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My First MOOC Experience

Morgan MatthewsThe author, Morgan C. Matthews, is a 2015 graduate of Dartmouth, where she studied sociology and sustainability.  This year, she is working as a Presidential Fellow in Dartmouth’s Center for the Advancement of Learning (DCAL).


This August, I had the opportunity to beta-test Dartmouth’s newest MOOC (Massive Open Online Course), Introduction to Italian Opera, which is launching this October.  As a first-timer to both opera and online courses, I came into this experience with many preconceived notions.  Having taken one week of the course and benefitted from conversations with a member of the production team, I wanted to share my learning: from my expectations for the class, to the unexpected and delightful experience I had as a student in the Opera MOOC.


  • MOOCs work just like regular classes, but have an online platform.
  • I should learn the same things in a MOOC as I would in a residential classroom.
  • Online learning is completely independent, and I won’t interact with other people while I take this course.

Before I started the Opera MOOC, this is what I imagined it would look like:

After dinner, I would flip open my laptop and log in to edX.  With my nightly cup of tea in hand, I would watch a video in which a professor lectured about an opera.  Then, I would read an article about Mozart while studiously taking notes in a Moleskine journal.  Having finished this assignment, I would take a short quiz on the new things I learned before proceeding to my favorite online distraction: Facebook. 

Notably, my expectations for being a student in a MOOC emulated experiences in many classes I took at Dartmouth: in terms of how course material is presented, what class activities look like, and what I would learn.  The only difference I anticipated was that, because the course is online, I thought I would not have any interactions with the professor and other students taking the course.


  • MOOCs can be designed differently with the audience and educational platform in mind.
  • You learn differently in a MOOC because it is free and online!
  • The professor and everyone involved in the course are interested in fostering online communities, and this is reflected in the activities you do in this class.

To my surprise, the first thing I did in the MOOC was not watch a lecture or do a reading, but instead participate in a discussion.  The first course activity was posting about prior experiences with opera and engaging with other students’ responses in the discussion thread.  To emphasize the importance of discussion in the course, the tab immediately to the right of “Syllabus” in the course navigation is “Discussion.”  As I went through the four sections in the first week of the course, I was presented with activities I had not anticipated: online searches for examples to share in a discussion, contributing to a word cloud, sharing tips for listening strategies, and writing a short analytical essay on the opera.  Lectures, which I anticipated being the focal point of the class, were short – about five minutes each – and guided my own explorative learning in the course.  While the discussions were not live when I beta-tested the course, I was intrigued to see what other students posted in discussions and to see how they reacted to the ideas I shared.

Although this online course may not have converted me into a committed opera fan, it did cause me to ask some questions about my previous classroom learning experiences, and think about how I can help myself learn better.

  • How often did my large lecture courses in college encourage me to discuss a course concept with a fellow student? 
  • How many times did I explore course concepts further through personal-interest online searches? 
  • Did I ever take time during a term to reflect on what I had learned, besides studying for exams?

For me, the answers to these three questions are “not often enough.”  Even if I forget how to practice “close listening” when appreciating opera (which was a learning objective in this MOOC), I am not likely to forget what I learned about myself as a student.  My advice after my first MOOC experience, therefore, is this: Take a MOOC, and make discoveries about a new subject and about yourself!

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