Blog Post

Reflecting on the Design and Development of Music Learning Playlists

As part of the DML 6 Playlists for Learning initiative, the Consortium for Innovation and Transformation in Music Education at Arizona State University collaborated with a number of partners such as NYU's MusEdLab, content expert consultants, K-12 music educators, pre-service music educators, and young people to develop Sound Explorations: Creating, Expressing, and Improving Communities. Sound Explorations is a set of six music learning playlists designed to help young people “get started” 1) coding and programming music; 2) connecting music and culture;  3) creating instruments or interfaces; 4) jamming; 5) making beats; or 6) producing music. This was an exciting opportunity to explore the space of connected learning playlists while developing resources with potential to support young people’s musical engagement and learning.   

Design Goals: Learners and Those Supporting Youth

The music learning playlists were originally designed for 1) secondary youth (ages 13-18) who are not currently involved in formal music programs (Elpus, 2014; Elpus and Abril, 2011); 2) secondary youth who may be involved in music programs but are interested in aspects of musical engagement that are typically missing or excluded from secondary music programs; and 3) for youth and facilitators/mentors/educators to engage with together collaboratively.

The playlists are primarily designed for young people who are interested in the themes of the playlists but who may not otherwise have access to resources or structured contexts to develop their understanding and skills related to the themes. During the course of the project, we began developing the playlists in a manner that provided opportunities and information more likely to be used in scenarios where a facilitator is present with youth, since it seemed this would be a more realistic scenario for youth interested in completing a playlist.

Our team also aimed to address people interested in facilitating youth engagement and learning around the playlist themes but who may not have the resources or expertise in the theme areas. The learning experiences (XPs) and playlists could provide a starting point for people connected to organizations, schools, and community settings to provide opportunities for youth to engage with and learn how to get started with the playlist themes.

Changes in Goals Throughout the Design Process

The primary goal of expanding youth's access to engage with and develop understanding of and skills pertaining to varied musical practices has remained core to the project. However, a goal of creating XPs that were extremely attractive to youth and figuring out how to then scaffold without a facilitator present transitioned over time to building scaffolding into each XP that could be used by a facilitator or mentor, even if it seems a bit much for the youth. We made this adjustment based on feedback from other grant awardees and our own initial feedback from playtesting that the playlists would most likely be used by youth in contexts where some adult is present and could engage as a facilitator. The XPs and playlists were designed to be robust enough for those who want to “geek out” (Ito et al.,2013) and complete a substantive playlist while having each XP provide opportunities for youth who would like to gain whatever they would like to out of an XP regardless of their desire to complete an XP or playlist.  

This change in goals was also informed by working through the notion that there may not be a one-size-fits-all type of playlist or XP that can satisfy the needs and interests of 1) youth who come to playlists in informal settings without a facilitator or mentor present or available; 2) youth who come to playlists in nonformal settings where facilitators are present and available with varied degrees of expertise or experience in the playlist themes; and 3) youth who come to the playlists in formal settings with facilitators/mentors/educators with varied degrees of expertise or experience in the playlist themes.

Reflecting on What We Learned

In an earlier blog post we mentioned three design challenges we were working through towards the middle of the design process. We will return to these questions here:

How might we design and facilitate learning experiences with an ethic of inquiry and project-based learning in a playlist format?

Designing XPs with an ethic of inquiry and project-based learning was easier from a conceptual and planning perspective than it was from an implementation phase in terms of how youth may (or may not) engage in inquiry and project-based learning with an XP in their varied settings. Each XP was designed around guided inquiry. The XPs begin with a generative question framing the learning experience and then present several additional lines of inquiry posed as questions in a “Think About” section. However, we learned from feedback with educators who playtested the XPs that learners largely skipped the generative questions (and much of text in general) to get right to playing around with the web-based apps and musical experiences we provided or suggested.

If we were to start over, we would try to playtest much earlier in the process to determine how to build reflection and inquiry into the XPs in a way that is inviting and that does not clutter up the screen with text. This might require dedicating funding to experts in UX design as consultants to accomplish this in a digital context. We would also provide more opportunities for youth to propose what types of content around the themes they would like to learn and balance this with the concepts and skills that our practitioner consultants suggested.

How might we support opportunities for rich, playful, and satisfying musical engagement through the learning experiences regardless of a learner's access to resources?

Our team worked to embed or link to rich, playful, and satisfying musical engagement throughout the playlists. A number of available web-based apps such as Splice Beat Maker or Sample-Stitch were helpful in accomplishing this and we learned that there were many available web-based music apps online, some of which we were not aware of prior to the design process. That being said, we also see a need for additional interactive web-based apps specific to particular concepts and skills related to the playlist themes. Several of our consultants desired to focus on tools such as commercial music applications to address concepts and skills in the XPs. To address issues of equity and access, we instead tried to keep all required resources limited to what is available for free and online. We also recognized that many school programs are moving to chromebooks and mobile devices, so we focused primarily on web-based resources for musical engagement when possible. Although the project is not tool-focused, tools matter. This is especially important to consider in relation to musical engagement.

We see a need for ongoing development of rich interactive media content that can support youth interest and learning for future work and grant opportunities.

What type of structures are helpful for learners to navigate and engage with learning experiences (XPs) that enable multiple pathways within the same playlist?

We learned much about varied ways to navigate through XPs, particularly in relation to the size and depth of an XP or playlist. From the outset of the project we proposed designing XPs and playlists that could be experienced in a non-linear manner according to learners’ interests and desires to explore some areas more than others or experienced in a linear manner that fits more within the framework of the playlists on the LRNG platform that typically proceed from one XP to the next toward badge completion.  

Each of these organizational structures still adhere to the playlist metaphor and platform. As youth engage with our XPs and playlists, we may discover that our XPs are possibly more like playlists and that our playlist is more of a meta-playlist or cluster of playlists. We are curious about other organizational structures that speak more to non-linear ways of engaging with XPs and plan on exploring this space in the future.

We playtested multiple versions of XPs, but could use additional playtesting to develop a deeper understanding of how learners choose to move through XPs and playlists as well as what types of navigation or organizational structures work best for supporting their interests and learning. We will be curious to learn how youth and adults navigate through the XPs as well as how they would like to move or progress through XPs.

Additional Takeaways

Time and Desire for Play

One thing that we knew from music education research, that was confirmed in playtesting, was that learners wanted to play with the web apps for a while and were less interested in reflecting on their engagement or completing related “tasks.” This makes sense. Learners need the space to explore, create, and play with sound. But, how does this work in the context of an XP that may or may not have someone facilitating or reminding learners to complete the XP or playlist for that matter?

Some initial playtesting also revealed that learners wanted to skip over text that contextualized the apps and musical engagement as well as the videos that related to the engagement or even in some cases provided information on how to do something musical with the app. So, what do we do about situations where youth simply want to play and explore with music making without necessarily reflecting on their engagement or building upon it in the more structured context of an XP or learning playlist?

If starting over again, we would playtest earlier in the project and expand playtesting to a larger set of learners and contexts to develop a balance of engagement and reflection. We would also like to explore other ways of organizing or dividing XPs into smaller sub-sets.  

Need for High-Quality Video Content

Throughout the process of curating and contextualizing existing resources such as video content, we learned that there is still a need for designing and developing high quality and culturally relevant/valid resources online such as videos, that are appropriate and interesting to 13-18 year-olds. We experienced a good deal of success pairing people with deep understanding of learning, curriculum, and pedagogy with content experts to collaborate on video production. For instance, our collaboration with producer Coflo lead to a number of videos that not only address how to listen as a producer and are deeply integrated with our producing music playlist, but are inviting and interactive in nature. This process requires time, support, and relationship building, but is important to consider for future projects.

Starting Smaller

Overall, if we were to start over, we would reduce the scale of the project to focus on fewer learning playlists. Designing six playlists was extremely valuable and rewarding. The six themes surfaced varied design challenges that were helpful for developing a deeper understanding of connected learning playlists and related issues. For future related projects, we would likely work on one playlist at a time to focus our energies around particular design challenges and opportunities.

Important Design Process Considerations

Reflecting on our design process and what helped us throughout the project centers around people. 

Build Relationships With Content Experts, Educators, and People who Work with Youth

We found that it is important to take the time to build relationships with and collaborate with content experts and educators who can serve as consultants and partners throughout the project. The onboarding process for consultants took longer than we initially expected. We took time to provide our consultants with feedback and to work with them throughout the duration of the project to generate high quality XPs that reflect the artistic practices that make up the playlist themes while also reflecting aspects of student interests and curriculum and pedagogy in the context of a digitally mediated context such as connected learning playlists. Given that our team is now familiar with the ecosystem we developed along with concepts of playlists, a second round would move forward more quickly. We dedicated a significant amount of time to building relationships and we are glad we did so! 

Include Young People as Much as Possible 

We attempted to include young people as much as possible throughout the process of designing the playlists. However, this often occurred through adult representatives such as educators or leaders of community organizations. Some of our plans to include direct student voice were challenged by logistical issues such as permission forms or timing in relation to school or community programs. The feedback that youth provided us was extremely valuable in informing the design of our XPs and playlists and our plans for future work. We would suggest building in the logistical supports needed to work with youth immediately as part of any similar project.

Be Willing to Iterate and Embrace Ambiguity

While we had ideas of how to design and develop our XPs at the start of the project, we were also constantly building and developing our approach based on our interactions with consultants, content experts, and youth. We held on to a desire to create robust XPs and to allow for non-linear engagement with the XPs even though we were not positive what the end result would look like or how many XPs we would have in a playlist. Had we rushed to solidify the content and number of our XPs early on and dictate to consultants what the XPs should look like, we don’t think they would be as rich as they are. We did have a structure to provide continuity across our XPs (and across six playlists) however, we made space to allow the content and form to emerge over time. While ambiguity in terms of what XPs should/would include and look like sometimes caused frustration or confusion, our openness to ambiguity allowed us to collaborate with consultants and contributors to develop numerous XPs that work well with our playlist themes and have potential to support youth engagement and learning.

Reflections on the LRNG playlist platform

The LRNG playlist platform looks beautiful. It is slick, streamlined, and makes it easy to move from one XP to another through the playlist in a linear manner. The autosave of the editor is nice as well. The filter function to look across the landscape of existing XPs and Playlists to get a sense of what is currently available on the LRNG platform was also helpful.

As we moved from developing XPs in google docs and wordpress to working with the playlist platform, we experienced some of the following limitations:

  • An inability to embed rich media in the XP on the platform
  • An inability to organize XPs in a non-linear format such as clusters or groups
  • The XP editor itself was somewhat limited, it would have been nice to have some of the same functionality of a WYSIWYG editor such as in wordpress or similar environments
  • A limitation to one type of submission (although perhaps this is in relation to youth engagement. We are curious to learn more about youth experiences with the submission process, particularly in relation to their interests.)

That being said, the team responsible for the platform is constantly updating the platform and really fabulous with seeking feedback and communicating the changes through multiple channels. 

Scaling and Adopting Music Learning Playlists

Since we developed national playlists, issues of scale and adoption will be specific to each local school, community organization, or other contexts. We imagine that adoption of Sound Explorations music learning playlists will vary based on the types of organizations that seek to integrate the playlists in their programs along with the degree to which people are available who have the skills and understanding to facilitate youth engagement and learning with the playlists.  

Given that these six playlists will scale nationally, we anticipate some challenges around determining what types of support are needed in the varied local settings in which the playlists will be adopted. This is likely contextual in nature and specific to the needs of the young people and adults involved in adopting and engaging with the playlists in each setting. It would be wonderful to hear from the people and places that adopt our music learning playlists and learn how we can develop them further to meet the needs of learners and mentors/facilitators/educators. Additionally, we are curious about what types of support structures might be developed for people who are interested in implementing the music learning playlists in their settings.

Plans for Sustainability

Plans are in the works to integrate the design and development of music learning playlists into varied aspects of the Music Education and Therapy division at Arizona State University and with partners of the Consortium for Innovation and Transformation in Music Education. For instance, pre-service music educators might apply what they are learning about curriculum development, project-based learning, and facilitating musical engagement to work through the development of XPs that may be included in future iterations of music learning playlists. 

Additionally, there seems to be a significant role for arts education institutions to play in helping or supporting the landscape of youth engagement with connected learning playlists that focus on arts and design as well as the people who may facilitate arts and design-oriented playlists. The Consortium for Innovation and Transformation in Music Education will be working with colleagues across the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts to identify possibilities for supporting arts and design-focused connected learning playlists and the mentors, facilitators, and educators interested in this space.

The issue of institutional buy-in and adoption will be more specific to local settings that adopt these music learning playlists. That being said, a significant number of K-12 music educators have registered interest in working with and playtesting the music learning playlists since we began providing information and inviting people to playtest XPs. For many k-12 music educators, the Sound Explorations music learning playlists can serve as springboards for expanding their curriculum or in some cases as projects for students to explore at various points throughout a school year. 

We are interested in the potential of music learning playlists to connect among the varied settings and contexts that youth do music. We’ll have to see how this plays out as playlists become available to the public and scale nationally.

Outreach and Community Engagement

In addition to social media channels, we will leverage relationships or connections to existing networks and professional organizations to request assistance in communicating and supporting the six music learning playlists. Having the national playlists available in the LRNG platform will assist in making them available to organizations and youth with whom we are not in regular contact. We also plan on contacting individuals and organizations with connections to youth in varied contexts to determine if they might be interested in sharing the playlists with their communities and forging collaborative partnerships that might help advance related work.

Incorporating Feedback

The workshops were helpful in developing a better sense of the contexts in which youth might engage with the playlists. Additional conversations with fellow grant awardees were also very helpful in thinking through aspects of playlist design. We incorporated this feedback to the best of our ability as we continued designing the XPs and playlists. We plan on continuing to develop the playlists in ways that can respond to additional feedback.

Looking Ahead

In looking ahead, we would like to learn how youth engage with the XPs and playlists and how they work in varied contexts. Data related to youth and adult (facilitators/mentors/educators/family members) engagement with our own XPs and playlists as well as other organizations’ XPs and playlists would be very helpful to inform future development of this work.

We see potential in developing support for connecting youth who engage with the XPs and playlists with each other and with people who can help them with aspects of the XPs and playlists. Some of the youth playtesting the XPs spoke to a desire for connection with others engaging in the same playlists. What types of communities of practice and affinity spaces around these topics/themes for youth learners might be possible? How might we support youth in accessing and developing communities around learning playlists and their related engagement and learning?

Likewise, we see the potential for communities of practice and affinity spaces around connected learning in digitally mediated contexts to help support and develop this work. It was wonderful to have the opportunity to speak with other folks who were designing and developing learning playlists. We hope support can be provided to continue building and connecting communities of people interested in this space.

Looking to the Future of Connected Learning and Learning Playlists 

Essential Questions to Address in Future Work

The following questions offer some possible directions for future work to address issues around connected learning playlists:

Why would a young person come to a learning playlist and what would they hope to gain from engaging with and completing one?

What is the ideal "size" and depth of an XP in relation to a playlist?

How might playlists and learning experiences scaffold learners’ engagement and learning when there are no peer or adult mentors/facilitators/educators available to scaffold or support their engagement and learning?

What balance of informal, nonformal, and formal aspects of learning/teaching/facilitating/engagement in digital contexts will support youth learning in ways that are meaningful to them and can help them reach their goals?  

How might we connect across the multiple contexts in which youth might engage with learning playlists?

We are very excited about the potential that the six Sound Explorations music learning playlists and XPs have for providing youth with opportunities to delve into the themes of coding and programming music, connecting music and culture, creating instruments and interfaces,  jamming, making beats, and producing music.

We’ve learned much about connected learning playlists and remain interested in exploring the possibilities of this space as well as how to support young people engaging and learning in ways that are mediated digitally.

We hope that people who try the playlists in their own context will send us feedback so that we can develop them further in ways that are helpful and meaningful to youth and adults who support youth.

We are incredibly thankful to the Digital Media and Learning Competition team, LRNG, and MacArthur Foundation for making this work possible.

And now after reading all of this, you deserve to make some music

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