A Response to “The iPad in the Music Classroom: Useful Tool or Expensive Toy?”

On Monday, October 22nd, Dr. James Frankel published a blog post on mustech.net entitled “The iPad in the Music Classroom: Useful Tool or Expensive Toy?”  It’s a MUST READ if you are interested in iPads.  For the most part, Dr. Frankel takes moderate view towards the iPad, although towards the end of his post, he concludes: “iPads seem more of a novelty in the music classroom than a serious tool, and from that perspective its difficult to justify the purchase over other technology tools.”  Admittedly, he isn’t taking a stance against iPads in music, but it isn’t a vote of support, either (and he’s done quite a bit of research on apps and usability of the device).

Just last week, I had a school visit that was adopting MacBook Air computers, rather than iPads, and I counseled them against that decision–and encouraged them to hear views that were different than mine.  I wish Dr. Frankel had published his article a few days earlier!

As a music teacher who is tying to get iPads into his program, and as a teacher who recommends the iPad as a device for musicians to students and their parents, I needed to write a response to this article.  I am going to be presenting at the WMEA (Wisconsin) on Friday morning, and will end up driving to my parent’s home on Thursday night (about a five hour drive from where we live near the Minnesota border), so I’m making the point to write this response this evening rather than letting it wait until next week.

Dr. Frankel does an great job at summarizing the different uses of the iPad.  He calls it a presentation device, a creativity tool, and a performance device.  I also call it a device of convenience–or a device that can help with classroom management issues.  Rather than summarizing his entire article, I’d like to simply address the questions he raises–or the comments he makes.

Question 1: How many students are using textbooks on the iPad?

Not many; but that number is going to change rapidly.  Some states have initiatives to be all digital by 2015 (Florida, for example), and the US Department of Education wants to see us digital by 2017.  My own school district has a goal of 2014.  What device can handle these digital documents?  Right now, the best answer is iPad (which can be managed centrally if necessary) or notebook computers.  But as I’ve said many times over–notebooks don’t fit in the music classroom.

Question 2: How many students are using their iPad for sheet music?

This is a tricky question, because unless something is in the public domain, there is no legal way to share music on iPads.  Those of use sharing music on iPads are doing so out of the letter of copyright law–having paper copies on hand but using digital copies instead.  We need music publishers to make it possible to get legal digital copies to use (or to make it legal to convert), and perhaps even to optimize existing scores for smaller digital formats.  The iPad wouldn’t be too small if the music were optimized for the format.  Most of the 1-to-1 schools I’ve visited are NOT using the iPad for sheet music, or very much in music classes at all.  This will change.  (Note: there are some small publishers, such as Graphite Publishing, that allow for the digital distribution of scores via PDF…but the “big boys” of the industry do not, and instead stick to restricted formats like Scorch or Finale Reader files).

Question 3: How many students are using apps to learn about music (such as the History of Jazz)?

Again, not many.  iPads are still scarce, particularly in the arts.  Funding for apps is also scarce, and some of these apps are quite pricey.  At the same time, I’ve recommended apps to students to purchase, and they’ve bought them.  Just today, I had a student who has been struggling hearing pitch, so I asked her to consider buying the APS Tuning Trainer.  I’ve also recommended other apps.  A brand new Sight-Reading app is out as of today (10/24) called Sight Reader.  If they had a vocal version, I’d recommend it to my students in a minute.  And of course, I recommend apps such as forScore and unrealBook.

Question 4: How many teachers are creating content for their students to use on iPads?

I’ll raise my hand here.  I make all kinds of resources, from PDFs to mp3s to .MUS (Finale) files.  I’ve proposed a course in music technology using iPads, and if it is accepted, I’ll write the iBook myself (the course would teach music theory through apps such as Garage Band).

A short summary of the questions in the “Presentation” category…Dr. Frankel’s estimation of “very few” of these questions being answered in the affirmative is TRUE, but the truth is tempered by the availability of devices and legality of resources.  This will change quickly.  It has to.

I’d also like to add that the iPad has potential far and above so many other formats (including a wireless mouse or blank slate) because you can see what you are writing, and there are apps that go far beyond static presentations like Keynote and PowerPoint.  There have been enough studies done to demonstrate that static presentations are not the most effective method of teaching, although they may be the most popular (and truthfully, are just a substitution of overhead transparencies from my youth).  The iPad can be interactive like a SMART Board, but it can also do so much more.

Question 5: How are apps being used in the classroom?  Are they used at all?

Apps are being figured out by teachers.  There’s no guide book–it’s a new field.  Some apps fit nicely into existing curriculum, others do not.  Some apps can be used by every member of a class at the same time, others are better for small groups or individual study.  Every member of a class can utilize a PDF music reader like forScore or unrealBook.  Individuals would need to use apps like Finale Songbook or Notion.  Small groups could use apps like GarageBand to “jam” together.  In my presentation this weekend, I’m going to admit that “it’s not about the apps,” but the truth is that most teachers have no idea what apps are out there.  When they see those apps and work with those apps, they’ll figure out what they can use in their classes, and go from there.  As an example, I’ve recently found (thanks to the developers contacting me) two apps that I’d never teach high school (or college) music theory without using (Octavian and Mapping Tonal Harmony Pro).

Question 6: If apps are used, how do students share their work with their teachers?  With others?  Is there an archive for work and portfolios?

I’ve been thinking about this question a lot, and I guess I would ask: what tools exist for “traditional” computers in these categories?  Or just for the individual teacher without technology tools?  The truth is that nobody has a good answer for archiving these elements.  On the iPad, most work can be shared via e-mail.  I’d guess that we will see AirDrop in the future, too.  Dropbox is always an option (sharing a folder with a class).  And there are services that will be coming to the iPad sooner than later, such as Chromatik and Smart Music, which will change the way we think about music on the iPad.

Question 7: What is the connection between teachers, students, parents, and the wider community with these tools?

I’d ask the same question of any existing tools that we have–I don’t think there is a strong connection.  Perhaps someone can write an app/service that can meet this need…and solve the problem at the same time.

Question 8: Where is iPad repertoire coming from?  Are composers writing for the iPad?  How do they account for the apps that make music?

Does it matter where the repertoire is coming from?  A large percentage of the work will be self-composed or self-arranged, something traditional music has failed miserably to achieve through our traditional music education programs.  Some composers are writing for the iPad, but not many–as you have to be certain you can sell your work.  My guess is that they will write for the instrumentation provided by specific apps, just as composers write for specific instruments.

Question 9: What about real instruments?  Shouldn’t they be used?

Yes.  But the problem is that 80% (or more) of the students are not involved in tradition BCO (Band, Choir, Orchestra) programs–and we’re not reaching them.  Getting music on the iPad really isn’t specifically for those BCO kids (it can include them, but not specifically).  The goal is getting at those other 80%, because “music for every child and every child for music.”

Question 10: Is purchasing the iPad the best way to bring performance to your classroom?

It’s a way.  Is there a best way?  Probably not.  If so, BCO would have 100% involvement.  But if you have an iPad-based class–performance or music technology–and you run 4 sections of 36 kids a year that normally wouldn’t be in music, isn’t that a win?  Isn’t that priceless?

Question 11: Isn’t the process of obtaining apps difficult?  Who makes app purchases?  Are apps an obstacle?

Yes, getting apps–getting apps via the Volume Discount Plan–and installing them can be tricky.  But let’s be honest–what part of our current purchase order systems isn’t tricky?  When we need a new instrument, say a baritone saxophone, we have to bring a proposal in December to a committee of music teachers who then decide which schools in our district have priority.  Then the master list is sent to curriculum and instruction, which decides how much money will be given to capital purchases each year.  If the sax makes it, then it goes out to bid to the lowest bidder, and shows up sometime bewteen July and August, a minimum of eight months since the initial proposal was submitted.  How is this harder than getting apps for iPads?

Question 12: Do iPads make life easier, or a greater obstacle?

My perspective is as a high school choir director.  I have about 20 students that bring their own iPads to school, and they use digital sheet music. They download it from a secure website, and install it themselves.  At the end of a concert season, they delete it.  I don’t have to hand out or collect any music to those students, they don’t lose their music, and they don’t damage their music.  They can write solfege into their scores.  They can mark as necessary–and erase as necessary.  They have tools such as a piano keyboard that can pop up, they can enter links and hotspots, and they can even link audio recordings to their music.   If I need proof that they’ve written solfege in their scores, they can e-mail me a copy of their score with annotations.  It makes my life easier.

If we can eventually convert our music to digital copies, and remove all the paper copies, our music storage rooms can be converted to other uses–and not having to deal with the distribution, maintenance, and recollection/storage of paper music (not to mention the risks of fire, water, or termites–all things I’ve seen happen to school music libraries) is a HUGE win that makes everyone’s life easier.

I can create a rehearsal file in Finale, and I can export it as a mp3 (I actually export as an .aiff and then convert with Audacity to mp3) or as a .MUS file, so my students can rehearse with audio (actually, according to copyright, the process of making your own rehearsal tracks is not legal, either).  They can download those files from a secure website and install those resources themselves.  It makes my life easier.

I can track class discipline with ClassDojo.  I can take attendance on a template I’ve created in Noteshelf and exported to my PDF music reader.  I can save versions of songs for each student learning the same solo for contest.  It all makes my life easier.

My big question is: how do I get these devices into the hands of every student in my class?  And how do we get publishers to move to digital formats or to revise copyright law so we can legally convert our own resources that we’ve already purchased?  And make legal digital resources for our students (self created rehearsal tracks) ?

In conclusion, the iPad isn’t the perfect device, but I wouldn’t teach without it, and I desperately want my students to have those same tools at their fingertips.  Although I’m good with technology, most of this isn’t rocket-science stuff.  I’m sure that my elementary, band, and orchestra colleagues could find similar uses for iPads–but they need to be willing to do so.  I’m all for getting iPads into the hands of teachers who are going to use them and have a plan.

The iPad is the device that I’ve been waiting for my entire professional career.  My only wish is for an iPad XL.  But as it stands, I’ll take an iPad 4, please.

Dr. Frankel–thank you for asking these questions and being willing to take a cautious stance with iPads.  We need people to think through these issues, particularly when a device is popular and hasn’t yet been supported by research (then again, if we always waited for research, we would never make any progress, because there is always something new on the horizon).

To my readers: I’ve written this post rather quickly, on a night where I need to get to bed.  Please accept my apologies for the grammatical errors that are undoubtedly scattered throughout this post.

Note: Amy M. Burns wrote a response to Dr. Frankel’s questions on mustech.net.  You can find her post here.