The Diction Hub

ITP student Chad Cygan (Music-Performance) reflects on his independent study project

Photo by Micah Taylor

Visit the Diction Hub

Upon the completion of my proposed study for the Interactive Technology and Pedagogy Certificate independent study project I have realized my project both failed and succeeded in many ways. Overall the project showed me that large goals can be achieved, but only through a more detailed training regimen. I envisioned an Internet based resource that utilized the power of public domain text, music and media and my students were able to contribute content to a website that fulfilled each of those goals.

My own successes and failures have mostly to do with organizing the user interface of the MediaWiki installation. As a technical novice with this platform I was able to learn how to use a file transfer protocol to add extentions and to facilitate the use of outside media on the Diction Hub. Had my progress in learning how to use MediaWiki been faster I feel the project would have been more successful overall due to a simpler interface for my student-users. Through installing, designing and securing the Diction Hub site I learned a multitude of things that will make future projects more sleek, successful and secure. The learning process of MediaWiki software can be steep for new learners and once I had overcome some basic spam reduction I was able to organize the basic content areas necessary for my study.  I will continue to refine the visual layout of my MediaWiki installation with the hopes of making the Diction Hub both more appealing and accessible to new potential contributors, but I believe these additions were beyond my original scope of work.

During their creation of content on the Diction Hub my Hunter College students encountered three common problems: discomfort working with a MediaWiki interface to format content, a lack of knowledge of the International Phonetic Alphabet symbols and difficulty finding  scores to link to from the International Music Score Library Project (IMSLP). While the students in my study did struggle with these aspects of the project their difficulties have helped me to better design subsequent courses utilizing the Diction Hub.

Despite vocal students’ familiarity with some of the aforementioned resources, in most schools of music students are not offered interactive technology courses to familiarize them with software like MediaWiki, WordPress or Drupal. It was part of my goal to help students learn to navigate a MediaWiki installation as part of this project and in that aspect I do believe I failed. However, after seeing this portion of my project as unrealized I believe it would be ideal to provide this training in a self-contained course within a school of music. At Hunter College the resources to add a course like this are unrealistic at the present time. The creation of content and the implementation of the Diction Hub project was often stalled due to students’ lack of experience and hands-on training using a MediaWiki interface, however beginning a lyric diction course with an introduction to this tool would be an essential part of any subsequent Diction Hub project.

Just as there is no course to train students with MediaWiki at Hunter College, the school also does not currently offer courses on the International Phonetic Alphabet for singers. My project introduced students to both IPA and MediaWiki, but asked too much of them in transcribing complete song-texts at this level of study. In curricula for schools of music an introductory course in the International Phonetic Alphabet is commonly offered as a mandatory course for singers and I believe my proposed study would be more successful in environments with this separate class. In a subsequent version of this project pairing study of IPA with the introduction to MediaWiki should be included as part of the class introduction.

Another issue that arose for my students during this project, the inability to find scores on the International Music Score Library Project, is more puzzling to me. Students were provided with classroom opportunities to navigate IMSLP and each of their respective repertoire selections was already listed on the website before this project began. To address this struggle I will create more assignments as part of a class-blog where students would be required to supply a score-link for assigned repertoire already found on IMSLP. Increasing their familiarity with important online music resources will help students succeed in using these archives.

Each of the issues encountered by my students highlight the critical errors in my project plan: over-planning. Despite the lack of success in realizing these goals each of the problems and solutions listed above could be best addressed in separate courses using the Diction Hub. It is now clear to me that one course, focused solely upon learning to work in a MediaWiki site and introducing students to the International Phonetic Alphabet, would be more successful in both technological training and diction study.

I suspect that I was unsuccessful in motivating some of these students to contribute to “the commons” that Lewis Hyde discusses in his 2010 book Common as Air. Moving forward with the Diction Hub I intend to utilize more concrete examples of Creative Commons and Cultural Commons contributions for my students. Hopefully I will be able to highlight how my students already benefit from these cultural resources and will be able to motivate them to become contributors as well. My students’ unfamiliarity with some of the existing online resources used as models for this project surprised me. In my experience teaching in other schools these websites and tools(IMSLP, The Lieder Archive and the IPA Typekit) are very familiar to most other vocal music students.

In contrast to my original proposal I chose to further limit my project by only allowing access to the Diction Hub to a small class and an extremely select group of outside auditors. This decision caused me to be unable to create “IPA Sprints” or “Translation Sprints” which are both unrealized sections of my original plan. In the future I intend to create these events and use them to further populate the Diction Hub with the type of content it was created to contain. These events will only be successful once the user interface, layout and training videos have been developed.

Despite the shortfalls of this sample run of the Diction Hub project I believe I have created an open resource for the study of lyric diction comprised of written text, scores, audio/video recordings and IPA transcriptions that can be used in college level music classrooms as a primary “textbook”, score library, and media database – albeit a currently limited one.

While many issues arose in the course of my project, several positive aspects of the content creation shone through and clearly displayed successes using the Diction Hub. Most of the students working on this project had not previously been aware of online resources for music including the Lieder, Art Song and Choral Texts Archive, The International Music Score Library Project or the IPA Typekit. Simply making this group of students aware of these important resources can be seen as a success. Many of the students involved in this project have become regular users of each of these tools and their musical abilities have grown as a result.

It was not one of the original goals of my study, however almost every student involved in this project became a regular user (if not a contributor) to one of the important online musical tools (Lieder Archive, IMSLP, IPA Typekit) I used as models of content. Even though content creation was the primary goal of my study my students regularly asked interesting philosophical questions about copyrights and technology design. Despite their lack of sophistication using a MediaWiki site, my students commonly inquired regarding the differences between proprietary content web resources and those with Collective Commons Attributions. The Lieder, Art Song and Choral Texts Archive is not an open framework and my students struggled to understand why someone would make a proprietary claim on materials they did not profit from (translations, in this case). The restrictions on some of this website’s copyrighted translations of ancient texts perturbed many of my students and it was an interesting yet tangential observation that they believed translations of original texts in the public domain should also fall in the public domain.

I had predicted that IPA transcriptions would be the largest area of content creation on the Diction Hub yet they remain the least populated type of information on the site. However, the texts and translations provided by my students have made the Diction Hub into one of only a few completely free online resources for vocal music texts and translations. To my knowledge it is the only dedicated vocal music website with all resources offered as legal, shareable, and open to the public. While I originally predicted that IPA transcriptions would make up the bulk of the posts on the Diction Hub this statement was based within the context of my original intent to implement this project with a class of singers already trained in IPA transcription.

The number of original pages created was roughly in the range of my class’s assigned works, however many of them needed help to post their information from a Microsoft Word document into a MediaWiki page. The level of independence my students were able to demonstrate was disappointing and definitely reflects a failure on my part to provide them with adequate training using a MediaWiki installation. The gap found in my students’ abilities to contribute to the project independently was filled by an unexpected increase in a category of information separate from my initial goals: performance interpretation.

The breadth of interpretive information provided in each of my students’ contributions filled an unanticipated niche for performance training. The Diction Hub was initially created to help build a resource for vocal music with score links, translations, IPA transcriptions and audio/video reference material. Most of the posts created in this initial pilot also include a section of historical background with cultural references for each composer and author of the text. While this wonderful addition of information is a fantastic surprise, many of these entries lack references.  Since including performance interpretation information in entries was not part of my requirement for the students in this course I do not find the lack of citations to be a failure. However, moving forward I intend to adopt an approach similar to that of Wikipedia whose references are added in a footnote fashion with proper credit give through citations.

The Diction Hub utilized many of the benefits of the networked information economy to both draw upon material already existing in the cultural commons, while also building new resources to contribute back to the commons. Despite the use of a MediaWiki installation this project has not yet taken advantage of the asynchronous crowd-sourcing so critical to sites like Wikipedia. After I was able to establish better spam protection my small sample of students was able to work on the site undisturbed. In future projects with the Diction Hub I will open up access to the site to more contributors and continue to expand it as in hopes of attracting a community of system operators and administrators to manage the site with me.

I wanted this project to contribute to the mission of accessible education without the increasing costs of accurate linguistic publications, recordings and scores for singers. From the small sample of students I worked with during my study it became clear that they benefitted from access to free translations, scores and pronunciation guides. With the small group I worked with we were unable to create a product that would substitute for the expensive publications currently used by other singers. However, I intend for the Diction Hub to eventually serve that purpose after it is opened up to a wider audience of contributors who can provide a larger repertoire of resources. It is still my hope that the Diction Hub Project will bring together instructors and students in vocal literature classes from across the globe through online collaboration.

After assessing the successes and failures of my project I have come to the belief that this tool will succeed, but with a pared down plan for student learning. Students using the Diction Hub would benefit from a three-course approach to creating content. In one course students would learn how to work within a MediaWiki installation while adding original texts and translations. In subsequent music courses students would be asked to further their MediaWiki skills and link example videos and score links to pages already populated with texts and translations. Students in an additional course could utilize this same tool to further hone their MediaWiki skills and their IPA transcription skills by adding IPA transcriptions to pages already populated with texts, translations, score links and video links. Not only would students experience more success in a structure like this multi-tiered curriculum, but they would also be able to collaborate on the same pages from different courses simultaneously. The asynchronous creation and interaction so critical to the success of a Wiki would become a social product benefitting students and the Diction Hub itself. My initial foray into a class working with the Diction Hub had some problems, it is clear to me that this tool demonstrates efficacy as a multi-pronged vocal music education tool.

Future Goals

Over the summer I intend to rebuild the navigation structure and to add more visually intuitive guides for this site. In our final discussion of the project Dr. Michael Mandiberg helped me understand how effective screencasts and other video-based media are at helping students learn how to work with technology. The Diction Hub needs these kinds of resources to enable contributors outside the classroom to contribute content without frustration.

While completing this project three universities have offered me positions, based heavily on seeing the Diction Hub as an educational tool they would like to use at their institution. Their support and belief in this tool has helped steel my resolve to update and develop the Diction Hub from it’s current installation. The majority of the aforementioned institutions also inquired as to how ‘proprietary’ I would be able to keep the Diction Hub should I join their faculty. Ironically this viewpoint is at odds with the open format of the Creative Commons philosophy. Finding a way to present this tool to my school and administrators while still employing it as a crowd-sourced project will be a challenge I hope to overcome this summer.

While learning how to add extensions and learning better ways to loop content it has become clear to me that creating an IPA symbol plugin for MediaWiki installations would greatly improve the Diction Hub. Students in my project struggled utilizing phonetic symbols due to their lack of training on the subject, however auditors who contributed to the project suggested integrating the symbols found online, via the separate IPA Typekit, into the text window the Wiki itself.

None of these further courses, nor opening the project up to a wider audience, can be undertaken until a better educational framework is created on the Diction Hub for potential contributors. If the Diction Hub is to continue to be part of a plan for creating an open resource for the field of lyric diction it must be structured more clearly and effectively. Refining a project with goals of pedagogical adaptability, flexibility, and freedom will take many revisions and supplemental material creation to become effective.

Despite the urgings of my future employer the Diction Hub will continue to be licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license. In Lawrence Lessig’s 2004 publication Free Culture: The Nature and Future of Creativity he argues that a free culture allows people to innovate and build upon the works of others without worrying about infringing upon their intellectual property rights. The Diction Hub is certainly a place that follows these principles and I hope it will come to allow students and professionals to draw from its resource library and to innovate and build upon these archived works of others.

In my original proposal for this project I wrote that I did not intend for this project to be assessed as a completed product. Rather, it was my intention that this project be reviewed as a first step in a process of creating a more effective educational and pedagogically sound utility. I do believe the Diction Hub will continue to grow in content, quality and contributors and that my aim of it becoming an educational and pedagogically sound tool will be fulfilled.