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Music technology in the classroom: getting started

While technology in the classroom isn't a magic bullet, the benefits can be enormous argues Music Technology Editor, George Hess.

While technology in the classroom isn’t a magic bullet, the benefits of including it in your teaching toolkit can be enormous, argues Music Technology Editor, George Hess.

Teaching with tech: get ready

The goal of this section of MUSIC:ED is to move music technology from the fringe to the mainstream of music education. Those of you who are teaching music tech courses are already well on your way. But there are still many of you who are still not comfortable with technology in your classroom. I’m sure you have good reasons but ultimately it comes down to not being convinced that it’s worth the time and effort to take it on.
This is understandable. Making a change in the way you teach is not something to take lightly. It’s admittedly a big decision, one that will often involve a lot of work. In an online discussion with some colleagues the other day, we were talking about what motivates a teacher to change the way they teach. While there were a lot of different ideas, in the end, it came down to the desire for students to learn better. And what all of the reasons have in common is that they were about self-motivation.
Adding technology to your class will involve extra work on your part, especially when getting started, so it’s crucial that you do it for the right reasons. It will pay dividends in the long run but they may not be what you’ve been led to believe. So let’s take a look at the reality of technology in the classroom.

It’s about time

First off, in spite of what technology evangelists might say, you need to understand that technology by itself isn’t a magic bullet.  For the most part, students don’t learn any better using technology than they do with traditional methods. In a way, this is good news because it also means technology can be a useful tool for learning. The key will be how you use it.
There is also something unspoken in these comparisons. Technology does no better when assessing the things traditional methods were designed to teach. Exams primarily evaluate the ability to recall and process information. While that is a valuable skill, it is not the only one nor is it necessarily the most important one, especially in music. Computers can teach it but what most studies don’t ask is if technology teaches other things. Exams don’t measure leadership, collaboration, creativity, connectivity or a host of other things. So while tests are a fact of life in education today, they aren’t the only reason we teach.
For me, the most important benefit of using technology to teach is time. Not so much saving time but allowing me more control of it. One of the first things I found was that the computer handled some of the more mundane aspects of teaching like drills and grading. But it goes well beyond that. As your use of technology becomes more sophisticated, you’ll find time to do more interesting things in class which, in turn, makes teaching much more fun. Yes, at first, you’ll spend more time learning, planning, creating materials and setting up. But once that’s done, you’ll start to see real benefits.

Have a plan

Once you are convinced that technology will help you, the next step is to develop a plan. Remember, technology is a tool not an outcome so think in terms of musical and other educational goals. You probably already have a plan in place with goals and outcomes for your students and lessons to help students achieve them. Start by taking a look at each outcome and asking if technology can help in some way.
At this point, it’s helpful to have an idea of what types of technology are available. You don’t need to know specifics but it’s safe to assume that there is a technology-based solution for just about anything you can think of. For the most part, we can divide technology into two categories: tools for instruction and tools for creation.
Instructional tools are software-based and range from single subjects to complete curriculums. They are available for almost all aspects of theory and history and for all age groups. There are also practice aids such as accompaniment programs and sight-reading programs, some of which will evaluate the performance and provide feedback.
Creation tools are used to create music using either notation, recording or performance. They range from entry-level to professional and include software and instruments. The entry-level programs are pretty easy to learn and are appropriate for even lower Primary students. (Or their teachers – wink). Some of these programs have lesson plans and tutorials, some have built-in collaboration tools and many have free versions. The advantage of using creation tools is that it is much easier to create authentic lessons and assessments.
The final piece of the puzzle is how you intend to use the program. As I said, technology by itself doesn’t improve learning, teachers do. The key is to use the time for active learning and to develop stronger relationships with your students. This is where you get to be creative.

Flipped learning and project-based learning

Two approaches that lend themselves to the use of technology are flipped learning and project-based learning. In flipped learning, you create short videos of your lectures that students watch at home or in-class and then do related activities in class. You can learn more from the Flipped Learning Global Initiative.
Project-based learning is ideal for music. PBL goes beyond just doing a big assignment and involves a significant open-ended project, group work, public presentations and is student-centred and driven. PBL is great for authentic learning and combined with flipped learning can be a very powerful and fun way to teach. For more information, check out the Buck Institute for Education.


Of course, there’s one other consideration. Equipment. It often seems like an insurmountable problem but I encourage you to consider your goals first and your limitations second. If you want to teach in a 1-to-1 program, say so, even if you only have one computer available now. Having a clear plan that lays out what you will accomplish and what you need to do so is essential if you ever intend to gain support for it. In the meantime, you can develop interim plans that address what you currently have, all the while keeping your eye on the real goals.

Making it happen

With your plan in place, you’re ready to begin implementing it. To borrow a phrase, don’t panic. You’ve already done quite a bit of homework so you’re more prepared than you think. Remember, you’re the music expert, not the technology expert. In fact, at first, your students may be better at the technology than you. You don’t have to pretend to have all the answers. Instead, take the opportunity to show students how you learn. My favourite response to a question is ‘I don’t know, let’s find out’ and, believe it or not, my students like it too. It’s quite a relief not having to know everything.
You also don’t have to do everything at once. Start with one lesson and gradually add others as time permits. This is a long-term strategy so take your time and do it right.

But not for me

Still not convinced that using music technology is for you?  If that’s the case, then my advice to you, is don’t use it. If you don’t believe in what you are doing and believe in yourself, it’s bound to fail. I have personally known some exceptional teachers who didn’t use technology in class and adding it would likely have diminished them. So for whatever reason, if you don’t see the need to add it to your programme, then don’t.

Building your teaching toolkit

I hope this gets you thinking about adding technology to your teaching toolkit. With some thought and planning, it’s not that difficult and done well, it can make teaching much more interesting for both you and your students. And we’re here to help.
In the coming months, we’ll be looking at many of the things discussed in this article in more depth and providing more detailed resources. In the meantime, please post your questions and comments below or feel free to email me at george@georgehessmusic.com.

About the author

George Hess is an educator, guitarist, composer and author who has taught music technology, jazz and theory at leading universities for over 25 years.
The author of Create Music with Notion, he is a regular contributor to leading music education publications and his tutorial videos are published by Groove3 and featured by MuseScore.
Dr Hess is an Apple Distinguished Educator and award-winning teacher who serves on the board of directors for the Technology Institute for Music Educators (TI:ME) in the US. A certified Flipped Learning trainer who regularly presents at conferences and workshops around the world, he is currently Associate Professor of Music at Sunway University in Malaysia.
Website: http://georgehessmusic.com