String Theory (and Practice!)

Chelsea Green and Nadine Aboulmagd Harmonize on Guitar

Not everyone who creates an open textbook has previous expertise or background in using digital technology. Some folks courageously take on the challenge with little to no experience working in the online realm. Chelsea Green is one of those brave people. A musician and professor of music at the American University in Cairo (AUC), Chelsea has a background in both performance practice and theory. She has also previously worked as a guitar teacher for students of all ages and abilities. Her love of teaching has now extended to her career at AUC, where she founded the Bachelor of Musical Arts Major in Guitar, the first ever degree in guitar performance in Egypt.

Chelsea’s dedication to music and pedagogy were central to her interest in creating Sight Reading for Guitar: The Keep Going Method, an OER that supports students as they are learning to play. Chelsea identified a particular need for a tool to help learners develop skills in sight reading—the ability to see, interpret, and immediately play musical notations on the page. Having once been a sight-reading novice herself, Chelsea knows that it is difficult to learn guitar without that ability. Although there are many YouTube tutorial videos on playing guitar, few of them focus on learning how to sight read, and none that Chelsea could find provided the mix of theory and practical learning that was needed for the classroom. Over the years, Chelsea had developed an effective method that did just that, and now she wanted to be able to formalize it in a textbook for her students.

At first, Chelsea considered writing the book as a commercial product, but the business details of conventional publishing started to bore her. She found herself zoning out during these discussions, and losing focus on the content itself, as well as the reason she wanted to create the book in the first place. It was not the way she wanted to expend her energy, even if she ended up making money from it. She soon decided to create the book as an open resource, but needed help with the technical elements of doing so.

At the AUC’s Center for Learning and Teaching (CLT), Chelsea met with Associate Professor of Practice, Maha Bali. The two originally discussed the idea of creating a short online course, a MOOC (a massive open online course), or a SPOC (small private online course). Through Maha, Chelsea was introduced to Senior Instructional Designer, Nadine Aboulmagd, also within the CLT. Nadine has a great deal of experience creating online content for blended and online courses, and also teaches a course on multimedia and technology for the Professional Educators’ Diploma at the Graduate School of Education at AUC. She and Maha recommended developing Sight Reading as an open textbook, and together, the three agreed to do so, working with the support of Rebus Community. An additional hope was that this might also lead to opportunities for translating the textbook into other languages.

With Chelsea leading the project as content editor, Nadine played a pivotal role as project manager, keeping everyone in communication and helping Chelsea to port her content into the Pressbooks environment. As involvement from Rebus Community grew, Maha stepped into an advisory role on the project, and handed over project management responsibility to Nadine. She, meanwhile, came to understand and appreciate Chelsea’s goals and motivations, and as the trust between them grew, Nadine became a key facilitator in bringing the book to fruition.

On the content side, Chelsea drew from her own experiences as a teacher and musician. A video production team made up of Ahmad El Zorkani and Hassan Labib created the all-important multimedia content, while a student technology assistant, Farida El Harouni, worked on layout editing. As is the case with so many academic writing projects, Chelsea also received help from her partner, Frank, who provided advice and technological support.

Sight Reading distinguishes itself because it contains so much multimedia content, including embedded graphics, videos, musical scores, and MP3 audio exercises. In a future revision, the book will also include videos with scrolling scores so that learners can play along. Chelsea’s vision is that the theoretical and practical to go hand in hand as students learn, while still making sure that the practical tools are at the heart of the method. As students follow the pieces in the practical section, there is also guidance about attitude, behaviours, and approaches to sight reading. Play-along segments and self-assessment components allow students to gauge how much they have learned from each chapter, giving an indication of whether or not they should continue on to the next one. The self-assessment methods are designed for committed self-learners, but can also be a resource for teachers to use in class. Overall, the book’s format demands that the learner remain engaged and active during the learning process.

For its part, Rebus Community played a key role by facilitating the peer review process and supporting beta-testers. Importantly, Zoe Wake Hyde and Apurva Ashok were particularly helpful when it came to deciding on licensing. Though Maha and Nadine were already very familiar with Creative Commons licensing, the textbook posed a distinct challenge in that some of the included compositions could not be openly licensed. With Rebus’s help, the team reached a hybrid solution. As a whole, the book is licensed CC-BY, while the individual musical pieces (some 30 original compositions) are licensed CC-BY NC (non-commercial). This allows them to be part of the OER while also insulating the work of the composers.

Their biggest challenge for Chelsea was navigating the layout limitations of Pressbooks and making sure that the multimedia demands of their project were met. Certain challenges included issues with changing the CSS styling, various layout elements, and formatting the book to their needs. Fortunately, the whole team took it as a learning opportunity, and they were able to work together to overcome most constraints. Most recently, another member of AUC’s Center for Learning and Teaching has joined the project team to work on the layout. Maha Shawki is a computer science graduate and is helping with HTML and CSS on the backend to ensure things run smoothly both in the web and mobile versions of the book.

While the technology hurdles were especially challenging for Chelsea, the net result was great satisfaction from the sense of community and collaboration that the project engendered. “I constantly remember this is a once in a lifetime opportunity,” Chelsea recalls. And still, that opportunity isn’t over. After almost two years of working on this project, and with most of the loose ends wrapped up, Chelsea’s team at the CLT have moved on to helping other faculty projects. (Maybe now it is time for those hoped-for translations to start up.)

Though she perhaps entered this project as a technological neophyte, Chelsea’s passion and curiosity motivated her to learn even as she was trying to share what she already knew with her students. The accomplished musician and teacher now feels like she is at the beginning of a movement, a new start in a new direction. Where that movement goes in the next five or ten years remains to be seen, but in the meantime, it’s the smooth movements of fingers on guitar strings that Chelsea can be proud of.


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Rebus Community Reports Copyright © 2019 by Rebus Foundation is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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