Three Things Yacht Rock and MOOCs Teach Us About MOOCs and Yacht Rock

You mean to tell me everything that happened was just so I would record a song for a Gregory Hines movie?

Michael McDonald, Yacht Rock (Episode 12)

If you’re affluent, we can do a much better job with you, we can make magic happen.

Sebastian Thrun, Pando Q&A, 5/12/14

Thirty years ago this week, the featured song on from the movie Running Scared, Michael McDonald’s Sweet Freedom made its way to #7 on the Billboard Top 40 (an anniversary I have not seen noted anywhere), an event which decades later was anointed as the apex of the musical genre Yacht Rock.  Five years ago this month, three courses in the Stanford Computer Science department were offered online at no cost to the general public (an anniversary already noted at Coursera and Udacity), an event which months later was anointed the birth of the Massive Open Online Course.

Is there a connection?

Screen Shot 2016-08-29 at 2.12.05 PM

While there is little research literature equating MOOCs and Yacht Rock (really, it starts and ends with Kernohan 2015), linking EdTech phenomena such as MOOCs to societal and cultural ballasts is a feature of EdTech discourse: MOOCs can be like natural disasters, utopian dreamscapes, fitness clubs, video games and something called Presencing.  If presencing, then why not Yacht Rock?

Quick Note – For a primer on Yacht Rock (i.e., why James Ingram & Michael McDonald’s Yah Mo Be There is Yacht Rock but Loggins’ I’m Alright is not), Wikipedia is a good starting place.  And there’s the Channel 101 show.  For a primer on MOOCs (i.e., why a private company can promise to improve the education of students in a state system, fail at the job, then quietly go away leaving the students worse off), there’s the Search feature in this blog, or my MOOC history from 2015 (which doesn’t show up in a Google Search of “MOOC History” until Page 2…we can do better!)

Examples of Yacht Rock/MOOC Congruene:

  1. Neither movement was named during its creation, but retroactively by onlookers and later adopted by the movement.
    • The Stanford 2011 courses had no collective name (rather, they were considered a “bold experiment in distributed learning”), taking the name MOOC in the Spring of 2012 after an article in the New York Times linked the 2008+ MOOCs of Siemens et al with the Stanford movement.
    • The music of Loggins, McDonald, Steely Dan et al during the late 70s/early 80s was never defined as a subgenre beyond adult contemporary or light rock (and those classifications were problematic as well).  It was not until 2005 that Yacht Rock encapsulated the songs, and even that was an appropriation of a 1990s term used to describe Jimmy Buffet.
  2. There is debate in both fields on what the name represents.
    • Yacht Rock butts heads with Marina Rock.  Is Yacht Rock about smooth music (in the Yacht Rock show, there is no mention of yacht rock except by the narrator) or about yachts or about upper class issues such as the carefree life of sailing boats?  Some say the delineation regards societal class, others say there is a nautical feature, but neither creates a clean definition.
    • The Stanford MOOCs are incongruent with the earlier MOOCs.  EdTech researchers attempted to rectify the classification by referring to one as a cMOOC (connectivst) and the other an xMOOC (the x does not stand for a specific pedagogy or theory), but the result is most people call it MOOCs and the majority of people using x/c are doing so in a largely pejorative fashion.
  3. The founders abandoned the movement.
    • The professors at the forefront of the 2011 Stanford experiment went on to develop MOOC-based startups (Coursera, Udacity). Harvard/MIT would soon thereafter form a partnership and the group edX. In 2013, Thrun would pivot Udacity from the education for all call towards a workplace partnership. In 2014, Andrew Ng left the day-to-day operations of Coursera to join Baidu. And earlier this month, Daphne Koller also left day-to-day Coursera to join Calico Labs.
    • By 1980, Kenny Loggins was leaving the smooth sounds and embarking on a rock and roll pivot highlighted by his work on movie soundtracks: Caddyshack, Footloose, Top Gun, Caddyshack II. Even his slow jam for Over the Top incorporates the hard electric guitar eschewed by Yacht Rock. Michael McDonald would also crossover in 1986 to record the featured song for a Gregory Hines/Billy Crystal buddy cop comedy.

In the course of this listicle I have proven the reliability of the MOOC/Yacht Rock connection.  This article could ha been titled What Yacht Rock Means to EdTech or What MOOCs Mean to Smooth Music, because any opportunity to colloquially tie education to semi-obscure phenomena .  How, though, could we weight MOOCs as more important than Yacht Rock, or Yacht Rock as more important than MOOCs?  The power of one feeds into the other as a solution rather than a mixture.  So maybe the future of MOOCs will look like the present of Yacht Rock, moments of nostalgia from casino tours and satellite radio.