By Eric Garneau
What Could Have Been
If you know anything about modern physics, you know that it's theorized there are an infinite number of universes out there, each one branching out of different possibilities that do or do not occur in our timeline. Well let me tell you, dear readers, there is an alternate universe where this weekly series of mine didn't come to anything like a satisfying end, and that universe is closer to ours than you may think.
When I first started taking the University of California - Irvine's 'Pitch Systems in Tonal Music' OCW class, I was under the assumption that it was a 9-course series instead of the ten that are currently written up on our site. That's because only nine videos were posted on Irvine's site at the time, and there really wasn't any mention of a tenth installment until I got to the ninth one. You can imagine that was a pretty jarring experience - I was ready for the final lecture and instead I was told to 'come back next week.' But where was next week's video? I thought I'd missed something, but no, there were definitely only nine lectures to be viewed.
I considered a couple possibilities here. Most likely to me was that the school had made a mistake on their website and the tenth video was just inaccessible somehow. However, I couldn't rule out the other possibilities: was the course incomplete? Was it a work in progress? Nothing on the site indicated either to be the case, which got me thinking about whether I was the first person to ever notice - you'd think the school would put up some kind of notification about a tenth video pending if the course was incomplete, right? Or had I been the first person to go through the whole course, care enough that a lesson was absent and actually do something about it? That seemed the most unlikely, but after all, OCW's a relatively new medium for educational content delivery - maybe this particular course had been mostly ignored up to this point.
Fixing a Problem
But anyway, like I said, I did something about the missing lecture: I decided to e-mail lecturer John Crooks, who linked to his personal website on UC - Irvine's page. From the videos he seemed like a totally affable guy who would be open to my correspondence, and I figured it was the best way to 'get to the bottom of this,' as TV detectives say. So I simply sent Crooks a message introducing myself and inquiring as to the fate of the tenth lecture. I mean, if I couldn't complete the course I wouldn't have closure. Think of how terrible that would be.
As it happens, Crooks wrote back to me within an hour, and like I guessed he was a totally friendly guy. He explained to me that indeed the course hadn't been completed yet, and the final video lecture would be going live on UC - Irvine's site within a few weeks (he also volunteered to participate in an interview with us, which will be forthcoming). A few days later he e-mailed me a link to the lecture video on Vimeo so I could get a head-start on the final week's lesson (apparently UC - Irvine takes a bit of time to put the videos up on their own site). When Vimeo didn't care to play Crooks' video, he uploaded it to YouTube and sent me that link, and that, my friends, is how I learned all about equal temperament tuning.
Who Watches the Teachers?
Although Crooks is an incredibly friendly, helpful human being, I feel there's a really interesting lesson to be found in my experience. Let's say I was a slightly less motivated learner (since it was my job to write about these classes, you might imagine my motivation was pretty high) - what would I have done when I got to lesson nine and found no continuation? Would that alternate reality me have also tracked down Crooks and gotten an answer, or would he have just quit? I suppose it depends on how interested he was in the material, but you might imagine a few OCW students have fallen through cracks like that.
That got me thinking about OCW in more general terms, specifically regarding whether or not there's any accountability behind it. Obviously OCW is a wonderful tool that helps people get free, open knowledge they might not otherwise be able to attain. But it's also a system of learning that's relatively consequence-free... or perhaps it would be better for me to say that whatever consequences it takes on are left up completely to its users.
If a university professor just walked out of a class with one week left to go in a term, thus denying students the knowledge they'd worked a semester for, someone somewhere would have to come up with a solution to that problem or pay for restitution. With OCW, no such imperative exists, at least not yet. So long as OCW sits on the fringes of learning there likely won't be any solid infrastructure in place to keep its creators accountable. While that's unfortunate, it's also understandable. People often discuss OCW using the rhetoric of pioneer explorers. Well, sometimes pioneers were left to fend for themselves, and sometimes they made vital mistakes. It's bound to happen, even if it's really unfortunate when it does.
Clearly that's not what happened here - we didn't lose any travelers on our Oregon Trail of music theory. But it could have happened. There might be a real argument to be made that, like Crooks, many purveyors of OCW are incredibly passionate individuals who wouldn't leave students hanging - why else would they work so hard to share their knowledge for free on the Internet? But we mustn't generalize; the possibility's out there for OCW classes to just be uploaded to a school website and left alone.
But then again, even if we'd never reached the final lesson in Crooks' class, as frustrating as that would have been, it's not like we would have been wasting our time. Think of all the cool knowledge we picked up from Crooks' course - the circle of fifths alone was worth the price of admission (so to speak). Maybe we can see that as a statement about the general value of OCW right now - the infrastructure's not in place for it to totally supplant a classroom experience (even if all the material you need is there, good luck getting academic credit for it). But if you want to learn stuff about a topic you find interesting that you've never really thought about, why not check out some of the diverse OCW course offerings out there? It's one of the best ways to enrich yourself without spending a dime, and since it comes from established and respected academic institutions, you know that what you're getting is quality stuff.
Meanwhile, yes, there's an alternate universe version of Eric out there who turned in a highly critical tenth column to end this series and went out into the world never really knowing how to tune a musical instrument. The Eric whose work you're now reading reached the end of UC - Irvine's OCW course in tonality and will be interviewing its creator shortly. Both universes have their ups and downs, I suppose (did you know that in the other world pizza tastes slightly more delicious?), but this one's definitely more academically fulfilling. OCW may well be the future of college education, or at least a major part of it. Let's embrace it - all its positives and the few areas where it needs improvement - so we can help the next generation of lifelong learners expand their horizons.
How do students most like their OCW presented? Study.com's got the facts!