Robert Miller and Chris Mallett, the co-founders of the California Conservatory of Music, demonstrated the latest version of their PracticeSpace app in the virtual exhibition hall at the Music Teachers National Association (MTNA) conference in March.
‘We had been looking at student retention numbers as a key metric for judging the performance of the conservatory,’ Miller told MUSIC:ED. ‘We wanted to know how to improve in keeping students for longer and we could see that the students who practise stay students for longer. So, we had developed all these incentives.’
With part of the school’s offering being the Suzuki method, aimed at the youngest children, the school has developed a range of incentives to keep students enthused. ‘We’ve had students for 10 years from three- or four-years-old,’ says Miller. ‘So, we love giving students prizes for achieving.’
The school encourages practising by setting 30-day challenges and offering small prizes to keep students engaged when they are away from their teachers. And being based in Silicon Valley with an app developer right next door it made sense to create an app for teachers to share with their students.
‘We worked with the developers very closely, much of it on paper,’ says Miller. ‘We started with the student version first and that’s what differentiates us from other platforms. It’s all about encouraging the students. If a teacher signs up to PracticeSpace, the next thing we want to see is them signing up students. If they don’t, they’re not using it right.’
Teachers pay a $9.99 subscription every month and can sign up as many students as they like for free. The app helps them upload demonstration videos, set schedules and goals for individual students, keep notes, run a leader board and archive everything in a secure inbox stored on the cloud. Students get their own free version of the app, through which they can earn ‘gems’ with which they can buy virtual prizes, much like a computer game, or real products that the teachers can decide upon. They can keep their own progress records and refer to the teacher’s notes for help.
‘This really helps to buttress what the kids are doing during the week,’ says Mallett. ‘To know what to practise, how to practise it and watch a video of their teacher and follow what they are doing. Plus loads of incentives. Once they get a certain amount of gems, they can buy, say, a gift of some sort. Back in the classroom, the teacher can give them something real.’
The beta version of PracticeSpace was due to launch in March 2020, but in the weeks before, Miller and Mallett began to hear rumours. ‘We had some teachers over in Asia over the new year and they came back and said this thing is coming and we’d better prepare,’ says Mallett. ‘So, we gave every teacher a Zoom account and when lockdown came we didn’t lose a single day.’
The change in working practices started even before lockdown as the first recorded case in the USA happened just a few miles away in San Jose. ‘People were scared,’ says Miller. ‘So, we wanted Zoom and online lessons to be an option for them. Luckily, we already had PracticeSpace ready and were getting our teachers up to speed on it.’
The enforced beta-testing period the pandemic imposed on them was a boon to the new company. A few schools such as the Levine School in Washington DC acted as guinea-pigs and many teachers were allowed to have the app free-of-charge. By July, Miller and Mallet had ironed out the wrinkles and begun expanding the offering for teachers.
The new version of the platform was released just before the MTNA conference. ‘The biggest difference was on the teachers’ side,’ says Miller. ‘Teachers were saying it was harder to use on their phones, so the teacher app needed a lot of work to make it suitable to use on the web. We also made a more extensive library and made it easier to add pdfs and other elements. And all students can access every lesson they’ve ever had online, so they can revisit what they’ve done whenever they like.’
But what of the future? The benefits of lockdown may have pushed the project forwards but do apps like this have a purpose once face-to-face teaching re-commences?
Miller and Mallett believe there is no substitute for learning in person but that they’ve created a tool that works with that. Although their school has thrived through the online era, expanding to over 550 students, they are eager to return to human contact.
‘Students at our school want to return to teaching in person,’ says Miller. ‘I’ve been teaching in person since September, though sticking to the rules of social distancing. There was an element of cognitive dissonance, at first. It took a while to get used to it, watching someone playing and then remembering I could play along.
‘A lot of the future of education is going to be digital from now on and it’s a big potential market. But at our school we look at it as a real community for us and a place for social interaction. A solo teacher might like the online thing, but you don’t get that interaction. Teachers might like to sit there online but what do the students want? The app was designed for face-to-face teaching. Students only see their teacher once a week and the problem is retention. This was designed to help with that.’