Tuesday, November 13, 2012

online lecture courses and music

This is an interesting article arguing that online (and usually free) college lecture courses are reaching the tipping point that MP3s as a format and Napster (and its successors, like itunes and Pandora) as delivery systems represented for online music: that they're now good enough, common enough, and easy enough to access that they'll become the default method for a simple higher education. Though audiophiles (and most classical listeners) still prefer CDs, or at least the more sound-enriched WAV files that CDs are made of, and some even still stick to LPs, or *gasp* live concerts, for your average pop listener the MP3 - and, significantly, the better-quality compressed formats that have succeeded it - is good enough.

Similarly, the article says, while online education won't compete with truly elite and high-quality universities, or with stimulating seminar courses and other one-on-one or one-on-a-few forms of education at those universities or elsewhere, the average college whose curriculum is based on routine lecture courses, and even more so the baleful for-profit university, is facing real competition. This is even more critical for education than for music, because higher education is now considered a minimum for a decent career, and because traditional delivery methods are now so expensive.

I'm inclined to think this is so, and several consequences and follow-ups occur to me.

First, video education courses are nothing new. Colleges have been offering "distance learning," which includes such methods, for a long time now. Video and audio courses on DVD or CD, and other formats before them, have been popular. Half a century ago, before the rise of the slick documentary series, PBS daytime programming used to consist mostly of professors educationally droning on before the camera. I myself am a devotee of a learning-absorption system that allows you to proceed through the lecture at your own pace, skim or speed up, go to a quick overview mode to see the context of a given point, and easily access past material to review it, known as the "book".

But if all this is so, why is the tipping point only now? Three reasons occur to me. The article alludes to one, that the quality of the video courses, specifically of the lecturers using it, has recently vastly improved. Those old-time PBS professors droned on, I said. They were not very enthralling. Well, many professors lecturing in the flesh aren't very enthralling, either. But it takes more charismatic oomph to reach students through video than in the classroom, and now the video formats are attracting a sufficiency of professors who are good enough at that.

The second reason is the convenience and ease of use of the format. Even little improvements in the simplicity and transparency of the technology can lead to large increases in usage. (Again, this principle is nothing new. I remember from library school a study of corporate technical library usage showing that researchers who worked on the same floor of the building as the library were more likely to use it than otherwise-identical researchers who worked on different floors.) (And, by the way, e-readers are so far nowhere near simple and transparent enough yet. The amount of nuisance it often takes to load books has discouraged me from using mine as much as I'd like. I read things like this with its blithe references to various competing apps and e-readers and I want to run away. I don't want to learn or figure out all that stuff. I want to open up a book, physical or virtual, and read it.)

The third is interactivity, and that's the important point. Not having taken online courses myself, I don't know much about how this works. But if you can e-mail the prof and get responses, or form study groups with other students, and write assignments and papers and get them graded, that improves the educational experience dramatically. How the prof does this if he or she is teaching 11,000 students online simultaneously, I don't know. Maybe a lot of TAs, but that would be expensive.

Anyway, that's my second point. I got a good college education at a top-ranked public university. But the lecture courses were the least valuable part of that. The discussion sessions, the small seminars, the forced thinking and the forced interactivity with the readings caused by paper assignments, were where the education really lay. And what it taught me was how to think more than specific facts. When I think of my academic knowledge of history or of music, the two subjects I know best, far more of it comes from my outside reading than from any courses I took. I took a college course in Beethoven from one of the world's most pre-eminent Beethoven scholars, and it taught me something, but nowhere near as much as getting an A in the course proved that I already knew. Maybe the best thing I got out of that course was the assignment to write what happened to be my first-ever concert review. Only in my profession of librarianship did I get more out of my grad-school coursework than my own reading. Books on librarianship tend to be insufficient, and dull. Books on history and music are plentiful and often excellent.

You can, even today, get a college degree that consists mostly of lectures and tests. (Even at my prestigious school, there were history courses that required no writing assignments whatever.) Probably you can't get quite such a minimal education in science, where hands-on lab assignments are where the real learning occurs. But my biggest fear of online education is that it will increase the number of supposedly-educated students who just sat there and let lectures wash over them making no impact. Interactivity in online education will help counter that.

Two more minor points, specifically about music. The article says that part of the popularity of Napster-style delivery systems for songs is that it enabled customer selectivity.

The story the recording industry used to tell us went something like this: “Hey kids, Alanis Morisette just recorded three kickin’ songs! You can have them, so long as you pay for the ten mediocrities she recorded at the same time.” Napster told us a different story. Napster said “You want just the three songs? Fine.”
I laughed at this, because, again, the Napster offer described here is nothing new. Why do you think the 45 was so popular in the vinyl era, especially the early vinyl era? Because it enabled listeners to buy only two songs at once instead of investing in a whole album. Here, read this: "Previous rock 'n' roll albums had generally consisted of one or two smasheroos diluted with nine or so throwaways, and anyone interested in a listenable album was obliged to wait for the Greatest Hits." Previous to what? Previous to the Beatles; they "practically invented the L.P. as a credible pop medium" by having all the songs be good or at least interesting; it was an "odd feature of Beatle songs ... that almost every one was a hit." (This is from page 10 of The Beatles Forever by Nicholas Schaffner, an insightful history of their cultural impact.) Other rock groups in their wake were forced to at least aspire to the same level of quality, and it seems that it's only in the last couple of decades that the influence has faded away and pop albums have gone back to the "three smasheroos diluted with ten throwaway mediocrities" model. That was after the LP was supplanted by the CD, and the vinyl 45 single became obsolete. For a while that gap in the pop music market - attempts to create the CD single didn't fare well - apparently didn't matter much, but later it became critical, and Napster filled it. Now everything is singles and it's the album that's an obsolete concept.

One other odd point. The article introduces the concept of Baumol's cost disease, a situation where expenses go up without productivity increasing, because productivity has reached a limit point. "The classic example is the string quartet; performing a 15-minute quartet took a cumulative hour of musician time in 1850, and takes that same hour today." That's a very strange example to use in a discussion involving recorded music, because recordings mean that that's no longer true. One hour of musician time can produce an unlimited number of hours of listening time, and the listeners control when and how that listening occurs. Of course, it's not a live, in-person performance; but an online lecture isn't a live, in-person performance either. The import of the article is that this distinction no longer makes that much difference. To an extent the same is true of music. A live performance has something that recordings don't, which is one reason I still go to them; but the same is true of attending lectures in person. The article's whole point is that in both cases, the other form is sometimes good enough.

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