iSchoolBand: A Safe Facebook for the Band Room and More
Over time, drum corps and school band programs have had someone from within their ranks that knows something about web design create an interactive website for their organization. With varying degrees of functionality and interactivity, the usefulness of a school band website has a lot to do with how comfortable band directors, students, and parents are with using web-based technology.
Within the past several years, Band Director dot com started offering free start-up web pages for school bands and orchestras. As with Webs dot com (which is what I use for my web page), Band Director's free page allows band directors with a fairly easy to use template and organizational system for band organization, communication, and scheduling, while providing a substantial presence of banner advertising throughout the pages. A band director didn't have to know much about computers to get started, but for many band directors the learning curve and time invested wasn't worth what they were putting into it. Band Directors are looking for ways to save time, and even if the director uses the web to disseminate information, they are still wasting their time and energy if their students and parents do not get online to use it.
At the end of June, I was invited by the developers of iSchoolBand to participate in their Alpha launch and provide some feedback. The "about" page on their website describes iSchoolBand as "social music technology" containing "a private social network, a dynamic media and document library, and several group management tools for parents, boosters, instruments, and bands." Upon logging in, I found the page setup to be reminiscent of the layout of Facebook, with a small unobtrusive ad window in the upper right corner, easy to navigate control panel with a messages waiting icon, and the familiar Twitter-esque status updates and Facebook-like news feeds from members.
One of the features that caught my attention right away was the backpack on the right column, which can be customized to show a number of files or tools to a student depending on which group they are a member of (groups can be organized by ensemble, such as concert or jazz band, or by section, such as color guard or brass). This gives students easy access to the files and tools a band director wants them to use. Having these available to the student with only one click makes it more likely that they will actually use them.
The beta release of iSchoolBand this fall will roll out additional modules for an events calendar, phone tools, and teaching tools. I would suppose that the events calendar will have similar functionality to Yahoo's excellent calendar for groups, which can send email reminders in addition to displaying on the student and parent news feeds. I am interested to see what they have in mind with phone tools - could there be mobile update capability? Teaching tools also could be quite innovative.
Two Things That Set iSchoolBand Apart
One of the daunting things for a band director in using a website for the band is that it's just one more thing for them to administrate and keep up to date. I spend a few hours each week updating my own class web pages with material for the next week, making announcements, grading assignments submitted, and answering messages. I am a tech-savvy teacher, and it still takes a lot of my time. For a band director with less computer chops, the burden of managing a website is too great. How do you make it easier for band directors to use the web for their bands? The answer is simple - let their tech-savvy students do it.
iSchoolBand allows directors to designate parents or students with administrative status for any group or module within the platform. It is the web 2.0 equivalent of delegating responsibility. Don't know how to upload mp3 files? Let a student librarian do it for you. Don't have time to upload documents for the next fundraiser? Let a parent take care of that. By making it easy for directors to delegate out these tasks and "share the load" with just a few clicks, iSchoolBand takes the prohibitive maintenance time out of the director's way. This is definitely an advantage over other similar band web offerings currently out there.
The second, and I believe most important difference between iSchoolBand and anything else out there is that it creates a safe place for band and orchestra members to interact socially online. I tried to create a social circle with my band using Yahoo groups and it didn't work - they already had MySpace to do that without me. I know a few band directors who have official Facebook groups for their band, but the risks to both directors professionally and students is too high. As a general rule, the only students who are on my friends list on Facebook are those from school districts I no longer teach in, or who have been graduated from my school for at least two years - long enough to no longer be socially active with my current students.
My current school administrator made it very clear to us: "As a mandatory reporter to the state, if you have a current student on your Facebook list, you are responsible for reporting any dangerous behavior you see." Because of the obligations of public school teachers, Facebook is not a safe place for them to interact with students that they are responsible for, even if it is technically "outside of school." However, the power of Facebook to keep people connected and in sync with eachother is astounding.
iSchoolBand provides bands and orchestras with all of the benefits of the social cohesiveness of Facebook in an environment that is totally monitorable (and can be used by school officials in court). Any band director who has been teaching a few years knows that students behave very differently when they are with the band than they do when they're on their own. By having their own online social network, students can continue to play their role as a responsible, conscientious band member and can create a different online persona for themselves on Facebook or MySpace. That ability, in my opinion, is the most powerful part of what iSchoolBand has to offer.
Now, if you can just get the kids off of Facebook long enough to actually use it... That will take some creativity on the director's part.
I'd like to thank Cole Thornton and Chris Purifoy at Band Find, Inc. for inviting me to be an Alpha Test participant, and I look forward to seeing how their platform develops through the fall to their official launch of iSchoolBand at the Midwest Band and Orchestra Clinic in Chicago, Illinois on December 18, 2009.
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