Two weeks ago we launched a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) in association with the University of San Diego (USD).  Based on “Sustainability in the Supply Chain,” the six-week course is aimed at managers working in supply chain positions around the world. For those unfamiliar with the MOOC terminology, this sort of course operates at scale and is open to anyone who wishes to join.

Two Types of MOOCs

Broadly speaking there are two types of MOOCs: cMOOCs and xMOOCs. cMOOCs follow a “connectivism” approach, which is based on the work of George Siemens, Stephen Downes, and others working at the forefront of online learning theory. (Siemens and Downes host http://mooc.ca as a place to host MOOC news and information.)

 cMOOCs are something of an experiment in chaos; their mantra is to gather a wide range of people together to discuss and discover a subject that interests them and enables them learn in anyway they see fit. This style of course is open—not because of cost (or lack thereof), but because of the manner in which participants learn.

cMOOCs encourage the use of any platform, any content, and any connection a learner wishes to make. Also, the fact that cMOOCs are massive is important because it creates opportunities for learners to make connections with a diverse range of people.  Exactly how massive a course has to be to be considered “massive” is something of a contentious point, but Downes suggests Dunbar’s number of 150 as the cut-off point.

However, cMOOCs are generally not the ones being written about in the New York Times. Instead, folks seem more interested in the MOOCs with hundreds of thousands of participants; those are the xMOOCs.

xMOOCs are those most commonly found on platforms like Coursera, Udacity, and EdX. You know instantly there is a difference because the xMOOC has a platform—the cMOOC methodology tells you to go make your own platform.  xMOOCs stick closer to well-known methods of online learning, such as video tutorials and quizzes. There is variation in the form of peer marking and social discussion opportunity, but these aren’t required features. 

A Closer Look at Our MOOC

Our MOOC is—in the strictest sense—an xMOOC. We have curated the content, put it into a course framework, and set our students free to roam through it.  However, elements of a cMOOC are creeping in. We give a wide range of autonomy to students to browse what they want, and students can add learning content back to the platform right alongside our original learning materials. We encourage participation constantly and use peer review. Organized chaos, if you will.

The biggest job that companies like Coursera perform for those delivering MOOCs is marketing.  Getting 100,000 students to sign up for a course outside of these marketplaces is tough. That is why we were delighted when more than 650 students signed up for our MOOC—a testament to social media and good old fashioned marketing organized by the Supply Chain Management Institute at USD

In the interest of science, we decided to run a few experiments to check out the effect of class sizes and previous exposure to higher education.  First off, we wanted to know if engagement varied with class size. So we broke our students into three key groups; one of 300, one of 150, and one of 50.  Everything you’ve ever read about education tells you that big class sizes are bad, personalized learning experiences are good.  MOOCs claim to run counter to that—by exposing learners to more people, they get to choose those people that they wish to participate alongside.

What We Are Learning About MOOC Learners

We’re only two weeks in, but we’ve got a fair amount of data already. The first thing we noticed is the dropout rate; only 50 to 55 percent of students have registered for the MOOC ever signed in to the platform. This data corresponds with what others have reported elsewhere, so it isn’t surprising but it is telling.  Metaphorically speaking, with no skin in the game, many don’t make it to the start line. 

But what do we know about those learners that did sign in? Sixty learners out of the 150 that logged into the 300 group made it to level three of the module, which is about the halfway mark.  Next, 28 out of 71 made it to the same point in the 150 group, and just 4 out of 31 made it to halfway through the course in the 50 group. This equates to 40 percent in the big group, 39 percent in the medium group, and 13 percent in the smaller group. If engagement is any measure to go by, then small class sizes don’t make for a great experience in the world of MOOCs.

Those of you keeping tally will notice that I’ve missed 150 people out of this assessment. This is a deliberate omission. We saved another piece of research for three final groups of about 50, whom we sorted based on the amount of higher education they had previously completed. The first group had Master’s-level qualifications or higher, the second group had Bachelor’s degrees, and the third group had high school or Associate’s degrees.

In the Master’s group, 16 out of 27 reached the halfway point or beyond; the Bachelor’s group had 9 out of 27 reach halfway, and in the high school group only had 4 out of 23 make it halfway through the course. Those numbers equate to 60 percent, 33 percent and 17 percent, respectively. When compared with the random selection of 50 students, the Master’s students showed themselves to be much more readily engaged by the learning process—four times more so.

On the face of it, it would seem that those who have already been exposed to an advanced education learn best with MOOCs. The course itself is accredited at the Master’s level, but I don’t suppose this is particularly unusual for a MOOC—as they tend to be aimed at niche areas in advanced subjects, given by the likes of MIT, Stanford, and so forth. 

Does this mean MOOCs can’t be used for a wider section of the population? Absolutely not; after all, people still complete the course regardless of their background. But it seems to come most easily to those who have explored learning at its highest and potentially most self-directed level.

Looking Ahead

It’s been said before, but the biggest challenge ahead for the MOOC Revolution is perhaps to be had in learning how to learn. Maybe then the field will open up to cMOOCs taking center stage in the future of online learning.

And we are still in the early days for our research of our MOOC, so I won’t jump to conclusions—just yet. More important, I’ll have more data when I present the final output at the ASTD conference in Dallas, so please do come by my session on Wednesday morning to find out more and continue the debate.