Diary of an OCW Music Student, Week 12: Exit Interview with Lecturer John Crooks

For the past three months,'s Education Insider has been tracking the experience of a semi-professional musician taking a University of California - Irvine OpenCourseWare (OCW) class in music theory. For our final installment, we wanted to give course lecturer John Crooks a chance to talk about OCW in his own words. What's the process of creating a class like? How have people responded? And the big one: why OCW at all?

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by Eric Garneau

john crooks

Throughout our entire series on John Crooks' OCW course Introduction to Pitch Systems in Tonal Music, I've been interested in finding the relevance of those lessons to a working musician like myself. Appropriately, then, when I received Crooks' response to my questions I learned that he is one himself. In addition to his lecturing duties at the University of California - Irvine (UCI), Crooks has professionally played bass in jazz and chamber/orchestral groups and also as a studio musician since 1995. He's been at UCI since 2009, and in 2011 he launched the OCW series you've been reading about for the past three months. Crooks had a lot of wonderful information to share with us about the creation of his class, its reception and why he thinks many more educators should follow in his footsteps. How did you get the idea for this OCW course? Did UCI approach you, or has this project basically been your initiative from the beginning?

John Crooks: When I was in graduate school I started studying the mathematics of pitch. I found the topic fascinating and was amazed that it was not a core aspect of music theory curricula. The idea for the OCW course grew out of a summer course I taught in 2008 and 2009. I started incorporating the materials for this course into Musicianship 15 in 2008. UCI OCW did not approach me, but they did present their work to the faculty of UCI's Claire Trevor School of the Arts in 2010. That presentation got me thinking about making the series. I really believe in the OCW concept, and, once I got going with the videos, Larry Cooperman and all the staff at UCI OCW were very helpful. What's the process of creating an OCW course for online consumption like? In particular, what things do you have to consider that you may not have to worry about in a typical classroom lecture series?

JC: Making this OCW course was really fun and informative. It's great to be able to focus on content rather than classroom dynamics and to think of how to present ideas in a direct way. A classroom situation offers many benefits but is, by nature, collaborative. Video lectures allow a teacher to remain totally on-point. Technical difficulties can be edited out, and I can re-do a section to make it clearer.

I strongly believe that no one method of teaching is best. As a matter of fact, I'm sure that another instructor could present the ideas from this course completely differently and be just as thorough and informative. Having well-designed video lectures allows students to engage with a topic when they are receptive, and, ideally, OCW could have certain subjects taught from varying perspectives. This would create a set of Open Educational Resources (OER) that would be very valuable to learners. How has response been to the course so far? What kind of feedback do you get from students, and has it perhaps inspired you to create another one?

JC: Response has been tremendous. This course received an Award for OpenCourseWare Excellence at MIT in 2011, and I have personally heard from people around the world who have engaged with the course and found it useful.

I am inspired to make another course. To be clear, Introduction to Pitch Systems in Tonal Music is just a unit of UCI's year-long Musicianship sequence. I am hoping to make a more complete version of UCI's Musicianship course available online and to use OER in an innovative way to build music skills. My work-in-progress is Music 15's course website. The current Music 15 students have been great contributors to this site! A couple times in my posts I refer to OCW, particularly to series of video lectures like your own, as being not unlike television in their structure - brief 'episodes' of learning, teases for the next installment, etc. Did that cross your mind when putting this series together? Do you think that perhaps OCW students consume educational material similar to the way many people consume mass media?

JC: Yes I do! And I hope people engage with OER like they do with TV and mass media. I have heard educators from various backgrounds denigrate screen-based learning and I find the argument that video-type teaching materials are substandard very weak. I know that I have learned so much from PBS content, documentaries, YouTube, etc., and hope to bring the same high production values and well-thought-out approach to OER.

My opinion is that well-produced video is a great way to present facts and ideas. Various points of view can be presented succinctly, at the student's convenience, and re-viewing is easy. Group class time, whether in-person or through virtual classrooms, is an opportunity to show real comprehension and fluency with concepts and to troubleshoot problematic areas.

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Walter Lewin at MIT is an inspiration - he claims that he spent about 20-30 hours developing each physics lecture that he gave. These lectures are available as videos at MIT OCW and are now considered one of the best OER available. Imagine if good university-level professors were required to produce video lectures and spend the kind of time developing them that is dedicated to Ken Burns or Planet Earth-type programming. If even five faculty from around the world created OER in a single subject area we'd have an amazing set of resources permanent, open and useful to all students.

We hear a lot about the spotty quality of classroom instruction at the university level. University professors are asked to commit the bulk of their time to advanced research, leaving the classroom work to graduate students or inexperienced adjunct faculty. It seems to me that part of the tenure-track system should be creation of excellent OER - a professor can do that once or twice in a career and provide a great benefit to students around the world. What do you think about accreditation options for OCW courses like your own? Do you think there ought to be a way for students to actually gain some kind of verifiable achievement from going through your course?

JC:I don't know about Introduction to Pitch Systems in Tonal Music; that course is more of a one-off thing. In general, however, I think higher education should be working toward a scenario where almost all learning is done virtually and for free, accreditation (such as Open Badges) is available and the campus is a place for collaborative new work. Online courses for credit have a mixed reputation, and first-world types like me associate online classes with things like traffic school or sexual harassment courses. As mentioned above, we have the technology to make online learning very interactive, inexpensive and both intellectually engaging and tactile. For an example of tactile materials, my current Musicianship students purchased a MIDI keyboard this year instead of a textbook. For the same cost as one of these overpriced textbooks they now have a useful piece of equipment that they can actually interact with. Looking to the future, what do you think about OCW as a significant alternative to traditional college learning? Do you think it could ever supplant the standard classroom experience?

JC: Yes. I see a lot of misspent energy on the traditional campus. While I love the idea of campus life and feel very fortunate to be a part of higher education, it seems to me that many faculty, staff and students at higher education institutions are marking time. While this is in part an inevitability of institutions, the lack of focus on helping others while making the campus a place for active progress reveals the fact that lots of what we are doing in the classroom is a waste of time. OER and OCW, scalable, free and progressive, begin to show a way forward that places responsibility for quality teaching on instructors, places responsibility for serious engagement with materials on learners and opens up the campus for real work. College-age people are in one of the most productive stages of life; they deserve to be making work rather than jumping through hoops. Is there anything further you'd like to tell our readers about your thoughts on OCW or anything else?

JC: Demand the resources you need; education will follow!

Thanks for following along with our series! If you'd like to check out another hands-on account of an OCW adventure, visit our journey through a Shakespeare class on

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