Vanderbilt's music MOOC includes video field trips

Friday, October 23, 2015, Vol. 39, No. 43
By Jeannie Naujeck

Jen Gunderman, right, prepares to interview Anthony Didier, owner of Hippie Radio, for part of her online course “Understanding the Music Business: What is Music Worth?”

-- Michelle Morrow | The Ledger

Vanderbilt University was a relatively early entrant into massive open online courses through the platform, with topics ranging from online games and literature to nutrition and personalized medicines.

While most of its current MOOCs (massive open online courses) teach computer programming, VU aims to offer courses from all of its schools.

In January, assistant professor of musicology Jen Gunderman will represent the Blair School of Music with a new MOOC called “Understanding the Music Business: What Is Music Worth?” that is expected to generate a great deal of interest when it launches.

The course is an overview of the various sectors of the music business, and of the commercial forces acting on the price of music and how its creators are compensated.

And, it’s free and open to all.

It’s a subject near to Gunderman’s heart. In addition to teaching courses like “The History of Rock and Roll” and “Women in Rock” on campus, she is a session musician and touring keyboardist for Sheryl Crow, and she has even written and recorded a theme song for the course with other members of Crow’s band.

That’s not the only twist.

Lecture material makes up part of the course, and Gunderman is currently filming those lessons at a production studio on campus that is part of the Vanderbilt Institute for Digital Learning.

But she also takes the MOOC on virtual field trips around Nashville, interviewing people from different facets of the music industry on camera to get independent perspectives on how music is made, marketed and sold.

“One of the great things about MOOCs is you can be a relatively unbiased source of information for the general public on subject matters that are highly charged, where it’s difficult to get non-corporate messages or non-government messages,” she explains. “You can be a more independent source.”

Producing the MOOC has given Gunderman ideas on new ways to utilize technology in her classroom lessons on campus.

For example, if she is on the road performing and can prerecord a lecture at an historic theater and post it online for students to view, or hold virtual office hours or Skype into class from the road, the technology could benefit students by giving them exposure to the real world of live music performance, she notes.

Jen Gunderman prepares to interview Anthony Didier, owner of Hippie Radio for part of an online course called “Understanding the Music Business: What is Music Worth?”

-- Michelle Morrow | The Ledger

But when Blair School Dean Mark Wait initially approached Gunderman about creating a MOOC, her first reaction was skepticism.

“I’m a product of a small liberal arts undergraduate school; I prefer a low student-to-teacher ratio in most educational contexts; and I value intellectual property rights,” she says.

“But I also took a few large lecture courses as a student that changed my life, and I love watching documentary films. Once I realized that I was basically making an on-demand, modular, interactive documentary film with quizzes and discussion groups – one that could serve the cause of music – I got excited about my project.”

Finding the right project was harder than expected.

“I think we all assumed at first that I would produce a course that was roughly like the music history courses I teach at Vanderbilt, but copyright is a huge issue with free online course content,” Gunderman recalls.

“So I thought I’d turn the issue around and have the course be about the issues facing the music industry today, including the difficulty in getting licenses for songs and various other conflicts that are playing out right now.”

No other MOOCs broach the topic in quite the same way. The content’s general appeal, and the fact that it draws on the resources of Nashville, makes it likely to draw significant enrollment.

Gunderman’s course is the first one Vanderbilt is producing for Coursera in the “Always Available” format, meaning viewers can watch as many segments as they want, any time they like.

She won’t have traditional classroom responsibilities but is free to engage with learners, film additional lectures, or host virtual “office hours” online.

“Music certainly inspires passion in people, so I’m expecting and hoping that people will hang in there and experience everything this course has to offer, particularly since it’s more focused on thought prompts and discussion groups than difficult tests,” Gunderman explains.

“Having said that, my whole motivation in creating this course was to provide a public service to musicians and people who love music.

“If you just want to brush up on the basics of song copyright, great. If you just want to check out the interview with the radio station owner, that’s fine too.

“For me, I’m putting this material out there so that people can get good information about how to make a career in music, and understand how the choices they make as consumers affect the music we hear … or don’t hear.”