Monthly Archives: February 2015

Call Me, Anytime.

I give my mobile phone number to students. There, I said it. I give them my personal mobile phone number. It’s not a shiny red “Bat Phone” that I reserve for student calls. It’s my everyday phone that I use to call my wife, receive calls about freelance gigs, check email, read Twitter feeds, and map the fastest route to school (gotta love Waze!). As a matter of fact, I don’t even know the phone number in my office at school. I think it’s x7949, but I’ll bet I’m off by a number or two.

I’m always amused by the reactions of my colleagues when I tell them this. They range from shock to sympathy to accusations of masochistic tendencies. And then the questions start. “Don’t you get calls at 3AM?” No. “Don’t they send you a ton of text messages?” No, although I do get the occasional annoying text message where the “texter” (is that a word?) fails to identify themselves or the class in which they are enrolled. I’ve been doing this for three (school) years now and it’s really not a big deal. You see, most of my students come from a generation that will avoid making an actual phone call at any cost. I find it kind of amusing, actually. I’ve got over 150 students this quarter and I can easily count the number of phone calls I’ve received from students on two hands. They just don’t call, even when they should! And I suppose even these students respect the title of “College Professor” enough to realize that text messages are probably a little too informal. (They certainly don’t hesitate to send off email messages; I guess they see that as a step up in the hierarchy of communication formality…)

Initially, I refused to use my office phone because I’m only in my office a few hours a week for office hours. The rest of the time I’m on campus I’m either teaching a class or working in one of the labs or the studio. And guess what, students can actually find me in the lab or studio by calling my mobile phone. That sort of makes sense, right? I don’t even know how to set up my office voicemail. Why would I want to call in and check voicemail on yet another annoying phone system? It takes me back to the days when I had a landline at home, or even further back to when I had an answering machine with those little cassette tapes.

I find that my college has a weird attachment their landline extension system. I haven’t had a dedicated phone number at a private sector job since 2008. There are some forms I fill out at school that ask for my extension, and I just cram my mobile phone number into the space. Same with online forms, although sometimes they only allow four digits so I leave it blank.

I guess ultimately the decision to give out my personal number comes down to a simple premise: I’m a full-time instructor. I don’t believe there’s any ambiguity to the term “full-time.” Sure, I can make myself inaccessible when I’m not physically at school, but I choose not to. I consider myself to be “on-call” during core hours for student interaction, which I find to be something like 10AM to 7PM. And, ultimately, making myself more accessible saves time and headaches because I don’t need to return a bunch of calls at a later time. I suppose the only thing I dislike more than landlines is a backlog of student communication. I want my students to feel valued and respected, and timely communication is a huge part of that. And I get a kick out of the typical student response when I answer the phone: “Wow, I can’t believe I called you and you answered.”

How Did I Get Here?

When I was a kid, I was a pretty good student. I was always good at taking tests, and that carried me through even though my study habits were not that great. (Actually, that didn’t work so well in college Calculus, but that’s no big surprise.) Anyway, it’s kind of funny, considering my current career in education. Or perhaps its not so funny, when you consider that government officials, educators, and even parents are more obsessed with test scores than ever. Come to think of it, maybe this IS where I’m supposed to be. Who knows…

Anyway, the one thing I did consistently work hard at throughout my childhood was music. I started on the Piano at the age of five (six?), and continued studying, performing, and composing music in one form or another until this very day. In those days, the arts were considered an enrichment activity and not essential to success in life. And I find it somewhat unbelievable that this general attitude towards the arts continues today. Even after study after study shows that exposure to the arts is beneficial to children, arts programs are always the first to go when money gets tight. Well, it’s either the arts or physical education, which in my humble opinion is almost but not quite as appalling.

In hindsight, I can see a couple of things that very clearly influenced my decision to pursue music and audio engineering (and eventually education) as a career. First, my parents were both musicians, so in our household everyone played music and it was really no big deal. Growing up in that kind of environment pretty much guaranteed that I would be something of a musician no matter what else I chose to pursue. I’m pretty sure that’s what kept bringing me back to music on the few occasions when I got burnt out on a particular instrument or style of music. As I got older I would just bounce around to another instrument or style of music (or some new piece of music technology that my mother, bless her, was willing to pay for) and continue on.

And there was a second event, this one much more specific, that led me down this path. My mother was a psychologist and worked with medical students from one of the local medical schools. As a result, she developed a close personal relationship with the dean of that medical school. (I believe she was Greek, like my mother, which was probably a factor as well.) One day, when I was about sixteen, my mother decided that I should have lunch with the dean to talk about medical school. I can’t remember much about the conversation, but there was one tidbit that stuck with me: She told me to major in music in college. Now, I know what you think I’m about to say; that she thought I should pursue my one true passion and career be damned, right? Wrong. She told me that music majors had the highest rate of acceptance into medical school. What? No, not that most doctors were music majors. But that music majors were accepted at a higher rate than any other major (including classic pre-med majors like biology and chemistry). So, I went of to college and majored in music. I gave up on pre-med a couple of years later, but that’s another story.

So if med schools (whom we’ll assume know something about choosing strong applicants) are desperate to get more music majors, why do we still consider arts education to be a luxury as opposed to a necessity? If I had to venture a guess, I’d guess that it’s because of the current cost of education. If education were cheaper (or free?), I believe more parents would be supportive of their children who show an interest in the arts. But in the current reactionary education climate, even parents who innately understand the value of arts education are willing to throw the arts out the window when school budgets (and student loans) enter the conversation. Hey, we’re falling behind much of the rest of the world in math and science education, right? Everyone, FREAK OUT! My question is, where do we rank in arts education?

Contract Grading

Many of my colleagues have moved to what is considered a “modern” grading model in their online and face-to-face courses. Typically, they make a large number of points available that embrace various learning modalities, and then use some fraction of those points to determine the student’s final grade. For example, a course might make available 3000 points distributed across modalities (traditional quizzes and exams, individual and group projects, writing assignments, etc.), with 2000 points required to achieve an “A” grade. While other instructors seem satisfied with this model, I’ve never been willing to make the leap without the addition of one other component: a grade contract. While the grade contract seems to be common in K-12 (especially for students deemed “gifted and talented”) , I haven’t personally witnessed its implementation in my field (Music Technology). Before we jump into that, let’s rewind and talk about my teaching background for a minute.

Before I began teaching at the college level, I spent many years as a technical trainer in the private sector (and I still pick up those gigs occasionally as my schedule permits). The subject matter was audio hardware and software, and the students were typically professionals looking to obtain an industry certification. Aside from the type of student, there was one major difference between those classes and the classes I teach at my college: no grades. As a result, I had never failed ANYONE in a decade of classroom instruction. That’s not to say that every single student passed the relevant certification exam(s), but the vast majority did.

Next, let’s jump ahead to my first college teaching gig; I was hired to teach at a large state university where my students were a mix of degree students and certificate students. The dichotomy between the two groups of students was stark. The degree students were typically younger and more academically skilled, with limited industry experience. The certificate students were typically older and not very strong academically, but frequently possessed work experience (or life experience) that was helpful in these particular courses. For the first time, I had students who aced the class but weren’t really prepared for professional work, and students who achieved a failing grade but definitely gained useful skills that could be immediately applied to their current occupation or could help them to make a move to an adjacent field. At the time, it never occurred to me that I wasn’t being fair to to the certificate students! In hindsight, I feel that the certificate students would’ve benefited from a more flexible grading structure the more accurately assessed their success. But I was coming from a world where grades didn’t exist, and so obviously hadn’t been exposed to other grading models.

So, what about my current role? As I mentioned above, I’ve had a chance to watch some of my colleagues implement other grading models. And I have a fundamental problem with the implementation. You see, without a contract that determines exactly which assessments will be graded, students will tend to complete all of the available assessments. Now, of course, some students will put in the effort to do very well across all of the assessments. But common sense tells us that other students will recognize that mediocre or even poor performance is sufficient to achieve a good grade and will therefore put in a minimum of effort. (I’m continually amazed at how students who don’t don’t apply themselves in the traditional fashion can become incredibly resourceful when it comes to gaming the system!) So, in the example above, that means that a score of 66.6% on every assessment will result in a 100% grade for the class. This idea drives me nuts! From the first time I became aware of this model, I knew more-or-less intuitively that some sort of contact was needed. And, after doing a bit or research, I discovered that a Grade Contract (sometimes known as a “Contract Activity Package”) is almost always used when this grading model is implemented in K-12 programs.

There’s no doubt that implementing Grade Contracts creates more work for the instructor. It falls to the instructor to figure out how contracts will be structured and then assess student success based on the contract. In our online learning management system (which I use as the gradebook for face-to-face classes as well) there is no easy way to manage such contracts and generate an automatic grade for multiple pathways through the available assessments. Regardless, I’m planning to restructure at least one of my courses next year to embrace Grade Contracts. In our LMS, I’ll need to figure out if doing the pre-work to limit access to assessments is more efficient than overlaying the contract on completed assessments at the end of the course. But I do believe that the results will be worth it, and that a more diverse group of students will be able to successfully complete my classes. Wish me luck!

The Bleeding Edge, Pt. 2

So, I’ve previously mentioned several new game audio courses that I’ve developed for the Music Tech program at Foothill College. (Actually, one of them is still just an outline that needs to be developed for next quarter, but I digress…) These classes are as cutting edge as we get in our industry, and there are some serious complications that come with exploring uncharted territory. When I wrote the very first edition of Avid’s Pro Tools for Game Audio textbook back in 2010, I had to figure out how to demonstrate the implementation of audio assets into an actual playable game. (The Pro Tools aspect of the book was no problem.) This required a great deal of research into available game development “engines,” of which only one was truly viable at the time: Unity. Unity was great because it had some decent audio capabilities, offered a number of demonstration game levels that could be used for the class, and especially because it’s free to use for game projects that generate less than $10,000 in revenue. (Ding! Ding! That’s definitely our situation…)

So we started down the path of using Unity for Avid’s book. We grabbed a couple of game levels, and spent a few thousand dollars having a programmer customize them for the book exercises. It mostly worked well, with a few back-and-forth development cycles and no major issues. Then, just as we were going to press with the book, Unity released a new version of their engine that broke some aspects of our game levels. Yikes! Nothing like that had ever happened with previous textbooks that I edited or authored. We scrambled to make some quick changes and went to press with about 98% functionality. In other words, I shipped a book that featured a software component that had KNOWN BUGS. All of a sudden, I was in the software development business in a way I hadn’t ever imagined. Anyway, we’re on the third edition of that book now. And there have been hiccups with the game levels that shipped with every edition.

Fast forward to Fall 2014. With the Winter Quarter quickly approaching, I found myself in a familiar position; I needed to put the final touches on the course materials for my Advanced Sound Design for Games course (which I’m currently teaching.) I had always planned for this course to use FMOD Studio (see below ad nauseum), but I needed to decide on a game engine (yet again). I really wanted to try something new after having used Unity for the past few years. Fortunately, the Unreal Engine from Epic Games had just added both a Mac OS version and FMOD Studio support a few months earlier(!). Now any logical, non-masochistic course developer would probably have run screaming in the other direction at the thought of building a course around an application that was effectively brand new. I am not that person. I jumped in head first and scrambled to make things work. And would you believe, it’s actually going pretty well. But not perfectly well.

The first major issue occurred when I built the course exercises around a “First Person Shooter” game template. I put in several weeks of work preparing the game, which put me at about the 75% completion point. Then, one day, I loaded up the game and got a bunch of errors. Showstopping errors. And because I was working in completely uncharted territory no one at Epic or FMOD could provide the assistance I needed quickly enough. Did I mention I was pretty much working on Christmas day? So I scrapped the “First Person Shooter” template and found a much more simple template. This one was missing a lot of the cool stuff that I hoped would impress students, but it was much easier to adapt to my course exercises. And everything went off without a hitch (at the eleventh hour of course). I packaged up all the files, uploaded everything to my Google Drive, and started teaching the class.

Ah, you probably guessed that wasn’t the end of the story, right? So, things went pretty well until about the third week of class. For a variety of reasons, several of my students were running the very latest Mac OS (“Yosemite”). Sidebar–Industry Pros know to NEVER update their OS unless they have a very good reason to make the move, and they certainly never upgrade in the middle of a project. But these aren’t Industry Pros.–End Sidebar. And they quickly discovered that some basic functionality in FMOD Studio was not working. To their credit, FMOD quickly released an update that addressed the issue, but the deadline for the exercise had already passed. So, I was forced to extend the project deadline to accommodate those students. No big deal, really. But did I mention that the new version of FMOD Studio fixed the Yosemite problem but broke the functionality with Unreal? For a few more days anyway.

Yeah, that’s my life… I do it to myself. My wife always jokes that “college professor” is supposed to be the world’s least stressful job. And I always respond, “Not if you’re doing it properly.” And sure, I could back away from trying to keep students right up there on the cutting edge. But I just can’t help myself.