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Developing Interactive and Open Source OER: Integrated Musicianship

Published onMay 31, 2020
Developing Interactive and Open Source OER: Integrated Musicianship


Concerned by the impact of rising textbook costs on his students’ learning, Sean Butterfield wanted to create a free, web-based textbook for his undergraduate music theory course in the Lionel Hampton School of Music at the University of Idaho (UI). After being awarded a Think Open Fellowship from the UI Library in Fall 2017, he collaborated with digital infrastructure librarian Evan Williamson who had experience using static web technology to develop open source digital humanities projects. Williamson set up the website template hosted on GitHub, while Butterfield created the textbook content. Iteratively developed over several years while actively used in teaching, the project is now called Integrated Musicianship: Music Theory (IntMus)

This paper outlines the background of the IntMus project, exploring the ways that the collaboration supported the student-centered pedagogy Butterfield desired in the classroom. Openly licensed and powered by open source static web tools, IntMus resulted in a learning resource significantly different than a traditional textbook. Freed from many of the limitations of a conventionally published text, these differences allow IntMus to flexibly adapt to the students’ needs, enriching the learning experience. An example of “OER-Enabled Pedagogy” (Wiley and Hilton), the design of IntMus enables the philosophy of inquiry-based learning, a "flipped-classroom" driven by learners' exploration and examination of the subject. Taking advantage of the affordances of both the web-based medium and the open source workflow, IntMus provides interactive and responsive content that is modified and enriched over the semester in response to classroom learning. Each course using the book develops a unique edition preserving the learning process specific to that group of students as a lasting resource. The full content and source code of the project is available on GitHub making Integrated Musicianship: Music Theory an open educational resource (OER) that can be freely accessed, modified, and adapted by others. This project demonstrates a viable model for creating resources outside of traditional publishing that enable responsive and flexible teaching in the humanities, providing benefits to students, instructors, and the larger education community.

Background, Think Open 

Butterfield is a trumpeter by trade, with a secondary specialty in music theory. When he began teaching the music theory sequence at the UI, his goal was not to reinvent curriculum or write a new textbook. He simply wanted to ensure that his students, many of whom enter university with little formal music training, are prepared for success at the graduate level while also meeting the curricular standards defined by the National Association of Schools of Music. In his first year, he adopted a comprehensive textbook with which he was familiar and confident; it was the most commonly used textbook on the subject as well as the textbook used in his undergraduate program.

After two weeks of class, however, Butterfield noticed that one student had not turned in any assignments. When confronted, the student admitted that he could not afford the $400 for the book and workbook, so he was trying to get family members to help out. Butterfield then also began noticing that many students did not have a book for use during class and were turning in photocopies instead of original workbook assignments. It was clear that a number of students had decided to split the cost of a textbook, and that this was causing difficulties for each of the students. Their learning and classroom success was negatively impacted because the most widely used textbook in this field was more than many students could afford.

This is not a situation unique to Butterfield’s classroom. As instructors, it is easy to forget that an extra hundred dollars can make a major difference for financially precarious students. In a 2014 U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) survey, 65% of students reported not buying required textbooks due to high price and almost half took fewer courses each semester to avoid textbook costs (Senack, 4-5). Ninety four percent believed these choices negatively impacted their academic performance. On our campus, the Associated Students of UI created a petition asking faculty to help reduce the cost of textbooks ("Petition: Reduce the cost of textbooks"). The comments, such as "I can’t afford both books and food, I have to choose to either eat or pass my classes right now", reveal the many real ways students feel the impact.

Affordability is a critical concern of students with good reason, as the cost of higher education has increased at rates far above inflation for decades, more than double the rise of the all items consumer price index (“College tuition and fees increase”). U.S. Department of Labor statistics show that between 2006 and 2016 the cost of student housing increased fifty one percent and tuition increased sixty three percent, while textbook costs increased at an even greater rate, jumping by eighty eight percent in the same time period. Pricing schemes for digital resources, such as limited time access codes and custom editions, have continued to increase costs to students, while limiting their ability to recoup expenses in the used textbook market (McKenna). As traditional publishers evolve into complex online platforms, their profit models are shifting and include capitalizing on troves of personal data about students and institutions collected from their users, often introducing new risks to privacy that may be incompatible with the values and requirements of institutions of higher education (Aspesi, 5). 

In response to this issue and the growing awareness of textbook costs on campus, the UI Library created the Think Open Fellowship.1 The initiative provides support to faculty exploring free or low cost alternatives to replace expensive course materials. The program is designed to flexibly pilot a variety of approaches that will lower costs while contributing to student success. Each Think Open Fellow is paired with a librarian, usually their subject liaison, to facilitate discovering high quality resources and developing plans for their course. Butterfield had found Open Music Theory (OMT), a collaboratively written open textbook project hosted on GitHub and hoped to adapt it to his course (Shaffer et al.). While Williamson knows nothing about music theory, he did have experience with web development using tools similar to OMT, and started working with Butterfield to develop the idea. 

Why Open Educational Resources

In higher education, the potential to impact affordability while enabling pedagogical innovation is driving initiatives, such as the Think Open Fellowship, that support replacing traditional textbooks with OER. Both these factors influenced the creation of IntMus, so it is important to look at how OER can uniquely support these goals. UNESCO defines OER as “teaching, learning, and research materials in any medium – digital or otherwise – that reside in the public domain or have been released under an open license that permits no-cost access, use, adaptation and redistribution by others with no or limited restrictions” ("Open Educational Resources", par. 1). Since 2002, UNESCO has been advocating for the development of OER as an opportunity to improve equity in education, positively impacting teaching and learning globally. The development of OER content, infrastructure, and culture provides better access to high quality learning materials that can be adapted to localized contexts. 

In practice OER can take many forms, from lesson plans and course syllabi to video lectures and full web-based courses, however, in higher education the most commonly recognized type is open textbooks. Open textbooks function exactly like conventional textbooks, but are cost free and licensed in a way that permits reuse and redistribution. For example, organizations such as Open Textbook Library (University of Minnesota), B.C. Open Textbook Collection (BCcampus), and OpenStax (Rice University) provide extensive, curated catalogs of open textbooks that can be seamlessly adopted to replace a traditional textbook for many courses. Research suggests these options are effective, a review of existing studies found that open textbooks provide as good or better outcomes, at significant cost savings (Hilton III, 573). In fact, a recent large scale study suggests that OER improve outcome metrics for all students, and in particular create greater improvements for low income and historically underserved students (Colvard et al., 262).

Although cost may be foremost on the minds of students, OER adoption by faculty is motivated by many factors (Sclater, 179). Organizations such as Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC) focus on the opportunity to innovate learning by unlocking the full potential of Web technologies to support teaching that are inhibited by older publishing models. In this context, open licensing is the key feature: OER are more than just a free download, they are licensed in a way that ensures users have the rights and freedoms necessary to customize content to their unique context and share those changes with others. This enables innovation by allowing instructors to responsively modify materials to enrich the learning experience and integrate with their pedagogy.

For example, an instructor may want to create a public "read-along" video to encourage students to engage with the textbook. Another may want to use chapters from one textbook, but update it with examples and illustrations from a different source. These types of reformatting would be prohibited by traditional copyright, but are allowed under open licenses such as Creative Commons Attribution. Open licenses allow an author to retain copyright while granting others specific rights to use the resource, summarized by David Wiley as the "5R permissions": the freedom to Retain, Reuse, Revise, Remix, and Redistribute (Wiley, par. 2). With OER, these freedoms mean you can update content, create new derivatives, remix to meet your course’s specific needs, or find new uses that the original author couldn’t even imagine. Thus, OER provide students free access to materials, but also provide instructors the legal rights necessary to adapt them to their pedagogical needs. 

OER Platforms 

To make the most of the “5R permissions”, OER should be available in editable formats. This type of adaptation can be facilitated by software tools and platforms. For example, many items found in the Open Textbook Library are hosted by the Rebus Community using PressBooks software. On this platform each textbook is a customizable website that can be edited, reused, or remixed using an administration interface based on WordPress, with features that facilitate co-authoring and outside contributions to projects. Rather than adopting the web-based open textbook as is, instructors have the option to create a new customized copy using the original as a starting point. 

It is important to make a distinction between OER and Learning Management Systems (LMS). Many universities use LMS platforms to support a variety of course management features, including the ability to share content to enrolled students. An instructor could replace a traditional textbook with a set of resources privately distributed by the LMS, where licensing can be arranged by the library, thus saving direct costs to the student. The content may be OER, however, since the LMS is a closed, authenticated system, the content can also be in copyright material. Much like library course reserves systems, this is an important strategy for impacting affordability.

However, LMS are primarily tools for distributing content in a closed ecosystem. They are not designed to support authoring or public distribution of OER content and source code. The work done by an instructor to add materials is tied to a specific platform and linked to a specific course, generally without a portable means to export the data. Students only have access to the LMS content while enrolled in the course, meaning it is not a lasting resource or reference, and any comments, contributions, or assignments they submit disappear into this black box. In contrast, OER are developed in an open ecosystem where instructors can do similar work curating and creating course content, but enable the potential for greater impact through reuse, benefiting others (including less wealthy institutions) and opening the possibilities for collaboration.

Both LMS and centralized platforms such as PressBooks represent significant infrastructure overhead and maintenance costs, requiring centralized IT investment from an institution or organization that may present barriers to participation and limit long term sustainability. By using some of the tools and approaches of open source software development, we can simplify the overhead, and enable powerful ways to create and reuse content. In fact, OMT started out as a WordPress based textbook, but Shaffer found that the platform limited other people’s ability to reuse the materials ("Push, Pull, Fork: GitHub for Academics", par. 8). Thus, Shaffer migrated OMT to GitHub to facilitate collaboration and sharing of the source code, in addition to simplifying hosting for the web-based textbook. 

GitHub is a popular Web platform originally designed for sharing open source code, that is used by a wide variety of organizations and individuals to manage open projects.2 It provides tools for version control and project management that facilitate development, as well as supporting an active community of contributors. In addition to OMT, many others have utilized the collaborative potential of GitHub to create OER. 

Crowell’s Eyes and Ears: An Anthology of Melodies for Sight-Singing, a workbook that collects openly licensed music useful for college level courses, represents a fairly conventional open textbook on GitHub. Most people will access the resource via the free PDF download from the Eyes and Ears website, perhaps replacing a print workbook that would normally be purchased, and never look at or think about source code. However, the PDF would be difficult to modify or update. Thus, the source code written in LilyPond music engraving notation is made openly available in the Eyes and Ears GitHub repository. One can download the source code, modify the textbook to their needs, and produce the same high quality typeset outputs using open source software. 

Going beyond conventional textbooks, projects such as the Open Digital Archaeology Textbook, use GitHub to collaboratively write and serve up a cutting edge resource with live code examples and group annotation (Graham et al.). The Carpentries, an international organization that teaches basic computing and data skills workshops, develops lesson outlines and websites on the platform with hundreds of contributors from around the world. The Programing Historian hosts an online journal of digital humanities tutorials and manages open peer review on GitHub. Likewise, once OMT moved to GitHub, it gained new contributors and actively encouraged others to “fork” the project content. These platforms allow communities to form around OER, contributing to an innovative project that enables new means of pedagogy. 

Static Web Stack

For these organizations part of the appeal of using GitHub is the free static web hosting service built into the platform, GitHub Pages. With the click of a button, one can enable automatic hosting and updating of a website without the need to purchase or manage infrastructure. Static web hosting means that the site cannot use a database or server-side processing language, thus software tools such as content management systems (e.g. WordPress or Drupal) can not be installed. Files stored in the repository (HTML, CSS, and JS) are served to the user without dynamic changes, making many features of contemporary websites, such as live comments, user authentication, and personalized streams, impossible to host directly. Despite these limitations static sites remain popular because they are high performance, low bandwidth, secure, and easy to manage. 

While this static web approach is not turn key and involves working with source code, it is doable by a collaboration between a music professor and a librarian--without the support of IT or a team of developers--and provides a pragmatic solution with many benefits. By minimizing infrastructure requirements and optimizing low bandwidth access, this “minimal computing” methodology can lower barriers to development and increase sustainability when situated in a holistic view of the costs of production (Gil, par. 11). The learning curve empowers by building fundamental computing skills, in contrast to learning a specific Graphic User Interface (GUI) software system.

To make deployment easier, GitHub Pages integrates the popular static site generator Jekyll, an open source web development tool that can transform a directory of source code into a complete website. Although it does not have the GUI administrative interface familiar in CMS such as WordPress or Drupal, Jekyll simplifies creating websites by breaking the project into modular components organized in a folder of files. The look and feel of the website is controlled by a theme written in HTML, CSS, JS, and Liquid. Content is written in Markdown, a simple plain text writing standard that keeps the focus on content rather than style. Jekyll knits together the content and theme, building out a complete static website that can be automatically deployed on GitHub Pages. 

This design ensures content and presentation is kept separated and modular, making it easier to edit, update, and reuse. Since both the theme and content are written in open plaintext formats, they are sustainable, self-contained, and portable, easily adapted to other projects or migrated to a new platform. It is important to note that using Jekyll is in no way limited to GitHub Pages. The source code could be moved and the website hosted on any basic web server, providing a simplified approach to infrastructure that is not locked into a specific platform. These open source workflows complement the OER philosophy, creating resource components that could be reused in a variety of ways, facilitating the means to access, share, and remix. 

Once introduced to the static web tools powering OMT, Butterfield quickly grasped new possibilities. Before long we were no longer adapting OMT, but creating an entirely new textbook utilizing the interactive and responsive possibilities of the Web, customized to the needs of his students--giving birth to the IntMus project. Going beyond the printed page or static PDF, a textbook website can include multimedia and interactive features, be mobile friendly and accessible from anywhere, and be updated in real-time to incorporate student thoughts and discussion. 

To begin work on the new textbook, Williamson set up a custom Jekyll project template in consultation with Butterfield, that would build out the website on GitHub. Using the openly licensed Lanyon theme as a starting point,3 the IntMus theme is designed to make reading easy on any device, with responsive sizing, a large slideout sidebar navigation that includes links to all content, and next/previous buttons to efficiently move through lesson pages. Basic variables such as the site title and highlight colors are customizable via configuration files included in the theme. Links and labels in the navigation features are generated directly from the files, thus automatically stay up-to-date as content is added, reorganized, or edited. Once set up, the theme is maintenance free, allowing Butterfield to focus on content creation.

For IntMus, the separation of theme and content are helpful to facilitate collaboration and lower barriers to contribution. Collaborators with music theory domain knowledge, such as Butterfield’s teaching assistants, can start editing content on the website using GitHub’s web-based editor after just learning the basics of Markdown. Meanwhile, collaborators with web development background, such as digital librarians, can modify the Jekyll theme without interrupting the content creation. 

Since Jekyll is integrated into GitHub Pages, each time a collaborator “commits” a new change, IntMus is automatically regenerated, updating the live website. GitHub Pages hosting is stable, high performance, and does not require a login, ensuring that students always have access to the current material. Furthermore, the static site efficiently delivers content with low bandwidth requirements, providing good performance even on low speed Internet connections, an important consideration in our rural region.

Integrated Musicianship 

Butterfield has a few primary goals when teaching music theory that guided the development of IntMus. At its most basic, students must learn to understand the harmonic framework by which all Western music functions as this is necessary to a career in music. Beyond that however, music students must increase the speed and accuracy of recognizing patterns and key concepts in a variety of styles. In a professional setting, the difference between a successful or unsuccessful performer/teacher is not based on their understanding of musical concepts, but rather the speed with which they reconcile the music as written against the music that they hear around them. For example, a music educator’s job in leading an ensemble hinges on how well the educator can aurally identify mistakes and then help the students to correct them. When guiding sixty or more developing musicians, the number of corrections can be overwhelming, and every misdiagnosis whittles away the music educator’s confidence as well as the ensemble’s respect. It is no different for a professional performer, which is why the ability to conceptualize musical structure is critical to all musicians’ success.  

Perhaps most importantly, music students must learn to communicate with any musician, regardless of their background and training. There are many currently used approaches to musical analysis, and each can provide valuable insight to a given piece of music or style of composition. This fragmentation has created numerous methods, however, and each of these methods evolved a specific set of terminology to fit its goals. Musicians can only communicate effectively if they understand the underlying principles regardless of terminology or written language. Butterfield saw that the new textbook could alleviate this by allowing experts from various backgrounds to collaborate as authors and contributors. The OER has the potential to grow with the perspectives of new instructors, as well as adapt to the needs of new students, becoming a living document that increases a sense of engagement and ownership over the material.

Students access IntMus via the main website to read the weekly content, get assignments, and take part in the forum. The textbook content is broken into chapters, each covering a week’s lessons. Each page has text and images, much like a conventional textbook, but also includes interactive features such as fully-editable musical examples and a discussion forum to address the issues from the week’s materials and assignments. 

The flexibility and immediacy of the website supports Butterfield’s inquiry-based instruction model. While there is some material in the course which lends itself to a traditional lecture, the rule-defined nature of musical analysis means that students should be able to deduce the rules of a given topic if given enough completed examples, assuming that they have a foundation of principles leading to that topic. In the same way that we can teach a child the principles of adding and subtracting by using blocks instead of written formulas, we can demonstrate musical principles, such as the standard voice leading between two chords, by having students listening to, looking at, and modifying musical examples. Butterfield believes that when students come to a conclusion on their own, they are engaged in their own learning and improve their retention. 

To accommodate this, each lesson on the website is structured to begin with an introduction to the topic, and then asks the students to answer some guiding questions regarding musical examples. The students can listen to and edit the musical examples directly on the web page to hear how the original sounds as well as explore what happens when they make alterations. After working individually or in groups, they discuss the questions with their classmates and professor to share and explore their findings. 

Behind the scenes, these musical examples are embedded directly in the source code using a Jekyll "include" Williamson built into the theme, powered by the abcjs library (Rosen). The include makes it easy to add examples anywhere in the content without having to write out the Javascript code that will render the music on the website. The feature does not rely on a third-party service or streaming, making them fully self-contained and portable. While there are a few third party options that could be serviceable for the website, the self-contained solution ensures that the musical examples will be permanently accessible to students.

As the students discuss the topic, ask questions, and provide counterexamples requiring explanation, Butterfield’s teaching assistant transcribes these discussions directly into a designated portion of the website. By using GitHub’s web-based interface to edit the corresponding Markdown file in the IntMus project, this new content is published immediately to the website at the end of class. This means that the students have their discussion terminology and learning process embedded in the textbook, in addition to the standard language and explanations provided via the professor’s prewritten conclusions for the topic. While the discussion pages are raw and unedited, many of the students find them easier to understand, because they are based directly on their personal experiences with the material rather than the dense, technical nature of the professor’s prose. Their inclusion and participation directly in the text provides an empowerment unlike the one way consumption of a conventional textbook.

Because the textbook acts as an interactive hub for the course, there is also an active discussion board for each topic located below the instructions for the weekly assignment. Since this feature cannot be directly hosted on GitHub Pages, it is added using a popular third-party service, Disqus, that specializes in providing embedded comments for static sites. The students are encouraged to post questions to the forum, and helpful responses from other students are awarded a small amount of extra credit on the weekly assignment. These forums are monitored by the professor and teaching assistants so that the tone remains positive and supportive.

Because the discussions and instruction are unique to each group of students, it is important to preserve each year’s edition as a permanent resource, while creating a fresh version for the next course. Hosting the source code on GitHub makes this easy. With a few clicks Butterfield can set up a new repository and use GitHub “import” to copy the previous year’s code, creating a clone of the website at a new URL. Butterfield then reviews the class discussion pages to incorporate any particularly useful material into the main textbook content, before cleaning up to allow room for the next year’s discussions. Through this workflow, each iteration of the textbook is shaped by all the previous generations of students, effectively integrating their learning process to crowd-source the long-term development without sacrificing the core of the curriculum as defined by the instructor.

Outcomes and Future

While still a small sample size, the early results of the IntMus project have been positive and encouraging. Over the first three years of usage, the average class scores on exams have increased by nearly a full letter grade when compared to Butterfield’s previous courses using the conventional published textbook. Student response has been largely positive, as evidenced by the comments in the university’s student evaluation questionnaires compared to Butterfield’s previous iterations of the course, as well as verbal feedback. Students with social anxiety struggled in the earliest iteration of this teaching style because they were forced to discuss topics in preassigned groups, but this was alleviated by allowing them to come to conclusions individually or in groups of their own choosing. This also improved class discussions, because many groups began taking pride in their ability to draw more specific conclusions, enthusiastic to discover music theory principles.

Between the in-class discussions and the student-led forums, Butterfield strongly feels that the students demonstrate a level of curricular ownership that he had never seen in his previous years in higher education. Classes are varied for students and instructors alike, and much of this is attributable to the flexibility of the class website. After the students adjust to the curriculum over the first few weeks of the semester, they regularly send meaningful contributions for the website, such as further reading or corrections for the student discussion pages. 

Importantly, the speed of iteration enabled by the open source approach has the potential to fix one of the largest issues facing music education. Because music is an ever-evolving and subjective art, a traditional textbook—one that is only superficially updated every four years— struggles to encompass the variety of analyses and pedagogical approaches that naturally occur. A textbook is monolithic; it distills the entirety of musical evolution into the concrete method of a limited number of individuals. As the IntMus platform grows and begins bringing in new authors with different training and specialties, it has the potential to develop into a diverse musical ecosystem of peer-reviewed pedagogical material. 

In the second year of this project, another music professor at UI, Dr. Miranda Wilson, began creating a companion website for the aural skills curriculum. Aural skills is a core class in the undergraduate music sequence that integrates closely with the music theory curriculum due to synergies between them. In many ways, aural skills serves as a lab for the music theory lecture. Although the lessons are structured through a different pedagogical model due to the nature of learning aural skills, the base IntMus Jekyll template and development process is flexible enough for Wilson to shape the new website to benefit her classes, while still syncing closely with Butterfield’s. It is plausible that the Lionel Hampton School of Music could move almost all course materials to the IntMus platform to create a unified, evolving curriculum that meets national standards while addressing the unique needs of our student body and faculty. The modular templates and content, combined with our iterative approach, facilitate new professors adding their specialties without sacrificing the institutional knowledge gained by their predecessors.

The progress of the IntMus project demonstrates the potential of OER to alter the way we structure teaching in higher education. No single textbook can encompass everything taught in a course or reflect the needs of its local context. However, creating a textbook from scratch, that meets national standards while also reflecting the instructor’s pedagogical approach, is a monumental task requiring years of iteration and revision. Collaboratively developed OER complemented by open source workflows, can provide a cost-free, flexible, and well-written base on which each educator can begin the process of teaching their subject to standard in the best way possible for their students. While the active, hands-on approach may be intimidating at first (and not feasible for all situations), this engagement with the textbook becomes a rewarding investment for both students and instructors, promoting a sense of ownership over the learning process. Through new adaptations enabled by open licensing and the potential to build communities around teaching that enrich its perspectives, this engagement can snowball into further learning, positively impacting our students and beyond.

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