Category Archives: General Musings

General Musings

Rant #2: 1:1 Issues

I am very fortunate to teach in a 1:1 situation. Our district made five schools 1:1 schools in the fall of 2013, with the attempt to change instruction and learning at our poorest performing schools. Not as a surprise, those schools all follow the same “feeder” path…three elementary schools, all which feed into our middle school, which feeds into the high school (there are seventeen schools in our district, including four middle schools and three high schools).

Observation #1: Our kids quickly forget how fortunate they are to be in a 1:1. It doesn’t take long before they act as if they are entitled to the devices, as if they are their own personal devices, and as if they can do whatever they want on their device at any time. It also isn’t long before you see students misusing or mishandling devices. Then you always get the naysayer students who openly complain about the iPads and say that the school should go back to paper. It doesn’t help that our school is so overwhelmed by other issues that we cannot police the devices more carefully. My bet, however, is that every 1:1 faces this issue. We all begin to take the positive things in our lives for granted.

We do have a few kids whose parents have requested “no iPad” because “the iPad is a distraction,” and we do have a few students who no longer have an iPad because they have broken theirs (usually at least twice) and did not purchase insurance. The parent request IS their perrogative, but with no-iPad students, most are classically disorganized with a binder full of scattered mad-scientist-like papers. And humorously, almost every one of the no-iPad students has a smartphone of some kind, which often find their way out during class time. It is nice to know that the “no-iPad” parents don’t think a smartphone is a distraction.

One other related rant: when a student has no iPad, the teacher is then responsible to make paper copies of everything that is digital for every other student. The teacher is given no extra time or funds to make this happen–but the expectation remains.

Observation #2: Students cannot avoid the distraction of the device (regardless of the device), and if you somehow restrict their device, they will do what they can to circumvent the restriction. There is a false proclamation from educational technologist who say, “If you were more engaging as a teacher, students wouldn’t go off-task on their devices.” This is a complete myth. Human nautre is to go to the most engaging thing at any moment when we are bored. Go to any faculty meeting and watch the teachers on their notebook computers, tablets, or phones. And that principal/administrator is your BOSS. Remembering that helps me keep the right perspective when dealing with off-task students. And trust me…I try to be entertaining (you can’t always be, and some topics ARE boring) and I use every tool to keep kids on task.

We had to block iMessage and AirDrop. Even so, there are hundreds of apps that act as messengers–and when all else fails, students fall back on e-mail which we cannot block. Ah, the joys of modern life.

I attend faculty meetings without my devices. I know what I would be doing.

Also: distractions occured in the past. I have gone through enough music libraries to see what students did to paper music in the past. The artwork and written notes match anything kids with a device could ever do.

Observation #3: You can never have enough money for additional tools, subscriptions, apps, or training. This is the great lie of the Chromebook…buy the $200 Chromebook, and that is your only expense. The truth is that–particularly in the case of the Chromebook–the best services (other than GAFE, which is NOT enough) cost money in the form of an annual subscription. This could mean the cost of Schoology (sorry, Google Classroom users, but Classroom can’t stand up against Schoology, Edmodo, or Showbie), or in the case of music education, a number of services from MusicFirst. In my last post (Rant #1), I talked about how frustrating it is to be in a 1:1 and to not to be able to afford green note/red note apps for my students.

Training needs to be continual. And the more basic the device, the more training is required to make sure that technology integration does not stall out at the “Substitution” level (on the SAMR model).

The reality is: once you have that device, don’t count on any extra money for anything. And if you are a music teacher, good luck receving much professional development in the area of technology that relates to you.

Another educational technologist myth is that “Students never need PD.” That is a statement to make teachers feel guilty for wanting professional development, and it assumes that students know how to use their personal devices for education. They don’t. They know how to use Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, SnapChat, and maybe e-mail. If you want them to use a device for education, you are going to need to show them how to use it. If you are lucky you will have a “techy” kid who can teach the other kids–but someone still needs to offer PD to kids, too.

Observation #4: Getting stuck in the rut. We have noticed that the majority of teachers in year two of our 1:1 are no longer requesting apps (partially because of Observation #3), nor are they having students try new apps. There are new apps every day (unless you are on Chromebook and are a music educator–sorry, but it is true…in fact, in my prep for a presentation in Ohio, apps actually disappeared), but teachers are generally using what they are alrady using.

Don’t get me wrong–you can’t keep installing apps, particularly with 16GB iPads. But the sense of exploration that our entire staff had in year one has disappeared. I would like some level of that to continue. There is a small group of “technologists” in our school that bring an “app of the week” to our staff (my apps have been Showbie and Pages [we did not have Pages last year–long story]). On the positive side, my seventh grade students tell me that many of their teachers are now using Showbie. Incidentally, Showbie is a paperless classroom solution that allows students to complete most of their work inside the app, as well as to upload work to it, without the social aspects of Schoolgy (which also has such functionality). Teachers can correct easily in Schoology as well (I will blog about this soon).

Final Thoughts: My other issues with a 1:1 are centered around the specifics of my particular job, where students are required to take music, but if they are not in band or orchestra, they are in choir. The lack of a general music class can make for a very challenging experience in choir. That percentage of students who would rather be in any other class add to the challenges of classroom management in choir, 1:1 or not.

All this said, I do support 1:1 programs. Technology does have the potential to change the learning environment, to help teachers be better teachers, and to help students be better learners. The challenge is making sure that we stay grateful; that students learn to confront their desire to be distracted; that there is enough money for accessories, subscriptions, apps, and training; and that you don’t get stuck in a rut.

Speed of the iPad Air 2

Yesterday I happened upon the first situation where the speed improvements of the iPad Air 2 (over my 4th Generation iPad) became apparent and impacted my life. 

I use Notion on the iPad as an accompanist, and at some point I export audio out of Notion (which is incredibly easy to do) to an AAC audio file, which I then import into forScore to link to score (the audio can then be played from the score, sent over AirPlay). 

The conversion process in Notion used to take a while to complete. The app saves the file as a WAV, then converts it to an AAC, then exports the file to the destination (“Open In” would be an easier step, but Notion saves the file to Dropbox, Sound Cloud, e-mail, or to the app’s folder that can only be accessed through iTunes).  This process used to take a little while on my 4th Generation iPad–minutes.  On the iPad Air 2, the process takes seconds. 

This is the first time I have seen any process that is substantially faster on the iPad Air 2, and it represents a true time savings for me.  For example, creating practice tracks for a four part choral octavo used to take a half hour (including distribution of the recordings).   Now I could do it in 10 minutes.  In the past, I could never convert a song “on the spot” in a rehearsal as it would take too long. Now I can take 30 seconds to do this task. 

Incidentally, it seems that Notion makes an audio file just as fast (if not faster) on the iPad Air 2 as it does on my 2008 MacBook. 

I’m not sure what other situations will occur where I will see speed improvements…but this discovery is both repesentative of the speed of the device and a real time saver. 

A Series of Rants…#1: Economics and Green/Red Note Apps

I try not to be a negative person, but from time to time, we need to express the truth, even if it is negative, particularly if it will help other people. I have a series of such items that I have been thinking about, and I would like to take some time to express those thoughts.

My first “rant” is about economics and green note/red note applications.

For the record, I am talking about apps/programs/services such as SmartMusic, Music Prodigy, and the coming services of Weezic (although pricing is still not known for Weezic).

I am fortunate to teach in a 1:1 (which in and of itself is deserving of a rant or two). I wholeheartedly support 1:1 programs of any kind, and I support iPad 1:1 programs. There is tremendous potential in such programs.

One of the wonderful aspects of green note/red note applications is that they can be used to help students learn their notes, and to keep them accountable to their learning in a way that is understandable to them AND their parents. I recently blogged about a director who felt that the majority of their work was done with phrasing and shaping of vowels–not right or wrong notes and rhythms. That hasn’t been my experience. Even with my best efforts and the efforts of my colleagues in my school district, the hardest aspect about putting music together has been for students to learn the right notes and rhythms. Remember–I am a choir director, and sight reading is generally atrocious in choral music. There are exceptions, and I am happily working through the method of Dale Duncan’s S-Cubed Sight Reading Method (started in March). The skill of sight-reading just isn’t there, and if kids can’t sight-read, the majority of your time will be spent pounding out notes and rhythms.

Technology can be used to help this, in many ways. It can be used for formative and summative assessments that keep students accountable to the skills they are supposed to be learning (let’s be honest…the number one issue with sight-reading, particularly in choir, is that it is so hard to keep students accountable with assessments…and assessments take so long to correct!). The green note/red note applications that are available are an ideal solution to this process. But what I have learned is that they all cost too much.

A few years ago, I worked at the newest high school in our state, and for the majority of my students, finances weren’t an issue. We also had practice rooms with computers, and students could complete assessments at school (before school, at lunch, after school, from another class) if they couldn’t afford a subscription to a program at home. My current school doesn’t have that scenario.

Don’t get me wrong…I think SmartMusic’s $40 annual fee and Music Prodigy’s $30 annual fee are really amazing–in my last audition with the Minnesota Opera (eight years ago–I stopped when I was married and started a family) I paid $55 for a thirty minute rehearsal with a pianist plus their performance at my audition. If I use any of SmartMusic’s (limited for vocal/choir) literature, or I enter my own Finale files as an accompaniment, $40 for a year of a piano player that follows me for rehearsal (or even performance) is a bargain. If I had a student in Hockey, $40 wouldn’t cover a single glove. It seems like a bargain. When SmartMusic considered asking $8 per student for a practice room subscription, I thought that was fair–my students at my former school would have paid that. I didn’t understand the outrage expressed by many teachers using SmartMusic.

But then I started working at my school, where 40% of our students are on free & reduced lunch, and well over 20% of my choir students needed a donated t-shirt for our concert apparel because they couldn’t afford $8 for a t-shirt. Other students paid $8, but their families may not have eaten that night (lots of people fake afluence).

To add to the problem, we don’t have practice rooms, either. But every student has an iPad, and most students have Internet access at home, either their own, provided free by the community, or off of someone else’s Comcast Xfinity account and wireless router in their neighborhood.

But we can’t ask our students to pay $40 per year for SmartMusic, or even $30 per year for Music Prodigy. They have iPads, but we can’t leverage their use in choir for accountability. Or band. Or orchestra. And to be honest, a price point of $40 or $30 in choir bothers me as well, as that provides little or no literature that we can use–the literature in the program has to be created (or scanned and edited) by me. It isn’t the same as a band student that can use SmartMusic as their method book, justifying $8 of that $40 per year right off the bat, or a band director that can program their entire concert based on SmartMusic’s band catalog.

Truly, this irritates me to no end. It is frustrating to be so close to a solution (1:1) but hampered by economics. Our district is reducing nearly $8 million next year, so we’re not going to be looking to provide SmartMusic for our students. I currently have over 300 students…SmartMusic for each of my students would be $12,000. I am relatively certain that our six secondary schools combined provide less than $12,000 for sheet music for the entire secondary music program (my budget is $0). Either way, the choir program raised about $3000 with fundraising this year, most of it going back to music purchases or t-shirts.

Perhaps it is an issue with funding from our school district, or perhaps it is just the tough breaks of the economics of area. But what I have learned is that more schools are in my current position (1:1 with no money for additional apps) or worse (not 1:1, and still no money).

And it isn’t just green note/red note programs that are the problem–this also applies to any subscription service (e.g. MusicFirst products). I don’t hold any grudge against any of these companies…they deserve to be paid for what they do. But those companies need to know (and probably realize) that many of us are locked out of their services, even with attractive pricing. We KNOW their pricing is affordable, yet we KNOW it isn’t affordable for many of our students or our schools.

This is why apps are so attractive on the iPad–buy them once and keep upgrading for free, or freeze with the last version that works with your OS. A “true” app isn’t a recurring expense. You can pay $3 for an app, knowing that you can use it again (thank goodness for that change). So a $900 expense is diluted over a number of years.

So…here’s the question…can someone make a green note/red note app that can be purchased ONCE and then run on the iPad (versus a server that requires upkeep), and then find some way to have students beam their scores to a teacher version via Bluetooth? Can we change the paradigm of a server-based green note/red note service? Can we make this type of program accessible to all, while still allowing someone to make some money off of the concept? Yes…content would have to be provided by the teacher/director (get out of the royalties business), but in truth, assessments should be short (no more than 30 seconds) and specific to either develop a skill or to assess a skill. And the assessment should be based on MusicXML, so it can be created in any app and uploaded to the program. And if anyone wants to go into business on such a venture, send me a note. I’d be happy to partner with you. I just don’t have the programming skills myself to make it happen.

Looking for a Surface Pro?

After my post about StaffPad and Surface Pro, I received an e-mail from an old blogging friend, ViolaJack. In her e-mail, she mentioned that Microsoft sells refurbished Surface Pros on eBay at a significant discount.

While I am always a little hesitant to buy expensive technology sight-unseen, there is no danger in purchasing a device from the legitimate Windows store on eBay. As of today (I cannot promise that these prices will contnue), you can buy a 128GB Surface Pro 3 with a keyboard for $850, which is a savings of $279. That makes a pretty expensive device quite a bit more affordable.

Personally, I would buy a new MacBook before a Surface Pro 3, but if I happen to win the lottery…(generally, you have to play to win). But if YOU are interested in a Surface Pro 3, particularly with the news of StaffPad (and maybe even MuseScore 2.0), you can't beat $850 for a new, refurbished Surface Pro 3. It is a beautful device with top-of-the-line hardware.

Five Years of iPad

It seems that April 3rd is considered the birthday of the iPad. I remember standing in line to buy my first iPad, at the Richfield, MN Best Buy, which is literally in the shadows of Best Buy Headquarters (I had a bad experience with Best Buy last fall, and I have not been in a Best Buy since). If you want to read about my first iPad, you can read this old post.

Since that April date, an iPad has been my main tool at school, thanks to a number of apps including forScore, unrealBook, Notion, and Keynote. In the past five years, I have personally owned four of the six models that have been released…the iPad 1, the iPad 2, the 4th Generation iPad, and just a couple of weeks ago, my iPad Air 2.

So much has happened in the past five years, including wireless mirroring. I remember how excited I was in the fall of 2011 to stream from iPad to a screen without wires. Now there are ten ways to do that!

Many of the technology blogs are celebrating the iPad today, while declaring that “tablets need to take the next step.”

I'm not sure what that next step is. Certainly, a larger iPad (the iPad Pro) would be a welcome addition, and there is always room for improvement in apps (ask any developer, they will quickly admit that they can and will improve their app over time). But as I work on this iPad Air 2, I'm not sure what else the hardware itself can do, and in fact, Apple has packaged more hardware in the last few generations of these devices than the accessory makers can take care of–example? Bluetooth MIDI. The device has been physically capable of this for more than two years, but iOS allowed for it last fall, and there are only a handful of accessories that can take advantage of it.

Sure, a true active stylus, such as the Microsoft Surface, would be a nice addition. That said, I wouldn't want to be tied to any stylus, either. But if you think back to the time where everyone complained about the iPad's lack of a USB Port–the combination of Bluetooth and Cloud computing has taken away much of the need for USB devices (including storage). The greatest flaw in the current iPad line is the existence of the 16GB iPad…no one should ever buy an iPad with only 16GB, and Apple should not be selling that device. Every iOS device should start with 32GB. Period.

By the way, until I can purchase the Zagg Rugged Case for my iPad Air 2, I am using a Finite case that I found on Amazon for $10 (the cost of a replacement screen for the Griffin Survivor cases that we use with our school 4th Generation iPads). My previous case for my iPad, the strange looking but extremely useful Gripcase, is not avaialble for the iPad Air 2. While the Zagg case appeals to me, this Finite case will last for some time.

Five years with the iPad…it is hard to believe it has been that long…but I can't imagine teaching without it. Although I am at a 1:1 where students often take their devices for granted (and some actually complain about the iPads), I wouldn't trade my iPad for any other device in my classroom.

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