December 14, 2015

Music, eBooks and Notes at the Tip of Your Fingers!

This text was initially published by Profweb under a CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 International licence, before Eductive was launched.

I have been part of the Music department at the Cégep de Drummondville for over 15 years, teaching classical guitar, ear training and music technology.

I’ve always been interested in technological advances, especially its contribution towards supporting learning. This interest has influenced my teaching style and my pedagogical approach with students, and has allowed me to find digital solutions to various problems that crop up in the music program.

Preparing for Auditions

There have been many budget cuts in the arts since 1995, and this has had an impact on music classes in secondary schools. For instance, in 2010, our team of teachers noticed that students were not as well-prepared for the auditions for admission to the music program. We thought of ways to help the students, and to facilitate their preparation for the auditions without necessarily lowering our standards.

Taking a cue from existing content on the Internet, we created and uploaded several resources to the department’s website:

  • Instructional videos on how to prepare for the audition
  • Interactive exercises
  • Downloadable documents (in PDF format)

We quickly noticed and were proud to discover that the students were better prepared for the auditions and that their results had improved. This positive outcome triggered our transition towards a digital approach.

Despite the recommended program-based approach, teaching music remains a challenge. Many courses revolve around the teaching of a specific musical instrument (guitar, piano, drums, violin, etc.), which differ from student to student. In addition, the program includes one-on-one classes that allow students to perfect the mastery of their chosen instrument. However, in the classes where they are with a group of students (Theory, Solfeggio, Dictation), teachers were accustomed to using their own materials and choosing the referenced works (here’s an example). This approach made it difficult to pool our resources. There was hardly any consultation on the choice of pedagogical materials for the different courses that were at the same level, which sometimes caused problems in the implementation of a successful program-based approach. For students, it was sometimes difficult to synthesize the theory learned in bits here and there and to see a common thread between the different courses, without mentioning the considerable sums they were shelling out to buy different textbooks.

In our ear training class, the textbook cost approximately $120 and didn’t allow us to hear the solfeggio as it must be sung. With the iPad we can see how music is written and hear the scales, if ever our keyboards are not nearby. We can even listen to the solfeggio if we are struggling with a particular part. Myriam, musique student

Creating eBooks

Fortunately, iPads came to save the day! I very quickly identified the pedagogical interest and potential of these devices. I discovered iBooks Author, a free software application available on Mac, which allows us to create e-books. Thanks to this application, I created my first book which included theory… and “enriched” media content! This techno-pedagogical advance changed my teaching style and, gradually, that of several of my colleagues.

Creating digital content allowed us to incorporate the combined knowledge and skills of our teaching staff. We realized that we had the expertise to meet all our pedagogical needs and the learning needs of our students. Being able to produce our own material instead of using external resources helped us harmonize our approach.

This project has encouraged teachers to collaborate more, to exchange ideas, material and content, all for the sake of our students, and above all, to revise the progression of the knowledge students acquired so that we could create a coherent learning ecosystem between the different courses.

The Didac’zik Collection

Encouraged by this discovery, I created about 20 eBooks between 2012 and 2015 to meet the needs of our teaching team. The way students access these books has evolved over time.

  • Initially, students could get the books through Dropbox links that were sent to everyone. However, since the content was not protected on Dropbox, we changed our method.
  • We grouped the eBooks into a single document entitled “Music Library”. Students could scan a QR code with their mobile device that was posted on the music department’s main billboard to find all of the eBooks, organized semester by semester. They then accessed the eBook catalogue and downloaded the books that they needed depending on where they were in their learning path.
  • Today, these eBooks are available in a private folder on the CEGEP’s server, and students must type in their permanent code to access them.

About 80% of the eBooks are free for the students at the Cégep de Drummondville. Some books required more resources than others when they were designed and are thus sold on iTunes for the price of a good cup of coffee. Prior to this, a similar textbook would have cost over a hundred dollars!

The selection of first-semester eBooks available to students from the Music program.

All-inclusive eBooks

Creating music eBooks required a lot of effort in order for each book to be both complete and to stand on its own. Ideally, we wanted to offer the student a learning tool that would allow them to read theory, listen to musical dictations, write the notes that had been played, and to correct themselves, all at once. This is why I used the full potential of iBooks Author.

Concretely, I created widgets that made it possible to use handwritten notes on a staff (using a finger or a stylus) and to listen to selected tracks. An integrated answer key for the dictations allows the students to make adjustments, listen to the track again and to understand their mistakes. Students can re-do the exercises as often as they please, whether at the college or at home. Here are a few more concrete examples of using widgets in our eBooks:

  • Hundreds of works to listen to
  • The possibility to annotate content
  • Insert quizzes with immediate feedback
  • Practice tools (metronome, tuner)

Demonstration video

The Shift towards a BYOD Environment

We have progressively integrated a BYOD (bring your own device) system in our music program. In 2012, our first year of implementation, about 40% of the students bought an iPad to bring to class. This figure raised to 60% the following year, and then to 80% in 2014. As of the fall semester of 2015, iPads are mandatory for all music students. The Cégep also offers an iPad rental service for those who do not have their own device, but only 2 of the students (out of 60) rented an iPad before buying their own.

An Active Student… Always!

Before this change in approach, our students did not have the necessary resources to practice or review the material between classes. Thanks to mobile devices like the iPad, it is now possible to centralize all the resources in one place (books, audio recordings and interactive exercises).

There was also a problem with the availability of these resources for practicing. Not so long ago, students had to borrow tapes or compact discs at the library to do their ear training exercises. Since there was a limited number of these recordings, delays were commonplace. Now, the iPad makes these recordings available anywhere at any time. We even see students doing their exercises outside, in front of the CEGEP. Since everyone has access to their own copy of the material, the tasks are that much easier.

In summary, the techno-pedagogical shift that our program has undertaken in the past few years has had a very positive impact on the learning process for our students:

  • Interactive exercises with feedback in real time
  • Centralization of the resources and contents within one textbook
  • Option to practice from home (eBooks can be referred to from anywhere, often without requiring Internet access)
  • Better musical training and ear training
  • Better preparation of the students, especially for the theory and solfeggio
  • Cost of textbooks reduced to a minimum
  • Optimization of the use of iPads in an educational context
  • Better management of the program-based approach

In the Music Technology class, we have access to many exercises on theory, such as listening practice and building scales, chords, intervals, etc. This way, I can develop my listening skills and, for visual people like me, they have a small integrated piano keyboard, which facilitates my learning and understanding.Annabel, music student

Music Without Borders

Today, I have humbly noted that many of our eBooks available on iTunes have been bought… in Norway, Australia, Japan and the United States, which provides the Cégep de Drummondville with some international exposure! Some of our eBooks are available in several languages.

We constantly work on improving our digital learning resources. To this end, we have decided to incorporate a new learning platform into our educational ecosystem (ChallengeU) to better meet our needs and vary our teaching/learning methods and styles. What’s more, we are also continuing the development of new widget prototypes that are aimed at developing the skills of musicians.

If I have invested so much time and energy into creating these eBooks, my main motivation is to offer students the tools I wish I had when I was studying music while also responding to a need for the 21st century – to teach students about digital culture.

Digital culture is neither easily acquired nor is it a passing fad. It is important to think of students, since the future is theirs. We must prepare them to use those tools in an intelligent manner and introduce them to various platforms to maximize the development of their technological and informational skills. These tools are heavily utilized by students for communicating with others. It is also important for us to show them that they are very powerful tools for learning.

About the author

A guitar player by training, Ian Murphy graduated from the Université de Montréal with a Bachelor’s degree in interpretation and a Master of Arts in Music. He has been teaching at the Cégep de Drummondville since 2001. An accomplished musician, he plays different styles ranging from Renaissance to contemporary music. In addition to his teaching career, he works in the recording industry, more specifically in classical guitar. Ian has been involved as a jury member in many competitions (Guitare-Drummond, Concours de Musique du Canada). He is passionate about new technologies and has an Apple LogicPro certification.

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