With the new school year underway, discussion among educators will often turn to the use of technology in the classroom. For music educators, educational technology can an important way to engage students in the learning environment—both in content and assessment. But there can be a disconnect between the instructional intent to use technology and its actual use. A recent study by LearnTrials of six well-regarded math and literacy products showed that fully 65% of student licenses were not used to the point of meeting the goals set by the products’ respective designers. The report also found that a surprising 37% of product licenses were never activated, and 28% of those licenses that were activated were never used. Today I’d like to offer some ways for music educators to make the most of how they use educational technology.
In his evaluation of the LearnTrials report mentioned above, Jin-Soo Huh suggested that technology is better implemented when educators define specific objectives for how technology is used. For the music ensemble director, technology can make for robust assessment or enhanced creativity. But it is important for the educator, in implementing technology, to be reflective in how to link technology to the needs and objectives of the ensemble. Below are some suggestions on how to make this happen.
Current technology has the ability to score, track progress, and even gamify many aspects of performing music. It is tempting for the director to use software with these robust capabilities in a broad-brush fashion in order to assess the students’ overall performance. But this approach may not provide students with the information they need to fully succeed, and does not make the technology truly integrated.
As an example, a high school ensemble director may use software to track and assess each student’s practice habits and performance ability of a piece programmed on an upcoming concert. In such a scenario, the director might make this tracked work a substantial part of the grade. Without thoughtful integration of the software into the learning environment, however, three related problems can occur:
- The overall assessment can be summative, and at least some students may struggle to meet final benchmarks that they cannot understand and/or hope to reach.
- The students may not have clear instruction on how to improve their scores as they practice and use the software. Their scores may fail to show sufficient improvement, which may in turn demotivate those students.
- The particular piece of music may contain performing techniques that have not been systematically worked on in the classroom prior to the assignment.
In contrast, the director may use the same piece of music, the same technology, and the same performing situation, in a different way. They might:
- Make the assessment formative; allowing students and teacher alike to set multiple realistic and achievable goals during the learning process, and define specific ways in how the software can help students achieve these goals as the piece is rehearsed.
- Use data — as well as students’ feedback — to see if there are common problems that many students face in learning this piece. This data can then be used to select supplementary instructional material that will address those specific areas. Data can also be used to determine if problems follow any overall patterns, including common issues with pitch, rhythm, specific technical skills, or interpretation. The director can then consider if these are the same issues that are being dealt with in rehearsal, and how that might affect their instructional goals moving forward through the rest of the school year.
- When possible, use technology to fine-tune specific skills that have been worked on already in the classroom. They might choose repertoire that targets and stretches students’ existing abilities, without overwhelming them in the process. This way students can use data to see their improvement, which has been shown to be a motivator for continued learning.
Above all, avoid using technology in ways that puts students at an undue disadvantage in assessment. I would suggest that students should not be assessed on video or recorded performances if they are not used to being videoed or recorded, as this confuses students’ playing abilities and their ability to cope with being recorded. Situations like this make objective assessment next to impossible. Similarly, students should not be assessed using software applications that are not yet fully integrated into the learning environment. Hopefully by having instructors set specific, measurable, and achievable objectives, the students will be able to accomplish their performing goals with the help of technology.
Enhancing creativity through the use of technology is a core component of national and state standards for music. Like assessment technology, creative technology can be used either as an added component or as an integrated aspect of classroom work. Ensemble directors may be tempted to make technology use an add-on, and restrict use of technology only to certain times after concerts and important auditions, when there is less perceived pressure to “be creative” through performance. But the case for using technology to enhance musical creativity has been well argued, and technology can be fully embedded in the curriculum’s creative content.
Creativity and performance assessment can in fact work hand in hand. More advanced students can write their own studies that address specific technical issues they encounter in works. Students can work collaboratively to write or improvise exercises that address problems within their sections or throughout the ensemble. Specific challenging places in the music can be addressed by having students create or improvise variations on these trouble spots, and work through them on their own or in groups. All students can create or use existing musical “loops” to address rhythmic or pitch issues they encounter in musical performance.
Students may find that working with technology on their existing performance material gives them more ownership and engagement in the process of learning and making music. With the proper classroom environment—one that is focused on fostering a structured, technologically-driven, path to student involvement in performance—technology can be utilized fully and successfully.
Richard Niezen is a double bassist, conductor, and string teaching specialist. He currently oversees the strings program at Colorado Christian University, and has worked as a conductor and adjudicator throughout the Rocky Mountain region. He has a Master’s Degree from the Cleveland Institute of Music, and a PhD in Educational Research from the University of Colorado. Dr. Niezen has spent his last decade actively working as a private studio instructor, with an emphasis in addressing the needs of older learners. He has also been developing curricula, as well as researching music career preparation and educational policy issues.