Online Education and Jazz

A common responses to my article, Why Online Education Works, is that there is something special, magical, and “almost sacred” about the live teaching experience. I agree that this is true for teaching at its best but it’s also irrelevant. It’s even more true that there is something special, magical and almost sacred about the live musical experience. The time I saw Otis Clay in a small Toronto bar, my first Springsteen concert, the Teenage Head riot at Ontario Place these are some of my favorite and most memorable cultural experiences and yet by orders of magnitude most of the music that I listen to is recorded music.

In The Trouble With Online Education Mark Edmundson makes the analogy between teaching and music explicit:

Every memorable class is a bit like a jazz composition.

Quite right but every non-memorable class is also a bit like a jazz composition, namely one that was expensive, took an hour to drive to (15 minutes just to find parking) and at the end of the day wasn’t very memorable. The correct conclusion to draw from the analogy between live teaching and live music is that at their best both are great but both are also costly and inefficient ways of delivering most teaching and most musical experiences.

Edmundson also says this about online courses:

You can get knowledge from an Internet course if you’re highly motivated to learn. But in real courses the students and teachers come together and create an immediate and vital community of learning. A real course creates intellectual joy, at least in some. I don’t think an Internet course ever will.

Edmundson reminds me of composer John Philip Sousa who in 1906 wrote The Menace of Mechanical Music, an attack on the phonograph that sounds very similar to the attack on online education today.

It is the living, breathing example alone that is valuable to the student and can set into motion his creative and performing abilities. The ingenuity of a phonograph’s mechanism may incite the inventive genius to its improvement, but I could not imagine that a performance by it would ever inspire embryotic Mendelssohns, Beethovens, Mozarts, and Wagners to the acquirement of technical skill, or to the grasp of human possibilities in the art.

Sousa could not imagine it, but needless to say recorded music has inspired many inventive geniuses. Edmundson’s failure of imagination is even worse than Sousa’s, online courses are already creating intellectual joy (scroll down).

(Sousa was right about a few things. Recorded music has reduced the number of musical amateurs and the playing of music in the home. Far fewer pianos are sold today, for example, than in 1906 when Sousa wrote and that is true even before adjusting for today’s much larger population. Online education will similarly change teaching and I don’t claim that every change will be beneficial even if the net is good.)

Sousa and Edmundson also underestimate how much recording can add to the pursuit of artistic excellence. Many musical works, for example, cannot be well understood or fully appreciated with just a few listens. Recording allows for repeated listening and study. Indeed, one might say that only with recording, can one truly hear.

Recording also let musicians truly hear and thus compare, contrast and improve. Most teachers will also benefit from hearing and seeing themselves teach. With recording, teaching will become more like writing and less like improv. How many people write perfect first drafts? Good writing is editing, editing, editing. Live teaching suffers from too much improv and not enough editing. Sometimes I improv in class–also called winging it–but like most people I am usually better when I am better prepared. (Tyler, in contrast, is the Charlie Parker of live teaching.)

Sousa and the modern critics of online education also miss how new technologies bring new possibilities. For Sousa then, as for Edmundson today, the new technologies are simply about recording the live experience. But recorded music brought the creation of new kinds of music. Indeed, a lot of today’s music can’t be played live.

In his excellent 1966 disquisition, The Prospects for Recording (highly recommended, fyi), pianist Glenn Gould said that using the technology of the studio “one can very often transcend the limitations that performance imposes upon the imagination.” The same will be true for online education.

Addendum: Andrew Gelman comments.


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