By: Meryl van Noie
We all know that the school system takes its time when it comes to allocating money for projects. It is an uphill battle most of the time. So when they decide to grant the funding, some of us are taken aback and get into a state of panic. What to do now? O.K. You have the go-ahead for your studio, the funding proposal has been written and everything is falling into place. Now you, as the music teacher, have to decide what, where and how to spend the money. This is a very difficult and very important task.
Some teachers might already have a computer that is used for business purposes (word processing, billing, databases, etc). If this is the case, the costs of setting up a lab need not be very high. Start with a relatively inexpensive single station lab and slowly add to it as need, finance and competence dictates. By reducing your start-up costs, you are able to learn about and evaluate hardware and software in the context of your studio. If anything needs to be changed or you realize that a particular component is not suitable, you are not left with a lab full of computers that have to be adjusted. As computer specifications are ever changing, I have not included any recommendations. These are best discussed with your school's computer teacher and/ a computer consultant.
Perhaps the most critical component of a music computer lab is the piano keyboard. You can easily pay as much or more for a MIDI-compatible keyboard to plug into the computer as you will for the computer itself. There are many different models available and the bigger, more expensive ones can be quite impressive. It would be ideal to get a keyboard with full 88 touch-sensitive keys and a pedal simulator. In practice, such keyboards are very expensive and not really needed in a computer teaching lab. There are many MIDI-compatible keyboards available, which would fulfill your expectations and suit your lab.
Setting Up The System
Computer retailers and manufacturers have worked very hard over the last few years to provide new users with a good set-up experience. In most cases they have succeeded, so as for being able to set the system up yourself should not pose a big problem. Once you get the computer going, the only other connection you'll have to make to the computer, in most cases, is the MIDI keyboard. The keyboard can plug into either an interface on the back of the computer or, more commonly, through a MIDI-joystick cable, connected to the sound card. Installing software too is relatively easy, as it is usually a step by step process. Follow the installation steps described in the software manual and then follow the on-screen instructions. Once installed, you may have to adjust the MIDI set-up for your particular software, but fortunately, this process is usually well-explained and is just a matter of trying a couple or three alternatives until you get sound from the keyboard.
Make provisions for security of your teaching lab system, especially if you're sharing the teaching lab system with other teachers. Control access to the programs on the system and to the BIOS set-up program, in addition to whatever anti-theft provisions you feel are necessary. Computer knowledge is so widespread among children these days that many of your students will be unable to resist the temptation to explore your system (in ways that have nothing to do with their music training). Occasionally this unauthorized interference can result in changes to your system set-up that can take hours to diagnose and fix. If you have other sensitive information on the system, the damage can be far worse. It would be a very good idea to take precautions to secure your system from unauthorized snooping. Go into the BIOS set-up program and set the program or administrator passwords. (If you don't know how to do this, ask your computer administrator or computer teacher for help.) Be sure to write your passwords down and store them in a safe place for future reference. If you forget the BIOS passwords and don't have them written down, you will have no access to the system without sending it back to the manufacturer, for a BIOS replacement. BIOS protection stops unauthorized start-up of the computer or modification of the hardware set-up, but does not control unauthorized access to programs by otherwise authorized users.
If you're using Windows 95, 98 or NT as your operating system, you can set up a separate user profile for yourself and for your students through Start, Settings, Control Panel, Passwords. Since each user profile is password-protected and has its own separate Start menu and programs listing, you can use user profiles to control which programs your students access by what you put on their Start menu. At a minimum, you'll want to have two user profiles, one for yourself and one for your students. BIOS and user profile protection will not stop a dedicated and knowledgeable computer expert, but is more than adequate for most of your likely users.
Make sure that your hardware will run the software you purchase. Software written for Windows 95 or Windows NT will not run in Windows 3.1 or MS-DOS, although the opposite usually works. Some software demands that you have a MIDI keyboard; other software does not need one. Make sure that your system can meet the RAM and display requirements that your software package requires. Always read the sides and/or back of the software packages to make sure that your computer can accommodate the software. Generally, you'd want to get software for music concept and theory, music appreciation, aural training and sequencing and/sampling. When choosing software, keep in mind your student population. If you have lots of older students, forget about programs, which have a lot of games or "edutainment". Rather buy packages that are no nonsense and to the point. Don't buy any software that you haven't seen or used yourself. Most manufacturers make demo versions of their software, allowing you to evaluate them before investing your hard-earned money. It is important that you work through each software package yourself, at least in part, so that you know what kind of problems might arise and how to answer students' questions quickly and correctly. Give yourself enough time to get to know the software package before you implement it into the studio. If you don't have computer knowledge, allow yourself enough time to learn about computers and how to best use them with your software.
Organizing and Running Your Computer Lab
There are many different ways of running the day-to day use of your lab. This would depend on whether you have individual students using the lab or a class of students.
For instance, a student can use the computer lab once they have finished their individual lessons. You can have a listing of homework assignments to be done on the computer for 30 minutes. While one student is at the lab, a private piano lesson is being given to another student in the studio. If you have a class of students you could divide them into groups and give one group theory assignments, another listening or music appreciation assignments and another group computer activities.
It is wise to also have a computer lab policy, which spells out the rules and regulations that apply to the lab. This could help resolve any disputes that may develop regarding time slots, or if something goes wrong or missing. Students should log in and out, so that the teacher knows exactly who used it and when. It should be signed by the parents or persons responsible for the student as a prerequisite to using the lab. While there are a number of considerations in establishing and running a computer teaching lab successfully, you don't have to be a computer whiz to do it. If you can use a word processor, or play computer games, or if you can use the Internet, chances are you already have enough computer skills to run a computer teaching lab. So don't worry about what you think you can't do, but start learning about everything you would be able to do and how much a computer lab can do to enrich your students' music education.