Music teachers already have a great website. Now they have an 'indispensable' handbook, says Hugh John
Digital Media in the Music Classroom is indispensable for newly qualified teachers (NQTs) or veteran music teachers – and anyone in between! Written by James Cross – Apple Distinguished Educator, former music  teacher and now educator in residence with MediaCore – this is a book that manages to be both challenging and reassuring, contemporary but not nerdy and wide-ranging yet never overwhelming.

That’s quite a balancing act considering the seismic developments in music technology over the past decade but, as the author points out: “Many of the classroom ideas discussed here will seem like common sense and that’s where their power lies. It’s the learning and not the technology that’s the focus.”

The central chapters of the book deal with Digital Video, Digital Audio, Interactive Whiteboards, Mobile Devices, Virtual Learning Environments, Blogs and Other Online Tools. Each chapter concludes with a number of ‘Classroom Ideas’, tips and ‘Online resources’ and each is imbued with a persuasive mix of sound pedagogy and good old fashioned evangelism. Readers are left in no doubt that this an educator who has served his time on the chalkface and who is acutely aware of the practical and mundane issues teachers face every day of their working lives. Does this sound familiar, for example, “The reality of being a busy music teacher means that the time to sit down and make impressive interactive whiteboard resources is rarely available.”

Music technology says James, “has evolved to incorporate a much wider collection of technologies. Largely revolving around the internet, they allow people to share, discover and enjoy music on demand.” This huge increase in resources, particularly handheld devices such as smartphones and tablets, often places educators in an invidious position. The benefits of well-written apps and social networking sites are obvious: exciting, attractive to young people, inexpensive (or free), accessible and remarkably easy to use. 

Teachers know difference between mobile phone use and abuse

Then there are the perceived problems: loss of classroom control, diminution of learning focus, worse yet, chaos and indiscipline. James likens this apprehension to the prospect of opening Pandora’s Box. In this modern day scenario, once the box is opened you abdicate control. But, he maintains, this is nothing new: “Any teacher who remembers the dread of first wheeling out the percussion trolley to a class of noisy Year 9s during a teaching placement has already been through this experience and survived.” An experienced teacher, he points out that teachers know intuitively whether a student is, “using a mobile phone for learning or otherwise after a few moments of observation... with a little practice and clear expectations you can quickly manage the classroom and foster the use of mobiles in learning.”

My favourite anecdote in the book recounts how, during a classroom group project, the author spotted a student showing his iPhone to a classmate. “In line with school rules I asked him to put it away. He held up the screen for me to see and on it was a guitar chord app. He was using this app to teach chords to another student in his group; his mobile phone was supporting his learning in a valuable way... yet the school's rules on mobile devices expressly forbade their use in the classroom, effectively outlawing this powerful learning tool.” Nuff said!

YouTube, Spotify, iMovie, Windows Movie Maker, Vimeo, Facebook, iPads, NUMU, GarageBand, Audacity... there’s a huge selection of tools and resources available to music teachers nowadays and you’ll find any number of pertinent tips and suggestions in this book on how to incorporate these resources into music education.  But underpinning this enthusiasm for new technologies is an educator who never loses sight of first principles: “When we think about what constitutes great music learning, technology rarely comes into the equation: it’s the human aspects that are often most important, such as the interaction and connection with students, the friendly advice and the guided discussion.”

Two of the final chapters, “Online Professional Development” and “School Restrictions”, have relevance for teachers that resonates way beyond the music community. They explore, among other avenues, the possibility of using social networking sites to, “seek out other educators to share ideas and good practice.” While acknowledging that many users’ tweets border on the banal, the author maintains: “This isn’t usually true of the education community. Twitter has become one of the main ways for educators from across the world to network, share good practice and advance their professional development at their own pace.” The importance of TeachMeets and Teaching Music, the popular website for music educators, are also discussed.

Strategies to handle internet filtering and banning of mobiles

“School Restrictions” suggests a variety of strategies and tools that teachers can employ to circumnavigate the two issues of internet filtering and the banning of mobile handheld devices that can restrict and impede the introduction of innovative technologies. The advice on persuading school technicians and network managers to implement more adventurous strategies – unblocking YouTube for example – tempered as it is with sympathy for colleagues doing a “demanding and often thankless job” speaks of someone who, in his teaching career, has had his share of struggles with unhelpful techies. His top four tips for introducing change are: Ask for small-scale changes (eg the Music Department, not the whole school), get the school leaders onside, make a case for learning and finally, er, lashings of charm and empathy. “Considering their point of view will make it easier for you to present effective proposals and this, combined with a few tools and a little charm, can go a long way in helping you to achieve your technological goals.”

If there’s one word that most accurately encapsulates the author’s approach to teaching that word is surely ‘inclusive’. Inclusive in his belief that music has the ability to reach all students regardless of their competence in more formal aspects of music education; inclusive in his willingness to embrace any technology or teaching strategy that will stimulate and engage students. This is a truly inspiring book and a resource that merits a place in every music department.

Digital Media in the Music Classroom
Book by James Cross, published by Rhinegold Education ISBN: 978-1-78038-250-0, £9.75 from Amazon
Distributed by Music Sales Limited, Distribution Centre, Newmarket Road, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, IP33 3YB

Companion website
Additional resources to accompany this book, including videos, can be accessed online at using an access code provided in the book.