MOOCs and Music Theory Pedagogy

So, I’ve been watching some of the discussion on massive open online courses (MOOCs) and notice some parallels with things I, and others, experiment with in our music theory classrooms. In discussing the rise of online education, David Brooks’s recent OpEd in the NYTimes, “The Practical University (April 4, 2013),” explores the question that helps me define my pedagogy: “What is a university for?”

Even though I replace the word university with conservatory when planning my courses, class meetings, and assignments, his answer remains pertinent:

My own stab at an answer would be that universities are places where young people acquire two sorts of knowledge, what the philosopher Michael Oakeshott called technical knowledge and practical knowledge. Technical knowledge is the sort of knowledge you need to understand a task — the statistical knowledge you need to understand what market researchers do, the biological knowledge you need to grasp the basics of what nurses do.

Technical knowledge is like the recipes in a cookbook. It is formulas telling you roughly what is to be done. It is reducible to rules and directions. It’s the sort of knowledge that can be captured in lectures and bullet points and memorized by rote. …

Practical knowledge is not about what you do, but how you do it. It is the wisdom a great chef possesses that cannot be found in recipe books. Practical knowledge is not the sort of knowledge that can be taught and memorized; it can only be imparted and absorbed. It is not reducible to rules; it only exists in practice.

His general point is that MOOCs are good at technical knowledge, but need to figure out how to teach practical knowledge.

One technique I (and others, such as this site) have been experimenting with is podcasting, reverse engineering, inverted classrooms, etc. It has a lot of gimmicky names, but its goal is the same. Transmit technical knowledge before class; expect students to have it down before walking in the door for class; then draw on it to work on practical knowledge in class.

The technical skills for music theory are well-defined and I always organize it into four categories.  For every concept/chord, I want students to be able to spell it (name the notes in it), use it (write Roman-numerals-only progressions that use the new chord), label it when it occurs in “real” music, and voice-lead it. I find that I can make a 5-7 minute podcast on most topics that transmits the bare essentials of technical knowledge.

The practical skills for music theory are much more difficult for me to define, and this is where I need to grow. One can take a performance and analysis route and see how understanding a piece music theoretically can impact your performance decisions. One can focus (as I like to) on asking and answering good questions about the music. One can work on articulating your response to the music through effective prose. I think all of these skills heighten a students’ engagement with music.

I’m sure there are more skills that could/should be added. My challenges are to both define the practical knowledge I want to teach, and decide whether I should focus on multiple kinds of practical knowledge or focus on one or two…

4 thoughts on “MOOCs and Music Theory Pedagogy

  1. I liked the Brooks piece as well, and read it while I was at a GLCA meeting that was focused on online learning (they tried very hard not to subscribe to the MOOC madness that is everywhere) and Liberal Arts education.

    To be sure MOOCs have caused quite a stir, and I tend to think that is a good thing. Not because I think MOOCs are great, but because like any disruption, they cause us to stop and reflect on what we are currently doing and to not presume that everyone else in the word understands just what that is.

    I wrote something up about MOOCs and my field, language teaching and technology implementation, here: I would love your comments if you have the time.


    • I agree with you about part of the value of the conversation on MOOCs–reflecting and critically looking at what we do keeps us healthy. Reminds me of something I learned a long time ago–when there’s something that I don’t like in someone else, I should take a real close look at myself because there’s probably something for me to learn about myself. Likewise, MOOCs annoy me. I feel [only] a wee bit threatened by them. Both of those emotions are cause for reflection. They annoy me because they really can accomplish the easy part of my job without me. I think I feel threatened by them because the force me to articulate why my class size of 16-18 accomplishes more than a large class (or a massive online class….).

experiments, opinions, and dialogues... join in the fun!