Going back to school, MOOC-style: starting “World Music”

Here’s another in what is becoming quite a series of MOOC-oriented posts:  after my first quasi-MOOC experience earlier this spring, I’ve once again enrolled in another massive online open class, Coursera’s “Listening to World Music.”  Let me preface this with two points:

  • When I was an undergraduate a long long time ago, I ended up taking a gen-ed “music appreciation” class in my last semester as an undergraduate because I needed credits– any credits– in order to graduate.  For whatever reason, it was a class that covered the Baroque era (more or less Bach(s) and such) and then it skipped ahead to the late 19th/early 20th century.  It was a ton of fun and I was exposed to a lot of really interesting music that has stuck with me all this time.  So when I saw this “Listening to World Music” class on Coursera’s web site, I thought “sure, let’s give that a whirl.”
  • A blog reader– I think it’s someone who more regularly reads emutalk.org, actually– sent me this link from Forbes.com, “How Duke University Deals With Disruption.”  Here’s the first paragraph:  “Unless I had a top brand, I would hate to run a college today. Colleges and universities are about to meet their disruptive hour. Websites such as Khan Academy and Udacity now offer free courses that blow away 99% of courses available in traditional colleges.”  Oh, please.  I think there’s a lot to like about this Coursera/World Music thing.  But I want in on whatever drug or delusion or group hallucination these business people are on if they really think that MOOCs are “the answer” to higher education woes and who think that they’re substitute for what’s going on in the real world on college campuses.  I bet they can hear colors too.

More after the break.

“Listening to World Music” is a class from Coursera being taught by Carol Muller, who is a music professor at the University of Pennsylvania.  We’ve been told that the course has somewhere around 20,000 students.

In signing up and getting involved, I was surprised by the apparatus making it all seem very much like “college.”  There was an honor code agreement.  There’s a “Course Syllabus” outlining requirements like a regular gen ed, lecture class.  The schedule and selected topics are intriguing to me– a week on Paul Simon’s Graceland, one on throat singing, Buena Vista Social Club, etc. There’s a writing assignment the first week– not a particularly good one in my opinion, but I don’t find the assignments any more offensive than what I have seen in other lecture hall classes.  In fact, this is set up to be very much like any other lecture hall “music appreciation” class, including the one I took about 25 years ago.

Muller knows what she’s talking about and she seems like a personable/pleasant enough professor.  Her format is straight-up lecture:  her talking from some notes with some slides going on in the background, her “week 1″ lecture broken into 10-15 minute chunks.  Her talking, one camera, black and white slides.  To get to the music examples, you have to leave the video and follow links to YouTube clips, ones that I presume existed before the course began.  That’s it.  It’s all so simple and mundane on so many different levels.  Coursera is supposed to “revolutionize” the way teaching works, and what we have here is a “sage on the stage” and completely non-interactive lecture that has the production values of a small midwestern town’s public access television station.  This, this is going to “blow away 99% of classes available at traditional colleges?” Really?

No, this new format clearly borrows heavily on an older, pre-Internets one called “television,” though this doesn’t come close to the production values of most television designed to teach you something– I’m thinking of shows about gardening, cooking, home improvement, interior design, etc.   And I have a feeling that Muller’s ongoing “connection” with anything else in the class is going to remain as remote as if we were all watching a television show.

To be fair, there are at least quizes that pop up after the video is done.  The first one took me by surprise because I was only half paying attention.  Luckily, it wasn’t that hard of a quiz.

There are also some videos of graduate assistants/teaching fellows for the class.  Again, in a public access studio somehow connected to UPenn, these young people energetically and with apparently no script give us as students tips on how to discuss the course.  There’s even a “small group” of grad students modeling what would be the ideal sort of discussion we should be having about these lectures and music– though it’d be a hard conversation to imitate since they obviously know a lot more about music than the most of the students and their conversation is taking place in person and our discussion takes place online.

Speaking of which: the discussion interface is okay, or at least it isn’t as shitty as the Blackboard interface that hosted Curt Bonk’s quasi-MOOC.  For example, it is at least possible to sort by last updated, popularity, topic, etc.  There’s also a notification feature I like:  I posted a comment on one thread, and now I get an email whenever someone posts to that thread, too.  The other thing that’s kind of nice about the discussion forums is because of the international reach of the class, we’re getting a lot of other suggestions for “World Music.”  Basically, it was people posting from all over the place with links (mostly to YouTube) saying “hey, listen to this.”  Of course, I’ve lost track of where that thread is now on the course web site.

But like the Bonk MOOC and other MOOCs, the impossible size of the class means that the “discussion” is mostly noise, and really a “white noise” in that it might as well be just static playing in the background.

One thing I’m curious to see emerge next week is the “crowd sourcing” evaluation/peer review of the writing assignment.  We were given a choice of prompts to respond to with three or so paragraphs.  This is an ongoing, “weekly” writing activity, and it is a good example of the problem of trying to shoehorn a traditional lecture hall kind of class into a 20,000 student and International MOOC.  Originally, the due dates for each of these weekly activities was going to be Friday, but as literally hundreds (maybe thousands) of the students pointed out, most participants in this thing don’t have that sort of “Monday to Friday” weekly schedule of the typical UPenn student.  Go figure.

Anyway, I wrote up a couple quick paragraphs and posted it.  The next step, which I assume happens next week, is there is going to be some kind of peer evaluation where I’ll be asked review someone else’s work (and someone else will review mine, and so on) based on this rubric (PDF), and then (again, we’ll see) the teaching assistants will read and comment on the most recommended responses.

So, it’s interesting and I think it’s a chance for me to learn something about World Music, but I don’t think it’s “Educational” in the sense that there is a lot of teaching going on or any credible way for me as a student to be evaluated.  It feels a lot more like I’m intensely watching a cooking show rather than taking a class.  And don’t get me wrong about the cooking show analogy:  I like the Food Network (less now than when they had a lot more shows that actually focused on cooking techniques) and similar kinds of things, and I do learn a lot from those shows that helps me in my own cooking.  But are cooking shows going to replace culinary schools?  I kinda doubt it.

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