Embracing world music in a global ‘classroom’

World Music

At all hours of the day and night, students are expanding their knowledge of the world through its music by logging in to a class called “Listening to World Music,” taught online through Coursera by Carol Muller, a professor of music at Penn.

The selections in the syllabus run the gamut, from Paul Simon’s “Graceland,” to pieces performed by Tuvan Throat Singers from Russia, Pygmy Pop music, work by the Australian Aboriginal group Yothu Yindi, and the music of Cuba as popularized in the 1999 documentary “Buena Vista Social Club.”

Over the summer, more than 35,000 people registered for the free, seven-week course (which concludes next week, but will be offered again). Students were allowed to audit the course, or enroll to earn a certificate signed by the instructor.

Recently, Penn became a partner in the Coursera online learning platform, which offers free college-level courses taught by professors from 16 top universities around the globe. Twelve professors at Penn will be teaching courses through Coursera this year, reaching hundreds of thousands of students.

In Muller’s class, the students range in age from late teens and early 20s, all the way up to people in their 80s and 90s. She says some are taking the class because they’re curious about world music, while others want to use what they learn to “expand their teaching capacity.”

“I had a school teacher from upstate New York email me about the Tuvan Throat singing class,” Muller says. “She was so excited about the materials and was planning to integrate them into her class this fall.”

Another of Muller’s students, 34-year-old Joey Lavino of Denmark was so inspired by fellow students he met online and “friended” on Facebook that he posted a YouTube video of a song he dedicated to the class. The song is called “I Turn to You (Coursera Tribute).”

Muller says the global sweep of the curriculum has attracted many students with broad personal insights about musical culture.  

“We asked students to share some of the music they engage with in their own part of the world, and the links to listening have been amazing,” she says. “I loved listening to what students made available in the class.”

The author of numerous books, Muller is currently writing “Musically Connected,” a textbook for teaching world music and cultures. The text will be used by future Coursera students and others who take a world music and cultures undergraduate class at Penn or other colleges and universities.

Originally published on August 30, 2012