What Higher Ed can learn from Dave Grohl and Sound City

I’ve just finished watching the excellent documentary Sound City by Foo Fighter and Nirvana legend Dave Grohl. If you get a chance to watch it, do so – it’s inspiring. The documentary tells the story of the legendary Sound City studio in Los Angeles, which gave birth to some of the greatest rock albums of all time: Fleetwood Mac ‘Rumours’ and Nirvana ‘Nevermind’ to name just two. But during the film, Grohl shares some insights that I feel are of particular relevance to some of the current debates in Higher Education. Let me explain.

Recently, much has been written about the way in which new technologies and pedagogies are causing students (and educators) to question the value of the classroom experience. Martin Weller has raised the possibility of MOOCs as 1st year undergraduate replacement, which the recent HEA report Flexible Pedagogies: Technology-Enhanced Learning proposes that “if students do not perceive traditional lectures and seminars to be valuable from a learning perspective then the age of campus-based education could come to an end”. These articles effectively suggest that the combination of affordable personal technology, widespread internet access and availability of free online learning materials could ultimately lead to campus-based lectures becoming a thing of the past.

So what has this got to do with Sound City? One of the key factors contributing to Sound City’s legendary status was its refusal to embrace digital recording technology. In the 1990s, digital audio software such as ProTools revolutionised the recording industry by making it possible for anyone to record and produce music in their bedroom. While this can be seen as empowering creativity by lowering the barriers to entry into the music business, the adverse effect is eloquently articulated by one of the Sound City team as ‘making it possible for people to get into the music business who had no business getting into the music business’. By removing the filter of having to go into a studio and record music live – with other people – it became increasingly easy for anyone to create average music. 

As the film draws to a close, Grohl explains that one of the most valuable aspects of writing music in a band is the opportunity to develop ideas in real time, with the help of like-minded people. Often there is no pre-determined output other than the desire to make a record, but by exchanging ideas, trying new things, and collaborating with other musicians, it is possible to achieve great things. It is through real-time human collaboration that magic happens, the magic of creating a composition using the fragments of ideas and inspiration that exist in the minds of each musician. Of crucial importance is the need to spend time on this process, creating through experimentation, then refining ideas through negotiation, trial and error.

For me, this is what Higher Education can learn from Sound City and the process of writing music. The one element common to most university experiences is the opportunity to be in a room with like-minded people, all keen to learn and to try new things. When this face-to-face time is used effectively this is where the magic can happen, the ‘light-bulb moments’ where somebody asks a question and we suddenly understand a concept. Where a discussion takes place that enables us to see something in a whole new light, or from an entirely different perspective. While it is possible to access the same content from home using a computer, without the opportunity to be in a room with people and share the experience of learning we are less likely to experience the magic that comes from collaborating with other human beings.

Higher Education is currently struggling to articulate the value of campus-based education in an age of rapid technological enhancement. If it is able to refocus on the value of an effective tutor in creating engaging learning experiences for students, then campus-based education will survive. But if pedagogical models based on information transmission are allowed to persist then students will vote with their feet.

The tutor has never had more power to determine the fate of the university.

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