More and more teachers are realising that social networking software has the potential to support childrens’ learning. I am at last seeing blogs being used in primary classrooms, together with applications like Googlemaps, Google Earth and Flickr. However, the use of social software remains limited to a relatively narrow selection of older applications, with many teachers remaining dubious about what they see as ‘recreational’ applications.
There are a number of music sharing applications about, including Last.fm, Spotify and Blip.fm. I have used Last.fm for over a year, but not to its full potential as a social networking tool. I have added a few events and have a small number of friends with similar music tastes and access to a number of playlists generated automatically by Last, which I listen to from time to time. However, most of the music I listen to is on iTunes and consists of mp3s which have been ripped from my own collection of CDs going back over a decade. I tend to look at the database which reflects my listening more that anything else.
However, I recently started to use Blip.fm, an application which allows you to be your own DJ. These can be shared in a number of ways, with play lists going to Last.fm and to other social networking applications like Twitter and Facebook.
One could be forgiven for seeing this as essentially self-indulgent. However, it lends itself well to a wide range of learning opportunities, not necessarily musical. When one is presented with a tool of this sort, one is confronted by the decision of what to play. As a somewhat sad old man, I find it difficult to pull random numbers out of a hat. This got me thinking about themes, such a folk, metal, rock, blues, jazz and protest. I am reasonably familiar with these genres, but found that it was difficult to create a coherent programme without having to do some research on the matter. This of course, leads to looking at a number of websites which deal with specific musical genres and others which comment on them and the leading musicians involved in them.
In this way one finds oneself engaging in a journey involving research, critical listening, decision making, reflection and further research – the essential constituents of learning activity.
It might be useful to provide a contextualised example of a recent session in which I revisited the protest music genre which was an important part of my life in the late 1960s. It is easy to select a few favourites like Dylan’s classic Masters of War, Barry McGuire’s Eve of Destruction and Buffy Sainte-Marie’s Now that the Buffalo’s Gone (unfortunately not available on Blip), but I soon found that I had run out of ideas so started googling ‘top protest songs’ and the like to get some ideas. The most interesting thing was that I suddenly saw songs I had never heard of, and others which I did not even think of as protest songs. Further research enabled me to find protest songs going back well before the 1960s, like Strange Fruit, a song based on poem written by Abel Meeropol about the lynching of two black men in the south. The song was made famous by Billie Holiday in 1939 and inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1978.
Other protest songs which I did not know about included Biko, by Peter Gabriel, which to my shame, I had not heard before, notwithstanding the fact that I know a great deal about the man and his politics, even having met him briefly in 1968. The song was first performed at Nelson Mandela’s 70th birthday bash at Wembley in 1988. In defence, I can state that at that time such programmes would not have been broadcast in South Africa, due to a BBC ban.
One might well point out that this kind of learning was not really dependent on my using Blip.fm and that I could easily have done the research independent of it. However, the point is that in this specific case the application and the way I decided to use it led me directly to the research which enabled me to further my understanding of protest music further in a contextualised and relevant way.
On a personal level, the use of the application has enabled me not only to explore music that I do not personally own, but also to share it in a variety of ways with friends and many people I do not know. More importantly, like many other social applications, it challenges me to think carefully about what I share, how I share it and to ensure that I have a considered understanding of the content and context of the material.
I would suggest that social software facilitates this kind of learning very well, providing an interesting, easy to use medium which drives learning in a context which is relevant, engaging and fun to use – far more so than the traditional classroom tools found in our schools.
There are a range of ways in which an application like Blip.fm could be used. By a music class exploring a music genre, a class developing a play list of its favourites songs, groups from China and the USA researching and sharing and exchanging aspects of their respective cultures in song, musicologists developing easy to make and share play lists for students to engage with and critique, or students researching and developing a resource which could be consist of music analysed from a range of perspectives. Most easily, it is a tool for one’s own personal use, allowing one to engage with a variety of musical styles and performers as one engages and shares ‘props’ with fellow DJs.
What we often forget is that most learning happens outside of the school and that this learning, while ‘informal’, is extremely powerful. Developments in social software and social networking are providing an ever increasing number of ‘informal’ tools which drive this kind of learning. As teachers, we need to recognise this and take advantage of them in the classroom.
Billie Holliday – Strange Fruit