MOOC Week 3, wherein I sympathize with some of my students

Last week was a tricky week for me in the World Music MOOC because I do have a day job that required some attention, it was a busy week of teaching in my SOPOC and I was traveling (I began writing this post from a family gathering in Iowa).  So I am falling behind.  I missed the deadline for peer evaluations (again), I have really been having a hard time keeping up with the video lectures, and I just barely got my assignment in on time.

But this has all been quite useful for me to think about as a teacher.

When my ego and/or self sense of importance is unchecked, I am certain that the classes I teach are critically important to my students, at least as important to them as they are to me.  The reality is students (like all people) have complicated lives that involve families, jobs, distractions, surprises, and a whole lot more than my their classes.  So the moral of the story for me this week is it is probably useful to remember that usually my students have other things to do besides worrying about me.

This week has been about Tuvan throat singing, which is this weird kind of tonal singing/sound from a region in central Asia sort of between Mongolia and Russia.  A bit more on that and more on the logistics of the class below, but I have to say that the earworm I’ve been rolling over and over in my head this week is a song by Dan Bern song “Go To Sleep.”  Here’s a link to the MySpace version of it (go figure, there is still a MySpace!); here are the lyrics I’m thinking of:

Enough of this throat singing already
If you wanna sing two notes at once
Why don’t you do like everyone else
Get a multi-track machine
Lay ‘em down separately
Make a little harmony
Maybe a bass track
Like one from the Rolling Stones
None of this long lost art
This archaic stuff
Go out and make something

As for the subject matter this past week:  I didn’t quite get it.  I’m sure that a big part of it was my own lack of attention, but it seemed like things were a bit, well, off.  There was quite a bit of emphasis this week on some of the technical details about Tuvan instruments and the different names for the different kinds of throat singing and such, but not as much analysis of the social/cultural issues this time around.

There were a couple of interesting movies.  First, there’s this concert video of Huun Huur Tu:

This week’s writing assignment and the grad student discussion (more on both of these in a moment) focused on this movie, so I watched all of this– more or less, since I did skip around a bit.  It’s about 80 minutes long, and I have to say while it’s kind of interesting, I’m not so sure I’ll be going out and getting the Huun-Huur-Tu boxed set anytime soon.  It kind of reminds me of bagpipe music in that a little goes a long way.

And then there’s this documentary, Genghis Blues:

I actually haven’t seen this one yet, but the basic story here is of a blind blues singer who teaches himself throat singing and then journeys to Tuva.  Hijinks ensue.  Seriously, a lot of the comments in the class discussion forums suggest that this is worth a watch.

Once again, the production values are quite poor, just Professor Muller talking in front of a green screen showing some slides and the grad students talking in front of a green screen, this week showing an outdoor scene on (what I assume is) the UPenn campus.  I guess that’s fitting with the nature themes of Tuvan music.  You would think the previous practice would have helped, but if anything, the production is getting worse.  Several times during her lectures, Muller wanders out of the shot/off the screen entirely.

And once again, the discussion forums are a fire fighter’s hose of posts impossible to really sample, though the stream seems to have slowed a bit.  I have no statistics on this  (I am sure Coursera does and I might ask them at the end of this class), but it sure feels like participation has dropped off a lot.

Because Tuvan throat singing wasn’t doing much for me and because I was limited in time, I mostly surfed around some discussions about the grad student talks.  As I’ve mentioned before, there are two video/lecture formats at play here:  besides Muller’s “sage on the stage” lectures, there are also a series of grad student videos where two or three smart graduate students sit around and talk about Muller’s lectures and the subject matter of the course.  As I’ve also mentioned before, I’m less than impressed by this approach.

I think the subject lines for the discussion about this in the forums probably tell the story of how my fellow students are divided on this topic.  One is “Appreciation for the Grad student discussions! THANKS to the grads!” while the other is “Pretentious grad student talk vs live seminar with actual classmates.”  I posted to both threads.  In the “Appreciation” thread, I suggested that both the grad students and Muller need to spend a lot more time practicing their presentation skills and making something more interesting than just people talking at us.  That one got two “negative” votes.  On the “Pretentious” thread, I posed about how the format is all wrong– these talks are pre-recorded and they aren’t the same interaction as the students because they’re talking head videos instead of words typed in a forum.  I suggested that they record these grad student conversations live in a way as to actually answer student questions.  This post got two “positive” votes and some “great idea” rejoinders from Coursera “staff”/grad students.

And by the way, I didn’t really realize until this point just how prerecorded the class materials actually are.  Muller mentioned in an earlier lecture that this material was being recorded in June, and apparently all the grad student responses were recorded at the same time.  That’s a big problem.

Every teacher/professor has to plan courses in advance regardless of the pedagogical approach– lecture, small group interaction, workshop, whatever– and regardless of the format– online, hybrid, face to face, etc.  The older I get, the more I realize that some of those “yellowed notes” (though who keeps notes on paper anymore?) have a lot more value than I thought as a younger person/younger professor.  But one of the critical and key differences between material delivered in a book or a web site and material delivered by a real-time instructor is the web site or book is fixed while the real-time instructor is able to intervene, modify, and change approaches in order to more successfully reach out to students.  For me, this is true even in online classes with a lot of prepared ahead of time materials:  I’m always making slight changes based on student questions and interactions I couldn’t anticipate ahead of time. I can’t just release these pre-prepared materials onto the world and let them do the teaching for me.  And if I could do that, man, this would be a super-duper easy job.

In a sense then, what Muller et al are doing here is proving that Plato’s Socrates was right in Phaedrus when, toward the end of that dialog, the wise Socrates explains to the naive Phaedrus what’s wrong with this new-fangled technology called literacy.  To dramatically simplify for a moment:  one of Socrates’ problems with written texts is it they are a lot like paintings in that “if you ask them a question, they preserve a solemn silence.”  This is literally true:  if you, dear reader, ask aloud “what do you mean by that, Krause?” you will not hear any response from your computer.  (Though maybe that’s coming, like the talking/artificial intelligence comptuers in Star Trek).  Ask Muller or the grad students a question about their pre-recorded lectures and maybe you’ll get an answer, maybe you won’t.  But beyond that, now that the whole class is “in the can,” so to speak, there’s nothing that Muller and her grad students could do to change course to try to meet the students where they are at in the process.

Again, delivering content ain’t teaching.  And again, content is easily scalable, can be delivered in lots of different formats, and make it possible for people to learn things, which is why books (and web sites and television shows and the radio and electronic mailing lists and conventions and tons of other things) have always been used by folks to learn things.  But that isn’t the same as teaching, which requires some intervention into the process by some person(s) who have some level of expertise.

On to the rest of this week, where the subject matter is “Pygmy Pop.”  I haven’t started any of the lectures yet so I have no idea what that means.  But stay tuned for what promises to be some interesting discussions of the peer review exercises, which have been changed slightly in recent days.

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