Penn Open Learning Fosters Academic Engagement Across Continents

After meeting online as students in University of Pennsylvania music professor Carol Muller’s open learning course, a professor at a small college in Central Appalachia and a teacher at a university in Ecuador began a dynamic collaboration.

Living continents apart, Janean Freeman and Carlos Murgueitio Roa were among 37,000 students enrolled in Muller’s “Listening to World Music” massive open online course when it was first offered three years ago. At the time, Muller was unaware of the impact the course would have.

One of the first humanities offerings via Penn’s Open Learning Initiative, Muller’s course continues to be popular. The syllabus ranges from Paul Simon's “Graceland” and Tuvan throat singers’ music to “pygmy pop” and Australian aboriginal music, from Yothu Yindi to the Kalahari Bushmen or Khoisan to the music of Cuba.

In 2012, Freeman, an assistant music professor at the University of Pikeville in Kentucky, signed up for the course and joined its Facebook study group.

As part of the group, Freeman met Murgueitio, who was then host of an online music history program called “Encrucijada” and is now an adjunct professor of guitar and instrumental ensembles at the Universidad Santa María in Guayaquil, Ecuador.

Freeman invited Murgueitio to speak about the blues music genre via Skype to students in a class she taught on the history of rock and roll. Afterwards, students tuned into the “Encrucijada” broadcast asking questions that could count as class participation points.

In the years since, he has travelled to Pikeville to give guitar performances and to team-teach a course called “Music Appreciation: World Music.” He has also been an artist in residence at the school. Recently, he was named the university’s first International Visiting Scholar.  

“This is evidence that, when used wisely and with higher altruistic purposes such as education for everyone, technology could be a powerful ally," Murgueitio says.

The global academic exchange that began online continued in person when Freeman visited Murgueitio’s home country on a recruitment tour last fall. He made arrangements for her to visit universities and conservatories in the area to conduct vocal master classes and choral workshops and to perform. She has sung with the New York Philharmonic.

Freeman says, “None of this would have happened had it not been for Dr. Muller’s course.”

Muller anticipates that “Listening to World Music” will be offered again this fall.

The nature of open learning courses encourages students to continue their interactions after the final online lecture through social media, group meetups and academic partnerships like the one Freeman and Murgueitio forged.

“It’s amazing,” Muller says. “The whole global engagement between their universities started because of this class.”

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