Philip Levy

November 12, 2023

Synthesizing an open-source high school music technology course

As I look at the homepage for my design history podcast on Substack as of today, I’m a bit saddened that the date of the last post is August 17 and we’re now only a couple weeks away from Thanksgiving. But there is, in fact, a happy reason for this hiatus. Over the summer, while she was visiting family with the kids in Indonesia, my wife, Sophia, applied for and accepted the position of music technology teacher at the Center for Fine and Performing Arts at Colgan High School in Manassas, Virginia.

This is a unique role in a unique program within our county school system and a rarity among public schools. Designated as a “specialty program,” any student in Prince William County can apply to and audition for admittance to one of the CFPA practice areas, including music, art, theater, dance, and writing. Kids who are zoned to the school can also take some of these classes as electives, so they are accessible to others, but in general, you’re working with a group of talented, highly-motivated teens who are passionate about learning how to write, record, and perform music. For Sophia, whose own experience with synthesizers and sequencers goes back to her high school years, this is quite simply a dream job.


What does this have to do with me and my podcast hiatus? While Sophia has a lot of industry experience creating music and teaching experience offering private lessons in piano and voice, she had never designed a comprehensive music production course or had to work within a bureaucratic organization like a public school system — not to mention her hands-on music tech skills were a little rusty. Starting her new job only a week after returning from Indonesia, she knew it was going to be like completing her first flying lesson by learning how to take off from an aircraft carrier. Luckily for her (I promise I don’t remind her too often), I majored in Music Production & Engineering at Berklee Collge of Music — where we met — and later completed a graduate degree in Instructional Design and Technology at George Mason University. I think you see where this is going. This wonderful opportunity for her — and the kids she will no doubt have a tremendously positive impact on — has become just one more component of our partnership that has lasted over 25 years so far.

As for defining the course, fortunately she has a lot of freedom. It’s not a graduation requirement so there are no state standards to teach to or test on. Because the subject is relatively new to this grade level, there aren’t even many conventions to follow. Her predecessor, John Mills, did an amazing job of establishing expectations for and the reputation of the music tech program, but both he and school administrators emphasized this is her course now. It’s an exciting mix of endless possibility and weighty responsibility.

Sophia had some clear ideas about how to articulate the philosophy that would guide her music tech course. She wants to produce well-rounded musicians, who know at least a little bit about the breadth of the field while diving deeply into a particular area of practice. She wants to leverage project-based learning because ultimately music is about what you create and how it impacts people. This class would be about creating things and learning by doing. Another core principle we talked about, which I may have had some influence on, is the principle of open-source education. This is already a well-established idea we see in resources like Kahn Academy and MIT’s OpenCourseWare.

For me, there are two reasons to make this part of the guiding philosophy of this course:

  1. It takes place within a public school system, funded by taxpayers. Like other government transparency initiatives, it makes sense that we should default to open.
  2. It’s an opportunity to broaden awareness and access to music tech education. While not all schools will be able to budget for a whole course, and not all music teachers will be comfortable with all the tools and techniques, sharing this material can make it easier for some teachers in some schools to adopt and adapt these creative activities that resonate with kids.

What does open-source education look like for Colgan Music Tech? These are the general concepts:

Here are the artifacts we’ve started publishing:

Coming soon is an online textbook where she’ll compile all the teaching content and reference material that emerges from the projects and more details and rubrics for the assignments.

Check out the Colgan Music Tech homepage or follow the organization on GitHub!

As for my podcast, I’ve got the next episode queued up and it will probably be live by the time you‘re reading this. That will likely be it for this year, but I’ll aim to get back on a monthly cadence next year.

About Philip Levy