Is a Virtual Choir a Learning Network or even a Choir?

This is an interesting question which has been discussed in the first Networked Learning Conference 2011 Hotseat.  –


Peter Goodyear wanted us to stretch the boundaries of what might be considered to be a learning network by looking at The Virtual Choir and at some of the reflections the VC participants posted on Facebook, about their experience.

He asked us to think about (a) who is learning what, in the Virtual Choir (b) what features of the VC setup are essential to its success.

This question makes two assumptions. First that there is a learning network to consider and second that there is a choir in the traditionally accepted sense.

As far as I understand it from this video – the ‘choir’ members sing in isolation, connected only to the one resource (the music) and to the one person (the conductor/organiser – Eric Whitacre). These voices are ‘collected’ together and then manipulated/aggregated to form a virtual choir.  The learners are not involved in this process of aggregation. The outcome gives the appearance of a choir performance, but the process doesn’t have some of the critical elements of the experience of singing in a F2F choir, which seem to me to be about listening to each other in real time and making on the spot adjustments in the light of that listening. As Roy Williams  wrote in the forum

the virtual choir seems to almost undermine the sense in which music (in ensembles, whether vocal or instrumental) is, in many genres, about creating harmonies and chords, rather than individual notes.

And – as one participant wrote in Facebook –the really hard part of the process was:

missing the sensual experience of blending your voice with others and having the music in the air all around you and making fine adjustments according the real time feedback from the conductor.

Reading the Facebook comments I was struck by the fact that most participants already had experience of singing in a choir and for some reason were no longer able to participate in choirs that required them to physically attend. The Virtual Choir enabled them to continue singing without this requirement. Many were also quite emotional about their experience of singing for the Virtual Choir, for example, they were singing in memory of someone they loved. But no-one in the first three pages of the Facebook comments I read, questioned that they were singing in a choir.

I could not believe how “close” I felt to the piece, down to the intimacy of singing alone I guess, as well as having my own personal conductor on screen! Once I got over the “am I in time?” “what about the other voices?” – needing a witness in some way, it was such a great experience.

So it seems that a Virtual Choir redefines the process of what it means to be a choir member.

In terms of learning, there was clearly lots of learning on an individual level and lots of evidence of this from the Facebook comments – but was this networked learning? There was minimal evidence in the Facebook comments that people had collaborated in this venture, or met each other; even on Facebook, participants posted their comments and observations without responding to each other. It seems to me that the choir was an aggregated set of individual learning experiences and as was discussed in the Hotseat any networked learning that occurred was unintentional.

However views in the Hotseat discussions about whether the Virtual Choir is an example of networked learning were divided. There were those who felt that the fact that participants were working towards a ‘shared goal’, even though they were doing this by singing alone, enabled them to have an imagined community and imagined outcome and who is to say that this is not ‘real’ for the Virtual Choir participants. As one Facebook commenter put it

….‘it means that my voice can be heard around the world in harmony with other voices. We are connected through the emotions expressed by Eric’s composure. The energy created cannot be measured and will never die.’

In the Hotseat Roy Williams  wrote

  ‘Co-constructing meaning is, I think, an essential element of ‘networked learning’.  In this case, as in the case of a film production the question is:

1. Do the participants have ‘in mind’ a common understanding of what they are trying to construct?  If not, its a simple aggregation of bits and pieces of a resource, not networking. They have to know what it is they are trying to construct in order for there to be any chance of ‘co-creation’.

2. Do the participants have any part in the actual ‘construction’? – either in making decisions about what goes in, and how, &/or in terms of actually taking part in the construction/ editing/ etc.

He then acknowledged that there are no straightforward answers to these questions – but instead we need to think about where on the continuum of more or less networked learning does the Virtual Choir lie.

For me the Virtual Choir was successful because it tapped in to a need for a lot of people to sing and be part of a choir performance without having to be part of a physical group or even to hear other people singing alongside them as they made their contributions. It turned the idea of choir as we know it on its head. And there was lots of individual learning, but was there networked learning? Difficult to answer this as from the Hotseat discussions it is clear that we can’t agree on what networked learning is.

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