Technology has had a major impact on the arts. One digital keyboard can now take the place of an entire orchestra. Recording software can make an off-key vocalist sound pitch perfect. And computer-generated imagery (CGI) can render new worlds in filmmaking that make The Wizard of Oz look quaint. And with just a laptop, tablet or smartphone, young people have the means to make and share sophisticated art in both the visual and musical realms. And they are doing so with remarkable ease and frequency, though mostly outside of school.  

With all of this technological capacity literally at their students’ fingertips, how are arts teachers adapting to this new world? In most schools, the performing arts — vocal and instrumental music, dance and theater — have been impacted, both in the way the classes are taught and in students’ interest to participate. But visual arts are likely seeing the greatest effect, since students’ artistic skills can be boosted considerably with digital tools.

Due to budget cuts and an increased focus on academics, many schools’ art offerings have been in decline, especially in low socioeconomic communities. And simultaneously, states’ visual arts standards are now pushing the inclusion of technology alongside traditional media — raising the bar for already struggling schools.

But what are those fortunate schools that still have adequate arts funding doing to incorporate technology into their classes?

Tablet Apps, Adobe and Coding
Tablet computers — notably iPads — are cropping up in elementary art classes and offering students new creative opportunities. And I see their appeal, especially as a former art teacher frustrated by fixed 50-minute class periods, where after set-up and clean-up so little work time remained. But will iPads and art apps replace young students’ use of the more tactile (and messier) art mediums? Let’s hope not. Though one tech-savvy art teacher writes how she was asked to give up her art supply budget in exchange for a classroom set of iPads.

Historically, drawing, painting and sculpting have been the root disciplines in a fine arts education, and therefore the primary focus of secondary art programs. But since technology applications like the Adobe Creative programs, coupled with 3-D rendering systems and printers, are now the industry standards in commercial art fields, they are being included in some schools’ arts programs as well. And digital photography and filmmaking, plus video game design classes where students learn to code as a creative endeavor, are likewise being offered.   

I’ve also seen technology’s impacts in fairly traditional high school arts classrooms. On a recent visit to an art class, I watched students doing pencil still life drawings. But to help them visually interpret colorful still life objects into black-and-white gradations, the students snapped black-and-white photos with their phones to use as references. And in a high school painting class, I saw students cleverly import photos of their drawings onto computers so they could first manipulate their color options in a painting app before working with paint on canvas.

Interest-Driven Arts Learning
The need remains for schools’ arts programs to better leverage digital tools to more effectively capture the interests of their students. Especially since so many are capably creating and sharing digital works outside of school.

In fact, there’s a whole cultural trend in digital art making and sharing occurring in the lives of young people that most schools are failing to recognize and leverage. A Wallace Foundation funded research report, New Opportunities for Interest-Driven Arts Learning in a Digital Age, provides insights into this cultural trend and suggests some potential opportunities for schools to consider. And though the report is now several years old, the trend it describes still rings true.  

The report illustrates how students are working outside of school and using tools readily available on their personal digital devices to make non-traditional art  digital art and photography, animations, music videos, and short films. And they’re often making this work in collaboration with online peers, and then posting their work in social media forums, gathering feedback from friends and strangers alike. Many students are finding this to be a far more rewarding endeavor than the traditional practices offered in their schools. So today’s challenge to art teachers is this: maintain the important aspects of their fine arts curriculum, while also supporting their students’ work in non-traditional art forms and virtual cultures.