Over the last month I’ve built a web site that allows me to test out a few ideas about collaborative and ‘re-mixable’ learning resources. And to indulge a passion for The Magnetic Fields’ 69 Love Songs, my favourite album.
69 Love Songs information is a ‘wiki’ site. I’ve touched on wikis briefly before. The technology — which allows many people to edit the content of web pages without knowledge of HTML or restricted logins etc — has been around for several years, though its adoption has remained most enthusiastic with the technical community. I have found one other wiki site devoted to a cultural artefact or artist — a sophisticated site for They Might Be Giants with over 70 contributors — if you know of others, please let me know.
The rest of this posting covers how the site is built and develops, what its potential for learning might be, and the limitations that I have either hit already or expect to hit.
How it works
The content of the site as it exists now — around 90 pages — is exclusively my work. But this is just the starting point. Currently all but five pages can be edited by anyone. I’ve written instructions for making changes.
The editing process makes it very easy to make links between pages on the site, and not much more complex to create links to off-site resources. See for example the Abigail, Belle of Kilronan page, showing the links to external pages and resources in [square brackets].
Others can also add their own pages. I had to make a judgement about how far to develop the site and how ‘open’ to leave it for further additions. I had a particular shape in mind for the site and wanted to have the 69 songs on the album at the centre of this, so that’s how I’ve developed it so far. There is scope for other structures to be added onto this shape, like a kind of geodesic dome, and for these to make new bridges between existing parts of the structure.
Strengths and potential
Much great music has the happy side-effect of inspiring listeners to go back to the sources and precedents it builds on. 69 Love Songs has a massive range of reference points (as can be seen from the list of comparisons that critics and writers have made): it’s a great starting point to learn about songwriters and songwriting.
This potential for learning works well when individual songs on the album have clear precedents, as with Wi’ Nae Wee Bairn Ye’ll Me Beget and its roots in Scottish folksong.
Several of the songs work by virtue of their cultural references, which provides potential for a different kind of learning: closer to reference and annotation. I had in mind the equivalent to some of the ‘literary companions’ for books like Gravity’s Rainbow. I had some fun researching and writing the notes to go with The Death Of Ferdinand De Saussure and Acoustic Guitar.
Once the site is announced to other fans of the album — which I’m planning to do next week, on the fifth anniversary of its release — there is potential for others to add more information and links to related resources. The Wikipedia site is a large scale example of this working successfully.
Perhaps more significantly, they could also create new themes or essays that draw on the existing pages. As a modest example of this, I have already created a few ‘theme’ pages, such as Songs featuring dancing and Songs featuring gender or sexuality switches. You could be much more ambitious than these examples. With perhaps a slightly larger set of resources, you could write a whole learning programme that traced a route through a series of pages. I wouldn’t cite this an example of the learning object approach — but the possibility of ‘re-usability’, advocated as one of the advantages of learning objects, may exist. (Here’s a wiki about learning objects.)
Limitations and challenges
First let’s be clear that the current 69LoveSongs.info site is not a learning programme or course; it’s a resource. In my book, resources are for researchers, not learners. To turn resources into courses, you need to add context, sequence, and some kind of activity beyond reading and clicking links.
Even as a resource, the coverage of the songs is yet to match some of the song-companions that exist. While researching material for this site, I found this page dedicated to Paul Simon’s 50 Ways to Leave your Lover, which includes links to TV Documentary, interview and essay material.
The collaborative wiki approach does not allow for a comprehensive database-driven site — you can’t design a good database on the fly or without close co-ordination. So 69LoveSongs.info will never support the kind of powerful searching offered by Andy Aldridge’s great Head Full of Wishes site, or John H Hedges’ Robyn Hitchcock Song Catalogue, which will show you every live show that featured each song (example).
The biggest limitation of the site may yet turn out to be what I hoped would be its strength: its reliance on collective authoring. Alongside the Gravity’s Rainbow companions, the other spark that led to the idea for this site was reading the story of the Oxford English Dictionary and the volunteer contributions that underpinned it, in The Surgeon of Crowthorne.
69 Love Songs perhaps misses the ‘big picture’ appeal of the OED, or its modern wiki equivalent, the Wikipedia. It needs me to solicit the support and contributions of other fans. According to Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia, in this interview, the solution to this problem is love. How appropriate.
The interview also touches on the scope for bickering among contributors. If two contributors to a page differ in opinion, they can keep re-editing the page. or reverting changes back to their version. Jimmy Wales says, “One of the biggest social faux pas that one can commit is the dreaded ‘revert war'”. But will fans of the Magnetic Fields, many of whom may have never have used a wiki before, know or care about the social mores that have developed in another community of practice?
At some point I will write another posting on the additional features you might look for in enhanced cultural learning resources — but that’s enough for now.