Extending music beyond the classroom: MusicFirst

City of London School for Girls provides students and staff with iPads, and all departments are encouraged to explore how best to integrate the use of mobile technology into the classroom. The music department has adopted the MusicFirst Classroom – an online platform where students can access cloud-based software and create a portfolio of work – to enhance our approach to assessment and extend learning beyond the classroom. This case study will share the benefits and challenges of integrating an online platform with all of Key Stage 3. Drawing on pupil voice, discussions with the founder of the platform and staff that are using it, it will be revealed that there is scope to make effective use of an online platform to fully democratise the learning of music so that all students, regardless of musical skill, can engage with the curriculum.

The core rationale of MusicFirst, founder Jim Frankel stated, ‘emerged from my doctoral research into the assessment of standards using an online platform’. Jim saw an opportunity to deliver software and content via cloud computing back in 2012, and saw the potential of schools utilising technology in the classroom. Jim’s research led to the assembly of a suite of cloud-based products connected to a custom-built virtual learning environment. In a recent conversation, Jim told me:

‘the whole point of the platform was to save teachers time for a variety of tasks, including: making audio and video recordings of students and properly organizing/archiving them; allowing students to complete assignments that require software outside of class time on their mobile devices and tablets; and making world-class content available to teachers and students to help them to teach/learn music’. (Jim Frankel, 2018)

I asked Jim if he felt this VLE was saving teachers unnecessary workload, and he felt there was the opportunity to conduct more research in this area. He mentioned that MusicFirst has ‘well over 3,200 teachers and 350,000 students using our platform on a daily basis and from what we can glean from the usage reports, teachers are assigning students the exact types of assignments we hoped they would: creating digital portfolios that include recordings, compositions, writing/critiques, lots of assessments of general knowledge (theory, history, etc.), and providing opportunities for students to create using a wide variety of software interfaces’.

At City of London School for Girls, we were keen to find a VLE that would accomplish two goals: an efficient and sustainable approach to providing feedback (and one where students could take the lead in this), and something that would allow for the learning to continue beyond the lessons. I approached MusicFirst following discussions as a department about how we could broaden our music technology offer to include more options than Sibelius (notation software) and Cubase (sequencing software). Sibelius and Cubase can be challenging to learn for the beginner. Pupil voice revealed that students enjoy the choice of software available via MusicFirst, and through my observations of students using NoteFlight for the first time, it was evident that they can pick up the interface quickly. I have used Noteflight with Years 4 to 13, and all students are able to ascertain how to enter notes, and make the necessary edits to capture their ideas.

I provided access to MusicFirst for all girls in Years 3 to 9, as I wanted to focus on how we could create progress across these year groups: every student would be able to have an online portfolio of their work and as their work built up over time we could start to discuss and see/hear progress. The suite of software we select included a notation software (NoteFlight), a sequencer, music theory and aural software. A music dictionary (Focus on Sound) was also included, and this includes image, audio and video content to augment the definitions. The suite of tools is an excellent resource and colleagues in the department were quick to create lessons that brought aspects of the various software together to create units of work. Students were able to submit work created via these units, and a mark book was generated automatically.

We were using Google Classroom simultaneously, and as such it meant there was some overlap in our attempting to use two different VLEs at the same time. As MusicFirst can connect to Google Classroom, we are starting to use them together. Pupils no longer need to worry about remembering two passwords, as we can issue assignments from MusicFirst via Google Classroom. A typical assignment for Years 3 – 6 might include an incomplete Noteflight task that gives them a framework to complete. With pupils in Year 7, for example, we have issued assignments that require them to make a recording of work in progress that forms part of a creative task. This might ask them to practice a part for a class ensemble and record them playing a section of their part, doing a few recordings over the course of the project to demonstrate their progress.

Most interestingly, Year 10 are using it more than expected, as they have found NoteFlight ideal for working on their coursework outside of the classroom. This academic year the whole class started working on compositions on NoteFlight and nearly half of the class continued to use the platform even after we introduced them to Sibelius. NoteFlight has the distinct advantage of being Cloud based, and allows scores to be shared for review by other members of the community. Students can share their scores with me and I can view and comment. This has been excellent for sustaining progress over the week and beyond, as we cannot always meet to discuss. I would like to experiment next with students recording their practice at home when working on their performance coursework, and submitting this via MusicFirst for self-review and peer-assessment. I think by creating a window onto the practising element of their performance, we can start to have interesting discussions about how they approach the difficult parts, and how they start to put together an interpretation. In music, we often focus on the product of creative work, and I am keen to now look at the process alongside the product.

We found it difficult to sustain the ‘paper-less’ vision I proposed for the department and one I’d hoped MusicFirst VLE would provide for us. What we needed most was more training, and thankfully MusicFirst’s founder Jim Frankel is keen to support schools as they develop their use of the VLE. We needed to plan more time to discuss and reflect on how we were going to use it, and we needed to devise a consistent approach to how to deliver activities and tasks via the platform. Over the coming academic year we are excited to be using it again and focusing on the assessment process in particular.

References

Frankel JT An evaluation of a Web-based model of assessment for the New Jersey State Core Curriculum Content Standards in music. Ph.D. thesis, Teachers College, Columbia University. Available at: https://www.learntechlib.org/p/126388/ (accessed 8 October 2018).

Originally appeared in Chartered College of Teaching Impact Online at https://impact.chartered.college/article/musicfirst-classroom-online-platform-extending-music-beyond-classroom/

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