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How can we help music education with FOSS?

Recently I've been doing a lot of work with secondary schools, in music lessons. I've seen a lot of interesting use of music software, music hardware, and web-based things.

One of the things that surprised me was that sequencers like Cubase, Pro Tools, Logic, are pretty solidly integrated into the curriculum, but this does have its problems: I saw various bits of confusion about dongles not working, licenses expiring, etc etc. Also, since school budgets are limited, it does worry me that we should be building an important part of the school music curriculum on top of some quite expensive software. Digital music is an important part of the modern re-democratisation of music; if schools or government see it as more expensive than it needs to be, then it's at risk.

Where is the free/open-source software (FOSS)? Why isn't it the ideal solution here? A few reasons spring to mind, not in any order:

  • These commercial programs are often the ones used in industry, though not exclusively. Learning these commercial programs makes a good transferable skill from school to industry. (But, a real transferable skill is not a skill tied to one piece of software, it's a skill based on the underlying principles. Unfortunately, many ICT skills taught in schools and encouraged by government are of the knowing-where-to-click-in-Powerpoint variety, and that's not always unjustified.)
  • FOSS can often be harder to install/maintain - teachers' time is extremely precious, and their time is demanded from many angles already. They do not want or need extra maintenance burden.
  • FOSS often has no marketing, and doesn't lobby government.
  • Schools mostly use Windows computers, and Windows is not the main focus of the FOSS community.

There's nothing wrong with commercial software, don't get me wrong - but if we're going to give all our secondary schools a good complement of software to teach proper digital music education, it seems like a risky strategy to be tied to some fairly expensive software. Ideally, there would be FOSS available alongside commercial software, and teachers would choose one or the other according to the local situation, and the educational outcomes could be just as good with either.

So let's stick with the example of software sequencers. What FOSS programs are there that might spring to the rescue?

  • Ardour? Well, it's pretty heavy-duty and complex, and although it runs on Mac and Linux it doesn't run on Windows. Doesn't seem ideal.
  • Rosegarden, MusE, Qtractor? Darn, Linux-only.
  • Jokosher? Now this is possibly ideal - it deliberately aims to have a non-intimidating interface, and it runs on Windows. Jokosher is a fairly new kid on the block, which is perhaps why it isn't yet used more widely, but has a lot of potential and has backing from the Ubuntu community. My main concern about Jokosher is that it has such a deliberately "anti-pro" feel that I'd be surprised if any music studio was using it. So teachers might not be keen on the idea of teaching software that isn't used in the professional context.

So I don't think there's anything that 100% perfectly fits the bill. FOSS being FOSS, it won't necessarily emerge unbidden; most school music teachers are not FOSS programmers and wouldn't know where to start. We either need a community of people willing to develop it for idealistic purposes (kinda what's happening in Jokosher), or a government-funded initiative (there have been many of these, for example to improve online learning systems) - ideally, both.

If the Jokosher community is interested in helping out with this, and making quite an important impact on digital music education, basically there are two angles: firstly make it easy to install and maintain on Windows (yes Windows - one battle at a time folks); and secondly, make sure it has all the main features of what others might call a "proper" DAW used in industry, so that someone can teach with Jokosher and be confident the learning is transferable.

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