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Technology: Cloud-Based Software

Mike Lawson • Technology • November 19, 2013

The Tech-Savvy Music Classroom

 

Teachers who use technology to introduce, reinforce, and evaluate students’ proficiency with musical concepts in their classrooms are often bound by the limitations of music-related software. I frequently hear questions like these: Which software is the right choice for my students? How can I equip my classroom with the limited budget that my school provides? How can I give students access to software even when they are not in my classroom?

There are several models that are useful for evaluating software to be used in your classroom [see sidebar], most of which emphasize ideas such as documentation, support, extensibility, navigation, and aesthetics. Once software designers deal with these issues, the more practical concerns of teachers come to the fore. Cost and access are perfectly legitimate concerns. In a typical computer lab scenario, once a school purchases computers and furniture, there is often little money left for software. In addition, students’ creativity may flourish if they have access to the technology for more than just a period a day, or perhaps less.

The emerging market of cloud-based software has already begun to conquer the issues of expense and access. But first, what is cloud-based software, and how can it help educators overcome these obstacles?

What is this Cloud Thing Anyway?

Most complex music software is not cloud-based; that is, the procedure for getting it to work is to install a copy of the software on your computer’s hard drive. Once the installation is done – at the expense of the time it takes to install, and the space on your computer’s hard drive – the software runs from the local disk. Typically, any work that you would do in this type of software would be saved to your computer. Examples of music software packages that are locally installed include most notation applications such as Sibelius, Finale, and Notion, and most professional-level sequencing applications such as ProTools, Logic, and Cubase. In truth, most of the higher-end, sophisticated music software packages still fit the locally installed description.

As many who use locally installed software will attest, there are frustrating problems that come along with it. While installed software can be incredibly robust, new versions of the software appear frequently and have to be installed. Because in many cases locally installed software comes on physical media (CDs or DVDs), cost per installation can be higher because of manufacturers’ production costs. Also, most locally installed software has copy protection restrictions so that it can only be installed (or used) on a specific number of computers.

“The Cloud” is a term for software and data that reside on the Internet. Essentially, the software we use in cloud computing is installed on a server in a remote location; we access the applications through interface software, usually a web browser like Internet Explorer, Safari, or Firefox. (For a detailed description of the cloud concept, see http://bit.ly/qcd23p). The data (documents, compositions, multimedia elements, and so on) are stored on those remote servers rather than on our individual computers.

Perhaps the most common example of cloud software is the very popular suite of productivity tools known as Google Docs (docs.google.com). These online applications are versions of the word processing, spreadsheet, and presentation software we all use every day. They are accessed through any web browser, and the items you produce in them are stored online (though it can be downloaded for use offline). Google Docs allows users to collaborate on documents in real time, and perhaps best of all, the applications are completely free. Many teachers use Google Docs in place of locally installed office software for those reasons.

The obstacles I have already discussed can be, to a great extent, overcome through the use of cloud software. Cloud software is updated by its developers, but those updates appear “in the background” and typically do not require additional installation on the user’s part. Since the software lives online, there are no physical media costs; and since there is no physical installation, cloud software is rarely restricted to only certain computers. Perhaps best of all, teachers and students can access the software from any Internet-connected computer; software use is not tied to a specific machine where the software is installed.

 

So What’s Out There?

One of the most popular uses for the cloud is simply for storage of digital items such as photos, videos, and music. These types of media can quickly eat away at the space on a local hard drive, so many people opt to store them online instead. Popular storage applications include Dropbox (free, dropbox.com), SugarSync ($7.50/month) and Box.net (free), all of which can store any type of file, and Flickr (free, flickr.com), which is for storing photos. Free versions of these utilities allow for limited storage capacity, while paid plans increase that capacity. Some of the major players in the computing industry also have online storage solutions such as Apple’s iCloud (free, icloud.com), Microsoft’s SkyDrive (free, skydrive.live.com) and Google’s Drive (free, drive.google.com). Many of these services include the bonus feature of allowing for collaboration between users; that is, they allow you to share documents or artifacts with others, and sometimes to actually work on those documents in the cloud software. Many of them are also quite useful for storage of documents created on portable devices such as iPhones, iPads, and Android phones.

People from all professions, including music teachers, like to be able to take notes about their daily activities. The cloud makes it easy for us to take notes, store them online, then access them in other places. Evernote (free, evernote.com) is a note-taking application for computers and portable devices. Using your Evernote account, you can jot notes on your device – perhaps things to remember for rehearsal, lesson ideas, or some new music to seek out – then access them digitally from anywhere. You can even capture pictures or articles from the web and drop them into Evernote so you remember to deal with them later. Other note-taking applications have come and gone, but Evernote’s ease of use and functionality has made it very popular, and I recommend it for this purpose.

Among music software, several applications have recently made waves because they are cloud-based. The notation application NoteFlight (noteflight.com) is an entirely cloud-based alternative to traditional, installed notation software. Individuals can use a basic version of NoteFlight for free. School teachers, schools, or studio teachers can purchase plans to use the software for very low cost; these paid versions of the software also open up additional features and premade learning activities. Because NoteFlight is cloud-based, there are also social functions of the software that allow for composers to share and collaborate on scores. NoteFlight’s most recent version is based on HTML5, so it is usable through the web browser on mobile devices such as iPads. It is a low-cost notation software solution that allows students to access it from any Internet-connected computer – at school, home, or anywhere else.

Two recent entries into cloud-based music software are Auralia Cloud Edition and Musition Cloud Edition. These well-known software packages for learning music theory and ear training have been ported from installed versions to cloud versions, which encourages broader student access and lower cost. Auralia Cloud Edition and Musition Cloud Edition do require a local installation of a small software package, but the content, as well as students’ work, is stored online. Many university music theory and aural skills classes have begun using these packages as alternatives to traditional textbooks.

Hundreds of cloud-based music applications exist, and new ones appear every day. A quick search will probably turn up anything you might need including recording and re-mixing applications, notation and theory applications. Another major player in this area is SoundCloud (soundcloud.com), which allows you to record directly into the application, or upload existing sound files, and serves as a playback hub. It is similar to YouTube (another cloud application), but only deals with audio as opposed to video. SoundCloud also has social components that let listeners comment on uploaded sounds. Many people use SoundCloud as a venue for distributing music they have created without any cost.

 

Where’s This Going?

Cloud applications are not very new, but the rapid pace of development makes it hard to keep up and develop general observations about their applicability. For some perspective on where cloud music software might be headed, I spoke with Dr. Jim Frankel, director of MusicFirst (musicfirst.com), a company that sells several cloud-based music applications. Dr. Frankel believes strongly in the advantages of cloud software discussed in this article, and suggests that, “We’re going to look back five years from now and say to ourselves, ‘Can you remember a time when software wasn’t available online?’”

Dr. Jim Frankel

Dr. Frankel mentions three obstacles to cloud software moving forward: (1) The HTML5 standard, on which the most successful cloud music software is based, is not complete and still has minor problems with audio and MIDI; (2) teachers worry about loss of data and documents when they are stored in the cloud; and (3) teachers worry about privacy and online security issues when interacting with students over the Internet. The cost benefit of cloud software, and the ability to access the software outside of the classroom are such great motivating factors, however, that these obstacles are quickly overcome. Once teachers see the powerful software that can be used right through their web browser, they hesitate far less about diving into the cloud.

Dr. Frankel believes that professional level music applications may be too difficult to move to the cloud. It is likely that many of the hefty applications used in the professional market may always be locally installed, but they might eventually have cloud components such as file storage and collaboration. He is so convinced of the power of Internet-based software that all of the educational titles that MusicFirst sells will eventually be moved to the cloud. He suggests that teachers “start thinking now about how you’re going to use the cloud in your classroom, because [boxed software] will soon be gone.”

All signs point to cloud software growing by leaps and bounds in the coming years. The cost advantage, the power of the software, and its ability to support “flipped” models of teaching are undeniable. I encourage you to examine some of the resources listed in this article to start exploring cloud-based technologies and start integrating them into your teaching, both inside and outside of the classroom.

 

Dr. Jay Dorfman

Jay Dorfman is an assistant professor in the Music Education Department at Boston University where he teaches classes in instrumental music, technology, and research. He teaches in both online and on-campus settings. He also currently serves as the president of the Technology Institute for Music Educators (TI:ME, ti-me.org), an organization dedicated to advancing technology in the music education profession. Dr. Dorfman is the author of Theory and Practice of Technology-based Music Instruction, released in 2013 by Oxford University Press.

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