Category Archives: Learning technology

Can computers replace musical instruments?

It’s important to temper our enthusiasm for new technology with a deep understanding of its full effect on learning.

In a recent post, Stephen Downes claimed that ‘in comparison with what they replace – everything from books to musical instruments to art supplies – computers are more cost effective.

Music software couldn't replicate the complete experience of this musician.Now I don’t believe that computers replace books – yet, anyway. And I certainly don’t believe that they should replace art supplies or musical instruments. Both of these provide direct sensory experiences which are qualitatively different from using a computer, and result in creative work which is qualitatively different.

Real vs virtual

Music tools on a personal computer can provide more effective and convenient tools for things such as composition and recording. But they can’t replace the tactile experience of playing a real instrument. Furthermore, group improvisation may involve a sort of ‘social construction’ of music, and individual performance may involve a deeply reflective solitary experience. Using computers would fundamentally change the nature of either of these modes of musical creativity.

Certain high schools here in Auckland attract talented students because they provide intensive music education using real instruments in ‘big band’ and other live performance modes. Playing real instruments in a group setting is clearly a big attraction for many young people. That’s not to say that composing via a computer isn’t also very attractive – it’s just different, both as a process and in its ‘products’.

The closest analogy I can think of is this: the motor car hasn’t ‘replaced’ the bicycle despite being more ‘effective and efficient’ in various ways. Too many people value the bicycle for its low cost or its looks, the health benefits, or the feeling of the wind in their hair…

Integrating Moodle and Mediawiki

Recently I was involved in a project where Moodle had been integrated with Mediawiki for an online community site. The integration of the two systems was limited to a single sign-on facility and consistent visual design through style sheets and graphics. Not full integration, but at first glance a useful start.

Integration issues

But it soon became apparent that this level of integration had some detrimental aspects…

  1. User permissions in Moodle, which are quite finely-grained, didn’t transfer across to Mediawiki. Not only was it not possible to map roles across the platforms, a user who was given admin rights in Moodle did not automatically become an admin in Mediawiki, even though users seemed to expect this.
  2. The single sign-off didn’t work as well as single sign-on, so users could log out from one system and still be logged in to the other for some time. Even when the sign-off did work across both, users often perceived they were still logged in as the two systems launched in different windows by default. Users often didn’t fully understand the way web browsers and sessions work and found this confusing.
  3. Given the lack of real integration between the two systems, the consistent themes caused problems since users didn’t always know which system they were using. Given the limitations of the integration, it would have been better to differentiate the look and feel of the two sites rather than try to make them visually seamless.

Is integration always desirable?

My conclusion was that the project did not really benefit from this limited form of integration, and that the implications for users need to be carefully considered when planning an integration project. In particular, a limited form of integration may be less useful than none at all: the benefits are only achieved when systems are fully integrated, and anything less is likely to cause problems.

Using a wiki for a simple text-based game

Wikis are great for presenting factual information, and Mediawiki is widely used for this. The only problem I’ve found with managing my own wiki is having to deal with all the spam that an open wiki site attracts.

My current Mediawiki site is my second attempt: this time around, it’s not a collaborative wiki, since it’s really there for my own personal publishing needs. And there are plenty of other collaborative wikis around.

Recently I’ve been playing with ideas around how Mediawiki could be used to implement a simple adventure game. Partly because I enjoy playing with the software, but also because I’m always keen to find ways to include problem-based learning into my professional development activities. So I spent a few hours developing the Learning Design Challenge.

Using a wiki for a simple text-based game.

It’s primitive – my first thought was to include a graphical component but I’ve decided I rather like the text-only format. Something to do with the relative ‘imaginative openness’ of text for the reader: maybe that’s why graphical novels are only a small part of the fiction market.

I’ve abandoned the idea of including objects that individual users can pick up etc – this would require a major coding effort. And the whole point of this is it’s very low-tech and very easy to implement!

Read-write learning

Web 2.0 is often described as the ‘read-write web’. I use the term ‘read-write learning’ to characterise a form of constructivist learning which is not necessarily social but incorporates learning activities where learners generate knowledge in their own words.

My first real experience of read-write learning using computer software occurred in 1984. It was my second year of teaching, and I had a class of about 30 eight to nine year olds. One topic we were to study was the Solar System, a topic about which there were plenty of books for reference. I also set up a simple database which had a record for each planet, and entered some information about each planet. In those days, there were very few computers in school classrooms, so I used to take my Apple II computer in each day on the back seat of my car.


I found the students enjoyed using the database to look up information – in those days it was quite a novelty to have a computer in the classroom. They were also able to enter information which was missing and add to what became a communal store of information. The database soon held information drawn from a number of sources, and there was a sense of shared ownership of the information.

As well as paging through the planets or searching for one by name, students could view a table of all the planets. This table could be sorted in various ways: for example, alphabetically by planet name, or numerically by distance from the sun. This allowed students to investigate relationships such as that between distance from the sun and surface temperature. The database software made it easy to re-arrange information and compare records. While some students were content to access the information, others clearly exhibited curiosity and a greater desire for active enquiry.

Several unexpected learning processes took place. The first of these was when a student complained that the database was incorrect – Saturn had more satellites than shown. When we investigated how the error had occurred, we realised that his book had been published several years after the one originally consulted. Clearly, more satellites had been discovered by astronomers in the time between the publication of the two sources. This led to interesting discussion on a number of key questions:

  • How do astronomers discover new satellites?
  • How do we know any of our information is current? (‘true’)

Another interesting learning process took place when a student discovered that planets close to the sun had few satellites, while those further out had more. On investigation, it turned out that those furthest out also had very few satellites. This led to discussion as to why this was so – none of our books could help, but we did come up with some fairly plausible explanations.

These days, it’s easy to use software such as Excel to make such relationships much more graphic:


What did the students learn though the whole process? Clearly they gained some skills in using a database to access information that they could then use. They also acquired factual knowledge about the subject, and this seemed to be deep rather than superficial learning. Just as importantly, however, they learned that:

  • It was more important to know how and where to look for an answer than to memorise factual detail
  • It was important to evaluate information. For example, ‘scientific facts’ can be out of date
  • Science was a process of enquiry, not a collection of facts
  • Scientific enquiry wasn’t just for scientists

I was pleased that most of my students enjoyed browsing through and collaboratively updating the database. In addition, the process of enquiry in which some students became engaged emphasised for me the important role that software tools can play in promoting high-level learning.