Mike Lawson • Technology • July 18, 2013

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To keep our knowledge of educational trends and best practices fresh, music teachers must continually seek out opportunities for professional development. Traditionally, these opportunities have been available from in-school or in-district workshops, state and regional conferences, and classes at local universities. With the advent of communication tools available through the Internet, it was only a matter of time before professional development in many fields became available electronically.



Online degree programs have been available for several years; in music education, master’s and doctoral degrees can both be earned from online programs. While these programs may sacrifice some of the intimacy of programs at traditional brick-and-mortar schools, there are many advantages to online degree programs, including flexibility of scheduling and the ability to remain in a full-time teaching position while earning the degree.


The most recent trend in online higher education, which may eventually find its way to being used as qualified professional development, is the Massive Open Online Course, or MOOC. Are MOOCs the right way for you to advance your skills and knowledge? This article will provide some general information about MOOCs, and focus on one that will be of particular interest to band and orchestra teachers.


MOOCs 101


MOOCs are open to anyone and everyone who wants to take them. They are run entirely online, and are almost always free of tuition costs and fees. They use the latest software and programming to develop sophisticated online interfaces that facilitate engagement for the students and instructors. Essentially, if you can use a web browser, you already have the technical knowledge necessary to participate in a MOOC.


MOOCs are generally made up of content created by professors from recognized universities. Many of the best universities in the United States and throughout the world offer MOOCs, including Yale University, Harvard University, Brown University, Columbia University, Georgia Institute of Technology, Northwestern University, Princeton University, and others. Professors develop the content for these classes and work with educational technologists to put the content online in accessible, usable ways.


In many cases, the content for these courses can be accessed directly through dedicated websites that the universities set up for course delivery. For example, Harvard University runs, where you can find information about their Open Learning Initiative. Harvard recently offered a course in copyright law that may be of interest to music educators.


Stanford University has established, which lists and hosts all of their online offerings. Many of Stanford’s courses, as well as those from other universities, are also available through iTunes U, the educational portal in Apple’s popular iTunes software. Though not a music course, Stanford offers a popular course about building apps for iOS (the operating system used by iPhones, iPod Touches, and iPads) that is free to download from iTunes U.


Perhaps the most popular way to access MOOCs is through one of several “aggregator” websites that include,, and These sites have developed partnerships with universities and contain searchable lists of MOOCs., for example, offers courses in five categories: business, computer science, math, physics, and psychology. The “Introduction to Psychology” course listed at the time of this writing is taught by three instructors from San Jose State University. The course has no prerequisites, and covers many topics one would find in a traditional class on the same topic. The course would be a great “brush-up” for educators who took psychology class many years ago, and the content would certainly be applicable to many teaching situations. is a joint venture between Harvard and MIT, but it features courses from those and many other fine universities. At the time of this writing, none of the courses on were directly related to music, but many are sure to come. In mid-May, doubled the number of universities that offer courses through its site in an effort to expand the breadth of courses available. 


Music MOOCs


Perhaps the leader in music-related MOOCs is, which hosts courses from the University of Rochester, Curtis Institute of Music, the Berklee College of Music, the University of Michigan, and several others. Upcoming courses include “The History of Rock” (Parts 1 and 2). The listing for this course suggests a workload of two to four hours per week, while other courses suggest more or less independent work on the part of the student. Through Coursera you can also access MOOCs on such topics as Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas, Songwriting, and an improvisation class taught by renowned jazz vibraphone player Gary Burton.


One MOOC of particular interest to SBO readers is being offered through Coursera starting in the late summer of 2013. The course is titled “Fundamentals of Rehearsing Music Ensembles.” I recently spoke with Dr. Evan Feldman, wind ensemble director at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, who is the lead developer and instructor of the course. Dr. Feldman will be teaching the course along with his UNC colleagues Mr. Jeffrey Fuchs, Director of University Bands, and Mr. Matthew McClure, Assistant Director of Bands.


In the last year, Dr. Feldman told me, UNC Chapel Hill and Coursera entered a partnership that led toward the development of several courses, which spawned the development of this course. An early draft of the course was called “Group Music Making,” but Dr. Feldman and his colleagues soon realized that part of the appeal of the MOOC would be to attract students who are interested in rehearsing traditional bands and orchestras, so they shifted gears to focus on those types of ensembles.


As far as design of the course, the instructors realized that not everyone who is interested in the topic would have easy access to an ensemble, so they designed the course in two tracks. The first track is for those students who are regularly conducting an ensemble during the run of the course, who will be able to immediately implement techniques they learn. These students will record videos of their rehearsals and upload them to the course management system for comment and discussion with online group members. The second track is for students who want to participate in the discussion components, but do not have ready access to an ensemble; they will learn the material and participate, but will not upload their own videos. So, regardless of your current position, there is a spot in this course for you.


Prior to developing this MOOC, Dr. Feldman said that he had no experience with massive open formats, but did do quite a bit of work with electronic components of classes. He had used video-recorded rehearsal segments in his teaching of instrumental methods and conducting. He imagined that the videos he created for the MOOC – he anticipates about 12 short videos per week – will be useful in his traditional classes as well.


“Fundamentals of Rehearsing Music Ensembles” is a MOOC in the purest sense of the term in that it is free, and access is open to anyone who is interested. An initial challenge of designing the course is that the instructors chose not to use any textbooks or commercially available materials. Requiring students to purchase materials to function in the class would oppose the idea of a free, open-access course. All of the materials are contained right within the course management system. Despite the fact that the course is free, Dr. Feldman was clear that high-quality materials were supremely important. The videos used in the class, which were still being produced at the time we talked, were four-camera shoots, allowing for interesting, multiple-angle perspectives, as opposed to the “talking head” videos that might be seen in some other MOOCs. 




Many teachers fear the self-motivation it will take to be part of a MOOC, and wonder how much they can gain from jumping into one. When I asked Dr. Feldman about challenges associated with the class, he noted that the course is designed to run for eight weeks. From the instructor’s perspective, this presents frustrations regarding the depth at which the topics can be dealt with. Designing the course was a struggle between wanting to be inclusive of many different issues relating to instrumental ensemble rehearsals and the need to focus on issues with quality.


From the perspective of those taking the course, as may be the case with many MOOCs, the satisfaction of the experience is almost completely dependent on others participating and providing feedback when and how it is needed. A recent study published on showed that the average completion rate for MOOCs is less than seven percent (Parr, 2013, online at With completion rates so low, students may have justifiable concerns that others in their group might fail to participate to the extent that they will, and that their experience may suffer as a result. No research has been conducted on completion rates of music- or performance-related courses. It is quite possible that the completion rate for this course might be better because of the specific nature of its content, so potential students should not shy away from it. Dr. Feldman thinks the course will be a useful online resource for instrumental music teachers: “We are hoping that the class will be useful whether you decide to take it from week one to week six, or from week four to week six.”


One interesting factor related to music MOOCs is that they will likely require students to do work away from their computers. In traditional academic subjects, much of the work that might be expected as part of learning in the MOOC setting might be done in isolation, and at the computer. In music MOOCs, it is likely that students will be expected to implement what they learn in a performance setting, and then return to the computer to reflect on their experiences. 


The Future of MOOCs


At present, it is not entirely clear how MOOCs fit into the structure of professional development for music teachers. Most MOOC-offering outlets do not make the option of college credit available, but many supply certificates of completion based on students’ work in the class. MOOCs are typically not applicable to graduate degrees, though the immediate future may see some universities allowing this option for their students.


In most circumstances, music teachers are required to have professional development experiences that are recognized and approved by their school or district; that may not be the case with MOOCs, so you should check with your administrators and not assume that you can use MOOC participation to fulfill requirements. Although MOOCs they are usually associated with excellent universities, their quality can be inconsistent. For now, the music MOOCs that are available may help music teachers brush up on skills, explore new types of thinking, or simply provide a way to keep our intellectual selves sharp. MOOCs are among the many outlets for professional development for music teachers, and may become more prominent in the near future. Visit the websites listed in this article frequently because new MOOCs are coming online every day.


Jay Dorfman is an assistant professor in the Music Education Department at Boston University, where he teaches classes in instrumental music, technology, and research. He teaches in both online and on-campus settings. He also currently serves as the president of the Technology Institute for Music Educators (TI:ME,, an organization dedicated to advancing the music education profession. Dr. Dorfman is the author of Theory and Practice of Technology-based Music Instruction, released in 2013 by Oxford University Press.

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