6 Reasons for Caution with all Those Free Music Apps and Websites

This is a guest post by one of our blog writers, Sarah Joncas.

Most music teachers are teaching online right now. Many music educational technology companies are offering their apps, paid subscriptions, and other features to educators for free right now. 

This can be a great thing, as it allows teachers to see the variety of tools and resources available, and to preview them without cost. But I’m not using a lot of them with my students. Here are a few reasons why we should be cautious about using all of these free resources with our students right now.

1. Login overload

Too many sites and apps gets overwhelming for students and parents very quickly. My elementary school students (ages 5-11) receive assignments from 7 teachers per week. 

If each of those teachers were to use 2 sites that aren’t shared across subjects, that’s 14 logins for each child! I try to make things less overwhelming by sticking mainly to sites that don’t require a login, or sites that I know every teacher in my school is using so the students already know their logins. 

Many parents and students have said they are overwhelmed with online learning. One small thing I can do to reduce the challenges they face is using sites that my colleagues are already using in other subjects to make the technology a little more user-friendly for them.

In addition to the overload of usernames and passwords to remember, another factor in login overload is for the teacher. Setting up all my students on a program means copy-pasting over 400 names, creating a tutorial for how to login, and troubleshooting technical problems. This tends to become a ton of work very quickly.

2. Privacy, please!

There are laws and general internet safety principles around privacy that have me very concerned about some of the free apps and websites. 

In the USA, COPPA (Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act) and FERPA (Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act) are the two main laws around student privacy online. Basically, student data can’t be collected by a third party, like the owner of a website, unless that website follows very specific guidelines. My school district also requires that any app or website that uses individual student logins has a signed Student User Privacy Agreement on file, which further protects student data. 

In addition to the laws and school regulations, I’m hesitant to have students sign up for websites that may bombard them with emails or otherwise advertise to them. Students should be able to do their schoolwork without all kinds of companies having their information. 

I am expected to teach and model digital citizenship to students, and part of that is being mindful of where we are sharing our information. By limiting the number of sites that we use, I’m able to keep control of my personal information and that of my students.

3. Platform compatibility

During distance learning, students may be using all different kinds of devices to access their lessons. For example, I have students using Android phones, iPads, Chromebooks, Mac computers, and Windows computers. 

Many of the apps and sites available for free right now do not have full cross-platform compatibility. That means a teacher can explain perfectly how to use the site on a computer, but it may not work for a student using a different kind of device even if they follow all the directions. 

Vetting a tool to make sure it works for all platforms that your students are using is a good idea, but it can get time-consuming very quickly! Sticking to a few main tools can make it easier to ensure all students can access all content and assignments.

4. Looking forward

The reality is that online learning may continue to be a part of education after this school year ends. These free trials and temporarily free resources will likely not remain free forever. 

I want to make sure I don’t need to totally change course or re-design all my lessons if a product suddenly has a cost. With school budgets so uncertain going forward, I don’t want to rely on being able to pay for specific subscriptions or software. 

I also suspect that many of the free trials will push people to use specific products that were free, rather than the tool that is the best for the job. One example I have seen of this is some of the DAWs (Digital Audio Workstations) which are currently free. 

Someone who is looking to use DAWs long term would be better served by researching which DAWs fit their needs and offer a good value than simply to use whichever one is free right now. 

5. Tools that fit the purpose

Using non-music specific tools has actually helped me to design better music distance learning lessons. My school is a Google school, which gives me lots of tools to convey information to students and have students complete assignments. 

I use Google Drive to share videos and files, Google Forms to collect student responses, and a Google Site to organize all of the assignments and resources that students can access. 

Students in my school use Google tools in their other classes, so they are already familiar with them and are able to use them somewhat independently. Sometimes trying to stick to familiar tools for students does mean that I create a video that’s similar to something I might find in a curriculum program or elsewhere, but I’d rather create a video specifically for my students than send them struggling through four websites to try to find a resource.

By using tools that my students know, I’m able to help them focus on the content that I’m teaching them, rather than the distraction of an unfamiliar app interface or game. Additionally, I’m able to customize lessons to their level of knowledge rather than relying on what a teacher unfamiliar with my students thinks is right for a certain grade level. 

Creating my own content means thinking about exactly what I want students to learn, and what the best way to teach it to them is – much like I would do in the typical in-classroom, in-person setting. 

6. Human connection

If I really wanted to, I could probably design lessons that only used all those great free music sites and apps. I could probably get away with making no videos for my students, using only pre-designed materials, and simply grading the work that came in for me. But I want to see my students and connect with them! 

Though we can’t be together in person, I can teach students through videos and other methods that show them that I still care about them. One way I’ve been doing this is taking song requests from my students and posting videos of me performing the songs on my school’s music website. This way students can see me, hear a song like I might play in music class, and know that I’m still thinking of them. 

The free apps and sites can be a tool to connect with students, but they can also become a burden and take the focus off of the human relationships that are so important in music teaching and learning.

Conclusion

While it’s wonderful that there’s so many free music apps and websites available during this distance learning time, there are reasons to be cautious about relying too heavily on them. 

Teachers should keep in mind student privacy, overwhelming students, the future cost, other possible tools, and the power of human connection when deciding what apps and tools to use with their students.

As always, different tools will work for different people in different situations. For me, I’m trying to keep it simple, connect with my students, and deliver lessons that engage them in music making without creating technology challenges that cause frustration. I want them to come away from this time still loving music.

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About the Writer

Sarah Joncas is a music teacher from Massachusetts, USA. She teaches kindergarten through fifth grade general music, fifth grade chorus, fifth grade band, and percussion ensemble. Before becoming a teacher, she worked with technology and educational software.

In 2014, she was named a TI:ME Technology in Music Education Leadership Fellow, which allowed her to attend a music education conference in Texas and explore cutting edge music teaching technology. She has earned degrees in Music Education from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and Boston University. You can connect with Sarah on Twitter or her blog Teaching Music Musings

Looking for More Resources for Music Teachers?

Hello! I’m Katie Wardrobe – an Australian music technology trainer and consultant with a passion for helping music teachers through my business Midnight Music.

I’m a qualified teacher but no, I don’t currently teach in a school. I help teachers through my online professional development space – the Midnight Music Community – where there are tutorial videos, courses, links and downloadable resources.

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I like to focus on easy ways to incorporate technology into what you are already doing in your music curriculum through a range of creative projects. I also run live workshops and have presented at countless conferences and other music education events.

If you want simple, effective ideas for using technology in music education, I would LOVE to help you inside the Midnight Music Community.

Learn more and take a sneak peek inside