Tea for Two: Comparing two Songwriting MOOCs

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In my spare time earlier this year, I did a couple of xMOOCs. Yes I know, “Howard get a life!” I was interested to learn about songwriting and after a Google search discovered songwriting courses from Coursera and FutureLearn were starting concurrently. This presented me with a good opportunity to learn a bit more widely and at the same time compare the design approaches of each. Both courses at the outset looked like an attractive offerings. Coursera’s came from Berkelee College of Music, known as “The Song Factory” and ranked 4th amongst American conservatoriesFutureLearn’s songwriting course came from the University of Sheffield. There is a rich folk scene and tradition in northern England from which I hoped this course might include some insight.

Words or Music?

The two courses each have very different approaches to the content. The challenge with a short songwriting course is where do you start first, the words or the music? And can you do both? Each contrasts in this regard. The Coursera course is very much about the words followed by the music. FutureLearn’s course emphasises musical elements of songwriting, with pre-written lyrics provided for everyone to complete into a song. Neither method is better. These emphases also suggest suitability for different learning styles amongst students. The text emphasis of the Coursera course may better be suited to thinking types, while the FutureLearn course may suit those with a more feeling style of mental processing. Again neither is better. Each course claimed it would be impossible to address all elements of songwriting in the time they had available. By doing both courses however I felt there was the advantage of experiencing a more wholistic approach. The Coursera Songwriting course has since been retitled as Songwriting: Writing the Lyrics, which is a clearer description of the content.

Course experience

The Coursera songwriting course runs over seven weeks with predominantly video content. Each week consists of a linear series of videos and up to 20 short video lectures. There was an accompanying song list and Facebook Group. The course repeats regularly since it is all pre-recorded. Normally I don’t find the prospect of a “talking head” pushing content at me all that appealing. And not all lecturers convey learning through the video medium effectively. This course however shows the value of a good teacher. Pat Pattison is quite exceptional. Pat is a great user of drama and storytelling as illustrated in the video above.  He teaches in great detail, although occasionally with too much repetition. Here is another good example of his use of drama and metaphor in his teaching style.

As well as focusing more on the message, the words and poetics in general, Pat’s main point is that songwriting will only work if you include a thinking approach. I imagine this would be very helpful, to many aspiring musicians who I imagine, might by habit use only a strongly feeling approach. Toward the end of the course Pat brings it all together demonstrating the construction of a song from scratch. He doesn’t go with any depth into melody and harmony, however the overall lesson in combining poetics with timing and rhythm is still a rich learning experience.

There was a Facebook group where peer feedback could be sought and it was widely used throughout and beyond the course.

As with other video heavy MOOCs such as Open2Study, there is a sense of wear and tear on the lecturer in the Coursera songwriting course. Producing such an effort requires long periods of design and scripting, followed by days standing and delivering in front of a camera. While the lecturer can look and sound stressed and tired, they have the advantage of only having to deliver once.  The result for the learner may not always be as authentic as we might like.

The FutureLearn course is called How to Write your First Song. This couse runs for six weeks and has a combination of video lectures, interviews, podcasts and text content. The course ran for the first time in early 2016 and there are no dates yet for future offerings.

FutureLearn makes it easier on the main educator (as well as the students) by not having the heavy video production focus as with Coursera. And it can also spread the workload. It is as if the whole of the music department of the University of Sheffield rallied around the main teacher Adam White, and offered pitch in and lend a hand. The result is a richer array of content both in terms of mode of delivery (there are powerpoints, audio tracks, text readings as well as video) and the diversity of personnel. The result is that while there is still a linear narrative to the content, there are opportunities to be exposed to, and go off and explore, more varied elements of songwriting.

In the FutureLearn course there are also many video interviews with local contemporary songwriters of amazing variety. While I find these videos less focused or directed than those in Coursera, there are traces of gold in each of them. In particular I remember one young songwriter saying something like, “What you are looking for is the particular individual sound a song has.” For me this was a great truth, making a useful counterbalance to the text driven approach of the Coursera course. There are opportunities for each of us to find our own gold as we explore the more varied content in the FutureLearn model.

The other great positive about the FutureLearn course was a common songwriting task. A poet was engaged to write a poem for the course that we were to turn into a song, with the option to choose from different levels of difficulty. It created lots of discussion in the forums and it was great to have a common work in progress on which to focus. Our efforts could be loaded onto Soundcloud or Youtube using a common hashtag for searchability.

Finally there was  a Google Hangout on air midway through the FutureLearn course that provided a chance to ask questions in real time, which then fed back into further discussion in the forums. This in particular makes it feel like a more authentic and enriching approach, than the mechanical Coursera pre-recorded videos. However for repeat runs of the course, the main lecturer, or someone else, needs to make themselves available for this commitment to continue.

Summary

While there were ways both these courses could have improved (most notably by using more examples from their respective songlists) I found both to be rich learning experiences. Due to the contrasting styles, doing both was for me, a great combination, where my learning in one contributed to my learning in the other. Overall xMOOCs are also getting better at incorporating collaboration. I expect that as time goes on, the x and c MOOC hybridisation we have been seeing to become more common.
I did write a song. I didn’t make it public as it was a personal creative activity but I was very happy to get to this first step. I am confident there will be more thanks to these two excellent courses.

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