Misfits in MOOCland

I had already framed the story: the professor who had enough background and put in the effort, who failed a MOOC. I relished that story. No such luck. Much to my surprise, I passed.

As much as enjoyed the songwriting MOOC, I found myself a mis-fit for the course and the format. Let me count the ways.

First: This genre just isn’t me. Most popular songs are about the romantic or sexual lives of teens and twentysomethings. Here, I don’t mean pop as the subgenre, but music produced for mass consumption via radio, internet samplings, and large sales volume. Songs that narrate some arc of this circle make up the largest piece of popular pie: I want you; now we’re together and it’s great; now we’re broken up, and that’s bad or good, depending on who dumped whom. That’s about it.

I have no interest in writing on that topic. The implicit self of that narrative arc is just not me, or any persona I can muster.

Second: I can’t sing, and we had sing. The course information said that singing ability wasn’t required, but that wasn’t quite true. You have to understand: I don’t mean that I have poor vocal quality, although this is also true. I mean that I can’t match pitches to an instrument or another voice. I can’t even sing a single pitch, any pitch, forget about matching, for the duration of one damn quarter note. Never mind why, if there’s a reason, and please don’t encourage. I can’t flap my wings and fly, either, but I muddle through.

Now the course was not about singing. However, about half way through, we had to submit our assignments in the form of uploaded tracks of ourselves singing what we had written. Most people, I gather, did as recommended, and recorded themselves over ready-made loops provided by the instructor. But we were free to choose other means of recording, including composing our own music and accompanying ourselves on an instrument.

I wanted to write my own music, to dig into that task. Also, I thought that composing would be easier than learning Garage Band on a tight schedule. This was superficially true. So I composed at the piano, in pencil on manuscript paper.

But how to record myself? The first time, I just chanted over the metronome and recorded to an mp3 file. For the final assignment, I played my chord progression into Garage Band, and then recorded myself “singing” over it.

Third: the limitations of peer-grading. I failed every assignment from the third one on. One of these was our second full verse, full chorus assignment, in which my peer comments included several “corrections” that were themselves mistakes. (Incorrect rhyme identification, failure to understand that stability and instability are partly relative, etc.) From the fourth assignment on, we had to make the singing tracks.

Yes, back to “singing.” I could write lyrics and set phrases into the musical structure according to the rubrics. But I could not sing what I had written. I’m not talking about pitches, which are out of the question. I mean that I can’t sing my own rhythmic intensions. And doing that was, unlike accurate pitch, necessary to show if one had fulfilled the assignment. So doing the assignment required me to be able to do something else that wasn’t the assignment, but on which basis others would assess whether I had done the assignment. (There was no way of uploading sheet music – which I circumvented in the final assignment by temporarily posting the sheet music to this blog, and linking it. And then I’m assuming that others can read music, which also wasn’t required.)

Here was my frustrated Inner Student griping: if they say it doesn’t matter, it really shouldn’t matter. We should be able to submit sheet music, or there should be synthetic voice software that can sing from an e-score. Maybe there is, and you just don’t know how to find it. I asked friends, and no one knew. Is this something everyone else but me (and my friends) knows? Or maybe there is no such thing yet. (Imagine all-synthetic music, including vocals: ick. We’re close enough to that already.) It’s a really simple thing to be able to sing in rhythm. You wrote the damn rhythm, and the words. But I can’t do it. I would have to practice a lot more, and I can’t take that time away from work and sleep. These are basic skills, you should work more on them. But I would need more time, and these skills are related, but not necessary, to my being able to write a song. These assignments require things they don’t say are required.

All assignments do that. Said the Inner Professor. There’s no way to write an assignment without assuming something, and no way to teach a class without assuming something. Even MOOCs have to assume something. I realized that I felt (part of) the frustration of a student who finds herself lacking unstated background knowledge – and I felt crappy about it.

Crappy, lost, having to waste time attending to extraneous tasks because those skills weren’t even supposed to be tasks anymore.

This happens in real classes. It happens in mine. I have taught classes where the reading, writing, and thinking skills of the group varied from about seventh grade to seventeenth (by my own reckoning). Yes, ideally, the range would be narrower. Often it isn’t. So what do we do? My current approach is design courses flexibly so that some tailoring is built in, and more tailoring can be done in consultation with the students. The goal is that everyone who works at it improves from where he or she starts out – and that everyone has to put in some effort. Yes, it takes time. It takes attention. And I actually have to know the students. Even in classes where the prior preparation and ability range is more focused, each student has the potential to benefit most if this dialogue can unfold – unfold with an instructor, someone who can assess quickly and then focus the student were the most growth is likely to occur.

Brings me back to peer-grading and its central problem: who is grading the graders? How does anyone know if the peer-grader has the skills to perceive key elements of others’ work? In one songwriting assignment – on phrase setting on or off the downbeat to achieve different effects – the peer-grader would have to be able to perceive the downbeat itself, and its relation to the verbal stress. In fact, there had been a quiz calling for just this skill. (I aced it.) People who may not have that skill were scoring the work of others. It seems to me that peer-grading in MOOCs has to rely on graders whose fitness to assess specific tasks has not itself been assessed.

As MOOCs progress, I wonder what will win in the end. Students being students, when will they realize that they could all just give each other As? Maybe the best thing to do with pseudo-assessment is to turn it into mutual back-scratching. Then again, the internet being the internet, MOOC grading could turn into a troll-infested comments section with the super-density of black holes. In neither case do we know if anyone has learned anything. But in both cases, the owners of the big data generated by all this activity – they still win.

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