Apr 21, 2020

A Purpose with a Classroom; Not a Classroom With a Purpose

George Howard

The following is a letter George Howard, Music Business Professor at Berklee College of Music, wrote to his students after they learned that the college would stay closed for the remainder of the academic year.

As ever, my thoughts are with you, and I hope you are as well as can be. I think in particular of those who are graduating this May, and have now learned that your ceremony will be online. No two ways about it....this sucks. Ritual is important. Ceremony is important. Celebrating with those with whom you shared experiences is important. We need points of demarcation in our lives, and the anticipation and memory of those celebratory moments are the most important elements. Through no fault of your own, you have been denied of the anticipation and experience of a traditional graduation ceremony. You will - like my daughter, who turned 16 on April 1st and celebrated in quarantine with her mother and 13 year old brother (she was, to put it mildly, not thrilled) will too - remember your graduation ceremony — in whatever forms it takes — perhaps more so than those who had a traditional ceremony. But...it still sucks. I’m sorry.  

Similarly, it sucks that none of you will be in classrooms most likely for the rest of the semester. It sucks for me too.  Moments in the classroom with you are sacred times for me; times of connection, humanity, and often transcendence.  

My favorite moments are when we (not I) transform the generic (and often suboptimal) space of a classroom into something completely different. The uncomfortable chairs fail away; the frustration of trying for what seems like hours to get something to appear on the projector vanishes; the constant hunt for erasers/markers is forgotten; the strange odors emanating from who-knows-where disappear...and we’re left with real connection....transcendence. I live for those moments; those moments keep me alive.  

What those moments show is that the classroom, and, in fact, any of the tangible aspects of a “school” are really just constructs or fictions. We sit in rows in poorly lit spaces populated with things like pencil sharpeners that haven’t been used since....??, because....that’s what we’ve always done. Of course, this makes no sense.  

Now those spaces are not available to us. So....what do we have left?  

One of the failings right now across a wide-range of activities is due to what is known as skeuomorphic thinking: trying to replicate an offline experience online. For instance, until fairly recently, the Apple Notes app was rendered on your computer/tablet/phone in the style of an actual notepad: yellow color “paper” complete with lines. In what scenario does someone need lines when taking notes on a digital device? You don’t. Those lines are a skeuomorphic artifact; an attempt - I suppose - to make the user feel more comfortable. But it doesn’t work. You can’t (yet) replicate the note taking experience of writing on a lined yellow pad with a pen or pencil on a digital device, and it is actually counterproductive to try. The notepad was a brilliant innovation and use of the technology of its time (the, I don’t know, 1600s??), but there are now other ways to take notes, and while these other ways may or may not be better than writing on a yellow pad, they are different, and should be viewed as such.  

We’re seeing the same skeuomorphic thinking as artists attempt to replicate the experience of a live show online. It doesn’t work. This is not to say that there is not/will not be a wildly successful and enjoyable way for the purpose of music to be made manifest online, but simply trying to recreate it without reinventing it is akin to forcing users to take notes on their iPad with a digital version of a yellow-lined notepad.  

Of course, where this all heads is that the same skeuomorphic thinking is dominating the transition from in-class teaching to online teaching. Zoom has a “whiteboard” feature. It’s not a whiteboard; it’s a skeuomorphic digital approximation of a whiteboard, and it doesn’t work very well.  

I do not have the answer as to how to make the transition from teaching in a classroom to teaching online without losing the magic that can and does occur in an in-person setting. But I do know it’s not simply trying to “replicate it.”  

I do know some things. I know that Slack is a better communication tool than the OL. I know that Zoom (with all of its growing-pain challenges) is a better option than Skype or WebEx; I know that tools like Trello are decent collaboration tools; I know that startups like Notion and Outbrain are pushing hard to address these issues with the same ferocity that I am.  

I know that the innovations will not come from large institutions, because it never does. There is no scenario, for example, in which the new way to consume live music (in an online manner) will emerge from the major labels, publishers or incumbent live players. This is due to Innovator’s Dilemma ego-driven thinking, and the fact that these institutions are perfectly happy with business as usual (the major labels/publishers)/expecting business as usual to return quickly (the live music incumbents). No...the innovation will come from someone — likely a unique individual who is a musician/technologist....and who (and this is important) has no other alternative/nothing to lose. This person knows her customers, because she is one, and is faced with a deep existential challenge and lacking a safety net. That is where the innovation will come from. It always does.  

I also know that the answer will emerge via focusing on the Purpose not the Product. Classrooms emerged as the most efficient means to distribute knowledge from someone with experience and credentials to those seeking that information in (or before) the era of Socrates. It really hasn’t changed much. In fact, many educators still rely on the “Socratic Method.”  

I doubt seriously that if Socrates were around today that he would still find the classroom approach, or even the method that bears his name, the most efficient means of distributing information to those seeking it. But, I bet he’d still teach. That was his purpose.  

I know what my purpose is, and I’ll use the tools that are available to me, even while I work tirelessly to find or invent other ways to do what I do. I am committed to getting the information to you in the most effective way possible, and I’m undeterred by the current constraints. I am NOT satisfied with the ways in which I am providing you information, but I AM watching and learning and listening and staying close to my customers (that would be you), and will give it everything I have — using whatever means necessary, because learning/teaching — like life and art - always finds a way. It will be different than what we had together in the classroom up to a couple weeks ago, but that doesn’t mean it has to be worse.  

It can be better. But that requires us all — each of you and me — to galvanize around our shared Purpose and de-tether from the residue of a Product that was past its due date anyway.  

Remember, we were a Purpose with a physical classroom, and not a classroom with a purpose. Now the classroom is gone, but we’re still here with the same exact Purpose....with that mindset, we can’t NOT find the way forward.  

George Howard is the former president of Rykodisc, the world’s largest independent record label, and cofounder of TuneCore, the world’s largest independent digital music distributor. He is also the cofounder of Music Audience Exchange, which comprises a team of digital marketers, engineers, and music lovers, using technology to redefine the fundamental structure of brand-artist relationships.

Mr. Howard is a professor of music business/management at Berklee College of Music, and the founder of GHS, a strategic consulting firm that advises a wide range of clients on how to integrate technology with strategy in order to increase brand awareness and revenue through innovation, social media, digital platforms, and strategic partnerships. A partial list of clients includes: Intel, National Public Radio, CVS Pharmacy, Alticor/Amway, Brown University, Paste Magazine, SpokenLayer, SingFit, The Landmark School, BigchainDB, Wolfgang’s Vault, and the Townsend Group. Howard is a sought-after expert witness who has drafted reports for and testified in many high-profile cases. He also is a columnist for Forbes, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times and many other publications.

George Howard

George Howard is the former president of Rykodisc, the world’s largest independent record label, and cofounder of TuneCore, the world’s largest independent digital music distributor. He is also the cofounder of Music Audience Exchange, which comprises a team of digital marketers, engineers, and music lovers, using technology to redefine the fundamental structure of brand-artist relationships.