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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!

Student Bridges from the ENGSx course
Student Bridges from the ENGSx course

Professor Vicki May’s “The Engineering of Structures Around Us” DartmouthX MOOC ran from May 5th - June 19th in edX. It’s now in archive mode, but still accessible for anyone to register and go through the material self-paced. We’ve had over 700 new students in self-paced mode since the course ended!

What did it take to produce and deliver a six-week edX MOOC course? Eight months, one instructor, one instructional designer, seven undergraduate teaching assistants, two video producers/editors, one technical expert, one librarian, a handful of helpful Dartmouth colleagues, and over 10,000 students all made “The Engineering of Structures Around Us” not only possible, but very successful. This bears repeating, the MOOC students are what made the course not only successful, but also a rewarding experience for the course team.

How are we measuring success? For us, it’s really about the participation of the online students and witnessing how they are engaging with the content, the activities, and with each other. Some students may have had the goal of watching 15 minutes of video lecture while others wanted to do every activity. Both are successes if the students met their own personal goals and interacted in some way with the course material. We saw participation and engagement through many different activities and at many different levels. The course contained four hours (43 video clips) of video lectures, demonstrations, and guest speakers, eight hands-on building activities, twelve discussion forums, six interactive simulations, pre-concept surveys, multiple knowledge-check and end-of-week quizzes, and an illustrated narrative of Owl’s library treehouse. Professor May worked closely with illustrator Katherine Roy during the course development. This awesome relationship was facilitated by the Center for Cartoon Studies  in White River Junction, VT.

Illustration by Katherine Roy
Illustration by Katherine Roy

Minimally, students watched the short video lectures and demonstrations or popped into the Share Your World discussions to see interesting structures from around the globe. Many were actively participating in those forums by finding, annotating, and posting pictures of buildings and structures from their communities or online sources. Others were getting a virtual world tour of amazing structures.

The primary engagement strategy in the course was to get students exploring structures with hands-on tangible activities that used easy to find materials. They were asked to share images of their work in discussion. Speaking of images and discussion, check out the Visual Discussion Tool that Jared Benedict (Thayer School of Engineering) made for the course to allow better navigation to image posts and a clearer view of all the hands-on activities.

The custom tool by Jared Benedict (Thayer) pulled images from discussion posts into one page. At a glance, one could scroll through the images and click to go directly to the discussion post to comment.
The custom tool by Jared Benedict (Thayer) pulled images from discussion posts into one page. At a glance, one could scroll through the images and click to go directly to the discussion post to comment.

For five hundred US residents chosen at random, we were able to send out Activity Kits that contained all the necessary materials for the hands-on activities. We’ll be examining the course data in the coming months to see if having a kit had any effect on students participation or engagement with the course.

TAs and Thayer staff help put together the Activity Kits, brainchild of Jared Benedict.
TAs and Thayer staff help put together the Activity Kits, brainchild of Jared Benedict.

A highlight of the experience for the course team was when the first students started posting their building projects. I recall someone saying, “They are really doing it!!” For us, that was a sign of success - that a learner is actively engaging and investigating the course concepts by trying the hands-on activities. Then, more and more were posting, it was amazing! We were unsure if students would even try the activities and were very pleased with the results. Enroll in the course to look at more samples of student building projects and try some yourself!

Week 4 of the course dealt with tension and compression working together in a structure. Tensegrity models and truss bridges took over our discussions.
Week 4 of the course dealt with tension and compression working together in a structure. Tensegrity models and truss bridges took over our discussions.

Stay tuned as now the big data from the course is taking over our time and we’ll be doing another blog post in the future on results!

DartmouthX has recently offered Live Office Hours with students in an Introduction to Environmental Science (ENVX) with Google Hangouts on Air. Instructors Prof. Andy Friedland and Mike Goudzwaard along with the course team hosted four sessions over two offerings of the course. In each session we tried something slightly different based on feedback from that last session. This “recipe” is based on what we learned from the experience. Like any recipe, feel free to use, improvise, simplify, or spice it up.

...continue reading "Live Office Hours with Google Hangouts On Air: A Recipe"