This week on #cfhe12 I read a couple of posts of interest from my fellow participants (apologies, I am currently on the train with no connectivity, ore lease I would search for those post and link to them :-) ) and there were two key points that I wanted to reiterate, combine, and expand upon. The first point is that mass (well, "massiveness") is relative. I am sure I learned in physics that Mass is indeed relative there, too, but I'd have to take a MOOC to brush up on my high school physics ;-)In any case, 100,000 MOOC participants in course X does not mean that it is equivalent to 100,000 participants in course Y.
If you have a course (MOOC) that Iran introductory level course (introduction to German for example), you will most certainly get to sign up (and probably retain) a whole lot more people than a more niche course (let's say "Seminal Works of Bertold Brecht" which is taught and discussed, and written about in German). The introductory course will appeal to novices, and people like me who want to brush up. It will appeal to people who just want the language component for travel, news, literature or communication with those long lost, and recently found, relatives. In other words, greater appeal. The Brecht course on the other hand will probably only appeal to people who are interested in Brecht and his works and have the communicative competence to work with German as the primary means of communication (I.e. fewer people than the intro course).
I use another language here as an example very deliberately. More niche courses, especially those in specific disciplines, assume an enculturation into the discipline, an apprenticeship if you will, that intro courses do not. Niche courses assume a scaffolding of the students as a pre-requisite to joining the course rather than having more basic pre-requisites. This apprenticeship into the discipline is essentially the same as speaking another language. Now, whether or not it should be that way is another question and we won't tackle that right now.
This brings me back to massive is relative, and thus we need better metric, better analytics, and better understanding of what those numbers mean. Another MOOC participant wrote about improving the account creation page for gRSShopper. This reminded me of a proposal that I had written about last year as. Prt of #change11: a way to track who is viewing the newsletters (we know they are getting mailed out), who is clicking on the links in the newsletters, correlating that with twitter, diigo, blog and LMS activity to figure out who is participating in some way and who is not. Those who are not participating can be prompted every so often by a "early warning system", like Blackboard's early warning system that alerts instructors if students have not done X by a certain time, to see if things are going well, if the learners need assistance, and if they plan on not participating, why not, and should they be offered a mechanism to unsubscribe (which will record why they left the course). At the conclusion of the course, learners should complete a course survey that gets some feedback from the learners. For 13+ week courses, surveys should be done every 4-5 weeks.
Now some people might cry out "oh think of the lurkers!"... Well, I am! That's why I am now calling them "passive participants" (a little less creepy than lurker). If you have a system in place to record participant activity, you can see who thee lurkers are and what they are looking at such as course videos, synchronous sessions, LMS discussions, twitter posts and blogs (the last 2 from the daily newsletter). If you can get an accurate gauge on how many actual lurkers there are, and how many drop outs there are, you can do a better job at getting the passive participants to participate in some fashion (example off the top of my head: participating in quick surveys before the next week's topic opening and including those responses as part of the topic).
The drop outs you don't have to worry about,they are gone. It would be nice to know why,but you don't have to expend too much time and energy getting them to participate. Passive participants on other hand are good potential resources for everyone in the MOOC, even if the only thing they do is participate in weekly surveys.
Finally, cMOOc vs xMOOC makes a difference. 100,000 on coursera is not the same. 100,000 on a Coursesites/D2L/Canvas MOOC run by Siemens, Bonk, or de Waard. Coursera is like amazon. If you go in for one free class, you might end up signing up for another 5. They are there, they are advertised and they are recommended. cMOOCs on the other hand are a word of mouth endeavor. If you don't follow a certain type of person on twitter (for tweeting or retweeting), you won't know about the MOOC. cMOOCs are all about word of mouth, and as such they also tend to be more niche and focused on higher education. Thus one course's massive numbers don't equate 1:1 for another courses's massive. So please, let's just get rid of the ridiculous retiming LOOC :)