How Large Must a MOOC Be to Succeed?—We hear a lot about massive, open, online courses or MOOCs these days. Luminaries like Bill Gates and the presidents of Harvard and MIT sang their praises at the Davos conference in January. The term “MOOC” was coined in 2008, but it hit the front page in fall 2011 when Stanford University offered an introduction to artificial intelligence in parallel with an on-campus course. Stunningly, 160,000 people enrolled.  Twenty thousand from 190 countries finished the course successfully and received a “statement of accomplishment.”

Critics point to the high dropout rate, but, in this context, “enrollment” is really browsing.  Since the students are not in degree programs and there is no cost, they often enroll and stick around for a week or so before deciding whether to take the class.

Would a MOOC with 20,000 students be a success?

I would say a definite “yes.”  That level of completion can cover costs of administration and instruction, and allow for high production values, assessment, pedagogical research, and on-going course revision.  Even if it were offered for free, a course that large would justify a full-time professional staff on social grounds.

But, let’s look at a smaller course—one in which the instructor was not happy.

UC Irvine professor Richard McKenzie offered Microeconomics for Managers through Coursera, but he withdrew in the middle of the class. (The course was taken over by Melissa Loble, Associate Dean at Irvine, who used Professor McKenzie’s videos, quizzes, midterm, and final exam.)

Professor McKenzie was disturbed by the level of student engagement and commitment.  He noted on the class blog that nearly 37,000 had enrolled, but “fewer than 2 percent have been actively engaged in discussions”. He noticed that unprepared students were wasting the other’s time, writing “The problem is especially acute when students who have not watched the videos and have not done the readings contribute comments that we all have to read at some level.”

There is little or no student criticism in the forum thread discussing his withdrawal and a lot of appreciation and explanation for low participation rates.  McKenzie stated, “I will not give on standards, and you also should not want me to, or else the value of any ‘certification’ won’t be worth the digits it is written with.”

I did not take the course, but watched a few of the videos.  The format was similar to a traditional classroom—uninterrupted lecture for 30 minutes followed by multiple choice questions.  The lectures I watched were engaging presented well. He used easily followed examples in which rational economic thinking often leads to non-intuitive, perhaps politically incorrect, conclusions.


So, what went wrong?

Were there economic problems?  Some students complained about the amount of work McKenzie assigned and others balked at the price of the textbook, “The New World of Economics: A Remake of a Classic for New Generations of Economics Students,” which Amazon sells for $79.95 in paperback or $63.96 for the Kindle.

The teaching material was repurposed and so were Professor McKenzie’s expectations for the class.  He was not prepared for the variance in online student commitment compared to those in his classroom at UC Irvine, who are all paying tuition and seeking degrees.  He was also surprised by the dropout rate, writing:

As it has turned out, the enrollment count is meaningless, with fewer than 40 percent of the students actually logging in during each of the first two weeks. Only a fourth of the enrolled students have done as much as watch a single video lecture over the last week.

But, how bad is that?  Even if, say, only 700 students actively participated, the course makes economic and social sense.  Based on my sampling of Professor McKenzie’s lectures, I saw that his MOOC was as effective as the typical (perhaps not the best) microeconomics course for business students.  In that case, a low-marginal cost class with “only” 700 students sounds viable to me.  It even allows for continued investment in teaching materials or additional presentation resources.

Let’s close with a smaller example, Duke Professor Roger Barr’s Bioelectricity course also offered by Coursera. Duke published an excellent report on the class.

The report is generally positive, but the numbers are smaller than those of Professor McKenzie’s class. More than 12,000 students from over 100 countries enrolled, but 8,000 watched the first lecture and the active participation plateaued at around 1,000 per week.  Only 313 students earned certificates of completion.

The certificate number sounds low, but the report make it clear that significantly more students benefited from and enjoyed the class.  Professor Barr spent 429 hours in preparation, considers the course a success and plans to continue teaching and refining it.  You can read his views in the report or listen to an interview, by Steven Cherry of the IEEE, a major professional society.

I am not a MOOC fan boy, but I think that for some subjects, students, and goals, it will be important.  At the very least, MOOCs are innovating in pedagogy, technology, and certification—pushing us to find some new wine for our new bottle, the Internet.

Based in LA, Larry Press is a professor of information systems at California State University at Dominguez Hills and a senior editor covering tech issues at Check his Google+ profile to contact him or see what else he is up to:

Larry Press
Based in Los Angeles, Larry Press is a senior editor at and a professor of information systems at California State University at Dominguez Hills. Email him at [email protected]
Larry Press
Tags: Education