Imitate or innovate? A reflection on the road ahead in digitising education

by Luc Nijs, Sandrine Desmurs, Marina Gall, Mimi Harmer, Enric Guaus, Matti Ruippo, Till Skoruppa and André Stärk.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveller, long I stood

And looked down one as far as I could

To where it bent in the undergrowth

(Frost, “The road not taken”)

In the wake of the worldwide Covid19 threat that keeps the world in its grip and somehow puts daily life on hold, education is facing a tremendous challenge, urging teachers to turn with an “unprecedented and staggering” speed (Hodges et al., 2020) to the digital domain and move their classes online.

On the one hand, it is stunning to see how the majority of music teachers are facing this challenge largely unprepared, on the other hand, it is wonderful to see how teachers share their experiences on social media, how they help each other to find solutions, whether it concerns platforms for High Definition (HD) video conferencing or microphones and cameras that improve the use of these platforms. All over the internet, we see lists appear that inform us of which digital tools we can use. Moreover, teachers share insights they are gaining through the daily experience of exploring, experimenting and learning to use different digital tools.

Seeing the goodwill and efforts of so many teachers, the Corona crisis can also be seen as an important moment of growth, involving a process that will change music education in “post-Corona times”. Not only will music teachers have gained a lot of experience, this process might also involve a change in mindset that invites teachers to move from “emergency remote teaching” (Hodges et al, 2020) to genuine online teaching and learning, whereby technologies are used “to introduce, explain, reinforce and provide practice with concepts and skills, and to assess student learning” (Dorfman, 2013, p. 7).

Photo by Elijah O’Donnell from Pexels

To achieve this, it is important for teachers to see technology as an added value to their common teaching practice. Taking into account the current “emergency remote teaching” as provoked by the Corona crisis, this is an important element. A majority of teachers are now using technology simply because they are obliged to do so. But what about the future? Will teachers continue to take the digital road?

Also, to achieve this, it is important that teachers understand the students’ concerns when engaging in online courses. Indeed, faced with so many issues at the same time, teachers may overlook the students’ perspectives and experience. For example, in their enthusiasm, teachers sometimes schedule lessons outside the usual timetabled times, leading to collisions with other courses. Another example concerns the link to online resources: a link to online content is easily sent to the students, but for the students it is not obvious how to integrate all these online resources in relation to their examinations. Furthermore, not all students have access to the same home-based technologies as others. So how can one ensure equity in this situation, or when some students’ broadband is such that it takes hours to download or upload some documents (that may well be ‘heavy’ if they include music)? Grading, face-to-face feedback, acquisition of general competences, etc. are some of the aspects related to physical presence that need to be rebuilt in this “emergency remote teaching”.

As such, now might be the right moment to embed the increased practical experience and the knowledge that emerges from the “emergency remote teaching”, into a broader framework: a framework that connects the ongoing acquisition of experience and knowledge to existing, and more importantly, 21st century ways of thinking about teaching and learning. A framework that, inspired by technology but driven by pedagogy, gathers interesting ideas about how technology may invoke a process of becoming, and of differentiation, whereby new ways of being a teacher and of pedagogical thinking are generated (Davies & Gannon, 2009).

Building such a framework may help strengthen the new mindset and provoke a continuation of the digital turn that Corona induces. While maybe, at this moment, this digital turn may mainly involve the translation of ongoing “unplugged” teaching and learning into the digital domain (adoption & adaptation; ACOT, 1995), it is worthwhile thinking about what additional value the digital can offer to the unplugged, in the sense that the technology is necessary to “engage students in authentic tasks that provide opportunities for higher level thinking and problem-solving” (invention phase; ACOT, 1995). Questions such as “How can I teach a student from home, without a delay and with sufficient sound quality?” or “How can I make students play together online?”, easily lead to the question “What tool do I use for that?”, whereby the main goal is to replicate the classroom situation and processes. These are indeed important questions that need to be addressed, but at the same time, we can ask questions such as “Does it really have to be in real time?”, and “If it doesn’t need to be, what are the alternatives”? “What could be the advantages of doing things off-line”? Another question might be “How can we introduce new elements to teaching and learning music?”. Or, “How can we use digital technology to intensify the cycle of explicit planning, deliberate performance, and critical reflection that fuels the next practice session?”

Through its work within the “Strengthening Music in Society” project, the Digitization working group wishes to contribute to establishing such a framework. On the one hand, it collects and analyses existing projects;on the other hand, it elaborates a set of dimensions and categories that, as “looking glasses”, support reflection on educational technology. We believe that reflection based on such dimensions and categories helps to better understand the didactic/pedagogical/educational potential of that technology, possibly in relation to other technologies. 

As Papert (1981) said: “technology itself will not draw us forward in any direction”. Indeed, what matters is what we do with it. In one sense, this “doing” asks for practical solutions, which are often mirrored by the students, who are less worried about tools and content, but have concerns about practical issues such as suitable schedules, time for practising, and passing exams. On the other hand, it is necessary to scrutinize the opinions, convictions, and assumptions that underlie the “doing”.

With our work, we hope to inspire teachers and educators to go beyond the mere digital translation of what already exists, thereby appealing to the transformative power of technology (Kiesler, 1992). We hope to provide tools that help teachers to integrate technology to ensure student- and music-centeredness.


  • Davies, B., & Gannon, S. (2009). Pedagogical encounters. New York, NY: Peter Lang.
  • Dorfman, J. (2013). Theory and Practice of Technology-based Music Instruction. Oxford University Press.
  • ACOT (1995). Changing the conversations about teaching, learning and technology: a report on 10 years of ACOT research. Frenchs Forest, NSW: Apple Computer Australia Pty Ltd.
  • Hodges, C.B., Moore, S., Lockee, B.B., Trust, T. and Bond, M.A. (2020). The Difference Between Emergency Remote Teaching and Online Learning. Retrieved. Educause Review, March 7th, 2020.
  • Kiesler, S. (1992). Talking, teaching, and learning in network groups: Lessons from research. In A. Kaye (Ed.), NATO advanced workshop on collaborative learning through computer conferencing (pp. 145-165). Heidelberg: Springer-Verlag.
  • Papert, Seymour. (1981). Mindstorms: Children, Computers and Powerful Ideas. NY: Basic Books.Waddell, G., & Williamon, A. (2019). Technology use and attitudes in learning musical instruments. Frontiers in ICT, 6, 11.

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