively easily draw up a flowchart, or devise an algorithm, that would help the would-be listener determine what sort of blues song a track is before even playing it — or could help a would-be blues song writer to determine the main theme of his or her song.

The structure of many blues songs is equally predictable. Here is a fairly typical example, taken from a Muddy Waters’ song with the deeply philosophical title of “You can’t lose what you ain’t never had”:

Had money in the bank, I got busted, people ain't that bad

Had money in the bank, I got busted, people ain't that bad

You can't spend what you ain't got,

you can't lose some little girl you ain't never had

Now, you could write a program or find some other way to automate the generation of a song from a few keywords or a few sentences. I did so just for a bit of fun (I don’t get out much) using a spreadsheet.

If you fancy a challenge and, to borrow from Mae West, if you’ve got nothing to do and plenty of time to do it in, why not see if you can write a short program or flowchart or something else to encapsulate one or more aspects of “the blues”? Email it to me – my email address is on the Contact Us page -- I’ll publish one or two of the the ones I like best!


This article first appeared in Digital Education, the free newsletter for those with a professional interest in educational ICT and Computing. One of the benefits of subscribing – apart from access to unique content – is articles in a timely manner. For example, slightly different versions of this article and the Postscript were published in the June 2014 edition.To sign up, please complete the short form on our newsletter page. We use a double opt-in system, and you won’t get spammed.