Apps My Students Used in 2014

Over the next weeks, I am going to write a number of posts about our experience as a 1:1 school this past year. The logical place to start, of course, is about the apps that my students used. I use a number of apps beyond what my students use in class.

The very first thing you need to know is that all the apps we used had to be free this year, with the exception of Notability, which was purchased for every student. The district purchased our 4th Generation iPads in July of 2013, which meant that the changes in Apple's own iOS apps did not apply to our devices (today, if you buy a new iPad or Mac, all the iWork and iLife apps are free, with the exception of GarageBand, which has an in-app purchase). We had hoped that Apple would retroactively give our iPads those apps for free–but that didn't happen.

Why didn't we purchase any apps? iOS 7 brought the ability for a school to distrbute an app via MDM (multi-device management) and then to retreive that app. If you spend $4.99 on an app as a school, you don't want to “burn” that purchase with one student–just as you wouldn't want to simply give textbooks away each year. Granted, there is a significant price difference between a textbook and an app, but still, the cost of apps will add up over time and bleed a 1:1 budget. Our MDM didn't add the ability to distribute apps until late into the academic year–at which point it didn't make sense to purchase any apps.

With that in mind, what apps did we use?

Chromatik: Chromatik has changed a little bit since its introduction a couple of years ago. It began as an app that allowed you to store, purchase, and share sheet music with others, mainly through the use of a “Join Code.” The latest version of Chromatik (although the “schools and groups” app is still available) is more focused on the solo performer with daily free pop songs. Chromatik has the concept of copyright protection in mind; material purchased or uploaded stays on the server, and can be revoked by the person who manages the group's music. If you purchase music via Chromatik, you can only use as many copies as you purchase. The service is so promising that they have agreements with some publishers, such as Alfred.

We ran into problems with Chromatik, however (I am being honest here). The app itself wouldn't refresh the content of playlists, and was based on an e-mail subscription. Our district chose to close our student's gmail acounts to any outside e-mail other than Apple, so when students forgot their login or password, there was no way for them to retrieve that information. And our students are middle school students, so that happened a lot. We had to abandon Chromatik (our band teacher tried using it, too, and also abandoned it). It is a great concept with a lot of promise, but it was too problematic for our class.

PiaScore: The number one way to use iPads in secondary music education (in the United States, this usually means performance-based programs, such as choir, band, and orchestra) is for sheet music. When Chromatik was no longer an option, PiaScore was our next choice. Our band director chose Notability (not free) as students were familiar with that app, and in general, band scores at the middle school level are on one or two pages. Choral scores tend to have many more pages, so we needed another option. PiaScore was generally successful, and our main “feed-to” high school (also 1:1) also used the app with a lot of success. The app was updated a number of times throughout the year, adding more features for free.

My big complaint about PiaScore is that it does too much for middle school students. It has a number of features which are in-app purchases, but gives 30 seconds of trial to those features, such as a piano, metronome, a way to turn pages by waving your hand in front of the iPas's camera, and more. Middle school students press those buttons. All the time. It also has an embedded YouTube player. I wrote the company, asking if they would ever consider making the YouTube feature a part of the in-app purchases, as I didn't want my students watching YouTube during class. Something was lost in translation, because the company (in limited English) couldn't understand why I wouldn't want students on YouTube during class. As much as I love the PDF music readers forScore and unrealBook, these apps have too many features for middle school students (high school is another thing, and also a place where music is an elective that they choose). I found out about NextPage as a music reader this year–a scaled down PDF music reader that is ideal for Middle School. There are some additional features, but the app has just the essentials, and I hope we can purchase it next year.

Next year, my hope is to incorporate the writing of solfeggio under every note of every song, and to learn our music via solfeggio first, and then to add words. This is wonderfully possible with PDF music readers…and not to completely destroy the original music while doing so!

NotateMe Now: Neuratron, the creators of PhotoScore, released NotateMe (paid) and NotateMe Now (free, one staff) in January. This apps allows you to write music by hand…a unique way of entering music notation. As a teacher that wants students to learn how to actually draw musical symbols, this has been wonderful. We used the app in two ways. First, we did some composition projects with the app following our first concert, and then occasional dictation exercises. New features in the full NotateMe allow a teacher to create a master file that can be shared with students via the free version (I have not tried this yet). Students were not enthusiastic about the app, but then again, they weren't enthusiastic about being in choir, either (music is a forced elective in 6th & 7th grade, and likely only 40% of the students would choose to be in choir if they had a choice). We will continue with NotateMe Now next year, and to make more time to work with student compositions and helping them improve their compositions. Make no mistake–composition and dictation are not innate skills.

GarageBand: We ended our year watching some instructional videos about GarageBand (our district has a subscription to and giving students time to play around with GarageBand. Most students had access to the free, limited version of the app. The full version requires an in-app purchase, which schools cannot access with a volume purchase. Our GarageBand unit came at the end of the year and there wasn't really time to make a graded project, and of course, students check out after the last concert. A number of students seemed to enjoy the lessons, happily messing around with the app after each video. I see how GarageBand on iOS could be used as a foundation of a music technology class, teaching the basics that could be brought into any other app (iOS or PC). The use of video instruction was intentional; they are “wired” (trained) to focus on a screen, whereas if I teach about GarageBand myself (particularly during the last two weeks of school), they will just tune me out. I would like to find more time for GarageBand, but not at the expense of being ready for a concert.

Google Drive: We are a GAFE district, so students used Google Drive to recieve music (“Open In” PiaScore) and other class materials, and as a way to submit homework. Workflow with Google is a mess no matter which way you try to organize it. Google is releasing Google Classroom in the fall, which may solve part of the problem.

Canvas Instructure: Canvas is a Learning Management System that allows students to access and submit work; and for teachers to seamlessly correct that work inside the LMS. It looked promising, but required an e-mail verficiation, and thus even after having students sign up for the service, we could not use it.

Safari: Students used Safari to access the choir webpage, as well as to answer Google Forms (daily journal questions, post-concert self evaluations, end-of-term self evaluations, and quizzes.

Notability: Although Notability is not free, I had students use the app on a day I was absent to complete some activity sheets that were distributed via Google Drive.

I believe that is the extend of the apps we used; keep in mind that we only see students every-other-day for 42 minutes, so the majority of our time is spent preparing music for our concerts rather than teaching all kinds of concepts about music.

As we worked on the GarageBand unit at the end of the year, a few students complained (I think this is par for the course), saying, “This is choir…why do we have to do this?” That was not representative for all students, but it is still a very hurtful thing to hear as a teacher. Trust me…those students don't want to sing, either. The fact is that I am not apologetic for using these iPads…particularly at the end of the year or after a concert…to do some different activities that might teach them something about music that they normally would have never learned. I try to teach them about music theory, sight-reading, dictation, and music history–not to mention music technology. The primary goal is to prepare music for a concert and to have that experience of preparing and performing literature; but my secondary goals of educating the whole musician are also strong and intentional.


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