Violinists and OERs

This is the first in a trio of OER related posts. I’m in Fiji currently, for the final meeting of the Sidecap project which has been looking at OER use in developing countries/regions (specifically in this project, Mauritius, West Indies and South Pacific).

I’m sure many of you will know this story, it’s the kind of thing that gets passed around on email, but it was new to me (I checked and it’s true, not an urban myth). This is the common account, from Hoax Slayer:

A man sat at a metro station in Washington DC and started to play the violin; it was a cold January morning. He played six Bach pieces for about 45 minutes. During that time, since it was rush hour, it was calculated that thousands of people went through the station, most of them on their way to work.

In the 45 minutes the musician played, only 6 people stopped and stayed for a while. About 20 gave him money but continued to walk their normal pace. He collected $32. When he finished playing and silence took over, no one noticed it. No one applauded, nor was there any recognition.

No one knew this but the violinist was Joshua Bell, one of the top musicians in the world. He played one of the most intricate pieces ever written,with a violin worth 3.5 million dollars.

Two days before his playing in the subway, Joshua Bell sold out at a theater in Boston and the seats average $100.

It’s usually taken to demonstrate that we don’t stop and appreciate what is around us, and in our busy lives we can pass by things of beauty and value. But I’m going to interpret it from an OER perspective.

It has two lessons here: the first is that people don’t value free things, or are suspicious of free. We have become accustomed to roughly equating monetary price with value or quality. Free is therefore obviously low quality or suspicious at least. My colleague Patrick McAndrew has related how many people are dubious or uncertain when they encounter openlearn. Their concern is that it isn’t free, that they can’t ‘just take it’, and often need a lot of reassurance that this indeed the case. So the violinist’s story reinforces the message that getting people to value free is still an issue.

The second lesson is about context. When they hear this story many people are critical of the commuters who passed him by, declaring that they would have stopped and listened, or it’s an American thing (or a Washington thing). I’m pretty sure I would have walked by also. Why? Because I’m in an underground station, which is an unpleasant place to be, I want to get out of it as fast as possible; Because I’m probably on my way somewhere and I like to be punctual; Because I’m not expecting to encounter classical music there and so have a different mindset in place; etc.

If we transport the scenario to the lunchtime and he is playing in the sunshine in the park, then my guess is that the outcome would have been different. The stunt was set up by The Washington Post, and they obviously wanted the outcome they got, so chose the conditions least likely to favour people stopping. From an OER perspective context is highly significant – the context of the learner when they encounter the OER. For example if it is being pushed in their face when they’re trying to do something else online, then they’ll ignore it, as commuters ignored the violinist because it interfered with their primary task. If you catch them at a more leisurely online time, or when they are actively seeking learning, then the reaction will be different. This would suggest that ‘build it and they will come’ is not sufficient alone as a strategy – this is equivalent to the violinist playing the concert hall. Sure it may be full but you will only reach certain people. Going out to learners in the right spaces and the right times is the key, and like our violinist, I’m not sure I have the answer to that one.


  1. Good to see that Fiji brings out your reflective side – and we know that is a good thing :). I completely agree with your discussion of context but maybe there is another lesson in this – which is about measuring value only in monetary terms. Perhaps there are other gains going on here – inspired passers-by, cheered up commuters, … we will never know (which is another link to researching OER!).

  2. Louise Vakamocea says:

    This is an interesting reflection on the thought shared at the opening of this event. I saw another slant as well. The location, was not respectable when compared to the theatre where he had previously played so people didn’t give itany value. When thinking OERs, recognition is given to those which come out of reputable, established and large institutions even if they lack the innovation and creativity noted in small OERs.

  3. Brian says:

    Enjoyed all three of your recent posts. Maybe someday future historians of education will talk of Weller’s ‘Fijian period’.
    Nice job applying this anecdote to OER, I do think it is relevant. I find your ‘second lesson’ to be highly relevant, and implicit within it is a reasonably strong argument for institutions of higher learning to engage producing OER as a way to offer value back to society.
    I find the first lesson less convincing. I acknowledge that free stuff can lead to strange behaviours from people – for instance, people are way more likely to be no-shows for a free event than one they’ve paid a token fee for… But I don’t see any reason free stuff can’t be valued if the context is right (for reasons you suggest in your final paragraph).
    Offering genuine value for free can create a connection with an intensity way beyond a commercial exchange. I’ll refer to the genuine good will generated by the White Stripes by their many free shows performed on their tour of Canada… blogged by me at the time here:
    Again, great posts. I’ll ask you to refrain from anti-OER debating in the future, whatever the value as an academic exercise, not to mention in raising these questions…. You’re evidently a little too good at it.

  4. Niseta Buatava says:

    There are, indeed, many ways of looking at the above ‘scenario’ from the standpoint of OERs.
    Bell’s performance was out of ‘context’, free and of dubious value, and his venue was not ‘prestigious’. All have huge implications for OERs.
    BUT his musical content was also totally outdated (Bach lived from 1685-1750!) which may have crushed any interest in the ‘general’ public. No doubt classical music lovers would have appreciated him longer at the cost of being late to work–there. When talking OERs, it’s important to harness the interest of the students through content that ‘speak’ to the students in language familiar to them. Jargon, indeed, must be used only in specialised subjects/units.

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