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The Impact of Technologies on Society, Schools, and Music Learning

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter examines how music education can benefit from the use of new electronic tools and materials for music making that allow learners to combine their interests and prior understandings toward deepening their engagement in music. By exploring how rhythmic video games like Rock Band bridge the large chasm that exists between youths’ music culture and traditional music education; how inexpensive recording hardware and software such as Audacity and GarageBand have provided youth with opportunities to compose and perform as only professional musicians could in the past; and how software like Impromptu successfully engages youth in music composition and analysis by enabling users to create and remix tunes using virtual blocks that contain portions of melodies and rhythmic patterns, this chapter argues that twenty-first-century music education, with the help of new technology, has the potential for engaging greater numbers of young learners in authentic music making and performance.

Keywords: music making, interest-driven learning, digital music, rhythmic video games, music, technology

We must expect great innovations to transform the entire technique of the arts, thereby affecting artistic invention itself and perhaps even bringing about an amazing change in our very notion of art.

—Paul Valéry

The digital revolution hasn’t just made music-making easier or faster: It’s made it possible.

Pete Thomas (2012)


I grew up without digital technologies. My music technology continuing education took place during my early teaching years (1989–2000) at the Récit des arts.1 I learned about all the hardware and software for music classes and how to create pedagogical activities that integrated new digital music technologies. As one of four schools to receive funding for a computer-music lab in the province of Quebec, Canada, I was keen to innovate via a curriculum that focused on developing critical and creative thinking with students (see description of the curriculum, appendix). Composing with synthesizers and computer software allowed students to experience music in new ways and to think creatively and critically about how music is structured. I was surprised to learn that the school (p. 278) board had mandated a composer who worked for them to choose the equipment that would be installed in my lab, without consulting with me. The composer had envisioned a corner for splicing tape and rearranging sounds and equipping the lab with outdated synthesizers that were not MIDI compatible. I was opposed to many of the choices, but the school board was convinced that I, the music teacher, did not have the expertise necessary to make equipment decisions even though I would be the one teaching in the lab.

We received 16 synthesizers connected via a lab system and one computer for every two synthesizers. Students could work individually, in pairs, or in groups of four. The lab was used to teach students basic piano keyboard skills, to work with aural skills software, and above all to create and compose. In 2013, I visited the school and discovered that the lab had been closed and dismantled. It had never been updated!

During my graduate studies, I was quite involved with music technology. I even tried my hand at programming (Java) and discovered it was not for me. I also took a course in design of learning environments, which encouraged me to think more deeply about the educational environments that integrate technology and how they might facilitate new ways of learning. During my doctoral research, I used a particular knowledge forum technology as a complement to a conventional ethnographic approach to learning about traditional music cultures (Peters, 2007).

Technological tools have changed dramatically since my doctoral work in the 1990s when, for my qualifying exams, I wrote two essays about technology: one exposed technology as the key to transforming education, and the other discussed the nonneutrality of technology. In 2014, these two positions continue to be well represented in the educational discourse, as is evidenced by a recent review of literature that details the promotion of technology integration as well as the negative impacts of technology on society and classrooms (Després & Dubé, 2012).

In this chapter, I respond to several expansive, provocative questions. This is by no means an exhaustive discussion, but I hope to stimulate questioning in the field and provide some orientations for future pedagogical practices. In the next section I discuss the impact of technology on society and schools and our collective impact on music technologies. After that, I consider several social and cultural issues related to technology integration.


How is technology changing humans? According to Deprés and Dubé (2012), the debate about the impact of technology can be summarized by two sides: those who affirm positive impacts of technology on our world and those who point out the negative effects of technology on society at large. For those who promote technology integration, three themes regarding the impact of technology are common: (1) access to education, including rapid, instantaneous educational material and human resources from all over the world; (2) greater education quality because technology is motivating, facilitates acquisition of basic knowledge, and offers continuing education for teachers; and (3) an (p. 279) environment centered on the learner rather than the teacher, allowing for more open activities such as exploration and problem solving. On the other side are the people who insist that ICT (information communication technology) is not a panacea that will solve societal or school problems. They affirm that these technologies have had a negative impact on society, socially, physically, and psychologically. We can think of examples where people retreat from society, developing a type of addiction to “virtual” contact rather than real interaction with other people. Other negative impacts that have been cited are back problems, attention problems, cyberdependence, and the ecological impact of dated out of date technology in waste sites on the environment (Després & Dubé, 2012).

Technology is everywhere, and as educators we cannot ignore its existence in our evolving societies. We are living in an age of multimodal, participatory online learning environments that are changing dramatically how we engage with each other and the world. In a video created for the research group, Susan O’Neill describes how the globalized age has impacted artistic learning and created new opportunities for people to become involved in types of artistic meaning making, expression, and understanding that were never available before.2 The incredible, fast-paced changes in digital technologies have created challenges for learners, educators, and policy-makers. O’Neill’s research focused on how to best foster creative and collaborative learning opportunities in and through the arts in order to bring about transformation in thinking as well as in social and educational practice. According to O’Neill, nothing from the past can prepare us for the incredible changes that are going on currently in artistic learning in ways that are multifaceted, multidimensional, and multimodal. Art forms are no longer separate subjects that are learned in discrete places. Old and new media are being put together in innovative ways, creating what O’Neill describes as the “blending, blurring and braiding” that characterizes artistic learning for twenty-first-century learners. O’Neill’s goals are to increase student engagement with the arts, to strengthen the arts cultures of schools and communities, and to create expansive learning opportunities in and through the arts using digital media technologies. Research on understanding artistic learning and youth arts engagement in a digital age is currently under way (O’Neill, Bosacki, Peters, & Senyshyn, 2012). This work should provide us with a better understanding of our students, their artistic worlds, and how we might engage with them more meaningfully in the music classroom.

It is difficult to state clearly how new technologies are changing us, but it is certain that we are being changed. It is important to examine how digital technologies are impacting our society, our human relationships. Carr (2010) states: “as our window onto the world, and onto ourselves, a popular medium molds what we see and how we see it—and eventually, if we use it enough, it changes who we are, as individuals and as a society” (p. 3). Carr goes on to describe a study of the effects of Internet use on young people, including the fundamental changes in the way people absorb information. How does technology mediate our understanding of the world? How should it? These are fundamental questions that we must answer in education as we propose innovative pedagogical practices (p. 280) in the twenty-first century, when learning can take place any time, any place, and with anyone in the contexts of participatory, online cultures.

Music Technology

How is music technology changing us? How are we changing music technology? There have been amazing transformations in music technologies in the last two decades, moving from the electronic keyboards and MIDI technologies I used in my music lab to tablets, smartphones, and MP3 players in more recent years (Després & Dubé, 2012). Technologies have changed the way we compose and share music.

The introduction of mobile apps has instigated a completely alternative way of becoming a musical creator. These technologies provide ease of entry and a space to advance skills and knowledge, thereby allowing any user to enter the world of music that was previously reserved for those with performing skills and knowledge of traditional music notation (O’Neill & Peluso, 2014, p. 119). In addition, young people have easy access to many musical styles. Music production, creation, and sharing have become less expensive, and traditional music skills and theory knowledge are no longer “necessary” in order to compose and perform music in particular music traditions. The “perfect” performance is now possible via recording technologies, and this is creating new challenges for “live” artists and their audiences. Students do not need to spend years learning to play an instrument in order to communicate musical ideas. They can learn from just about anyone on the web, and they themselves can share their accomplishments and teach others in participatory online communities. This has drastically changed the paradigm of teaching and learning music and has important implications for classroom pedagogy.

While no studies have examined technology integration in Quebec primary and secondary schools, a recent survey study has documented different aspects of technology-based music classes (TBMCs) in high schools in the United States (Dammers, 2012). The purpose of the study of administrators and music teachers was to determine the extent to which public high schools offer TBMCs and to describe their nature. Fourteen percent of schools indicated they offered these classes, with suburban high schools in the northeastern United States being the geographical location most likely to offer them. According to music technology teachers, classes were designed and taken by nontraditional music students. Given that 67% of the classes were created in the last 10 years, we do not yet have detailed descriptions of varied contexts and how music technologies are changing our students us in these situations.

How is society changing music technology? This is a more difficult question. I believe that we are demanding much easier access to different types of operations. For example, recording, notating, and other ways of inputting data to create music with computers has become more and more intuitive, easier to do, and more in line with computer operations that are used in other well-known software packages. There (p. 281) was a time when only the “programming jocks” (no offense to those readers who identify as such) were able to access higher-level operations of some software. Technology has become much more usable by the everyday human being (my mother, for example). In addition, we can now interact with music technology via gestures and our voices, opening up a whole new world of possibilities for artistic creation and performance. The tool is becoming more “human” in one sense. I remember improvising in the sound lab at the Experience Music Project Museum in Seattle in 2013 by gesturing “intelligently” with a machine. I was feeling my improvisation, and the technology allowed me to express myself without the necessity of mastering an acoustic instrument. I felt a sense of competency about this “performance,” as the machine was able to effectively translate my musical ideas into sounds. I believe that society will continue to demand more seamless and highly intuitive technologies, which will take us in and out of different artificial worlds and allow us to express ourselves effortlessly. In addition, people with special needs are helping to transform music technology for everyone. They are demanding more kinesthetic, interactive, intuitive, and innovative technologies, and this is dramatically changing how we conceive of music making in the twenty-first century.

How are Music Educators Responding to Social, Cultural, and Economic Issues? How Should They?

According to Wellington (2005), recurring debates about the role of technologies in education are articulated around three principal areas: vocational (ICT and the workplace), pedagogical (added value of technology in learning), and societal (home learning v. school learning; equality of opportunities). In terms of the societal area, learning needs to be socially relevant for students, giving them some ownership of what, how, and when they are learning. Burnard (2009) discusses the importance of closing the technology gap between home and school as it relates to underachievement, dropout, and negative attitudes to secondary school music: “the challenge of technology is to find ways of developing the knowledge about digital music consumption and production brought from the home to school; moving technology from being an ‘add-on’ to being in the centre, embedded rather than integrated in the secondary music curriculum; employing technology to do more than merely ‘serve’ tradition; and enabling technology to bring ‘real world’ experience into the classroom” (p. 197). This is a very difficult shift for future music teachers, who continue to be influenced primarily by their private studio teachers, their high school music teachers (and especially their band directors), and their ensemble directors at the university (Woodford, 2002). With few exceptions, these contexts continue to employ a quite conservative and traditional pedagogy (skills transmission and knowledge telling) rather than one that seeks to build on the learner’s interests and background.

Should music teachers continue to preserve and transmit traditional music knowledge or exercise leadership in developing technology skills through authentic, “real (p. 282) world” tasks? Is it possible to embrace the past, live in the present, and prepare for the future? If so, how? In the following section, I will discuss five different issues concerning the location and context of music education technology: curricular, sociocultural, ecological and economic, access, and gender issues.

Curricular Issues

There is certainly a need to discuss foundational issues related to technology integration in the curriculum. Dammers (2012) suggests that “a vigorous and challenging discussion of learning objectives and pedagogical practice is necessary during the formative stages to ensure that the establishment of a solid foundation of pedagogy will serve us well through the century” (p. 82). What are our pedagogical bases for TBMCs and how do we prepare our future music teachers for these contexts? Personally, I use multimedia creativity case studies for classroom music teachers (Peters, 2012, 2014) as a way for students to explore the pedagogical and organizational aspects of teaching creativities. In three of the case studies, music technologies are used extensively as part of the pedagogical approach to creating. Many of the undergraduate music education students I work with do not have the opportunity to work in technologically rich music learning environments during their student teaching, and this allows them to reflect on how “real” teachers integrate technology into the curriculum.

I do not think it is a question of whether we integrate ICT into the curriculum but how and why. In addition, my belief in the development of the “whole person” or the “whole musician” leads me to a very eclectic stance, conceiving of curricula as broad and varied. Students need to experience music in many ways, from participatory activities that engage the body through movement, dancing, singing, and playing to activities that incorporate ICT in composing, performing, listening, and other activities. I am especially drawn to pedagogical situations that combine these different “ways of doing music,” blurring lines between the traditional and the nontraditional approaches. I am not a fan of choosing up—I want my students to “have it all”!

Sociocultural Issues

O’Neill and Peluso (2014) describe the importance of online, participatory cultures for young students. As mentioned, young people view artistic learning as multimodal (combining different art forms). The understanding of the contexts and ecologies of young people’s music making is central to adapting instruction for them. Therefore, sociocultural issues are directly connected to curricular issues. We do not do a great job of this in music education, and I think attrition rates in our elective classes attest to this. We (I) are (am) not in touch with the sociocultural contexts of our (my) students. It is difficult to stay in touch with the latest trends, as technology innovations and life itself (p. 283) seem to move at a breakneck tempo. I think the idea of sharing with our students is a good place to start. In Quebec we use the expression passeur culturel (cultural mediator) to describe the “go between” role of teachers, moving between the “student culture” and “general culture.” In many instances, moving toward our students will allow them to move toward us and create an open space for sharing the many and varied music cultures and practices of the world.

Ecological and Economic Issues

Absent from much of the discussion about technology integration are issues of ecology and economics. These issues are important because of the investment of substantial, nonrecurrent financial resources (Webster, 2007) and the important impact on the environment when we dispose of equipment. In addition, although technology has become considerably less expensive, society still needs to invest monies wisely (equipment and teacher education) in order to ensure that this investment contributes to students’ authentic musical experiences. During a trip to Ghana in 2012 to study drumming and dancing, I was surprised and saddened to witness the environmental impact resulting from our disposal of dated technology. As our bus passed through the capital city, Accra, we noticed huge piles of used technology from across the globe that had been dumped in the river. This brings up a whole host of other ethnical issues, including the use and misuse of technology, the transport of technology waste to other countries, and the development of sustainable solutions for technology use and reuse. Some of the participants in our group were moved to tears as they contemplated the polluted river, choked full of technology waste.

Access Issues

Technology and music technology do not exist in a vacuum. They reinforce sociocultural norms, such as socioeconomic status and gender, to name two. However, according to Dammers (2012), technology classes offered in schools may provide a more accessible entry point for nontraditional music students with different backgrounds and motivations.

It is possible that technology may provide a focal point for new pedagogical practices that will attract more students to study music in middle school and high school. The efforts by teachers of TBMCs have clearly been successful in attracting new students in the United States since, on average, 69% of the students in these TBMCs are nontraditional music students (Dammers, 2012, p. 81). Music technology classes seem to have a broader focus and fewer restrictions than traditional ensemble groups. “This flexibility allows students with widely divergent backgrounds to be successfully served in the same class, but the teacher must apply very different pedagogical skills from those used in a performance ensemble” (p. 82).

(p. 284) O’Neill and Peluso (2014) describe technology as the equalizer in terms of accommodating students with diverse musical backgrounds. They describe technology integration with tablets for creative and collaborative composition with a group of university students with diverse musical backgrounds (not all the students in the class could play an instrument or read notation). It is important, however, not to assume that all students are digital natives and to differentiate instruction. I have found that among my own undergraduate music students quite a disparity still exists between the technologically savvy students and those who feel very uncomfortable with music technologies. While students do have extensive experiences with certain technologies, music teacher educators must not assume that they understand or have experience with the wide range of technologies available for music teaching.

The most exciting aspect of the access issue is how music technologies are transforming the lives of people who are unable to play conventional musical instruments, whether they are students with special needs or musicians who have had debilitating accidents. “Assistive music technology” is a term coined by Doug Briggs, who makes music accessible to people with special needs. This visionary initiative responds to both therapeutic and creative needs of professionals and music students. Ian Gibson of the Adaptive Music Technology Research Group describes this important work:

“It looks at adapting technology in novel ways,” says Gibson. "It could come from a disabled person battling against having a limited ability in a certain area. We can make it easier for those people to make music, a wonderful way of communication. The other side is that we are all in a digital world of music-making where the possibilities are infinite, and therefore it becomes harder and harder to control the way we make music. It works for disabled people to be able to make music, and for non-disabled people to do it more easily. If you have technology from the industry that makes it easier for a non-disabled person, you should be able to adapt that for people with special needs. It doesn’t always work to design technology solely for disabled people.” (Thomas, 2012)

I love how this process of designing for special needs is pushing the envelope of how we define music technology and music making and allowing us to open up new creative possibilities for all our students. Mark Hildred, who also works for the research group, continues: “it’s an interesting side-effect that if you do design something for a specific disability, often you do end up with a musical instrument suitable for a whole range of people. It might introduce any very young children to music making, or you might design something for mainstream music production as an iPad app, for example, which you discover all of a sudden might be playable by somebody in a wheelchair using their nose” (2012). Adaptive music technology will have an important impact on music education contexts and will allow us to adapt instruction for all our students, as well as to imagine innovative ways to be involved in music making.

(p. 285) Gender Issues

Gender is one example of how accessibility to music technologies is connected to social and cultural contexts. While the Dammers (2012) study does not provide information about the gender makeup of music technology classes, 77% of music technology teachers in the study were males. In her book Technology and the Gendering of Music Education, Victoria Armstrong (2011) describes how boys and girls work with music technology during the various stages of the music composition process. This empirical study was carried out in four secondary schools in England from January to June 2003.

Armstrong describes the differences between how girls and boys interact with technology, specifically music technology. Girls often rely more on schools, manuals, and structured introductions to technology. In general, girls have less access to technologies than boys, and this leads to a lack of confidence. Boys on the other hand seem to be more informed and self-taught and often portray themselves as competent learners. They like being in control and controlling technologies. During an evaluation of music in schools, the UK Office for Standards in Education found that five times more boys than girls opt for music technology courses (Office for Standards in Education, 2009).

Armstrong argues for a deeper understanding of how social practices with music technologies can be highly gendered and calls for a critical examination of discourses that “reflect a disturbing technological determinism that uncritically embraces technology’s supposed transformative possibilities” (2011, p. 19). For example, discourses of technological determinism embrace visions of technology that democratize, transform, and emancipate societies. However, particular music cultures with a strong technological focus have been traditionally much harder for women to break into. Have things changed dramatically in the last 10 years? Does there continue to be a digital divide between boys and girls?

We need to be mindful of difference and plurality in music technology classrooms. Gender is only one example of how music technology contexts mirror how society interacts with technology. If we are mindful that girls and boys do not approach music technology or music composition with technology in the same way, we can, at the very least, integrate strategies that might result in more inclusive pedagogical practices. “Uncritically celebrating claims made of digital technology as ‘liberating,’ ‘empowering,’ and ‘democratizing, offering unparalleled possibilities for children’s creativity merely perpetuates myths about the so-called ‘digital generation’ because it does not acknowledge disparities regarding use and accessibility of technologies or the different social, economic and political contexts of their use” (Armstrong, 2011, p. 24). Despite arguments for technology’s democratizing potential, it appears that there are gender differences, not in any innate, essentializing way, but differences produced through the reproduction of gendered understandings of technology within society. These differences are produced through discourses that posit boys and male teachers as the technological experts, where boys are given greater compositional autonomy in contexts in which boys’ musical deviance will not only be tolerated but will contribute to teachers’ perceptions of male pupils as confident and competent technologists and composers (p. 136).

(p. 286) Conclusion: The Potentialities of Music Technologies

I believe that technologies and music technologies have forever changed the face of our world and the way our students view music and music learning. I embrace the amazing potentialities of technology and what it can bring to music education. Students can express their musical ideas with more ease, and music can become participatory for everyone rather than remaining a spectator sport for some. At the same time, we must acknowledge that technology is part of the social and cultural fabric of a society, and therefore we cannot ignore the issues that are embedded in every context of technology integration. Music technologies open multiple possibilities for enabling students with special needs, allowing them to create sounds and to express themselves. Music technologies allow people to create music with little or no formal knowledge. Music technologies have endless possibilities. As a profession, we need to establish a strong philosophical and curricular foundation for our pedagogical practices that integrate music technologies in the classroom and identify the unique learning opportunities that technological advances have made possible.

Appendix Creative and Critical Thinking in the Music Curriculum

Creative and critical thinking are important components of the music concentration program at Rosewood High School 1. We believe that student learning must go beyond regurgitation or replication, that students must think for themselves in critical and creative ways. Creative thinking is encouraged through exploration, improvisation, and composition. Critical thinking is incorporated into performance activities as well as proposing special projects for the students. While we encourage a traditional program of music instruction, we also make efforts to innovate in the curriculum, finding new ways of enriching student learning in order to provide a more holistic pedagogical experience for students. The foundations of the curriculum activities are current research, best practices as experienced by other professionals in the field, and teacher intuition. At this point in time, it is difficult to make definitive statements about the “most effective” methods to be used. The research base is not exhaustive, and the focus of the research itself is complex. However, some conclusions based on research in combination with adolescent development are plausible, and we use these as indicators in our structuring of the curriculum. However, the (p. 287) interaction with “real students” in “real situations” provides us with constant feedback and helps us to constantly modify things to reflect the needs and the reality of the students.

Secondary I (Grade 7)

Students beginning their studies at the secondary level bring openness to new things and a spirit of exploration. They are, at this point in their development, willing to experiment and try new activities. They have a naïve excitement about their new endeavors. Several activities seem well suited to this developmental stage in the young adolescent’s life.

Music Technology Lab

All students are introduced to basic keyboarding skills at this level. They work at right- and left-hand technique as well as chording in the left hand near the end of the year. In addition, students work through several theory and ear training activities in a software program. They focus primarily on pitch reading, rhythm matching, and pitch matching. These skills reinforce student learning in the instrumental setting and help them to read more accurately, hence removing barriers to becoming better instrumentalists. Students also create soundscapes, using a visual aid as their inspiration and the sounds of the synthesizer as their palette. This type of an open-ended creative activity gives the students freedom to explore the many timbres that are available to them and combine them together to form a creative work. Students also create a “story-like” composition based on a cartoon of their choice. These two types of compositions provide an opportunity to discuss the difference between a linear type of compositional process and one that is more evocative and atmospheric, reflecting a particular feeling, idea, or emotion.


Special projects at this level include collaborative composition projects using percussion instruments. Students work in groups, make decisions, and notate their final products for other students to perform using nontraditional notation. This provides the students with a different type of experience from the individual creative process and introduces them to “collaborative creation.”

Secondary II (Grade 8)

Music Technology Lab

Students continue to develop their keyboarding skills. They use their knowledge of chords and right-hand technique to write a pop song in collaborative groups of four. Each student is responsible for a different aspect of the song: lyrics, melody, chords, (p. 288) rhythm. The students record their creations in a software program. The students also continue their ear training activities, focusing on more complex pitch matching with intervals and rhythm matching using the library of musical excerpts available to them. When students finish their required segments, they may work on melody writing or compose rock or rap music in a CD-ROM.


Students are introduced to simple jazz improvisation. We use jazz method based on the imitation, assimilation, and innovation of short melodies. Students listen, sing, and then improvise, a sequence that is pedagogically logical and allows the students to experience immediate feedback and success. While the students have experienced many exploratory activities during secondary I (grade 7), we try to introduce them to creativity within an established tradition in secondary II (grade 8). Students also listen to improvisations by jazz masters and study improvisation transcriptions as a way of learning how an expert musician creates in the moment.

Secondary III (Grade 9)

Music Technology Lab

Students work more closely with MIDI software during this year. They will learn to use notation software, sequencer software, and accompaniment software. MIDI will be explored in more detail, and students will have opportunities to use these tools to create a story composition or their own creative work. As the students become older and feel more comfortable with the tools, they are given more ownership of their project choices, and many different types of projects may be happening simultaneously. We begin here to encourage “distributed learning,” where students become experts in an area and share their expertise with others. Special projects have included composing melodies along with other schools, sharing these melodies, and composing accompaniments. The final products were showcased as a virtual concert on the Internet.

Secondary IV, V (Grades 10, 11)

In general, students have quite a demanding performance and academic schedule during these grades. Therefore, the curriculum is made up of special projects, including a major transcription for the band, research into different multicultural traditions, and collecting ideas and stories from a local music culture. At this level, we are trying to encourage higher-order thinking skills in our students and the ability to think outside the box. We want to encourage both their creative thinking and their analytic skills and offer them projects that will stimulate them to think differently about music and the world.


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                    Peters, V. (2014). Teaching future music teachers to incorporate creativity in their teaching: The challenge for university teacher practice. In P. Burnard (Ed.), Developing creativities in higher music education: International perspectives and practices (pp. 162–173). New York: Routledge.Find this resource:

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                          Woodford, P. G. (2002). The social construction of music teacher identity in undergraduate music education majors. In R. Colwell & C. Richardson (Eds.), The new handbook of research on music teaching and learning (pp. 675–694). New York: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:


                            (1.) The Récit des arts is part of a Quebec network that provides professional development and teacher training regarding the use of ICT in theatre, visual arts, dance, and music classrooms. For more information, see Leading English Education and Resource Network, or