On the topic of new technology and hardware, I’m a big believer in learning by playing first. I spend a significant part of my time in CMEA and NAFME conferences looking at vendors’ offerings and trying out new equipment. I think this is a great opportunity and I encourage you to take advantage of it, too. Below are some additional tactics to help keep the technology in your classroom up-to-date.
If I discover something that could have a meaningful impact on my classroom, I’ll plan ahead to make the purchase happen. I have taken to grant writing if I’m not patient enough to wait for a budget rollover. Frequently I’ll encumber the funds immediately on July 1st, and try to have items ordered over the month of July so that I can spend part of my summer getting as familiar as possible with the hardware.
Investing Time to Make Mistakes
As an example, this year I ordered an electronic drum set, and replaced my classroom baby grand with a high-end digital baby grand. This allowed my music technology students to experiment with different configurations for recording: using a microphone on an amplifier or the speakers connected to those devices, or trying a direct line out into a DAW and making a decision as to what was most efficient, and more importantly, what sounded better.
Before I allow my students to do that kind of work, I’ve tried to intentionally make every kind of mistake that could be made in the process. I’ve spent hours intentionally “de-configuring” setups and plugging TRS and TS cables into the wrong ports just to see what the impact is.
If I am demonstrating a new technology in a class, I will spend hours in advance ensuring that it will work as intended in the class, rehearsing the lesson, and having a plan B, plan C, and alternate plan Z for any unforeseen difficulties.
I believe that the Murphy’s law of new hardware in a technology teaching situation is if you don’t spend significant time testing and rehearsing your lesson in advance, everything that can go wrong in your lesson will go wrong, and you will lose valuable teaching time.
Whenever I provide direct instruction with hardware I make sure I do it on the worst configuration in my classroom, and then I teach UP to the better stations.
For example, I’ll start students on 2 channel audio interfaces, and then work up to 8 channel and 16 channel interfaces. I scaffold my teaching that way as well. It’s neat seeing students work out how to do a simple recording with a limited interface, and then discover the freedom of having more inputs, rather than the other way around. It forces them to problem solve.
I love that part of my job entails a degree of discovery. Frequently a configuration I’ve used for years can be one-upped by a student asking “Why?” and the class collectively discovering a better means of using the software and hardware.
My classroom is never empty. I invite the frequent flyers of my classroom to experiment with new music apps. These students are asked to spend time using each app and to discover something about it they can teach me. I use that feedback to decide if there’s somewhere I can utilize the software in my curriculum or if a shift in curriculum is warranted.
In terms of software, I believe it is my responsibility to teach my students to be application agnostic: I don’t ascribe to specific brands but need to teach them how to use that style of software so they can function in any environment. They need to recognize there are different families of software for different reasons, but that the principles of their use are often similar.
Regarding hardware, have a well-furnished recording studio: 27″ iMac, Scarlett 18i20, Mackie 16 channel mixer, and a separate sound-proofed room with a plexiglass window to the recording station and a 16 channel snake that connects to the studio. It is open to our student body, and it’s a frequent occurrence that someone will reconfigure our setup and not return it to the original configuration, or worse yet, just have a penchant for pushing buttons and turning knobs that they don’t understand.
I consider my most important job as a music technology teacher to teach my students good troubleshooting and problem-solving skills. Part of that is having a very controlled environment for intentional productive struggle: I want to know the best guiding questions to ask without spoon feeding an answer to my students. I’ve had to deliberately coach myself out of being Superman, swooping in and saving the day from simple configuration issues.
I believe that the ability to troubleshoot and resolve technology problems are skills that our students will put to good use for the rest of their lives. I enjoy guiding them down that path.