A Class Where Opening Minds, Not Earning Credits, Is the Point

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Tuvan throat singing was never in my repertoire. I had never heard of Tuva, a small Russian republic north of Mongolia. And until the third week of "Listening to World Music," a free online course taught by a University of Pennsylvania professor, I did not know that the human throat was capable of producing two notes simultaneously.

But after listening to a lecture on Tuvan culture and history and viewing throat-singing videos, I was hooked on the sound -- a deep buzz saw with high overtone whistles -- and was happy to watch the assigned 90-minute concert by a touring Tuvan ensemble. I wrote the required essay that night, the Tuvan steppes still on my mind.

Three days later, I was given five essays by classmates to grade. (With 36,000 students enrolled, peer grading was the only practical way that Coursera, the company offering the course, could assess students' work.) I had my doubts about the process, but to my surprise, the process was interesting and useful and taught me as much as the lectures did.

Some of the essays were remarkably good, especially the first one I read, from a classmate who tackled a question I had avoided, on the view of Arjun Appadurai, a sociocultural anthropologist, that modernity necessarily means rupture. (Not what I was expecting from a world music course.) The classmate described her family's migration experience, and concluded: "Appadurai says modernity is rupture, but I say it's rapture." Enraptured myself, I gave her the top score, a 10.

My own first score? A 4. I did not even get full points for writing style. Humiliating, but by the time we hit Tuva, I was getting 10s.

Grades were not the point, though. The course offered no credit, just a certificate for students scoring 70 percent ("with distinction" for 80 percent) -- not so useful, given the underwhelming demand for world music expertise.

As in other free MOOCs (massive open online courses), most of those who enrolled dropped out. The 36,000 in my course dwindled to 3,859 by the final week. But those who stuck with it did form a kind of community. A few weeks in, one student linked to a tribute song ("I Turn to You, Coursera") on YouTube from the online forum. A Japanese version soon followed.

The course had its flaws. I did not get much out of videos in which teaching assistants "modeled" how to discuss the music. The production values were pitiful, with the professor displaying photos too small to see of her gumboot dancing time in South Africa or gesticulating like an inexperienced weatherman trying to point to the correct area on a map. And I was very aware of the potential for cheating, a common objection to online learning.

The final -- 100 multiple-choice questions mostly taken verbatim from quizzes embedded in the lecture videos -- took about 25 minutes. But the allotted time was 90 minutes, giving anyone so inclined a solid hour to look up answers on Google. And after complaints on the discussion forum about computer glitches and schedule problems, everyone got a second, then third, chance to take the final.

Often, I wished for more music and less politically correct discussion of exploitation, ethical music sampling and authenticity. And when the professor asked whether the Buena Vista Social Club's "museumification" of a past era of Cuban music advanced or impeded our understanding of Cuba under Fidel Castro, it was good that she was not there to hear me yell "Who cares?"

But on balance, the seven-week course was mind-opening, a door to a new ethnomusicology adventure each week: sounds of Central African pygmies, Australian aborigines or South African bushmen. And long after the course ended, I am still working -- on the subway, in the shower -- on producing that growly Tuvan sound.

education

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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