The iPad in the Music Classroom: Useful Tool or Expensive Toy?

Let me preface this post by stating that I have never taught in the K-12 music classroom with iPads and that I am not trying to be inflammatory by asking this question.  As much as I love the device for my own personal use and music making, I simply do not know the answer to the question I’ve posed above.  I don’t fall on either side or even in the middle; I’m simply baffled.  It is my sincere hope that many readers will weigh in on the question so that I (and hopefully all of us) can better understand whether investing in a classroom set of iPads or in a one-to-one situation if iPads truly live up to the hype, and their potential as the next big learning device.

As I always say when I speak to educators, there are rock stars out there in music classrooms around the world doing innovative and creative things with technology, and specifically iPads.  What I’ve seen with my own two eyes however falls in to three distinct categories: presentation device (where teachers are projecting their iPads on to IWBs or screens to teach musical concepts and students are consuming content), creativity tool (where students are using commercially available apps to compose music), and performance device (where students and their teachers are using instrument apps to play music or to practice).  Let’s look at each category in a little more detail and ask some important questions.

In terms of a presentation device, there is no doubt that delivering content via iPad (eBooks, print music, relevant media (audio/video), and presentation files) has some great advantages.  Showing your own presentations (wirelessly to a projector and screen) allows you to walk around the classroom while presenting and even lets students interact with any content or apps when relevant.  I would love the ability to be untethered while presenting, but a wireless mouse let me do that pretty easily.  How many students are using music textbooks on an iPad?  How many students are putting their sheet music (band/orchestra methods and repertoire) up on their music stands while in rehearsal?  How many students are using apps like The History of Jazz to learn about Jazz?  How many teachers are creating content for their students to consume on their iPads?  While I am sure that there are some examples that answer each of these questions, I tend to think that the answer to all of these questions is: very few.  

As a creativity tool, I know that there are a boatload of very innovative and engaging apps out there for music creation.  I personally have dozens of great apps aimed at a variety of ages and learning styles.  From notation to sequencing to brand new ways of interacting with music, I’m in love with this category of apps.  But how are they being used in the classroom?  Are they used at all?  If so, how does the student share their work with others?  with the teacher?  Is there a place other than the iPad itself where an archive can be kept for assessment and building student portfolios?    I guess the point of all of the questions is what is the connection between students, teachers, parents and the wider community between all of these great tools?  I am hoping that there are hundreds of examples, but I fear that there are, in reality, only a few.

Performing music with an iPad is a lot of fun, and I have seen quite a few examples online of iPad ensembles.  Personally, I would love to be in one.  I’ve also seen lots of great “effects” apps that allow students to plug in microphones and guitars and do some pretty amazing things.  There are some very cool apps aimed at ensemble directors and students to aid with tuning, recording, metronomes, and more.   My questions here include: where is the repertoire coming from?  Are publishers creating iPad ensemble scores?  If so, how do they account for the thousands of available apps and the functionalities of each?  Also, aren’t there other opportunities to pick up real or even found instruments and make music?  Is purchasing an iPad the best way to bring performance to your classroom?

In addition to the questions above, from my limited experience I’ve heard that technology coordinators and administrators tend to make the purchasing of apps for a music classroom somewhat complicated, as there is almost always a central person assigned to be the only authorized purchaser for a school.  Is this your experience?  Are your students, or are you allowed to make app purchases on behalf of your program or school?  Is this simply one more obstacle in the way of smoothly incorporating iPads into the music curriculum, or is it worth the effort?

I know that this may seem a bit heretical coming from me, but in my humble opinion in order for there to be widespread use (meaning student and teacher using them together) and adoption of iPads in the music classroom, a few things need to be worked out.  The point of technology is to make a task easier, not more difficult.  At the moment iPads seem more of a novelty in the music classroom than a serious tool, and from that perspective its difficult to justify the purchase over other technology tools.  Music apps are developed by a wide range of people, few who are educators.  From my perspective there are many apps that are very helpful for music educators, but only a handful that link educators to students in meaningful ways.  I’ve tried and tried to find them, but I can’t.

I am hopeful that this post initiates a meaningful dialog illustrating best practices and respectful discourse.  My thoughts are simply me thinking out loud and hoping that the amazing music educator community answers my question.

 

Dr. James Frankel is the Head of Digital Music Education for the Music Sales Group, and Former Managing Director of SoundTree. He earned a Bachelor of Music degree from Montclair State University in 1993, where he studied the tuba as well as composition. In 1996, Dr. Frankel completed his Masters Degree in Music Education at Teachers College, Columbia University where he completed his doctoral studies in 2002. Dr. Frankel is an Adjunct Faculty member at Teachers College Columbia University where he teaches courses on music technology.
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