Introducing Music Ed Tech Talk, My New(ish) Podcast!

Today I am excited to announce that my podcast, Robby Burns + Friends, is getting a long overdue re-brand. I am renaming the show Music Ed Tech Talk. It will continue to follow the candid guest/host conversation style and will focus on music, education, technology, and other mutual interests.

Given my investment in the fields of music and education, and my intense interest in technology, most episodes of Robby Burns + Friends were already centered on these topics. I felt it was time to rebrand the show to better indicate to new listeners what they should expect when they press play.

That being said, I see this show, in combination with my blog, to be my digital megaphone, so don’t be surprised to hear me venture into the unknown. This is not a show about music technology education. It is a show about music, education, and technology. Three separate interests, sometimes discussed in isolation, sometimes in combination, and sometimes not at all. What I am saying is — don't be surprised to hear occasional digressions on Star Wars and pickling. 

I am hosting this show in the same place so you should expect to keep getting episodes in your feed if you were subscribed to Robby Burns + Friends. If not, please let me know. I am keeping the first three seasons of RB+F in the Apple Podcasts Directory under the new title because I feel that they are, spiritually speaking, the same show. I will be tightening up the format a little bit, and am planning to speak with new and exciting guests.

That about sums it up. Ushering in this new season of Music Ed Tech Talk is my very first guest ever, Jon Tippens. You can listen to the new episode and read the show notes here or click play right below.

Subscribe to Music Ed Tech Talk:

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The Class Nerd Podcast (Sneak Peek)

I am excited to share a sneak peek of a project I have been working on for the past few months.

Nashville based educator, Craig McClellan, and I are launching a podcast later this summer called The Class Nerd. Our hope is to introduce teachers to some really cool technology tips and workflows that will help them on their path to being better educators.

As we sort out all of the technical details that come with managing a podcast, check out "Episode 0: Tech Origin Stories" where Craig and I discuss our paths to becoming classroom tech nerds.

Brief Thoughts on Apple’s Education Event

Well it has taken me long enough… This past week, Apple held an education event. Below are some brief thoughts on the subject. Chris Russell is coming on my podcast later this week to talk about all of the details. Keep in mind, I do not work in a school with 1:1 iPads or any kind of deployment strategy. But I am very seriously invested in Apple’s role in education and their vision for how their products fit into the classroom.

New iPad

This device looks great. Adding the Apple Pencil to this model will be an asset for schools. But will schools really pay 89 dollars for a pencil after just having purchased numerous 250 dollar iPads? 

The thing that gets me most excited about this device is its consumer potential. I am tempted to buy one for myself as a (more) mobile counterpart to my larger 12.9 inch iPad Pro.

iWork Updates

Apple Pencil support. FINALLY. This was my favorite announcement of the day. I anticipate editing Pages documents, scribbling on bus attendance lists made in Numbers, and annotating Keynote slides at the front of the classroom on a daily basis. I hate to be cynical (which the rest of this post will be), but Microsoft Office for iPad has had the ability to write on documents with an Apple Pencil since the Apple Pencil launched, two years ago. 

iBooks Author

Seems like the Mac app is no longer going to receive development. All book publishing features have been moved to Pages for iOS and Mac. It doesn’t appear that the new feature does everything that iBooks Author can do. Hopefully this is like when Apple rewrote Final Cut Pro X, took away some features, but then eventually added them back. Or when iWork was rewritten to be the same for iOS and macOS, stripping AppleScript features from the Mac, but eventually bringing them back. I would hate to see iBook authors unable to use workflows they have in the past using iBooks Author for the Mac. 

Classroom App for Mac

Apple’s learning management system comes to the Mac. Great! But what took so long? And can Apple keep up with the vastly more mature and flexible Google Classroom? (See conclusion below)

School Work App

An app for teachers to give assignments to students, check their progress, and collect it back. School Work can route students to other apps to do their assignments using the ClassKit API which is very cool. But why is this separate from the Classroom app? And where does iTunes U fit into all of this?


Apple is making a lot of solid efforts here but a lot of it it feels like too little too late, especially the student and learning management software. I really do hope they can keep up with Google Classroom who has been eating everyone’s lunch for years. Apple will have to be aggressive about adding new features to all of these new apps and making sure that their app ecosystem is flexible enough to compete with Chromebooks which use browser based software. Yes, there are way more apps on the App Store than there are Chrome based apps, but in education (and especially in music education) a lot of the big players are writing for Chrome OS. To me, the draw of Chromebooks in education is not their price, but the flexibility of web based software.

Apple’s software engineers seem spread very thin and unable to balance the release of various applications, consistently over time. This is true of many of Apple’s consumer apps. Mail and Reminders, two tentpole productivity apps have fallen way behind the competition. Calendar has not seen any more than a few major feature updates since I started using the Mac back in 2006. Apple’s apps are part of the “nice” factor of being in the ecosystem. Sometimes an app like Notes will get some major new features, but then we won’t hear from it for a few years. Google’s apps, by contrast, lack the same design sense, but are constantly being updated with new features. And they are not locked into annual OS updates like iOS is. In my opinion, this is Apple’s biggest problem right now.

Ironically, software is still my draw to Apple products. Even though their hardware is the most indisputably good thing they are doing right now (I am nearly without complaint of my iPhone X and the iPad 10.5 is perfect), it is the software that locks me in. In other words, I am much more committed to macOS and iOS than I am Mac and iPhone. This leaves me with some long term concern about my interest in continuing to use Apple products. And great concern about any educational institution who jumps on the iPad bandwagon just because apps are bright and colorful and demo well on stage. Apple has to show continual support for their education software if their dream for the classroom is to come true.


Soundtrap Enable Import Export MIDI Music Files

Soundtrap Enable Import Export MIDI Music Files:

The MIDI music technology protocol is used worldwide to enable electronic devices -- computers, cellphones, karaoke machines and more -- to generate sounds. The enhanced MIDI support by Soundtrap furthers the creative process by making the multiple tools used to make music interoperable online. This is part of an effort by Soundtrap to broaden its ecosystem of best-of-breed industry solutions so that musicians and music creators have even more flexibility in their music-making efforts. For example, Soundtrap is now interoperable with digital audio workstations (DAWs) through MIDI File Export so users can send all or part of their composition to other solutions such as GarageBand or Pro Tools.

I experimented with Soundtrap with my general music classes last Spring. I was entirely skeptical about the prospect of running a DAW in a web browser but Soundtrap impressed me. It does a great job handling audio and MIDI files in a way that doesn't feel much slower than using a native app like GarageBand. My students loved the collaborative features and we were all left wanting more.

One of my GarageBand assignments in previous years was a MIDI remix, where I put MIDI files for familiar movie and pop songs in a shared folder and encouraged students to remix them, altering the instrument voices, form, and adding loops to transform the style. The fact that I can actually now do this assignment entirely in a web based application through Soundtrap's MIDI import and export is impressive. And this is not even to mention the fact that Soundtrap can perform import and export between other web-only based applications like Noteflight. Very cool. If you have been thinking about checking out Soundtrap for yourself, or for a classroom, I highly encourage it.

iOS 9.3 Preview

Apple has released a preview of iOS 9.3. This update is in beta and will contain many new decent features. Nothing big, but stuff that Apple typically does not add to their operating systems mid-year. This a much welcome change and allows Apple to stay current in ways that they could not on an annual software release cycle. I am really happy to see Apple Music features in the car, thumbprint protected notes, and suggested apps that can feed the data in the Health app. Also interesting is the Night Shift feature which will warm the colors of your screen when it gets dark at night to make it easier on your eyes. This is just a month or so after the developers of f.lux (popular screen temperature app for the desktop) figured out how to release it for iOS through process of sideloading only for Apple to ask them to remove it soon afterwards.

Most surprising to me is the last section on the iPad in education. It looks like Apple is adding multiple user accounts to the iPad for classrooms and is adding a classroom management app. This is interesting especially because of CEO Tim Cook's recent comments to Buzzfeed when asked about the growing ubiquity of Chromebooks in the classroom.

Google’s Chromebooks have overtaken Apple products as the most popular devices in American classrooms, but Apple CEO Tim Cook says the company will not be following the search giant’s approach to the education market, which has been a stronghold for Apple since the early days of the Mac.

“Assessments don’t create learning,” Cook said in an interview with BuzzFeed News Wednesday, calling the cheap laptops that have proliferated through American classrooms mere “test machines.”

“We are interested in helping students learn and teachers teach, but tests, no,” Cook said. “We create products that are whole solutions for people — that allow kids to learn how to create and engage on a different level.”

Apple has been deeply connected to schools since it first rolled out mass market personal computers in the 1980s, and has long offered big discounts to students and teachers. But its education market share has been snatched away by the Google-branded Chromebooks, which are outselling not just Apple but everyone else in the tech business.

I am very excited about these new features, what it means for Apple to break the annual software release cycle, and how they might fight for their place in the classroom.

iPads, Chromebooks, and the responsibilities of the post-PC educator

Below, I share some thoughts on the recent article in The Atlantic about why some schools are selling their iPads. Click here to read the article.

I was always skeptical of how quickly schools adopted iPads on a large scale. While they are easy to adapt as teacher tools for organization, proper training is necessary before they are put in the hands of an entire classroom. Generally speaking, educators are behind the times when it comes to technology because of how long it takes to organize and implement new hardware and curriculum. The iPad’s potential got hyped back in 2010 and though I know there are situations in which they are engaging kids, my experience tells me that many administrators are buying them out of the excitement of being seen as “technological” and telling interested teachers to just go right ahead without any plan how to enhance existing learning.

The examples in The Atlantic suggest some excellent points about the productivity of tablets vs. laptops. The idea that kids see tablets as “fun” devices and computers as “work” is of central interest to me. I wonder if American adults were surveyed, if the majority would say that their iPad is a reading, web browsing and light gaming device, or instead, that it is primarily used for email, documents and professional software. I use mine for both. However, I find myself leaving it at home from time to time. Though tablets are both productive and mobile, they are also playgrounds of varying different activities and amusements. I soon learned, for example, that if I wanted to get any serious reading done, I had to bring my plain old Kindle on the go instead of using the Kindle app on iPad where I would constantly get distracted by email, text messages and game notifications. For getting “real” work done, my Mac has the software features and keyboard for getting it done faster. Of course, I have seen many examples of iPads used in the classroom where it seemed the teacher intended them to be used as a fun gimmick rather than a tool for engagement or productivity, but that is a criticism for another post.

The question I raise is: do we as educators have a responsibility towards teaching students to manage the distractions that come with the utility of modern technology? Or do we “edit” real life, making school less like the real world but one in which getting positive results out of children is more immediate? I am talking about editing the classroom in the same way, for example, elementary school children get in line to travel down the hall or band directors give donuts to the section who has 100 percent sectional attendance. I understand why Chromebooks are favored in the examples in The Atlantic. There is something organized and concrete about putting your device in “listening mode” where it has to be in an objectively fixed position and no distractions can get through. I get it, but if we are truly living in a post-PC world, do kids need to learn how to cope with the distractions of a tablet as much as they did the inconveniences of a PC years ago?

As for IT management, Chromebooks make total sense. While I have known Google devices to be far more frustrating to manage for IT departments due to their open source nature, when kids are using apps as basic as Google Docs, the cloud is the perfect place to work. The nature of Google apps, Docs in particular, is to function entirely on the web. There are no software hassles, disk space shortages, or any of these other traditional “computer-y” ideas. Apple has to step up here. They are catching up, but I still have to think a little too hard about what is happening to a document when I save it to the cloud on a Mac or iPad. Google’s simple approach is a huge asset for students to share work with teachers and making sure that there are fewer management problems on the student end.

Chromebooks have appeared useless to me due to their limitations, but it seems these limitations are an advantage with large numbers of students in the classroom. I am interested to see if there is continued iPad fallout in the coming years or instead, an establishment of how post-PC devices are valued in education.