Transitioning to a digital music classroom? These 5 tips can help

We know that when it’s used effectively, technology delivers a faster, easier, more personalized route to learning. We know that technology helps our kids engage more, collaborate more and develop the essential skills they need to transition to a 21st century workforce. There’s little doubt that technology adds value to the overall learning experience.

Still, technology remains on the fringes of many music classrooms.

Maybe you’re waiting until you’ve totally mastered your classroom technology. Or you’re concerned that your students won’t take you seriously because they’re embracing technology so much faster than you ever will.

The only way to move past these fears is to dig in, say Beth Hollenbeck and Luke Manas. These music educators from opposite corners of the U.S. are giving students amazing opportunities to experience music and audio-making through the newest technologies.

This is how they do it
“Technology becomes the great leveler when I’m looking to provide immersive experiences to a population of varied and diverse learners, many of whom have never pick up an instrument,” says Manas, a music teacher at York Early College Academy, a 600-student school for grades 6-12 in New York City’s Jamaica, Queens neighborhood, an urban community with a largely minority population.

This year, Manas had his 10th-grade music class create an audio abstract of themselves based on a self-portrait they made in an arts class the year before. In a second cross-disciplinary project, Manas collaborated with a high-school math teacher on a project that asked the students to pair math elements in a math map using music composition.

Finding the right platform
Hollenbeck is a musician, songwriter and 15-year music educator who recently took a sabbatical from Scotts Valley Middle School in California to consult in the recording arts education space.

She used music tech to introduce her seventh-grade students at Scotts Valley to song structuring, tracks and loops. The students in Hollenbeck’s high-school Music Production class use technology for advanced audio engineering skills, music composition, and sound design.

“Critical thinking, problem solving and collaboration are front and center in all of this,” Hollenbeck says.

Both Manas and Hollenbeck have found Soundtrap to be a great educational resource for their projects. Soundtrap is a cloud-based platform that lets students compose, play and edit songs, recordings and podcasts and share them online in a secure “walled” environment. It is perfect for audio files such as podcasts or sound recordings. Soundtrap’s digital audio workstation (DAW) encourages collaboration because it operates across devices—smartphones, tablets, PCs and Macs—and the kids can work on their projects anywhere because they’re working in the cloud starting in the classroom and finishing on the bus or at home. It also fosters collaboration.

Successful technology integration is more than just getting the tools into the classroom. What both Manas and Hollenbeck have found is that teachers are reluctant to incorporate technology into classrooms because they are daunted by technology. “The initial instinct teachers might have is fear of not being able to understand a technology or high learning curve or just feeling that this is going to be too much work,” says Hollenbeck. Manas and Hollenbeck offer these tips as you shift to digital learning:

1. Don’t let fear overpower the benefits. Ask for help. Other teachers in your school have been where you are and can walk you through the nuances. Many DAWS and other educational platforms have online and human resources you can access. Watch the tutorials. Read the blogs. Call or email their experts, online communities and tech-support specialists.

2. Let your students figure things out. When you don’t know how it works, let the students become the heroes. Says Manas: “Kids aren’t afraid to figure things out. Tackle the challenge together.” Hollenbeck believes that teachers have to let students figure things out. “It’s good for them to figure things out. We don’t always have to tell them exactly what to do.”

3. Use technology for learning, not just as a repository for information. All too often, DAWs become placeholders for all that “stuff” the students are doing. When integrated properly, technology can be a creative outlet for collaboration, communication, creativity, problem solving and the other valuable life skills.

4. Embrace the possibilities. Technology is a wonderful resource for differentiated learning and making music education meaningful to all. For example, podcasts are an excellent way to support individualized learning and still meet the learning standards. And today’s audio-recording software makes it easy for students to collaborate across multiple devices and operating systems.

5. Share what you’ve learned. Support your peers’ efforts to integrate technology in their classrooms. Share your tech story—yes, even those moments you’d rather forget—and the resources that served you well.

Maybe it’s hard to wrap one’s mind around the idea of teaching music without actually teaching an instrument. But that’s also the point: Technology opens up music to the staggering 80 percent of students that are not exposed to traditional music education.

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