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A Story Behind Harmonia

by: Ming-Ching Chiu

 

Before joining Illiac Software, I was a graduate student at the University of Illinois. From being a teaching assistant to running my own music theory courses, I taught undergraduate music theory courses there for eight years. I enjoyed teaching, and I always sought for ways to help my students learn. Questions that I asked myself frequently include:

 

“How do I make students understand the materials better?”

“What examples should I use to demonstrate a new concept?”

“What grading scheme should I adopt to motivate students to learn more instead of making them feel defeated?”

“How do I make sure the grading is fair?”

“How should I design the homework so that students get enough practice?”

“How should I design the homework so that my TAs or I don’t have to spend the entire weekend grading?”

 

I was able to answer some of the questions myself, but for some questions, I simply didn’t know the answers. Grading, is one of these hard problems. There were countless times I ended up grading at 2 am in the morning. It was the amount of homework I wanted my students to have, but it was also a lot of grading for me. I couldn’t find a way to balance between how much I wanted my students to practice and how much time I wanted to spend grading.

 

Several weeks before I defended my doctoral thesis, Dr. Taube approached me and asked whether I was interested in joining Illiac Software, the company he just founded at that time. When he showed me the prototype of Harmonia, their only product, I immediately saw its potential. It provided a possible solution to my grading problem, a problem that also troubled many teachers like me. We all wanted our students to practice more, but we cannot spend our whole life grading.

 

People might ask: isn’t grading part of your job? Avoid grading seems to be something lazy teachers would do. This is what I think: to me, grading is not what makes a teacher a teacher. An educator’s main responsibility should be motivating students to learn, improving students’ learning skills, and helping students learn. Grading homework is just one way to provide students feedback. It is not even the best way considering what technology we have nowadays. By using tools to save grading time, teachers can free up more time to focus on more important part of their teaching job, such as designing better course content, spending more time interacting with students, etc.

 

With this belief, I became part of the Illiac Software startup team. Back then, nobody knew how to run a startup business. What we had was tons of teaching experience combined, passion for music theory, music education, and knowledge to write a computer program.

 

Today, almost four years later, Harmonia has transformed from a lab prototype to a real product with thousands of users. However, we are not satisfied. Harmonia is still very young, and there are still many things we want to accomplish. We are thrilled and thankful that teachers who have used harmonia tend to come back every semester, and the number of our users keep doubling every semester.

 

At the moment, Illiac team is working around the clock meeting the deadline to release a new version in summer. The new app is a complete rewrite with new features. I am excited to see how much the new Harmonia app will help shaping the future of music theory education.