Engaging Students: Essays in Music Pedagogy

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The “Technology Tools” Session at FlipCamp Music Theory

Stephen Gosden, University of North Florida

For those who attended the FlipCamp Music Theory conference at Charleston Southern University on June 17–18, 2013, the “Technology Tools” session provided valuable insight into some of the innovative ways that music instructors are incorporating technology into their teaching methodologies. What follows is a short summary of the topics covered during the session, including links to computer applications and online services that were discussed, as well as articles and blog posts for those wishing to explore particular topics in greater depth. Hopefully, this brief overview will serve as a jumping-off point for instructors who are looking to take advantage of the many technological resources that are out there, but who are not quite sure where to begin.

Before getting into specific topics, it is worth making a few observations about the general tone of the session (and FlipCamp Music Theory as a whole). First, no one at the conference advocated the use of technology simply for the sake of using technology. Every participant seemed acutely aware that technology is only pedagogically valuable when it meets two fairly basic criteria: 1) helping students utilize their time inside and outside the classroom as efficiently and effectively as possible; 2) helping students learn material and master skills more quickly and thoroughly than traditional teaching methods allow.

Second, no one at the conference suggested that instructors should start using every piece of technology at their disposal . . . immediately! Several of the resources and strategies listed below have steep learning curves, and will likely require a significant investment of time (not to mention trial and error) before they can be comfortably incorporated into your pedagogical apparatus. Learning a new computer application, teaching students how to use it, and of course “troubleshooting” will invariably eat up more of your time (and sanity) than you expect, so it’s important to pace yourself. As a general rule, you probably don’t want to deal with more than one big technological change in your life per semester.

Finally, no one at the conference pretended to live in an academic utopia. We are all, to some extent, constrained by the financial resources, infrastructure, and student culture of the departments and institutions at which we teach, so questions of feasibility and practicality will be at the front of anybody’s mind when it comes to technological decisions. However, these constraints are often less of an obstacle than we realize, given the plethora of readily-available technology that can be utilized—or “hacked”—to meet our students’ pedagogical needs. Thus, feasibility and practicality are as much a question of our willingness to explore and experiment as they are of institutional limitations.

With these considerations in mind, we can turn to some of the specific topics that were covered during the “Technology Tools” session.


A screencast is a video recording of your computer screen’s output, usually accompanied by an audio commentary that you record simultaneously (or add in later). Although many people think of screencasting primarily as a way to create highly polished video lectures, it is important to recognize that screencasting is a flexible tool that can be used for a diverse range of pedagogical tasks. In addition to mini-lectures, it can be used for pre-class preparation (e.g., JiTT assignments), post-class follow-up (e.g., tying up loose ends after an in-class discussion), homework assignments or class projects (including having students make their own screencasts), answering student questions, or providing feedback to students on homework and exams. (Kris Shaffer discusses the use of screencasting software for video grading here. A general introduction to screencasting for educational purposes can be found here.)

As Phil Duker explained during the “Technology Tools” session, there are a few things to keep in mind when creating screencasts:

  • Not every screencast has to be the most beautiful thing you’ve ever created. Sometimes, quick and dirty videos can be just as informative as those on which you’ve spent hours and hours. Ask yourself: is the video you’re creating something that you’ll want to use every semester (e.g., a lesson on first-species counterpoint), or will it serve a one-time purpose (e.g., answering a specific student’s question)? If it’s the former, then you may want to invest a fair amount of time. But if it’s the latter, you’ll want to spend as little time as necessary.
  • It can be tempting to overload individual screencasts with a lot of information. But short videos dealing with relatively narrow topics are what students tend to find the most useful. Indeed, some people argue that screencasts should be no more than 2–7 minutes, which means dividing larger topics (e.g., those that might be covered in a single 50-minute lecture) across several videos.
  • Some screencasting programs (e.g., Camtasia and ScreenFlow 4) are quite elaborate (and expensive), and provide a lot of recording and editing options. Others are quite basic (and free). If you want to spend a lot of time learning a complicated program in order to produce really high-quality videos, great! But recognize that you have other options.

Below are links to some popular screencasting applications. (Be aware that your school may already have an institutional license to one of these products. Also, please note that most software programs are available at a reduced price for students and educators.)

In terms of sharing/hosting your videos, you have several options:

Finally, for those who are new to screencasting (or those looking to hone their screencasting abilities), the mathematician Robert Talbert has written a highly informative series of blog posts on the topic:

Student Response Technology

Student response systems (a.k.a. “clickers”) facilitate real-time assessment of student understanding in the classroom. Instructors can pose true or false, multiple choice, or short answer questions to their students (among other possibilities, depending on the program), see their students’ answers almost immediately (as well as collated data regarding correct/incorrect responses), assess their students’ understanding of a particular concept, and tailor the organization of their remaining class time accordingly. At FlipCamp Music Theory, there were several demonstrations of web-based applications (i.e., virtual clickers) and remote devices (i.e., physical clickers) that conference participants have used. Links to the websites for these applications/devices are given below. (Again, be aware that your school may already use one of these services.) In addition, you can read about Phil Duker’s use of clicker technology to help his students develop their aural analysis skills here.

  • i>Clicker – Conventional remotes as well as computer/mobile apps are available.
  • Learning Catalytics – No app to download. Students log in via web browsers. (Student and departmental/institutional licenses are available. See pricing.)
  • Nearpod – Instructors create interactive presentations that students can access on their mobile devices (using the Nearpod app) or PC/Mac web browser. (Free, paid, and school subscriptions are available.)
  • Socrative – No app to download. Students log in via web browsers on their smartphones, tablets, or laptops.
  • Turning Technologies – Conventional remotes as well as software downloads are available.

Music Streaming

When it comes to providing audio examples to the students in our classes, the days of being limited to the recordings in our music libraries (supplemented by our own personal CD collections) are well behind us. Not only do most colleges and universities subscribe to music streaming services such as the Naxos Music Library or the Alexander Street Press’s Classical Music Library, but countless recordings are available as videos on YouTube to anyone with an internet connection.

At FlipCamp Music Theory, Brian Moseley discussed his use of Spotify (a commercial music streaming service) together with IMSLP (a repository of public domain music scores) to create listening exercises for the students in his aural skills classes. You can read about Brian’s efforts here.

In addition, Brian discussed Audio Hijack Pro, a downloadable app for Mac OS X (available in both a limited free version and a more comprehensive $32 version) that allows you to make audio recordings (in a variety of formats) from any application on your computer. (Most screencapture software can perform this function as well.)

(For those concerned with issues of copyright infringement, the following websites provide introductory information about fair use and copyright law in the academy: Rene Hobbs’s Copyright Clarity for the College Community and Stanford University Libraries’ Copyright FAQ and Fair Use Guide.)

Sight-Singing Assessment

The need to assess student singing on a frequent and regular basis is one of the perennial challenges for those of us who teach aural skills classes. At FlipCamp Music Theory, Gretchen Foley discussed her use of SmartMusic to assess sight singing exercises that her students perform and record each week outside of class. She explained how the program can provide instant feedback to students on the accuracy of their performances in terms of pitch and rhythm, as well as an approximate grade. Gretchen (or her teaching assistants) can then access students’ sound files both to confirm (or adjust) their grades and to evaluate the accuracy of their solfège. Not only does this free up a significant amount of class-time, it also helps students establish a more consistent routine for practicing their sight singing.

Other programs that conference participants have used to collect audio recordings of students’ sight singing exercises include DropVox and SoundCloud. However, these programs are not designed specifically for music educators, and do not offer the extensive recording/grading features that make SmartMusic such an effective tool.

(Nevertheless, even fairly basic recording technology can still be very useful, as Trevor de Clercq explains here.)

Social Media

While most of the “Technology Tools” session was geared toward the use of software specifically designed for educational/professional purposes, several individuals mentioned how social media (e.g., Twitter, Facebook, blogs), which most of our students use in their everyday personal lives, can be adapted to serve a pedagogical function—for instance, as an alternative to the online discussion forums provided by learning management systems. (See below for more on discussion forums.)

In particular, Kris Shaffer discussed his use of Twitter as part of an “inquiry-based” approach to teaching species counterpoint. Kris explained how his students would tweet their observations in real time as they attempted to figure out the rules for each species, after which Kris would consolidate their tweets and fill in any gaps in their collective understanding. Your can read about Kris’s experiment (and about inquiry-based learning) here.

(Also, you can read about Alexander Ludwig’s use of Twitter in music history classes as an alternative to traditional listening journals here.)

Additional Resources

Several other technology-related topics were touched on briefly during the conference. Below are links to various applications and online resources that were mentioned by the participants, and which may be of interest to readers.

Free Music Notation Software

While you may be familiar with commercial music notation programs such as Finale or Sibelius, be aware that you don’t need to spend hundreds of dollars on software to create digital sheet music. For many assignments (e.g., counterpoint projects and model compositions), it is quite likely that the following programs (each of which is available for you and your students to download or use online for free) will be more than adequate for your pedagogical needs:

  • Finale NotePad
  • MuseScore
  • Noteflight (This is a web-based music notation program. Although the basic version is free, there is a premium version, called Crescendo, that costs $7.95/mo. or $49/yr. Educational packages are also available.)

Free Audio Editing Software

Like music notation software, audio editing software can cost a small fortune … but it doesn’t have to. Audacity is a free audio editor that performs many of the basic functions available in professional editing programs. It’s a convenient way for you (and your students!) to edit sound files for presentations, assignments, and class projects. (Crystal Peebles discusses her use of Audacity-based activities to help students improve their aural analysis skills here.)

Variations Audio Timeliner

Variations Audio Timeliner is a free program that allows you to create annotated formal diagrams of musical works that are synchronized with embedded audio recordings. An introductory video on this program can be found here.

Discussion Forums

Although we did not spend a considerable amount of time on the topic of discussion forums, we did briefly discuss an article from the online journal Hybrid Pedagogy on the limits of discussion forums provided by learning management systems. (For an additional critique of learning management systems, see Pete Rorabaugh, “Hack the LMS: Getting Progressive,” Hybrid Pedagogy (January 5, 2012), accessed July 21, 2013.)

In addition to social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, several participants mentioned Piazza as a useful alternative. This is an online discussion forum with wiki-style Q&A in which students and instructors can edit answers (Wikipedia style) rather than create lengthy and cumbersome discussion threads, and instructors can endorse student answers that are especially accurate or insightful.

iPad Document Annotation Apps

If you and your students have access to iPads, the following programs can be used to annotate digital documents (e.g., PDFs):

Open-Source Learning Materials

Toward the end of the “Technology Tools” session, Kris Shaffer discussed his interest in creating open-source online learning materials as an alternative to traditional pedagogical resources (e.g., textbooks). You can read about Kris’s ideas here. You can also read about Kris’s use of the software development service GitHub in this article from Hybrid Pedagogy, and learn more about licensing for such projects here.

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This work is copyright 2013 Stephen Gosden and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.