When are MOOCs truly massive?

By Darco Jansen, Programme Manager at EADTU

The ECO project (ECO: Elearning, Communication and Open-data: Massive Mobile, Ubiquitous and Open Learning) provides MOOCs in many European languages. This can be in English but also in Portuguese, French, German, Italian, etc. In the end, ECO want to activate teachers all over Europe to develop their own MOOCs in their own language suitable for their own local context and culture. This raises the question on the massive component of MOOCs. I.e. how many participants are needed to call an online course a MOOC?

To define a MOOC Wikipedia in their definition uses “aimed at unlimited number of participants“. But that may cause problems if the numbers go a lot higher than your technological resources can handle. Next, we also need to take into account the teacher time, i.e. the efforts of academic staff on pay-roll of institution offering the course. As MOOCs are for free it cannot rely heavily on teacher time.

Is there a critial Number of enrollments?

But how many enrolments should a course have to be called a MOOC? The record of number of enrolments for a MOOC until now is 226.652. But that is for a MOOC in the English language. We need to take into account that the number of people speaking good English: 480 million (330 million native + 150 million secondary, source Wikipedia. As such the record MOOC only targets about 0,047%.

Now take a European language less spoken: Lithuanian, with 4.8 million native speakers (3.5 – 4 million source: Lingvo). In order to be as successful as the record-holding MOOC in English, a Lithuanian course should have encompass ca. 2.267 participants. But typically a MOOC in the English language nowadays has about 5.000-50.000. So a typical MOOC in Lithuanian should have about 50 to 500 participants. Ofcourse this strongly depends on other factors as topic, demographic background (people with already a degree), etc.

Should we aim for an unlimited number of participants?

Consequently in the European context we need to be cautious about to fact that a course should be aiming at unlimited number of participants. For that reason the ECO project, together with the HOME project and OpenupEd, proposes that such a course should be designed for large number of participants. Operational criteria for MOOCs could be:

  • Number of participants is larger than can be taught in a ‘normal’ campus class room / college situation (>148 = Dunbar’s ratio)
  • The (pedagogical model of the) course is such that the efforts of all services (including of academic staff on tutoring, tests, etc.) does not increase significantly as the number of participants increases.

Hence, we should grab the opportunities offered by MOOCs and not overley focus on large volumes as observed with MOOCs in the English language. Alternatively we  need to focus on the opportunities that open and online learning movement offer as a means to educate many, ubiquitously in a flexible way, complying with the needs of today’s learners.

Tags: MOOC, massive, enrolments, definition