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Music and MOOCs

by David Birrow Birrow.David@MacPhail.org

my first computerLast fall I took a Statistics course at Princeton University.  I didn't have to pay, submit my GRE scores, or even leave Minnesota. Princeton, along with many other colleges and universities, have started offering free, online classes through Massive Open Online Courses or MOOC's (in this case Coursera). Each morning I logged into the course site and watched video lectures, took quizzes, and posted questions on the message boards along with 40,000+ other students enrolled in the course.  It had everything I was looking for: high quality, taught by an experienced professor, flexible, and free.

MOOC's such as Udacity, Coursera, and edX have the ability to remove or at least displace some of the barriers that hamper certain learners.  Anybody with an internet connection can enroll in a course and learn on their own schedule.  Courses regularly contain over 30,000 students (although significantly less actually complete the courses). Most videos can even be downloaded in case you have a slow internet connection.  The caliber of the school's involved with MOOC's is very high including M.I.T., Harvard, UC-Berkeley, and Georgetown.

There are plenty of more inspiring anecdotes than my interest in mean, median, and mode including a story covered by NPR last fall in which a 22-year old man from Kazakhstan supplemented his computer science coursework with a Machine Learning course from Stanford via Coursera. He used the credential when job hunting, ended up getting many job offers, and now works for Twitter.

MOOC's are not without their detractors, especially those who work in higher ed. The recent announcement by the University of Wisconsin that it would begin to offer degrees based on coursework entirely from MOOCs has caused some uproar.  MOOC's have also run into some failures along the way including the recent suspension of a course that I was enrolled in due to faulty design. Ironically, the title of the course was: "Fundamentals of Online Education: Planning and Application."

Music has recently been represented on Coursera including the Berklee College of Music offering courses in Song Writing, Music Production, Guitar, and Improvisation this Spring. I'm particularly excited to take the Improvisation course this April which is taught by the vibraphone virtuoso  Gary Burton. Part of the course work will be recording yourself improvising, uploading it to message boards, and having thousands of other students offer suggestions and critique. 

Currently I'm taking a course called: "Introduction to Digital Sound Design" taught by composer Steve Everett from Emory University.  It is a four week course and includes tutorials on free software including Audacity, Sonic Visualiser, Soundation, and others.  I like being able to replay sections of lectures that I didn't quite grasp the first time through. Also the massive nature of the courses creates message boards that are rich with conversation.  When I go to post a question, I almost always find that somebody else has already asked my question, and that multiple people have responded.  The open nature always creates interesting perspectives since people have different skill levels. For instance, my questions during the stats course were about the programming software "R" that was used for homework assignments. I had no background in programming and it was extremely helpful to read a variety of possible solutions to programming problems from experienced programmers.   

I'd be interested to know if other MacPhail faculty have participated in MOOCs or other online learning. While certainly not new, this recent twist on openness and massiveness adds an interesting dimension to education.

Photo Credit my first computer by randy.troppmann on Flickr CC by 2.o License 

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