Elizabeth Miles

“Music and Social Action” is the first massive open online course launched by the School of Music, but it also stands out in other ways.

Taught by music lecturer and MacArthur Fellow Sebastian Ruth, the course explores the societal roles of musicians and how classical music can enact social change. Executive Director of the Office of Digital Dissemination and Online Education Lucas Swineford said Yale Broadcast Studios, a part of the Center for Teaching and Learning, was instrumental in constructing many elements of the class that set it apart from those produced in the past. In particular, the course includes many visual components and seminar-style discussions. It is also the only MOOC so far to have required traveling outside of the state of Connecticut for filming.

“When the School of Music invited me to create an online version of the class for Coursera, it required rethinking the course to some degree so that it would work well in the online format,” Ruth said. “In a humanities topic that is inherently multidisciplinary, where we are not trying to deliver a concrete set of ideas but more trying to raise questions and bring perspectives to them, the question became how to make that effective as an online class.”

The transition from a classroom seminar to the online platform required a number of adjustments. Ruth said in order to accommodate the course’s seminar format, it is run on a format called on-demand cohorts. He explained that a key component of the course is peer-reviewing essays, and students are placed into a group with other peers depending on the time they sign up so that they can comment on each other’s work. This is a fairly new platform that Coursera has been experimenting with, he said, so the first cohort will be from now into early March and after that will be the second cohort.

Project coordinator for the Office of Digital Dissemination and Online Education Melissa Thomas said this was the first time student discussions were included as a part of an online course. The professor chose some students who had enrolled in previous years and had them participate in dialogues on various course topics, she said.

“One of the interesting things about this course is that it is more philosophical in nature,” Thomas said. “A lot of our other courses are based more on subjects like financial markets and law, and this course required more dialogue rather than hard concepts.”

In addition to the course’s visual elements and participation from former students, the course also involved interviews with people outside of Yale. Video producer and editor at the Yale Broadcast Center Guy Ortoleva said the production team traveled to Providence, Rhode Island and New York in order to film interviews with leaders in the music industry. Ruth added that some of the interviews were conducted over Skype, utilizing a split-screen option with him on one half and the interviewee on the other.

Other obstacles with the production of the course included small logistical challenges such as scheduling. Ortoleva said Ruth was only available to film on Mondays which prolonged the production process as Ruth lives in Providence.

During Ruth’s past three years at Yale, he has taught variations of this course as a seminar.

He said the entire filming process took place during late February to July, with the final edits being finished roughly two weeks ago. Seven days into online enrollment, the number of participants has steadily grown with many hailing from the United States but others from countries as far away as China, Spain and Germany. Since Sunday, the course has drawn 786 total visitors and 234 active learners.

“There’s no question that online activities will become more and more important for the School of Music, especially when Hendrie Hall reopens as the Adams Center for Music and Arts,” Michael Yaffe said. “As a school, we’re committed to the idea of musicians being cultural leaders, and beyond just playing their instruments, we want them to think about the impact their art can have on society.”

Ruth visited the White House in 2010 to receive the National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award from First Lady Michelle Obama on behalf of Community MusicWorks, of which he is the founder and artistic director.