A Musical Lens on Hybrid Learning

Woman hands playing music notes on dark background, music concept

What does music have to do with education? And how might it help us come up with new approaches to thinking about our practice as teachers?

While they may look a little different in practice, music and education have many parameters in common. These include duration, pace, dynamics, silence, proximity and gesture, to name a few.

Texture is another common parameter, and one that has new resonance in education. In music, it refers to the quality created by the combination of different elements. In education, we could think of it as the relationship between the spatial layers that are created when some students are co-located in the classroom and others are participating remotely.

Managing the Complexity of Hybrid Learning

Educational spaces that are set up for hybrid learning are often seen as more complex spaces to navigate. The decisions we need to make about the social and spatial arrangements in the learning environment tend to multiply. As a result, it would be useful to have a way of representing the overarching structure of hybrid learning sessions to support us in the process of designing for learning in these environments.

Here we apply a musical lens to thinking about spatial representations of form in hybrid learning spaces (Wilson, 2022).

Spatial Representations of Form in Music

In Western tonal music, form is largely concerned with the configuration of melodic, harmonic and rhythmic events. The formal structure of a work may also be determined by the way instruments are arranged. While musical notation tends to reflect what we hear ‘in full’ when we listen to a musical work, representations of musical form are different. They represent the structures of the music on a broader scale, such as the structures generated when melodies, harmonies, rhythms or other elements are repeated, varied or contrasted with each other. That is, spatial representations communicate something about the overall ‘shape’ of a musical work, so it can be viewed as a whole.

Some representations of form in music are very simple. In traditional analysis for example, letters of the alphabet (A, B, C etc) are used to indicate form. The sequence of letters represents musical divisions caused by by the repetition, variation, or appearance of new or contrasting musical material. More complex formal analyses, such as Schenker’s voice-leading graphs, combine conventional music notation with other symbols. Figure 1 shows these two approaches.

Fig. 1 Spatial representations of form in music; Schenker example (Cook, 1987, p. 36).

What Might This Look Like in Education?

As in music, we can consider the form of a learning session from both a temporal and spatial perspective. The temporal perspective of a learning session can be seen as a succession of events that occurs over time. To represent this, we might use a sequential description of events, like we do when preparing a lesson plan or running sheet for a learning session.

In contrast, a spatial perspective would represent form as a synchronous entity, taking a more comprehensive view. If we were to represent it on a diagram, we would show the relationship of the parts to the whole in a single view. This would allow us to see elements in a learning session that are repeated, and variations in the configuration of activities, such as how students are grouped within and across spatial boundaries.

Learning Arches

The learning arches method offers an approach to representing form to support educational design. A learning arches diagram presents a “big picture” view of the student learning journey (Kavanagh, 2019, p. 4).

As can be seen in Figure 2, the learning arches method (on the left) looks similar to very early examples of spatial representations of form in music. It uses nested arches to show how events are grouped, and their relationships over time. Key features of the learning arches method include setting, holding and landing arches. Setting involves representing the start of a new ‘phase’ in the learning process. Holding involves “facilitating and leading… the learning experience and the learning space both inside the arches and between them” (Kavanagh, 2019, p. 12). Landing represents the completion of a phase of learning before commencing the next phase, and is usually accompanied by some form of reflective action.

Fig. 2 Learning arches method (Kavanagh, 2019, p. 12) compared with early representations of form in music by Reicha, 1826 (Bonds, 2010, p. 289).

Representing Texture in Hybrid Sessions

While the learning arches technique offers a way to spatially represent the form of a learning session, it doesn’t have the capacity to represent relationships between the structural layers that are present in a hybrid learning context. Figure 3 shows two alternative ways of representing the relationships between spatial layers in a hybrid lesson, incorporating the structural dimensions of the ACAD framework (Goodyear & Carvalho, 2014).

The first example shows that over the 60-minute lesson, students who are co-located and students working remotely are engaged in the same tasks, an exception being the ten-minute task represented in orange. In the set dimension, students sometimes have a shared focus of attention across spatial boundaries, whereas at other times they are ‘located’ in separate spaces. An example would be if students in Zoom are sharing the same environment and resources, and students in the classroom are sharing the same environment and resources. In the social dimension, the diagram shows the points at which students are working together as a whole group, and when they are in groups determined by their ‘location’ (in the classroom or remotely online). The diagonal lines show that groups comprise a mix of co-located and remote students. This might occur for example when we want students to construct joint digital artefacts.

Fig. 3 Orthographic drawings showing relationships between spatial layers in a hybrid classroom based on the structural dimensions of the ACAD framework (Wilson, 2022)

The second example presents a more textural version of the learning arches. While the structural dimensions of learning (task, set and social) are not explicitly represented in the diagram, the arrangements associated with these dimensions could be integrated.

Further Research

To support teachers in shifting to alternative modes of learning and teaching during the pandemic, there has been a need to further develop and share a range of possible hybrid learning and teaching models within and across our institutions. In the article I suggest that spatial representations of hybrid forms have the potential to assist in this process. The paper offers some ideas and questions to support the further development of approaches to spatial representations of form in education. Such representations could contribute to shaping, refining and analysing networked spaces and “the different ways the component elements are integrated into a meaningful whole” (Ravelli & McMurtrie, 2017, p. 111).

Read more about applying a musical lens to spatial representations of hybrid learning environments in this recently published article in the Postdigital Science and Education Journal. You can also join the online conversation in this recording of Postdigital learning spaces of higher education webinar.

About the author

Stephanie is a Senior Lecturer and Deputy Director (CLaS) with the Business Co-design team at Sydney University and Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy (SFHEA). She enjoys working with others to explore new approaches to learning and teaching inspired by design practice and the arts.

Published by Stephanie Wilson

Stephanie is a Senior Lecturer and Deputy Director (CLaS) with the Business Co-design team at Sydney University and Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy (SFHEA). She enjoys working with others to explore new approaches to learning and teaching inspired by design practice and the arts.

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