Category Archives: General Musings

General Musings

Big news about MusicXML today

Other sites are carrying this news today (I recommend reading the Sibelius Blog for its coverage on this issue), but as of today, control of MusicXML has been given from MakeMusic to the Music Notation Control Group. Additionally, control of SMuFL (Standard Music Font Layout) has also been given from Steinberg to the Music Notation Control Group.  The creator of MusicXML (Michael Good), the project manager for SMuFL (Daniel Spreadbury), and the CEO of Noteflight (Joe Berkovitz) remain involved as co-chairs of the committee. 

What this means is that these items will become a standard format not owned by a company but still watched over by a governing group.  It is an interesting move for MakeMusic, although posts by Michael Good have hinted that this day has been coming for a while. 

While this news may not seem very important to music education, the role of MusicXML, which allows the transfer of notation between programs, is greatly important to music education (e.g. bringing something from NotateMe to Notion, or from Sibelius to Finale). Also important is MusicXML’s size compared to native files in many music notation apps. SMuFL’s integration with MusicXML will help to make sure that notation moved from one program to another is even more accurate as all possible characters for music notation (SMuFL) are represented in the MusicXML container. 

In other words, this is a bit of background news that will quietly impact your life as you work with notation apps. As I mentioned at my workshop with the WCME last week, a notation app without MusicXML is not an application that is worth using in the modern era. 

Looking for Relevance

Whenever I read an article about a successful school, or a successful system (e.g. exemplar tech initiatives), I am always looking for one key component: what about music education?  Too often, a discussion of music and other “elective” classes is missing in such reports.  Yes, I am terribly biased–I am a music educator.  But please don’t tell me how good a school is academically if the music programs at those schools are not thriving, too.  As I get older, “thriving” means something different than it did when I came out of college.  Excellence in performance is wonderful–but not if that excellence comes at the expense of 90% of your school NOT being in music classes.  When I contact authors about these articles, they are often shocked that I even ask about music and the electives.  I am often told to contact the school public relations office directly–something I am not going to do, because those people are hired to never give a direct answer.  Do you think a school district will admit it ignores music and other electives when it comes to technology?

Just today, I was reading an article about the technology initiatives in the Denver Public Schools.  I wasn’t able to gleam anything about technology in music and/or the electives in those schools, but English and Special Education teachers were mentioned as having representatives on a district steering committee for technology.  In fact, the Superintendent said, “Because sure, that’s great tech, but if it doesn’t work for English Language Learners or it’s not awesome for special education, it’s really hard for us to purchase.”  What about if it’s not awesome for music? Family and Consumer Science?  Industrial Technology?  Physical Education?  Visual Art?  Perhaps even Foreign Language?  Oh yes, we don’t really TEST in those subjects, so why mention them?

Just once, I’d love to read, “We make sure that all of our electives are able to use the technology, too.”  Actually–I have seen this in action (A shoutout to the music educators in the Westonka school district–your administration, top to bottom, cares), but those situations are the exception rather than the norm.

What To Do When You Lose…

Back in 2008, I was part of a planning team of a new high school. We were working full time at our current school, and then putting in many hours outside of the school day as part of the planning team. One of the reasons I went to the new high school was to follow the technology–and quickly became involved as part of the technology subcommittee. While we were tasked to make many decisions, truthfully, only one of our decisions ever came to fruition–the choice of giving teachers laptops versus a desktop in every room. All of the other decisions recommended by the committee or made by the larger team were eventually ignored and decisions were made by the district IT department.

One stunning example was the choice of an interactive whiteboard. The tech committee liked one board (the InterWrite), the planning time chose another (Promethean). Several members of the planning committee even had Promethean boards installed in their classrooms, preparing for the new high school. The IT department decided, out of the blue, to go with SMART instead, without any explanation.

In hindsight, the committee and team may never had actual authority to make that decision, and the principal (of the new school, and head of the building project) may have either thought that we had more power then we did, or it may have been an attempt to just take power. In either case, when someone else is actually the decision maker, and that isn’t communicated from the start–you feel disenfranchised.

What you find is that when you are passionate about something, and then give your life’s blood–time out of your life–to a cause, and then someone makes a decision that invalidates all of your hard work, that you experience a wave of emotions, including shock, anger, and sadness. If it is a major decision, there may even be grieving.

We are seeing many schools go 1:1 these days. Although the adoption of technology may not bridge the achievement gap, no one can reasonably argue that technology is a part of our lives. Although you can try to teach students without technology, there is no doubt that students are going to need to learn how to use technology to succeed in college (or post secondary education!) and life. Chances are that basic technology skills (like many basic skills, sadly), are not being taught at home. So it does fall upon our public schools to provide experiences that help students learn how to use these tools. And in this technology-filled world, it is hard to argue against 1:1 versus “traditional” weekly exposure to computers in the media center.

A big challenge comes when the discussion of 1:1 moves from “should we” to “which device should we pick?” If all options are open, no music educator is going to settle on a Chromebook. While you can use a Chromebook in music education (see my past presentations, and the list of web apps from places like MusicFirst continue to grow), Apple products (iOS and Mac) and Windows are better suited for music education. My personal preference, of course, is the iPad.

But if your district goes 1:1, there are two big questions you have to ask:

  1. Has the decision already been made?
  2. Who makes the final decision?

As I have blogged about in the past, many times the decision for Chromebooks has already been made by district IT and administrators before the discussion is brought back to teachers (and possibly students and parents). The leaders then use a process of a technology committee, surveys, and presentations to build a consensus which is truly meant to have the group arrive at the decision that the leaders have already made (incidentally, this is an incorrect use of consensus). If you were on that committee, advocating for your subject, and you find that your efforts changed nothing, you find yourself hurt, sad, and angry–and it is completely understandable.

 

In a nutshell, I continue to support the iPad because of its flexibility, especially for non-core classes. Core MIDI has been a part of the iPad since day one. The programs available on the Pad have not been matched on any other mobile device. And the promise of an iPad Pro is exciting (for music teachers–districts will never buy a “pro” for students).

 

Meanwhile, the Chromebook is a lot like an interactive white board. Most IWBs become digital whiteboards or projection surfaces within 2 years of introducing the technology. Chromebook implementations become, over time, replacement for weekly trips to the media center. Many teachers get “stuck” having their kids write papers on Google Docs and creating presentations in Google Slides. But as long as technology is being “used” in classes, IT and district leaders are happy, even though the level of technology integration is on the shallow end of the pool.

 

In contrast, most iPad teachers that I have worked with never stop looking for new apps and new ways to implement iPads in their classrooms. I think the device, without the keyboard, forces teachers to keep redefining how to use the device.

 

If you find yourself in the position where the Chromebook decision was made (from the start), there are things you can do.

 

  1. After the shock and sorrow (and hurt and anger) wear off, remember that you can use Chromebooks in music education–they just aren’t the first or best solution.
  2. The best source for music education web apps (for Chromebooks) is MusicFirst. Logically, these web apps require subscriptions. Nothing of quality comes for free (Google, for example, sells colletive data to advertisers, although they do not give away personal data). Make sure that the cost of these subscriptions are factored into your school’s Chromebook plan. (One of the attractive aspects of Chromebook implementation is that all of Google’s core services are free to the school). With the money saved by going Chromebook over iPad, there should be funds avaialble for this.
  3. It is never too late to advocate for a set of iPads for your classroom, because music has always been considered “different.” Remember when the music teachers had Macs and everyone else had Windows computers (this was quite common)? This could mean a small set for sectional/practice room use, or a complete set for students in your room. With the money saved by going Chromebook over iPad, there should be funds avaialble for this.
  4. Finally, no one can stop you from using your own iPad (with a 3rd Generation Apple TV, which doesn’t even need a wireless network to work with your iPad). Granted, this isn’t a high level of integration for students–but it does give you the ability to teach with an iPad and the benefits that brings.

Some People are Getting Excited About iOS 9

Last week at WWDC, Apple's developer conference, Apple introduced major changes that will be happening with the operating systems of Macs, iOS devices, and the Apple Watch. Apple immediately released developer betas of these operating systems, and the tech pundits have already put the betas through their tests as they begin optimizing their apps to run with new features embedded in the code.

The number one comment from tech pundits is, “The iPad will become a real device with multi-tasking.”

The main feature causing this reaction in iOS9 is multi-tasking. iOS 9 allows apps to run side-by-side (only on the iPad Air 2 or newer), to use a feature called Slide Over to quickly check something in another app, or to open a video and play it in the corner of the screen.

Some quick thoughts: you can already use split screen on Samsung and Windows tablets. On my Windows tablet, I seldom use this feature, and I wonder how much others use it. Second, Slide Over is not much of a labor-saving maneuver than a quick four-finger swipe to another app and back, something you. An already do on your iPad. Finally, watching videos while you work has never made anyone more productive.

No, I'm not mad that Apple added these features. I will be happy to install them and try them. They represent a nice improvement (as will the ability to use the on-screen keypad as a trackpad for editing text), but none of these features suddenly makes the iPad any better of a solution versus what it previously was–and chances are the feature you want to try most (split screen) won't run on your iPad! Most schools are using 2nd and 4th generation iPads, and not all of these features will run on those devices (although I believe that iOS 9 itself will be able to run on the iPad 2).

While every version of iOS has a few bugs (most that get worked out over time), each version brings some new features that make the experience better. But the biggest impact on the usefulness of the device are the apps that you run, and the functionality/usability of those apps themselves. Logically, most iPad (or Android) apps are not as functional as programs on Windows and Mac operating systems. And if you try to make an iPad into a full-blown computer, you will never be happy.

I have had a lot of success using my iPad as my primary device, and I don't have many complaints. Continual refinement makes my experience better, but it doesn't “finally make my device useable,” as it was already my primary device and has been for 5 years.

I really didn’t want to replace that router…

Old and New Apple AirPort Extreme

Last Saturday night, we had a storm go through our area. One bolt of lightning hit very close to our home, and I turned to our media center to see the light our Apple AirPort Extreme router turn yellow, and then fade out.

Although nearly all the cables in our neighborhood are underground, there are still various locations where those cables surface, such as the cable company distribution points and of course, where cables go into our house.

So although our technology is connected via a surge protector, there is nothing “in-line” to stop an electrical surge through the cable coax. But that is what happened…a surge took out the cable modem, and then continued via the Ethernet cable to our Apple AirPort Express.

Our AirPort Express was old…perhaps a 2008 or 2009 model, but it worked well. Even though it was not AC rated (the latest spec for wireless), its N speed was providing 25 Gigabit downloads to our devices. That 's enough for four Netflix streams without any stuttering. My dad loves to come to our house because our Internet is significantly faster than any other place he visits.

But alas, the wifi router was dead. I was able to go to Comcast and get a new cable modem; but I had to order an AirPort Extreme router. I could have bought an AirPort Express, but I wanted the additional ports so we can plug in other “Internet of Things” devices to our router. The Express does not offer these additional ports.

So I had to buy a new AirPort Extreme, which has changed form factors. The old one looked like the old white Mac Minis or like the first generation Apple TVs. The new one looks like six new Apple TVs stacked on top of each other (a tall rectangular cube). I didn't want to pay retail ($199) for the router, which is not overpriced (see the cost of other routers with similar capabilities), so I shopped in the Apple Refurbished area, and bought a new router for $125 (plus tax). It was shipped and received two days after my order ( I couldn't order on Sunday anyway).

I really like the Apple AirPort options; there is a standalone app that helps you set it up, and there are a ton of choices. You can run two networks (normal and guest), and you can easily control individual users. For example, we turn off my 15 year old stepson's Internet access at 11pm, encouraging him to get some sleep. Yes, other routers offer these features, but they are not as easy to deal with (the app really makes it easy). You can also run things off of the router's USB port, such as a hard drive or a printer.

With the new router, it was time to set up OpenDNS again. OpenDNS is a free security service that, in our case, helps filter content in our house. You set up an account with OpenDNS, add the IP address of your router, and then add OpenDNS's filtering DNS address to your router. This sounds complicated but it is rather easy. Then, on OpenDNS, you choose the filtering level desired for your house. We typically choose “moderate” which eliminates most of the major inappropriate things on the Internet. This protects our family from accidentally (or intentionally) accessing sites that they shouldn't be. This is especially true when there is a LAN party of 15 year old boys in our house.

While the school's use of iBoss solved about 95% of our inappropriate use of school iPads, if parents had used OpenDNS the previous year, we might not have had to use iBoss this past year (I just saw a tweet that said when we distribute devices, we do so for their families as well. That is also true…we did have situations in. 2013-2014 where parents were using student devices to look at inappropriate things). If you have children in your house, I can't encourage you enough to use OpenDNS and to protect your children!

Yes, Comcast offers a cable modem with a router, but we wanted the dual channel router along with the ability to control the router with the Apple app.

So…we have a new cable modem and wireless router, and our hope is that we will get at least. 6-7 years out of this device, too.

 

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