On Virtuality and Music Education in Online Environments
David G. Hebert, PhD
Professor, Sibelius Academy, Finland
Visiting Research Scholar, National Institutes for the Humanities, Japan
According to a December 2008 article entitled “Doctors fear a wii knee epidemic” in British newspaper The Telegraph, medical specialists have determined that Nintendo videogame enthusiasts “who spent too long on games, especially those unused to exercise, were at risk of strain” (Devlin, 2008). In a related article, Dr. Mark Klion of the Mt. Sinai Medical School explained that “we’ve seen a bunch of injuries from the wii. Most of them are related to the upper extremities – to the shoulder, elbow and wrist” (Ibay, 2008). In other words, these news reports demonstrate that because a new generation of videogames now require movement of one’s entire arm and torso – rather than just fingers and thumbs – in order to play, people who used to sit safely in the comfort of their own couches are now actually standing up, waving their arms, and accidentally injuring each other (or themselves) through the modicum of physical movement required to attain higher scores in these games. Should warning stickers be required for these dangerous devices? I ask this in jest, yet there is evidence of more serious real world implications of participation in virtual environments.
A January 2009 article entitled “Wife murdered for Facebook status” in the BBC News, explains how a British woman was allegedly murdered by her husband, Edward Richardson. According to the article, “Richardson became enraged when Sarah changed her marital status on Facebook to single and decided to go and see her, as she was not responding to his messages” (BBC News, 2009). Richardson was later found guilty of stabbing his wife, to death. What these recent news stories demonstrate is that what occurs in virtual and online environments has very real, at times even dangerous, consequences in the physical world. According to previous research on virtual communities, “To date, about 6.5 million people have entered SoL [Second Life] and WoW [World of Warcraft] reports that it has 8.5 million subscribers, so the impact of this technology is beginning to be felt by society” (Bainbridge, 2007, 472). In the field of music, one of the most obvious examples of this phenomenon is evident in the effects that online piracy and distribution of digital music recordings are having on the global music industry, and the efforts now being made to completely restructure the systems by which the industry produces and sells its products, and even in lobbying in some nations to police internet service providers, using techniques that outside the context of wartime conditions would normally be regarded as an unacceptable invasion of personal privacy. On a related note, recent reports have also concluded that the playing of music-related video games, such as Guitar Hero and Rock Band, leads to increased interest in learning musical instruments, a finding that actually contradicts what many music teachers have feared (Missingham, 2007). Contemporary musicians, across a wide diversity of genres, have also increasingly seized new opportunities afforded by popular website services such as MySpace and YouTube, and even those who are uncomfortable with technology have had to adapt in order to survive as a professional musician. Singer-songwriter Suzanne Vega, the first musician to have a song recorded in mp3 format, as well as the first to perform in what is globally the most popular online virtual environment Second Life, has remarked, “This is the world of technology. Although I am attracted to it, it’s not something I have a real knack for.”
But where do these kinds of technological developments ultimately lead? Do we already see evidence of dangers associated with virtuality, or of educators, even music educators, who inappropriately view technology as a panacea for the inadequacies of previous forms of music participation? In December of 2008, I took the subway in Boston where I was astonished to see both the words and images associated with the Dentyne gum “Make Facetime” advertising campaign (Fig. 1). What this campaign revealed, to me, was a growing public realization, an unstated tacit understanding that technology was not necessarily living up to its promise to bring people closer.
Fig. 1) Dentyne: Make Facetime Advertisement
Indeed, the success of this campaign relied on a creative and subtle cynicism regarding the functions of online social networks, making ironic use of such phrases as “friend request accepted,” “the original voice mail,” and “the original instant message,” by declaring in bold letters that we must “MAKE FACETIME,” meaning to meet in the old-fashioned face-to-face way, rather than merely in an online or virtual environment. As little as ten years ago, it seems likely that such an advertisement would have been completely meaningless to its intended audience, but online environments have so rapidly impacted our world that the notion of needing to “make facetime” has actually become a genuine concern for younger generations.
What do such developments mean for music education and its environments? Universities have increasingly expanded their sphere of operations to encompass online learning environments in recent years, and substantial reforms have even been seen among doctoral programs, for which ‘transparency, parity, and transferability of qualifications’ are prominent features of the current European agenda, as exemplified by the Bologna Process (Lee & Boud, 2009, p.20). Online music education has been identified as a vital new growth area (Finney & Bernard, 2007), and already more than 400 students have enrolled in online courses as members of the world’s largest music education doctoral program, at Boston University (Hebert, 2008a). Meanwhile, in the field of philosophy, musical meaning has increasingly come to be understood as inextricably connected to embodiment (Hebert, 2009).
Meaning in online music education or virtual music learning environments, therefore, represents a previously unexamined paradox that serves as the guiding question for this inquiry: To what extent may a ‘virtual’ embodiment retain the profundity of meanings associated with traditional musical experience, thereby enabling meaningful music making, learning, and teaching within online environments? This paper will interrogate the notion of virtuality and related concepts of embodiment and meaning in musical experience, specifically in terms of their applications within online music learning environments. Although philosophical in method (Jorgensen, 2006), this essay will make frequent reference to current developments in music education practice in order to clearly illustrate its implications. I will consider the ontological bases of online musical experience as well as the epistemological bases of musical knowledge acquisition via virtual embodiment. The intended result is a clearer understanding of both the fundamental issues at stake and future possibilities for the improvement of online music education, with conclusions that have implications for music educators who are either contemplating expansion into the online environment or seeking to devise effective means of enhancing program evaluation and quality assurance in online music education. I will begin by delineating major terms and concepts, then proceed to a description and critique of relevant arguments, followed by introduction of a neologism developed as a mnemonic to encapsulate the main points of my argument, and finally, present some conclusions and their implications for music education theory and practice.
Virtuality and Music Education
Ralph Schroeder and Jeremy Bailenson (2008) define virtual environments as “technologies that provide the user with the sense that they are in a space other than the physical space they are actually in, and that allow the user to interact with that space” (p.327), and define multi-user virtual environments as “environments in which more than one person shares the same virtual environment, creating a sense of ‘co-presence’ in this space with another person or persons, or of ‘being there together’, and of being able to interact with these others . . . one has to have the experience of being there with one’s senses” (p.328). Schroeder and Bailenson (2008) also identify one of the aims of multi-user virtual environment research as taking advantage of the opportunity to “do research that would otherwise not be possible” (p.329). In much the same way, one must recognize that such environments may also be used to create artistic works and pedagogies that would otherwise not be possible. Consequently, due to the new possibilities for music within such environments, relevant aesthetic and pedagogical systems may need to be devised or current systems significantly revised. This is essentially the philosophical impetus for this paper, yet I aim to go further by proposing some tangible ways we might proceed in this endeavor.
Clearly the experience of musical meaning has traditionally been intimately tied to both notions of place and space, as convincingly demonstrated by such seminal books as The Place of Music (Leyshon, Matless, & Revill 1998) and Music, Space, and Place (Whitely, Bennett, & Hawkins 2005). Therefore, the conditions of virtuality, which enable users to interact in identical ways regardless of where in the world they happen to be physically situated, offer new challenges to how musical experience is conceived, and, as I will argue, may even offer new opportunities in terms of a disembodied musical aesthetics. But first we must briefly consider the current state of theory in the field of musical aesthetics. Richard Shusterman (2005) begins his chapter on Aesthetics and Postmodernism in the Oxford Handbook of Aesthetics with the following sentence: “Perhaps the clearest and most certain thing that can be said about postmodernism is that it is a very unclear and very much contested concept.” (p.771). Considering that this description comes from the position of a scholar who may to some degree be considered an apologist and sympathizer of postmodernist rhetoric, one cannot help but acknowledge that an important question is inevitably raised; namely, to what extent is such a “very unclear and very much contested concept” even useful? Indeed, in the past decade it has become more common for contemporary philosophers to completely eschew explicit acknowledgement of distracting postmodernist arguments when seeking to propose new directions in various branches of philosophical inquiry. Aesthetics has arguably lost its convincingness partly due to its traditionally elitist and ethnocentric orientation as well as the popularization of postmodernist discourse, a development that has led some music educationists, such as Tom Regelski, to strongly advocate the position that “aesthetics” is a concept of little use in music education.
And what of the status quo of online education in the field of music? As I have discussed elsewhere, concerns have been raised regarding what are perceived as inevitable shortcomings and insurmountable quality assurance challenges associated with online music education (Austin, 2007). In a previous publication (Hebert, 2007), I identified five key issues for online music education programs by describing characteristic challenges, and proposing ways they might be solved (Fig. 2).
Fig. 2) Five Key Issues for Online Music Education Programs:
This article was recently cited by Bernadette Colley (2009) as an innovative example of applied research in music education. Kenneth Phillips (2008) also responded to the article, and I recently published a rejoinder to his response (Hebert, 2008b). I have shown how such technologies may enable “instant replay” of instructional sequences that can be discussed with leading pedagogical and musical experts, wherever in the world they might happen to be located, and also may facilitate rich intercultural music experiences and provide an ideal platform for comparative and collaborative research. However, I also argue that the potential of virtual music education has yet to be fully realized due to an inability to effectively theorize what quality means for educational endeavors in this environment.
Implications of Johnson’s Theory of Embodied Meaning
Embodiment has recently become a concept of great interest across the humanities largely due to the work of philosopher Mark Johnson, who has demonstrated that much of our most abstract reasoning, regarding aesthetics and morals for example, is made possible through the use of metaphors rooted in bodily experience, an assertion that contradicts much of the tradition of western philosophy which had assumed a division between mind and body. In his latest book The Meaning of the Body: Aesthetics of Human Understanding, Johnson (2007) identifies seven “striking implications of taking our embodiment seriously” as follows: (1) There is no radical mind/body separation, (2) Meaning is grounded in our bodily experience, (3) Reason is an embodied process, (4) Imagination is tied to our bodily processes and can also be creative and transformative of experience, (5) There is no radical freedom, (6) Reason and emotion are inextricably intertwined, (7) Human spirituality is embodied (pp. 11-14). Johnson’s work thereby enables questions of musical meaning to be rigorously examined without being impeded by the thorny dilemmas and ambiguities of both aesthetics and postmodern philosophy.
Robert Walser, a Professor and chair of musicology at UCLA who is regarded as one of the leaders of the “new musicology” movement, appears to have been the first music scholar to acknowledge the relevance of Johnson’s work for musicology, and my doctoral dissertation was possibly the first study to apply Johnson’s theories to the field of music education. Walser wrote that the work of “philosopher Mark Johnson provides useful new ways of reconceiving the nature of both musical and linguistic meaning” (p.117), and “has important implications for studies of how people articulate social meanings through music” (p.119). Using an approach inspired by Johnson’s theories of embodied meaning, Walser examined the notion of “force” as an embodied metaphor in heavy metal music, reaching the conclusion that “distortion is perceived as powerful in contemporary popular music because our socially-guided bodily experiences with distortion lead us to perceive it that way . . . we recognize the image schema of force in the timbral quality of distortion” (p.125).
Like Walser, I regard Johnson’s work to be particularly insightful regarding musical meaning—possibly the most advanced currently available—yet the notion of virtuality still seems to offer some important challenges. Consider, for example, that if one accepts that the experience of profundity in music may be substantively articulated and socially shared (Davies, 2002), and that such musical meanings are fundamentally understood in terms of metaphorical concepts linked to specific bodily experiences (Johnson, 2007), it follows that the conditions of virtuality in an online environment might inevitably entail altered, even impaired musical experience. Alternatively, this line of reasoning would suggest that future incarnations of virtual musicality might feature a profundity of aesthetic experience or at least unprecedented notions of artistry that were previously unimaginable. Either way, we must recognize that such experiences do, and always will, surely have ‘real world’ musical ramifications, for as Ostwald (2004) observes, ‘Despite the desires of many in cyberspace, the decisions made in virtual worlds are critical to the success of ecology, humanity, and the physical world’ (p. 219). Moreover, assumptions made about what is pedagogically possible in online environments, such as the acceptability of unprecedentedly high student/faculty ratios, will surely have implications for claims regarding educational quality in the real world. Based on these observations, I have begun to develop an alternative way of looking at this problem.
Toward a Glocalimbodied Theory of Musical Meaning
I would predict that rapidly popularized technological developments will soon call for the articulation of a theory of disembodied transcendence to account for new aesthetic forms based on the experience of virtuality. This realization, derived from the preceding discussion, brings me to the development of a neologism, or invented word, that I introduce here as one way of encapsulating and conceptualizing the main ideas I seek to convey in this argument. I fully recognize that the proposition of any neologism can seem a bit silly—even pretentious or self-indulgent—particularly to scholars from outside philosophy (where it is less common), and coming from a social science background myself, I must admit to have sometimes found neologisms to be annoying. Yet, I think in this case I may have stumbled onto something that is actually rather useful, and to some degree effectively encapsulates the themes I am addressing here today. The term I have developed is glocalimbodied. Here is what I have written about this concept:
Perhaps what is needed is a kind of “glocalimbodied” theory that accounts for musical meaning in terms of the contemporary state of evolutionary “limbo” in which the intellectual stagnation of nihilistic postmodern theory has foretold its own demise (via popularization of phrases such as “the end of history” and “death of the author”) before a paradigm shift could even be introduced. A glocalimbodied theory would account for this awkward state of limbo between the effects of rampant globalization and the contextualization of locally embedded sociocultural practices and embodied meanings problematized by the rapid popularization of new technologies that increasingly engender previously unimagined states of virtuality (Fig. 3):
Fig. 3) Glocalimbodied Theory of Musical Meaning:
By glocal, in glocalimbodied, I mean a collapse of the concepts of local and global, which is engendered by convenient access to rapid systems of communication, transportation, and exchange of people, products and ideas (a reification of the process known as globalization), within which the notions of identity and locality become unprecedentedly multifaceted. By limbo, in glocalimbodied, I mean an intermediate state or place of confinement, an uncomfortable and ill-defined domain situated between changing historical and philosophical paradigms, essentially the reasons why postmodernist theory arose and withered. Imbodied is offered as a welcome contrast to embodied (in the same way that improbable means unlikely). Imbodied, in other words means not embodied, or the notion that we are increasingly disembodied through technologies of virtuality. Finally, died, as in “to form or stamp”, as in with a die, suggests that our perceptions are largely impacted and even shaped by these preceding notions of global, local, limbo and imbodied. A “glocalimbodied” theory of musical meaning would therefore account for the ways that musical practices, as situated in both sociocultural and embodied (or disembodied and virtual) contexts, become imbued with meanings in an ever more technologically saturated world. This glocalimbodied perspective would be inherently antipostmodernist, meaning namely that it entails a critically informed rejection of contrived approaches that are symptomatic of postmodernism’s embrace of nihilistic ambiguity, its impotent celebration of circular reasoning, and its aloofness from scientific discourse. To the contrary, a glocalimbodied theory of musical meaning would entail the kind of rigorous theorizing that welcomes empirical research as a uniquely effective path toward testing and application of ideas that might otherwise be confined to the realm of mere conjecture.
Expanding on this notion of glocalimbodied theory, one might begin the task of developing a research agenda by which to theorize and describe qualities of virtuality in relation to musical experience. I have identified a few such themes for further exploration using phenomenological and empirical strategies (Fig. 4):
Fig. 4) Theorizing Qualities of Virtuality:
One important quality of virtuality is richly synchronous interactivity, by which I mean environments that enable instant communication and responsiveness between musicians, teachers, and students, rather than the equivalent of a correspondence course that makes use of email instead of conventional mail (which seems to be a fairly accurate description of some online courses), or the equivalent of a commercial multi-track studio project in which musicians record their individual parts without ever even meeting each other. Richness and instantaneousness of interactivity is constrained whenever the attention of participants is excessively divided, much like the case of a classroom teacher who has to respond to questions from 20 students all at once, or an orchestra with an upcoming performance that can only afford sectional rehearsals (e.g. woodwinds only, strings only, etc.) due to either scheduling conflicts or the unavailability of large rehearsal rooms. Contrarily, an experience featuring richly synchronous activity will very closely resemble the instantaneous pace and intensity of a live meeting among all participants, but may take place between people who are physically distant from one another. Another important quality of virtuality is exploitation of unique possibilities. In other words, the precise reasons for delegating particular activities to the online/virtual rather than offline/real space should be clearly rationalized according to the characteristic advantages and disadvantages of each environment. Technology should not be used simply because it is available or because it seems to enable further trimming of travel budgets. A final quality of virtuality, sense of transcendence, should serve as an ideal objective in the design of online musical environments. Online settings that are woefully lacking in artistry abound, particularly within educational contexts. Just as a lecture, essay, or performance can be beautifully presented, so should virtual musical environments, albeit using rather different techniques.
As I have begun to demonstrate, virtuality may offer new forms of artistic, instructional, and scholarly inspiration. The popular Second Life virtual environment already demonstrates through the metaphor of flying that there is a kind of universal desire to escape the limitations of the human body, which is to some extent achievable in an online environment. As we metaphorically escape the body even further in such domains, will we also stumble onto new vistas of artistic expression, including new musical forms? I would argue that this is not merely the kind of amusing suggestion based on twisted logic that could serve as fodder for a science fiction film, but rather that this seems genuinely probable in the future, and it will be interesting to see the extent to which developments over the next few decades show whether that I am correct or mistaken.
Conclusions and Implications
I have demonstrated that the notion of qualities of virtuality, which I seek to articulate within a broader glocalimbodied theory, may provide a foundation from which to devise an effective conceptual framework to evaluate the meaningfulness of music education in online environments. It follows that musical experiences be evaluated in terms of qualities of virtuality, in other words, the extent to which they provide: (1) richly synchronous interactivity, (2) exploitation of unique possibilities, and (3) a sense of transcendence, whether rooted in a physical or virtual environment. Based on this premise, I would assert that traditional face-to-face programs, lacking in virtuality, are likely to succumb to a ‘blended learning’ format in the near future, which embraces the most compelling features of both live and virtual learning environments. Conversely, online educational programs are likely to increasingly require at least occasional face-to-face meetings. Consequently, the need to substantially redevelop educational guidelines and accreditation policies, in response to the unique present (and future) challenges of online environments, is a crucial issue that requires our attention.
Anthropologist Tom Boellstorff (2008) observed in his book Coming of Age in Second Life, that “in some ways humans have always been virtual . . . virtual worlds in all their rich complexity build upon a human capacity for culture that is as old as humanity itself.” Indeed, the culture of higher education is also evolving through expansion into the virtual realm, which is already having a multitude of consequences for music education. In the book, Envisioning the Future of Doctoral Education, Catharine Stimpson (2006) observed that “digital technologies are changing the dissemination of information and knowledge. The humanities should be following the sciences in establishing ‘more inclusive networks of intellectual dialogue” (pp. 405-406). If we are to embrace the full potential of digital technology in music education research, it will surely lead to an increase of multimedia publications, including doctoral dissertations, and perhaps even interactive presentation formats in virtual environments. Indeed, digital portfolios and doctoral dissertations are increasingly advocated in some fields, yet many universities are reluctant to accept such work based on objections that tend to be more procedural than truly philosophical in nature. To begin accepting digital and multi-media dissertations and other scholarly work might also require acceptance of the idea that existing research collections, collections of recordings, videos, and even sheet music, may all need to be digitized and the excess paper copies (with the exception of original rare artifacts) eventually even discarded. For librarians, this development may be seen as either a great opportunity or a truly daunting project. Indeed, for all educators, the rapidly changing technologies of virtuality offer a formidable challenge, requiring us to rethink many of our most fundamental assumptions. I will conclude by proposing a question that one might have assumed would never need to be asked: what might it mean to “make facetime” in a musical environment, and will we leave sufficient space for that in our lives?
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David G. Hebert is a Professor with the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki, and a Visiting Research Scholar with Japan’s National Institutes for the Humanities (Nichibunken) in Kyoto. He previously held academic positions with colleges and universities in Russia, New Zealand, and the USA, and maintains a website entitled Sociomusicology at: http://sociomusicology.blogspot.com.