Intro to German Opera: A DartmouthX Encore From Professor Steve Swayne

The recent launch of Introduction to German Opera, a MOOC (massive open online course) offered through DartmouthX, is a return to the global stage for Music Professor Steve Swayne and a new contribution to online Arts & Humanities offerings, of which there are relatively few.

Dartmouth Music Professor Steve Swayne’s Introduction to German Opera is available now on the EdX platform. Get a taste with the course welcome video here.

According to Online Course Report’s State of the MOOC 2016, Humanities course offerings have declined rapidly from 20 percent of overall subject distribution in 2013 to less than 10 percent in 2015. Meanwhile, universities are graduating more and more students from STEM disciplines. Stanford, for one, reports that nearly a quarter of their undergraduate students are engineering majors.
Professor Swayne says that, at a time when education is trending toward job readiness and utilitarian skill-building, the arts and humanities are critical. With the goals of expanding access to learning, enhancing the Dartmouth liberal arts model, and advancing teaching and learning through experimentation and research, a second DartmouthX MOOC was an ideal place for Swayne to plug in.
After producing Introduction to Italian Opera with DartmouthX in 2015, Swayne describes experiencing a bit of a denouement—a resolution, a winding down of the drama. His days writing scripts and running lines with the course team in the video studio came to an end, and he turned his attention from the virtual to the residential as he prepared his on-campus opera course for another run in spring 2016.
But throughout that residential term, Swayne found himself drawing connections and finding ways to share material between the two teaching environments. Video lectures from the MOOC found a new home in homework assignments for the residential class. Both Swayne and his students liked the way this arrangement freed class time for more active listening and individual reflection. The video lectures also allowed students to watch and re-watch key lecture moments at their own pace, a benefit Swayne attributes to the blended, or flipped, classroom model. It wasn’t something he had considered before the MOOC, he says.
“Methods like this are much more common in STEM disciplines,” he explains. “The students seemed to like seeing it in a Humanities course.”
Swayne also adapted assignments from the MOOC to suit this new format. For one, he asked each student to select and share a moment of opera that moved them. Swayne describes his delight when a student without any musical background shared a selection from Gaetano Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor.
“It’s one of the most famous moments in all of opera, and he picked it without any prior knowledge!” Swayne exclaims.
The evolution of his in-person class as a result of the MOOC got Swayne excited to take things further. Mid-way through the term, as the unit on German opera approached, Swayne had an idea. What if he engaged his students in developing digital components for the German opera content of the course? The students jumped at the chance to be part of expanding the course, and Swayne’s MOOC team saw an opportunity.
“It was a natural progression to turn that content into the basis for a German opera MOOC,” says Instructional Designer Adam Nemeroff.
Swayne agreed, and as the residential term came to a close, he got to work with the DartmouthX team on his next online course. Before long, GermanOperaX was born. The course, like Swayne’s original Italian Opera MOOC, is designed for “beginners and advanced opera listeners alike” and aims to provide learners with the tools and experiences to become well-informed, lifelong listeners and lovers of opera.
Through the recorded lectures and assignments that Swayne developed with his students and the course team, the MOOC explores the history and conventions of German opera and trains learners in close listening and musical analysis skills. New for this iteration, the course team has added more individual choice, goal-setting, and opportunities for reflection for learners, and all four units of the course were made available at once, allowing everyone to move through the material at their own pace.
Now that Swayne’s residential students have shown such interest in his digital Italian and German opera materials, he has hinted at an interest in producing similar videos for the French opera components of his class.
The natural next question, of course, is whether we can expect a French Opera MOOC from Swayne in the year to come. He is coy about the prospect.
“Oh, we definitely won’t do that,” he says with a smile.

This post first appeared on the website of the Dartmouth Center for the Advancement of Learning.

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