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When can a MOOC be considered massive?


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Yesterday, I had a lively discussion on Twitter with some of the organizers of the MOOC-Maker Course 2013 (#mmc13) about the question “When can a MOOC can be considered being massive?” Their point was that a MOOC is massive when it has more than 150 participants. This point of view goes back to a presentation by Claudia Bremer (here is the video of that talk, in German) where she says: “ah and I talked to Stephen Downes by the way and he said a MOOC can be considered massive when there are more than 150 participants”. I immediately thought: HERESAY … and tried to find out more about the magical 150 (right, that is the Dunbar number as well).

In my opinion, an online course can be considered massive, when it offers more opportunities for social interaction than the single participant can deal with. As a participant (or facilitator for that matter) you simply cannot connect to all 2000 members of a MOOC. But wait, of that 2000 members how many are really active? So how many of them contribute to the MOOC with own contributions? By reading, digesting, mixing and sharing content and thus contributing to that special MOOC experience? Is it 10%? 5%? I would say that if 1% of the registered participants of a MOOC are really active throughout the course you can be very lucky (for reference: the number of active Wikipedians in 2010 was around 0.07%). That means that if your MOOC has 2000 registered participants around 20 of them will be very active, another 180 will be somewhat active and the remaining 1800 will be lurking around, consuming and maybe once say hello or present their 2 cents on a specific topic (also see the 1% rule of online communities). Don’t get me wrong, this is absolutely okay…

So I tried to find out if Stephen Downes has written about that 150 participants milestone somewhere and found this blog post in which he says:

Another problem: the size. And again, it’s the same sort of thing. People feel for some reason that they need to make a personal connection with all 2000 people in the MOOC. And then they worry that they can’t. And they worry that they’re missing out on the important people. As though there are important people. And the larger the MOOC gets the more difficult this becomes.

We would like to see this model apply not just to 2000 but to 10,000 or 100,000 people, but if people go into it with the expectation that they have to develop a personal relationship with 100,000 people it’s not going to work.

Again, we need this middle point between the solo and the social. We need this middle point – maybe aimed at Dunbar’s number of getting to know 150 people – a middle point that allows us to network without necessarily becoming a part of this whole crowd of 100,000 people.

If I interpret these three paragraphs it reads to me: the active participant of a MOOC can maybe connect to 150 other active participants of the MOOC but not more. And he should not be disappointed not being able to connect to all the others. First, Dunbar’s number has been validated in several experiments. Second, be happy having found 150 likeminded people that you can connect to and learn from/with. Carpe Diem. Go ahead and make the most out of your new network, learn and improve. In the next MOOC you will probably connect to another 150 new people and learn from them.

However, I cannot read that Stephen said: congratulations, when the registration list of your open online course has 150 entries you are officially allowed to call yourself a MOOC. If you manage to motivate all those 150 people to be an active part of the course, to contribute, share and discuss with the others: congratulations and well done. Because then you have met my criteria for calling your OOC a MOOC: offering each active participant the opportunity to connect to 150 other active participants.

As this is a very personal point of view, I would like to get to know your understanding of “massive” in the context of MOOCs. What are your criteria to call an open online course “massive”?

Author: Wolfgang Reinhardt

I'm a continuous learner in the fields of Technology Enhanced Learning, Science 2.0, Social Networking and e-Business. I'm a Social Media addict, CEO of a consulting and development company and father of two boys. I received a PhD from OUNL for my thesis "Awareness Support for Knowledge Workers in Research Networks". I'm currently working as Senior IT Project Manager in the field of e-business and e-procurement. I'm asking myself many questions why things are like they are and seek for answers.


  1. I can digg it up but I read some studies mentioning between 10-15 % of subscribers make active contributions and the attrition rate is more than 75 % … my point would be that MOOCs are about purposes and less about numbers of participants – given their volatile nature – … nonetheless good question – only that before we get hang up about estimates we need trustworthy data about past MOOCs

  2. Here is another comment from Facebook: Athanasios Mazarakis says: “Same opinion. Though I also center the massive criteria to the total number of participants. But 150 is just ridiculous. My personal thought is, that it starts from 2k. But actually, nowadays I would say that 10k should be considere as massive. Anything below is “many”. Lucky, both start with an m.”

  3. I’d be very interested in that analysis saying 10-15% are to be considered active in a MOOC. On the other hand I second your point that we need more insight in the learning and interactions that took really place in MOOCs (see Learning Analytics and results of Social Media Monitoring)

  4. Probably it’s a question of what a ‘personal relationship’ is? In times of social software and social media, our definition (and the values hidden in it) of what social capital is maybe changing? What used to be a privilege of ‘The Connected’ may more and more become ‘standard’?

  5. The challenge of multiple Networks – P. Sloep made an interesting comment on – … and btw will try and find the study ;)

  6. wie versprochen .. so far x-MOOCs report completion rates between 5-9 % in Daniel, J. 2012. Making Sense of MOOCs: Musings in a Maze of Myth, Paradox and Possibility. Available from:

  7. Still no definite answer to the question how much is massive but excelent contribution. Christian, in which paper or message does P. Loeb treat the multiple network issue?

  8. Since Big Data is the secret ingredient of MOOCs which gives them the edge to be a disruptive innovation by continuous improvement, the criteria should be statistic.

    There should be enough data collected from users to be able to perform valid statistical analysis / machine learning.

    Of how many students should we examine the behavior in order to get a valuable statistical analysis?

    What number of students is sufficient to be able to extrapolate the results to the whole?

  9. After a small computation exercice, i’ve found a minimum of around 400 … but until 8000 if we count dropouts. Let me explain.

    The question is to find the minimum number of students to be able to extrapolate the sample results to the whole.

    A rule of thumb for statistical survey when the variance is unknown is to take (1/error^ 2) = (1 / 0.05 ^ 2) = 400. So, it takes a population of 400 respondents.

    But since only 5% on average of participants complete MOOC’s courses, so it should need up to 8000 participants.

    Well, it’s a little far-fetched and I could be wrong on the application of the rule of thumb mentioned above because I made quickly, but it has the advantage of relying on a relatively objective criterion .

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